The glutes are one of the biggest muscle groups in your body. They’re also one of the most celebrated.
While our culture at large will gravitate towards the aesthetic potency of the glute muscles, I, for one, am also interested in the functional marvel that are the glute muscles.
They allow us to run, sprint, squat, and perform just about every athletic movement. If it weren’t for the glutes, our human ancestors would’ve gotten eaten by lions millions of years ago, and we wouldn’t be here today.
Second, while glute strengthening is (rightfully) celebrated, stretching the glutes and activating the glutes is one of the gateways to improved mobility. In turn this helps us squat better, run faster, and lessen the chance of nagging aches and pains.
At the core, stretching the glutes involves moving our hips and surrounding musculature through key moves. Namely, both hip and external rotation.
Picture the femur, the big bone in your thigh moving against your pelvis. Of course, we know that our leg can move forward and backward (flexion and extension), but it also moves side to side (adduction and abduction), as well as rotates. When it rotates outward, it’s called hip external rotation. When it rotates inward, it’s called hip internal rotation.
The glutes assist in all of these movements. Proper glute function aids in giving you the capability to move through all six of these motions. It means we can shuffle, crossover, pivot, sprint, squat, stand on one leg, and much more. Poor glute mobility will mean our body compensates to do these motions, or we’ll be limited in our ability to do them at all. If you have tight glutes and can’t perform internal rotation, then if you try to, for example, crossover while jogging, your body will recruit other muscles to do that job of the glutes. This can lead to acute injury.
A more common example might be squatting. If our glutes are very tight and can’t externally rotate, then when we sink into a squat and can’t shove our knees out, the body will try to find other ways to squat deep. A common pattern is for the low squat to arch excessively to help us get lower. This can lead to lower back pain.
Proper glute function in all of these motions also helps us with our posture more broadly. For example, when the glutes can help the hips rotate effectively (external and internal rotation), that also helps release tension on the lower back, leading to a healthy pelvis and spine position. When the hips don’t rotate well, our pelvis compensates by tilting forward, which in turn causes more of a lower back arch. This then will affect everything in your movement, from squatting to breathing. By moving through all of these positions, we set ourselves up for healthy movement AND healthy resting posture.
So how do we stretch the glutes to help us with these movements and our posture? First, let’s review the three glute muscles.
While we just think of the gluteus maximus, there are three glute muscles that work together. There’s the gluteus maximus, the big glute muscle, and two side glute muscles. These are called the gluteus medius and minimus. Because they’re on the side, their functions include helping our hips move side to side and rotation. We can’t neglect these functions in our glute stretches.
For my 3 favorite glute stretches, the ones that made this list, I thought about ones that hit all of the glute muscles and all of their key movements.
All of these stretches are a part of my warm-up programs. Unless you’re new here, you know I’m a fan of the warm-up because it’s a chance for asymmetric risk-reward. That is,
Myofascial release is a fancy way to say “foam rolling.” While using a foam roller on the glutes is popular and somewhat effective, I’ve found a tennis ball, or if you want something harder, a lacrosse ball, allow you to be more targeted in your stretching.
It’s also very simple. You grab a tennis ball and sit on it. Roll around on the ball until you find specific knots, or places of tension. These are called trigger points. Once you find one of these, hang out for 20-30 seconds as it loosens up.
I love adding this to a warm-up because while it gets knots out of the glutes, it also encourages blood flow and glute muscle contraction. If you try this exercise, you’ll immediately notice it’s easier to bring your hips forward in exercises like deadlifts and glute bridges. It may even immediately improve how sprinting feels.
Another benefit of the tennis ball, is you can hit the glute med and glute min, the often neglected accessory glute muscles. Find the side of your pelvis bone, and move the tennis ball just underneath. Lean against the wall, or if you want more tension, lay on your side on the ground. This will help improve your hip abduction (a shuffle movement), and your hip internal rotation. The latter motion is fundamental for posture.
By doing this in your program you can systematically work through different knots in different areas, allowing you to stretch all of the big fibers of the glute muscles over time.
For such a big muscle group, this is a drill that does it all.
I include this as part of a specific foam rolling routine for clients with lower back pain, which you can see here.
This movement I love because it trains both hip external rotation and internal rotation. While one leg is rotating outward, the other is rotating inward.
You set up seated on the floor. Bring your front leg into a 90-degree angle, and then bring your back leg into a 90-degree angle so you make a zig-zag pattern with your legs. Then, trying not to use your hands, switch. At first, you can use your hands if you need to. Before you switch back, lean over the front leg. This gives an added stretch to the glutes. It’s one of the best movements to target so many hip motions at once. You can see a short video here.
The Spiderman Stretch is another dynamic but very effective glute stretch. It will also stretch the often-tight hip flexors at the same time. It centers on hip external rotation.
Start in a push-up position. Like a push-up, engage your core so your low back is flat and NOT arched. If you’re not sure what this looks like, imagine how you’d brace yourself if you were about to get punched.
Bring one leg to the outside of your hands. Make sure your foot is pointed forward and your entire foot is planted on the ground.
Keeping your foot planted where it is, think about shoving your front knee outward. This increases your hip external rotation.
Sink your hips lower (even just a millimeter), as you shove your knee out.
Bring your front leg back to the top of a push-up position, and alternate legs for anywhere from 5 to 10 reps each leg.
This is incredibly effective as another pre-workout exercise to get your glutes ready to perform. As a post-workout stretch, instead of alternating, you can do 1 minute per side.
I like this stretch so much more than a classic stretch like the pigeon pose in yoga because it doesn’t compromise the knee joint, but still allows you to train hip external rotation. I also find it transfers better movements like squats, so it’s a quicker path to better movement.
You can see a video here:
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Tight glutes can lead to an overreliance on the hamstrings during movements that require hip extension, such as running or squatting. This can cause the hamstrings to become overworked and potentially lead to hamstring strains or other injuries. Stretching the glutes can help to balance the load between these muscle groups and reduce the risk of injury.
The piriformis muscle is a small muscle located deep in the buttock, behind the gluteus maximus. It runs diagonally, with the sciatic nerve running vertically directly beneath it. The piriformis muscle aids in hip rotation, and when it’s tight or spasms, it can put pressure on the sciatic nerve, causing pain and discomfort, a condition known as piriformis syndrome. Regular glute stretches can help keep the piriformis muscle flexible and healthy.
Stretching the glutes can help to increase your hip’s range of motion. Tight glutes can limit how far your hip can flex, extend, or rotate. By regularly stretching these muscles, you can help to increase your hip’s mobility, improving your ability to perform daily activities and athletic movements. Furthermore, improved range of motion can lead to better posture and alignment, reducing the risk of pain and injury.