Are your glutes engaged when you’re standing?

Yes! First of all, most of your muscles are always somewhat engaged and have some amount of work. Gravity is at play, even a motion-less stance requires your muscles and fascia to hold your body in space. Your muscles don’t sleep off and suddenly wake up to move an arm or a leg.

That said to squeeze a muscle is a conscious decision to recruit their fibers and their force. So let’s dive in the wonderful world of the glutes.

What are your glutes?

When we say glutes we often talk about the 3 major muscles of your bottom: maximus (bottom left), medius (top right) and minimus (bottom right).

There are also 6 deep smaller muscles: Piriformis, gemellus superior, obturator internus, gemellus inferior, quadratus femoris and the obturator externus which are not pictured here and are your turn out muscles (hip lateral rotation in anatomical terms).

What do your glute muscles do?

Like any muscle: they move bones! Whenever muscle fibers contract, they create a pulling force toward its center and they move the more mobile of the muscle ends.

  • If you are lying on the floor, then the more mobile end is your femur and movements of your femur will occur.

  • If you are standing on one leg and contracting the non standing leg’s glutes then again the femur is the part that will move.

  • If you are standing on one leg and contracting the standing leg’s glutes or standing on both legs: things are changed a bit and we will see that in the next section.

The glute maximus (bottom left) is often thought as the largest muscle in our body. Probably because it’s highly visible. In reality, it is the second largest muscles of your body when defined in volume as total amount of muscular tissue in cubic units. Does it matter? Not really: it is a huge and powerful muscle!

The glute maximus:

  • lifts your leg to the back in extension (arabesque),

  • it turns out your femur in lateral rotation (turnout) and

  • brings it to the side in abduction (dégagé seconde).

  • Part of the muscle also brings your leg back from the side to under you (close in 1st or 5th).

The Minimus (bottom right)

  • brings your leg to the side in abduction (dégagé seconde),

  • lifts it forward in flexion (a retiré in parallel) and

  • turns in your thigh (dreadful en-dedans).

The Medius (top right)

  • brings your leg to the side in abduction (dégagé seconde),

  • lifts it forward in flexion (a retiré in parallel) and

  • lifts it to the back in extension (arabesque).

  • It also turns in AND turns out your thigh.

What if I’m standing on both legs then?

Posterior tilt of the pelvis.pngThe movements we have just listed only apply when the femur is the mobile end moving. When you stand with both feet on the ground, your femur is not mobile anymore. When you are standing, the femur is the stable part and the hips are the mobile part.

When you stand and you squeeze your glutes, the resulting movement – if not mindfully controlled – is a tuck of the pelvis as demonstrated here. This is not very ballet like! It will also restrict the movements available at your hips and this is why you feel so ‘constrained’ or ‘tight’ and unable to move freely. Remember, your stance and alignment should be giving you freedom to move, not restriction.

That’s the first reason, we are better off avoiding to cue ‘squeezing the glutes’ when standing.

Are the glutes made to keep me standing?

To answer this question, I like to go back to the anatomy of the muscles: what type of fibers are they made off mostly, what is their action and how do they interact as a system.

Balance on One Leg.png

  • The glutes maximus, medius and minimus are phasic muscles, meaning they turn on and off (bear in mind that it’s just a simplified explanation, they don’t turn off completely as we have mentioned earlier).

  • They are designed to generate forces to control the movement throughout the range of motion, and especially at end ranges. For example, glute medius is recruited when you walk to keep your hips levelled, when you’re passively standing you’ll want to recruit a different source to keep your hips levelled or you’ll get tired quickly.

  • Their recruitment is direction dependent: you give a direction to your legs or your hips to recruit them.

Now this last two attributes are key indicators to challenge the cue to ‘squeeze your glutes’ while standing. These are not muscles that you want to squeeze and hold. Actually, I’m not sure that there is any muscle designed to be squeezed at will and hold tight…. But for sure, the glutes are muscles that you recruit during a movement.

A better cue for glutes activation when standing?

Watch this video: A ballet teacher’s point of view of ‘“squeezing the glutes’“

Posture Guillaume 4 squeeze butt 3 link.png

The problem with cues is that, with time, we (teachers) tend to forget why and when to use them and we (dancers) don’t always take the time to understand them. You definitely want your glutes to be part of the ballet game because they take part in your turn-out, but they are not the superstar. Here’s a different cue to try during your next class, it’s a longer one, but it pays off to be more precise and less succinct.

  • Stand with both feet on the ground

  • And imagine your feet reaching away from your groin into the floor [=activate the hip extensors and the hip flexors]

  • Now drive this force in your legs slightly to the outside edge of foot [=activate the glutes by using a slight abduction force]

  • And then turnout from the top of your thigh [=because the glutes are already activated for abduction, they allow the deep rotators to drive the turnout movement and only assist them]

You are now standing in turnout position with your glutes engaged (and your deep rotators) to just the right level of contraction.

Sources: Brad Schoenfeld, Strength and Conditioning Journal; Merrithew education Lumbo-pelvic region: stability & function