Categories
Scientific Training

How to do Your First Pull-Up (Exercises and Programs below!)

Do you want to do your first pull-up? In this post, I will be showing you how to do exactly that!

You’ve seen it countless of times. People pulling themselves up and down the bar with so much suave and ease. It looks so effortless. Yet, when you grab ahold of the bar and pull with all your might, you find yourself swinging just barely off the ground.

Don’t lose hope! You CAN do pull ups. Those guys you see repping out five, ten, twenty… fifty! of them couldn’t do it before either.

I remember the first day I did my first pull-up. I was so ecstatic because I had so much self-doubt. In my mind, pull-ups was an exercise that only seriously fit people could do. I had tried it so many times before and was never able to lift myself a few centimetres off the ground. But after a few weeks of consistent training, I noticed an increased distance between my body and the ground… and suddenly my chin was resting against that darn bar! FINALLY!

And you know how we celebrate the first milestones of things like birthdays/school/job (ahem, I meant pay check)?

YOU will be adding FIRST PULL UP to your list of first milestones.

I can guarantee it if you follow my progression program that I have outlined for you below. I would also guarantee your money back but I’m not taking your money in the first place so… what is there to lose!

Factors at Play

I like transparency – seeing the thought process behind someone’s idea or concept. I feel like if I understand some things (if not all), I’m more likely to remember/enjoy/apply it. So I’ve included this section where I show you what the determining factors are in achieving a pull-up. From there, you can see how I’ve formulated my pull-up progression guide.

Factor 1: Muscles

A pull-up is a compound exercise. This means a multitude of muscles are working hard together to produce that seamless transition from a dead hang to getting that chin over the bar.

The primary mover of the pull up is the latissimus dorsi muscle. One of its primary function is shoulder adduction (brings your arms down toward the sides of your body). When you activate this muscle against a fixed bar, your will move vertically up and towards it. The teres major works synergistically with the lats and helps with this movement.

As you go up, your upper arms move slightly backwards due to the posterior deltoids and pectoralis major. The biceps, brachioradialis and brachialis allows elbow flexion while their antagonist, the triceps, stabilises the arm.

The trapezius, pectoralis minor, rhomboids and levator scapulae muscles allows you to descend down in a controlled manner. They retract and bring your shoulder blades downwards. This overall stability is further enhanced by the rotator cuff muscles (stabilises the shoulder girdle), the abdominal muscles and the erector spinae.

So in order to do a pull-up, you’ll need to strengthen these muscles of the upper back, shoulders and abdominals.

source: Patrick Malleret (Unsplash)

Factor 2: Body Mass

This is kind of a no-brainer. If you’re pulling your entire body up vertically, then your body mass is an important factor. The ability to do a pull up is inversely proportional to how much you weigh. The exercise is a great indicator of your body fat composition (read more here: —).

I’m not saying that you can’t do a pull-up if you’re on the heavier side. It just means that it’s harder for you to achieve the rep compared to someone who is lighter.

So if you really do want to get that pull-up, working towards a leaner body mass will help you achieve this (amongst other benefits!).

Source: Kira auf der Heide (Unsplash)

Factor 3: Gravity

Another no-brainer! Unless you’re reading this article from space… it’s the only factor out of the three here that you can’t change.

SOURCE: NASA (Unsplash)

Pull-Up Progression Guide: The Exercises to Do

There are so many exercises out there that you can do – hundreds! But we want to workout smarter, not harder. So I’ve selected the best exercises that will optimise your efforts in getting your first pull-up.

I have divided my exercises into: activation, main and supplementary exercises.

Activation exercises will help activate the muscles used during a pull-up. If you have never done a single pull-up before, then you should start off with these exercises rather than jumping straight into the main exercises. If you can do pull-ups, use these activation exercises as a warm-up beforehand. These exercises will get your joints and muscles used to the movements as well as teach your body (and mind) how to optimally activate them when you do the main exercises.

Main exercises will replicate the vertical pull-up motion. This allows the muscles that will be used in a normal pull-up to go through all the ranges of motion. These main exercises will comprise the majority of the program and ultimately, be responsible for strengthening the muscles you will be using to get your first pull-up. Once you can do a few pull-ups, you can use these exercises to identify your weak areas.

