Here’s a question I just received from one of my female readers. This question crops up quite often so I believe it’s best to address it in a blogpost.
Dear Wonderful Glute God (Okay I made that part up),
May I ask you a question? Whenever I do glute bridges or supine hip thrusts, my hamstrings cramp up and ache like hell! I mean, I can feel my glutes working, but it seems like my hammies are working overtime, like they are firing a lot more than the glutes. Is this right? If not, do you have any suggestions on how to stop it – should I be doing other exercises to get my glutes stronger first (so that my hammies don’t hog all the hip extension work) before doing these particular exercises? Or should I just harden the f*ck up LOL and keep hip thrusting!
Thanks so much,
Nadine, this is very common. One of the reasons why this happens is because your hamstrings are relatively strong in comparison to your glutes. When you shorten a muscle (as in keeping the knees bent in bridging which shortens the hamstrings) you interfere with the length-tension relationship of the muscle (it can’t contract as hard because fewer sarcomeres are in proper alignment). If your hamstrings are your dominant hip extensor, then they will still try to take the brunt of the load during hip thrusts, whereas the glutes should fulfil this role. This will cause them to cramp. Over time you can ameliorate this problem but here’s what you need to do:
1. Regress to bodyweight glute bridges and focus on “feeling the glutes.” Think of your posterior chain as a river with three waterfalls; one goes to the erector spinae, one goes to the glutes, and one goes to the hamstrings. Right now you might have 30% of the water going to the erectors, 20% going to the glutes, and 50% going to the hamstrings. You want around 33% going to each. Research indicates that it is possible to increase and/or decrease the relative contribution of various prime movers and synergists through proper training. In fact, there was a terrific article in February of this year’s Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy entitled, Strengthening and Neuromuscular Reeducation of the Gluteus Maximus in a Triathlete With Exercise-Associated Cramping of the Hamstrings, which addressed bilateral differences and hamstring-cramping during running but showed that through sound training hamstring contribution can decrease while glute activation increases during movement and new and more efficient motor programs can be created. However, I like my methodology better than the researchers for your scenario.
2. Also focus on “feeling the glutes” during back extensions (remember you want all hip motion and no lumbar motion) and Romanian deadlifts, and make sure you utilize hip-dominant strategies and not just quad-dominant strategies (share the loading between the knee joint and hip joint) when you squat and lunge. You need to develop what bodybuilders call a “mind-muscle connection” with the glutes and learn how to better-activate the musculature.
3. In addition to bridging for glute activation, also add in exercises such as side lying clams, side lying abductions, x-band walks, quadruped hip extensions, and bird dogs. Make sure you keep the lumbar spine in neutral and move solely at the hips.
4. Once you feel your glutes working very well with bodyweight bilateral glute bridges, you’ll start progressing to more difficult variations. Here’s a good progression scheme for those:
bodyweight glute bridges
shoulder-elevated bodyweight glute bridges (hip thrusts)
barbell glute bridges
single leg glute bridges
barbell hip thrusts
single leg hip thrusts
Different trainers might progress in a different order but I’ve found that this progression-scheme works very well for most people.
5. Right before you work on glute activation, I want you to stretch your hip flexors (to make sure you decrease any reciprocal inhibition that you might have in the glutes), and I also want you to stretch your hamstrings (to slightly lengthen/weaken them so the glutes might do more of the work). When you do your bridges, rather than dorsiflex your ankles and push through your heels (which is the preferred method with most trainers which I find perfectly acceptable), instead I want you to keep your feet flat and push through your forefeet. Although this may increase quad activity, it will slightly decrease hamstring activity so you can hopefully get the glutes to contribute more to the movement.
6. Take your time and give yourself a couple of months to work your way into barbell hip thrusts. Remember, you didn’t become a champion squatter or deadlifter overnight, nor will you be a champion hip thruster overnight either.
When your glutes are really kicking in you can stop doing so much glute-activation prior to your workouts and you can focus more on pure strength training. Getting your glutes to work more during various movements is very wise as rarely do individuals “pull” their glutes. Conversely, often individuals strain the synergists (helpers) of the glutes – the low back, the hammies, the adductors, etc. Strong glutes spare the spine and the knees so I’m glad you’re taking this seriously.
Last thing – make sure you’ve watched these videos! Best of luck!
Hip Thrust Technique