One of the biggest issues we often see are people performing a good exercise but not understanding the goal behind it or the main muscle groups they want to be using. For instance, if you’re a runner, hip health is going to be essential in your ability to tap into and optimize your strength, energy, and endurance to get the most out of your run. It’s a misconception that runners shouldn’t lift weights. While it’s true that runners want to be light, and therefore aren’t going to bulk up with big muscles, strengthening lean muscle mass should definitely be a priority. Exercising lean muscle mass is simply making sure that the muscle you do have is as strong as possible, as opposed to trying to make it bigger. The point is simply that runners, just like everyone, will benefit immensely from having healthy hips. And the easiest road to healthy hips is practicing squat and deadlift.
There are several different muscle groups that make up your hips, but if you want to talk strength, endurance, and power it’s going to be glutes. Your butt. These are the primary muscle groups driving you through your squat and carrying the majority of the workload. Unfortunately for many people, their glutes are in a weakened state from sitting on them all day, and our quads in the front of our legs have become the dominant muscles propelling us around. Entering into your workout in this state will almost definitely lead to one thing; leaving your glutes inactive and your quads to do all the work. If you’re squatting and your quads start burning and you don’t feel any activation in your butt then this is for you.
There are a lot of steps that go into executing a good squat but just to get you started off we’re going to go over two things you should focus on in your warm-up; stretching out your quads and activating your glutes. If your quads start burning pretty soon into your workout that generally means they’re doing too much work and were probably tight to begin with. Foam roll your quads, stretch them, mash them out with a bar or kettlebell; these are all acceptable ways to get the muscles in the front of your legs to release some tension. How painful this is will depend on how tight your quads are.
The next step is to get your glutes fired up and activated so they’re ready to be heavily involved in the exercise. One of the easiest, most straight forward ways to activate glutes is a glute bridge. Simply lay on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Your goal is going to be to drive your hips straight up off the ground without any other movement, so the finish position is a straight line from your shoulders to your knees and your shins completely perpendicular to the ground. In this position you should be squeezing your butt and mimicking that you are pulling your heels in to engage your hamstrings. Try doing ten reps with a three second hold at the top on each one.
Another effective and easy glute activation exercise is a band walk. Try using a Slingshot or Hip Circle or a moderate level resistance band and put it either around your ankles or just above your knees. Get into a mini squat position and simply side step in each direction, opening your whole hip up against the band to get glute activation. Try doing this one for time, side stepping each direction for 30 seconds, focusing on keeping a straight back and tight core and glutes.
The clam shell is also an effective band activation exercise. Keeping the band above your knees, lay on your side with your knees bent and slightly tucked in. Keep your feet together and your hips facing to the side and push the band apart with your knees. Do 10 to 20 reps on each side, slow and controlled focusing on squeezing your butt and keeping your glutes activated.
These exercises are designed to stimulate and activate muscles that you want to be using during your squat and deadlift, and suggest ways to address any tight or overactive muscles that might be interfering with your performance. It is important to note that addressing any tight or overactive muscles is not only beneficial for correctly performing an exercise, but it is also the pathway to pain and injury prevention.