Supplementary exercises are not optional here! Although they don’t look like they’ll help you in getting a pull-up, they truly do. Supplementary exercises are important in achieving good form and technique. Good form and technique is what prevents injury, pain and loss of function. It helps you use your energy efficiently whilst doing a pull-up, so you can further advance your single pull-up to multiple reps to weighted pull-ups and so on. These exercises will also help fast-track your results so you can get that pull-up faster! So don’t skimp out on them!

Activation Exercises

Bar hangs with scapular retractions

  • Same as bar hangs above
  • This time, you move in and out of the ‘packed’ and ‘unpacked’ upper back position.
  • Start off by just hanging with a dead ‘unpacked hang’ and now engage your upper back muscles by moving your shoulder blades backwards and downwards. Hold there for 10-15 seconds. Relax for 5 seconds and then repeat.
  • Form check: focus on your grip strength, contract your core, squeeze your glutes, your chest/thoracic should be open, keep your legs straight

Chin holds

  • Use a plyo box or bench to start at the top of the bar – you might need to do little jump!
  • Start where you would be at the top of the pull-up movement – your chin is above the bar and your chest is near/touching the bar
  • Hold there for as long as you can
  • Form check: focus on your grip strength, contract your core, squeeze your glutes, your chest/thoracic should be open, keep your legs straight

Main Exercises

Negative/Eccentric-only pull ups

  • Start at the same position as the chin-holds above
  • Hold at the top for as long as you can and then slowly make your way down once – the slower the better. Even when you’re at the near bottom, still go as slow as you can before your elbows are fully extended.
  • Form check: focus on your grip strength, contract your core, squeeze your glutes, your chest/thoracic should be open, keep your legs straight

Band-assisted pull ups (On knee vs on foot)

  • Hook a long resistance band around the bar and place it around your mid-foot
  • Do pull-ups with the band assisting you
  • As it becomes easier, choose bands with less resistance (thinner ones vs thicker ones)
  • You can also hook the band around the knee to make it harder (less force downwards and less momentum)
  • Because this helps you get over the bar relatively well, you should be pushing hard at that last rep at the end
  • Form check: focus on your grip strength, contract your core, squeeze your glutes, your chest/thoracic should be open, keep your legs straight

Machine-assisted pull ups

  • You can use this machine if your gym has it instead of the band-assisted pull ups
  • As with machine-oriented exercises, they don’t ‘force’ you to engage your core and other muscles as much as when you’re doing it without the machine (i.e. with the band)
  • But if you find this easier to start off with then definitely use this!

Lat pull downs or Cable Machine pull down

  • Use the lat-pull down or cable machine pull down (for single sided work) to develop more of your latissimus dorsi muscles
  • When doing the lat pull-down, slightly lean backwards and pull the cable/bar to your chin, slowly release it back up in a controlled manner
  • Use the cable machine pull-down for single sided work. This will also engage the core more as you’ll need to stabilise your sides.

Supplementary Exercises

Abs

  • Ab wheel roll-out
  • Reverse crunch
  • Hanging leg raise

Posture exercises

Check out my video and post here to see how these exercises are done!

  • Cable face pulls
  • Banded pull-aparts
  • Banded pull-apart to Y

Pull-Up Progression Guide: The Program For Beginners

Don’t worry, I’m not sending you away with just these exercises! I have curated two programs (yes two!) so that you don’t have to worry about how you will go about incorporating all of these exercises into your workout sessions. What you do need to worry about though, is how sore you’ll be AND how EXCITED you’ll be when you get your first pull up!

The Go-To program is designed for those who want less commitment (2-3x per week) while the Intensive program is designed for those who have more time (3x per week).


The GO-TO Pull-up Program for Beginners (Commitment 2x per week)

Alternate between Workouts A and B making sure to have at least 48 hours between workouts.

For example, Tuesdays and Thursdays are your chosen days for this workout. On Tuesdays you’ll do main workout A and accessory exercises A. On Thursday, you’ll do main and accessory B.

Every fortnight after a thorough warm-up and very light lat-pull down or machine assisted pull-ups or THICK banded-assisted pull-up, attempt to do an UNASSISTED pull-up to see how you’re progressing. If you can do one, push for two and more!

