Glutes. There is a lot of talk about butt muscles these days. Two months ago Tiger Woods blamed his poor play on the inability to fire his glutes during his swing. While we are not sure that was the problem for Tiger, lack of muscular contraction in the glutes is an issue for many people. As a result, a lot of time and effort is spent by trainers, S&C Coaches, and performance coaches simply trying to get the glutes to “fire”.
Here’s a very brief anatomy / physiology review of the glutes
The glutes along with the “abs” are prime stabilizers of the pelvis and torso. The gluteal muscles are a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. The three muscles originate from the illium and sacrum and insert on the femur. The gluteus maximus is the largest of the gluteal muscles and one of the strongest in the body. Its action is to extend and to laterally rotate the hip, and also to extend the trunk.
Everyone wants to “strengthen their core”, but it seems we overlook the glutes. A term was coined (not sure by whom) to describe the inability to contract the gluteal muscles. That term is “Gluteal Amnesia”. Basically it means we forget how to contract our glutes. This is a real issue for some people. Sitting for long periods can lead to the gluteal muscles atrophying through constant pressure and disuse. This is also associated with lower back pain and difficulty with some movements that naturally require the glutes (i.e. rising from the seated position, and climbing stairs).
Glutes and Swings
When it comes to kettlebell swings, a strong gluteal contraction is critical to produce adequate power to correctly perform the movement and to stabilize/protect the lumbar spine. Based upon the information above it is clear steps might need to be taken in order to make sure the glutes do their job in the swing to prevent disaster. There are many simple drills to help students fire those glutes.
Here’s a few we really like…
Please keep in mind that there are many, many more options. However, we have found these drills to be effective in helping students learn to reach a high level of Maximum Voluntary Contraction (MVC). MVC is the greatest amount of tension you can apply to a muscle. It is important to ensure your students can generate an adequate level of glute MVC before performing swings.
Given the risk… why swing at all?
It is the fitness professional’s job to measure the risk and reward of each exercise. When the reward outweighs the risk it’s reasonable to consider adding the exercise in question. We all know that there is an inherit risk in swinging kettlebell, aka a cannonball with a handle. However, good coaching combined with the right movement prep and drills can significantly reduce the risk of injury in the swing. Additionally, the potential rewards are substantial. Research has proven that kettlebell swings are an incredible exercise for your “core”, posterior chain, and more specifically glutes. Two recent studies published by Stu McGill and Leigh Marshall in January 2012 and another by Kreutzfeldt Zebis and colleagues in July 2012 showed a very high MVC of the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings).
McGill also included a case study on Pavel Tsatsouline and when swinging a 32KG bell he was able to achieve 100% peak muscle activation in the glute maximus and over 150% in his erector spinae.
As a frame reference, the glute MVC numbers for some other “hip extension” exercises are 55% MVC in the Deadlift and 52% in the Sumo Deadlift (as per Bret Contreras).
Bringing it together
Teaching your students to brace their core to protect their spine and minimize “energy leakage” is a basic skill that MUST be taught. Practicing this skill until it becomes automatic is critical so that your student can safely progress to higher level activities. While kettlebell swings are a great hip extension exercise that helps develop strong glutes, laying the foundation of gluteal activation and general bracing strategies are essential, otherwise swings simply aren’t safe. If you follow this model, adding swings to a student’s program will upgrade their movement skills and general fitness.