Warm up (do before every session)

General warm up – I simply like to use any cardio based machine for 5-10 minutes to get my heart rate up and blood flowing until I work up a sweat. I find that it makes me better-abled to do my workout and even more motivated!

Activation Exercises (do before every session)

  • Bar Hangs with Retractions 3 x 10-15 seconds
  • Chin holds 3 x 10-15 seconds

Main workout – A

  1. Negative/Eccentric pull ups 5X for as-long-as-possible (ALAP)
  2. Band-Assisted pull ups warm up to 3-4 x 6-8 reps
  3. Lat pull down 3-4 x 10-15r eps

Accessory exercises – A

  1. Band pull aparts 3 x 15
  2. Ab wheel roll-outs

Main workout – B

  1. Negative/Eccentric pull ups 5X ALAP
  2. Machine assisted pull ups 3-4 x 6-8reps
  3. Cable machine pull downs 3-4 x10-12reps

Accessory exercises – B

  1. Face pulls 3x 15
  2. Banded pull apart to Y 3×10
  3. Reverse crunches (+ variations) 3×10

The INTENSIVE Pull Up Program for Beginners (Commitment 3x Week)

As above, make sure to have at least 48 hours recovery between workouts.

An example of spreading out these workouts would be Monday – A, Wednesday – B and Friday – C with the other days for rest or other muscle groups.

Warm up + Activation Exercises as above

Workout A – Strength day

Main:

Primary: Banded pull ups Warm up to 3-4×5 reps

  • Using larger bands to start off with and gradually decreasing their size with each set, complete 2-4×5-7reps Warm up sets until you find a band that you can not complete more than 5 reps with. The complete a further 2-3 Sets X 5 reps using that band. It should be really tough!!

Secondary: Machine assisted pull ups 3-4 x 8-10 reps

Supplementary:

  1. Banded pull apart 3×10-15
  2. Ab wheel 3×10

Workout B – Repetition day 1

Main:

Primary – Machine Assisted pull-ups 3-4×8-12

Secondary – Lat pull down 3-4×8-15

Supplementary:

  1. Banded tension to Y
  2. Reverse Crunches Or Decline bench reverse crunch

Workout C – Repetition day 2

Main:

Primary: Negative/Eccentric Pull-ups 5-7XALAP

Secondary: Close grip pull down 3-4x 10-12 reps

Supplementary:

  1. Face pulls 3×10-15
  2. Unilateral Cable rows 3×8-10
  3. Hanging Leg raise 3×8-10

After every week, attempt to do an unassisted pull up (or many!!) after a thorough warm up. You will be surprised how quickly you will progress.

Categories
Scientific Training

Why more women should do pull-ups

Why should women do more pull-ups? Why should everyone do more pull-ups?

Pull-ups are one of the more difficult exercises out there. To be able to achieve one, you need a good balance between muscle strength and lean body mass. To further advance, you need an excellent balance between these two, along with good technique and form.

So yeah, they are a real hard work to get good at.

But are they worthy of all this time and effort? YES!

There are so many reasons why everyone, especially women, should do more pull-ups. Read more to find out why!

Aesthetics

Benefit 1: Hourglass shape

There’s a reason why so many guys like doing pull-ups! Pull-ups work the latissimus dorsi as its primary muscle. The lats is what makes up the bulk of the back. Hence, by building this muscle, guys are able to achieve the V-shaped back.

For us females, we can use this concept for our own aesthetics. Pull-ups can help us achieve an hourglass body shape. The upper back toning and defined latissimus dorsi tapers down to a waist that is smaller relative to the upper body. When you combine this with glute training, the hourglass shape will be more profound.

I personally rely on this to achieve my desired body shape. My body shape is naturally rectangular/athletic and so I have always wanted to look more curvier. I began training my upper back more for posture reasons and was surprised how smaller my waist looked (I didn’t increase any ab work or changed my diet). So now I am OBSESSED with pull ups and you should be too!

The best thing about this is that it’s all about relativity. It doesn’t rely on your waist being a specific size, it uses your upper back and glutes (both of which you can more easily train) to get that sought-after hourglass shape.

A common protest against pull-ups is that you’ll get a bulkier back… and a lot of women don’t want that. My answer is that you won’t! From my background in medicine and science, you just physiologically can’t. Sure, your upper back will get toned and slightly firmer, but it won’t get huge and bulky like those images you see in the body-building competitions.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Benefit 2: Toned Back

Pull-ups will overall help tone and define your upper back and posterior shoulders.

A lot of women have troubles with back bulges or back fat. When you incorporate pull-ups with a good weight loss training program and a balanced diet, your back fat will be a thing of the past!

An open back is one of my favourite cuts on dresses, tops and swimsuits. It throws off classy, elegant vibes with an edge of sexiness to it! Whether you like open back styles or have never tried it, a toner back will make you more confident wearing them.

Photo by Hanna Postova on Unsplash

Benefit 3: Improved Posture

Our posture contributes more to our aesthetics than we realise.

When we have good posture, we come across more confident and our clothes sit better on us too (this is why catwalk models have such upright postures). Not only that, but we also feel more confident and powerful. There have been numerous studies on human behaviour that suggests this fact.

The causes of poor posture is multi-faceted. One of the main points is that our back muscles are less activated compared to our chest muscles, causing us to slump forward and become kyphotic.

When we activate our upper back muscles and use them regularly via pull ups (and other upper back exercises), we are able to correct the poor posture and minimise its disadvantages.

Photo by Flaunter.com on Unsplash

Benefit 4: Prowess

I was initially hesitant in using the word women in the title. Although my intended audience are females, I felt like it came off on the wrong tone. However, when I think back to when I’ve been at the gym, I actually never see a lot of women do pull-ups. This exercise has always been popular with the guys and because of this, it has masculine connotations to it.

Actually, this article from the New York Times (https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/25/why-women-cant-do-pull-ups/) is titled, ‘Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups’. Say what?! And here I was, worried that my title was poorly worded!

The article discusses how pull-ups are often a measure of fitness in the Marines and schools and the how the expectations of the exercise differed across genders. They then referenced a study that recruited 17 women who initially could not do pull-ups. They trialled the women on a strength program focusing on the biceps and latissimus dorsi. The results showed that only 4 of the 17 women succeeded in performing a single pull-up.

I’ve done lots of critical appraisals of scientific studies over recent years. The study isn’t necessarily the worse I’ve come across. But poor reporting of the study in mainstream media (The New York Times!) is what gets me.

Firstly, the sample size is so small… 17! And the article has the audacity to use this number and refer to it as ‘Why [all] Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups!’ Secondly, the methodology of the study literally set up the women to fail. If you read my pull-up progression guide… you’ll see why. The exercises and programming were no way optimised so that the women could achieve a pull-up by the end of the study. Thirdly, the author of the article dismisses certain facts that show why pull-ups are harder for women than men.

I’m passionate about this topic and I do want to see more women do pull-ups. Articles like these are what demeans our abilities and goals to do so.

Being able to do pull-ups, regardless of gender, is an amazing feat. It’s often appreciated by people who can do them as they personally know how much training and persistence it takes to do the exercise.

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Athletics

Benefit 5: Strong back, arms, abs muscles

The pull up is a compound upper body exercise, meaning it recruits a ton of back, arm and shoulder muscles to get that vertical pull.

The main muscles include the lats, deltoids (posterior), pec major, teres major, biceps and brachialis. Therefore, the more pull ups you do, the stronger all these muscles will become! This will translate to having a stronger back and upper body for other exercises in your workout regime.

A big part of the pull up movement is stabilisation. You don’t want to be flailing about and losing energy inefficiently when you’re doing an already difficult exercise. So part of pull-up training is to also train your abs so that you can be a banana (I’m being serious!). This means you’ll have stronger abs too!

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

Benefit 6: Cross-over ability

Upper back exercises mainly consist of a pulling motion, whether it be a horizontal or a vertical pull.

Many strength and conditioning coaches promote the idea of cross-over ability. This means having a strong upper back and pulling strength will ‘cross-over’ to a stronger PUSH motion e.g. the bench press and shoulder press.

The idea is based on:

  • Your upper back is literally what is holding and supporting your body against the bench – it is the foundation of your bench press. If you don’t have a good foundation, then you can’t build a house can you?
  • Back muscles play a role in proper bar path support and control

While there are no scientific studies that I could find that substantiate the idea of cross-over ability, from a biomechanics point of view, it sounds quite reasonable. Also, even if one were to try to produce a study on this, it would be hard for the results to come to a GOOD conclusion of cause and effect.

So if you want a better and bigger bench press (or shoulder press), pull-ups are the way to go!

Photo by Mohit Sharma on Unsplash

Benefit 7: Grip strength

When we train, we rely on grip strength more than we think about it. It is possible that grip strength is your weak point when you’re trying to PB a deadlift… amongst other exercises.

Pull-ups will strengthen your grip as a you’re hanging onto the bar throughout the entire movement.

Photo by x ) on Unsplash

Functionality

This section should be at the top of the list. This is the most important reason why you should do pull-ups.

Benefit 8: Reduce risk of shoulder injury

Vertical pulling movements are essential to all upper-body training programs.

However, many training programs today consist of an unbalanced ratio of pushing to pulling sets. We do more pushing movements with the bench press, shoulder press and push-ups than we do with pulling movements such as the pull-up and rows.

Ideally, there should be at least one set of a pulling exercise for every set of pushing.

When you do too many pushing movements, you overdevelop your pectoralis muscles. They become dominant over the trapezius and rhomboids. This leads to poor posture (thoracic kyphosis) and shoulder injury and pain (often rotator cuff tendinosis).

So pull-ups are the way to go to balance out your push-ups and bench presses. They are essential in reducing the risk of shoulder pain and poor functionality over time.

Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

Thank you for reading! I know it’s a long post but I do love doing pull-ups and wanted to share the love with you too. Hopefully this has inspired you to do more pull-ups or do your first pull-up! Check out my pull-up progression guide here!

Karen x

Categories
Scientific Training

3 Simple Exercises to Improve Your Posture

Here are 3 simple exercises that you can do to improve your posture.

I feel like our posture says a lot of things about us. For a society, it shows how we use our bodies each day. Good posture suggests activeness and engaged muscles. Poor posture suggests sitting down at a desk all day from 9 till 5.

For an individual, posture can depict our confidence to others. Your first impression of someone hunched over would differ to someone who was more open and well-poised.

It has been scientifically proven that our posture affects our own self-confidence levels too. Amy Cuddy, Wilmuth and Carney in 2015 found that those who ‘power posed’ (i.e. had more open and expansive postures) before a job interview were more likely to be hired and performed better overall. This was in comparison to those who engaged in ‘contractive’ (i.e. closed posture).

Interestingly, a study published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behaviour found that the lumbar curvature of women was related to their perceived level of attractiveness. Women who had an ‘optimal’ angle at the lumbar spine were deemed more attractive by their male counterparts. These ‘optimal angles’ can be influenced by posture. What is even more interesting is that these findings were independent of buttock size!

I feel like sometimes we undermine the effect posture has on our aesthetics. We work so hard to get that bigger butt or that smaller waist-line but we forget that fixing our posture can make such an incredible difference to our bodies. A smaller bum can look more pronounced if the excessive posterior pelvic tilt was fixed. A shorter person can appear much, much more taller if their upper back wasn’t as rounded.

So here are 3 simple exercises that you can do to improve your posture.

Exercise 1: HYTWA

The HYTWA series is a set of exercises that is designed to activate your upper back muscles. It’s convenient to do because there’s no equipment required. I usually incorporate this at the end of every workout and when I’ve been hunched over at my desk all day.

Although the arm position varies across the HYTWA, the technique and form remains the same throughout. I’ll go through the correct form after the photos, just so you know what HYTWA actually is. See if you can spot the common form amongst them!

h
y – DO YOU SEE WHY ITS CALLED HYTWA YET?
t
w
A – surely you see it right?

Technique and Form

Hands/Arms/Shoulders

  • Hands should be in a thumbs up sign. This will help you gauge how much external rotation you are doing with your shoulder (the more the better).
  • Aim to ALWAYS have your thumbs pointing outwards. As your upper back starts to tire out, you will notice your thumbs start to drift inwards. Make an effort to point them outwards.

Upper Back

  • Your hands and arms should always be above the ground. As you tire, your arms will start to drop. Don’t just lift your arms and hold and hover them. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and contracting your upper back muscles to bring your arms up.

Lower back and Abs

  • Contract and brace your core to maintain a neutral spine.
  • Do NOT overarch your lower back to get your arms/upper body higher. This is not only incorrect form but it is an unstable and unsafe position for your body to be in.

Glutes

  • Squeezing your glutes tight will help you maintain a neutral back. Think of it as squeezing your glutes and bracing your core into the ground. I know that this doesn’t seem important but it makes so much difference.

Head/Neck

  • Maintain a neutral C-spine by looking downwards. Similar to your lower back, don’t hyperextend your neck upwards to go higher.
Good form
bad form – check out my neck hyperextension, my thumbs are pointing upwards rather than outwards, my lower back is overarched, i’m not squeezing my abs nor glutes

Exercise 2: Banded Pull-Aparts

You will need a resistance band for this. I like to always keep one handy in my desk drawer so I can pull at it when my upper back is feeling tight.

Normal VS External Rotation

A lot of people including myself when I first started did banded pull-aparts like the first picture. While this is technically OK, I like to optimise the exercise to further engage my upper back muscles.

How I like to do it now is flare my thumbs outwards while pulling apart the band. This will externally rotate the shoulders which will enhance upper back activation.

Do it with Correct Posture

Banded pull-aparts are easy to do. BUT they require proper form to do it. If you do a lot of these posture exercises in bad form, they have the potential to exacerbate your bad posture. So form is very. very. important.

As shown in the first picture, my shoulders are rolled forward which promotes my upper back to round. My shoulders are also internally rotated. I’m not bracing my core either. So if I do the band pull-apart in this position, I will simply be using my arms and engage very little back muscle.

To get into this better posture, I simply retracted my shoulder blades and pulled them down. I made sure to keep my chest open (thoracic extension). I rotated my arms/shoulders out externally. My core was braced and my glutes were tightened to keep my torso stable.

Tips

  • Think of squeezing your upper back muscles to bring your shoulder blades together to pull the band apart… rather than simply just stretching the band.

Variation

Banded Tension-To-Y

Once you have pulled apart the band, bring the band up and over your head. This promotes external rotation of the shoulder in a different plane and will further activate your upper back.

Remember to keep the same posture and thumbs flared out as above.

Exercise 3: Face Pulls with Band

Hook a resistance band on a heavy and stable anchor. Hold the band in front of you and externally rotate your shoulders so that your thumbs are pointing outwards. Pull the band towards your face while stretching it outwards.

Again, make sure you are in an ideal posture with your chest open and shoulders retracted and down. Core is braced and glutes are tight.

Tips

  • Remember that this is a FACE-PULL. Not a chest-pull or neck-pull. Pull the band to your face, it should go over your head. I like to aim for my head as I’m doing it because I then overcompensate as I get tired.
  • Squeeze your upper back and bring your shoulder blades together to pull the band.
Articles referenced:
https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2015-04973-001
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1090513815000185
Categories
Scientific Training

Practical Exercises to Build your Glutes

In my many years of training my own glutes and that of my clients, I have found that these following exercises are the most practical ways to build glutes.

How do I make exercises ‘practical’? Especially for the glutes? The number one criteria is effectiveness. It has to work the glutes. A lot. Through the majority, if not all, of the planes of movement.

There are so many exercises out there that work the glutes. But you have to be careful about whether these exercises work the glutes as a primary or as a secondary mover. Ideally, we want the former. When glutes act as a secondary mover, the quads or the hamstrings become the primary mover… and often, this is way off the mark for many of my female clients. This is why you won’t see squats and deadlifts amongst the list of exercises.

Remember that the gluteus maximus has three main functions – hip extension, hip abduction and external rotation. We want to target these three movements in one exercise if possible.

Watch this video for the practical exercises to build your glutes. It has very clear instructions and tips on technique and variations.

Barbell Hip Thrust

I’m going to start off with the most practical exercise because it’s just too good to be at the bottom.

The barbell hip thrust has been scientifically proven to be superior to the front squat, deadlift and other ‘leg’ exercises for building glutes. It’s such a big deal that I’ve made another post focusing solely on that exercise (—-).

Albeit, this exercise might lose some points on the actual ‘practicality’ aspect as it requires more set-up time, especially if you have to improvise if your gym is lacking in equipment. But because it’s such a glute-isolating exercise, I feel like it deserves that extra 5-10 minutes set-up.

Tips

  • Aim for FULL hip extension at the top of the movement by squeezing your glutes at the top and tilting your pelvis posteriorly.
  • Hold at the top for a few seconds before SLOWLY descending down – you’ll feel the burn more this way.
  • Add a power band to add more hip ABduction to the exercise.

Alternatives

Dumbbell/Kettlebell Hip Thrust

Instead of a barbell, you can use a dumbbell or kettlebell. Just make sure you maintain the same technique as I showed in the other post (—).

Single-Leg Hip Thrust

Same technique as before but now you really have to focus on the mind-muscle connection. Otherwise, you won’t do proper full hip extension and it reduces the potential benefit of the exercise. Add weights onto the grounded leg for a greater load.

Glute Bridge

The glute bridge is the fundamental bent-leg hip extension movement on which all bridging motions are built. You see this at gym classes and home workouts but from my experience, not many people are doing it right and therefore, not getting the full glute activation.

Why is the glute bridge such a popular exercise? Bending the knees shortens the hamstring muscle, reducing its contribution to the movement and putting more emphasis on the gluteus maximus.

Just a heads up: many people initially feel their hamstrings cramp during bridging movements because their hamstrings aren’t accustomed to bent-leg hip extension motions. This will quickly dissipate as the glutes learn to take on a primary hip extension role and the hamstrings start to serve a secondary role.

Tips

  • Focus on using your glutes to drive your heels against the ground to raise your hips
  • Do NOT overarch your lower back to get your hips up higher… the movement should be through your hip joint. Keep your lower back neutral! It’s a safety issue!
  • Constantly. Consistently. Continuously. Contract your glutes as you’re going up, as you’re at the top and as you’re going down. If you do this, you will definitely get the most out of the exercise. What people often do is they squeeze their glutes to go up or to hold the bridge position at the top, then they relax everything as they go down. Contract at all times! Squeeze your bum tight as you’re going down and essentially try to squeeze it HARDER when you go back up for the next repetition.

Alternatives

Glute Bridge with Weights

Sit a dumbbell or kettlebell comfortably on your pelvis. Use your hands to steady the weight. The same technique applies as before, just make sure you’re still doing full hip extension at the top as the weight makes it a little bit harder.

Single-Leg Glute Bridge +/- Weights

Again, make sure you activate your glutes and push that heel down to the ground to do full hip extension. Your glute will feel the pressure of the lifted leg +/- the weight and you might start to use your lower back to compensate.

If you do a glute bridge with weights, whatever variation, add a bosu ball to rest your head against it to prevent you from sliding.

Romanian Chair with Glute Emphasis

The Romanian Chair is often used for back extension work. But there is a way to incorporate your glutes into the movement and make it a dominant mover. If you do it right, you should feel the burn in your glutes, not your back.

Tips

  • Round out your entire back – upper and lower – as you do the exercise. I find that it takes away the back’s contribution to the movement and shifts the work to the glutes.
  • Think of it as you’re ‘hip thrusting’ into the pad rather than ‘moving your torso up’
  • Externally rotate your legs, i.e. flare them outwards rather than straight down. This targets the external rotation function of the gluteus maximus.

Alternatives

Weighted Romanian Chair

First weight progression is to put your hands on your head. Once you are comfortable with that, you can hug a weight to your chest.

Rear-Foot-Elevated-Split-Squats (RFESS) with Glute Emphasis

Also known as bulgarian split squats, this normally works the quads and the glutes well.

But for greater glute activation, you need to change two things. 1) Have a slight forward lean, shifting your weight from the back foot to the front foot. 2) Focus on moving diagonally backwards towards your rear leg.

This is in contrast to having a straight profile and moving up and down. Going straight down will cause your knee to track forward, increasing knee flexion which would take some of the work from the glutes and shift it to your quads… which is not what we want.

Check out the video for a clearer demonstration.

Tips

  • This exercise requires balance. Focus on a small spot in front of you to help keep you balanced.
  • Keep yourself stable by contracting your core

Alternatives

RFESS with weights

Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell close by your side. Maintain the same movement. It will feel easier to move up and down rather than up and back diagonally.

Pull-Throughs

This is another common exercise that looks easy, but is often poorly executed so you don’t really get the benefits of it.

Anchor a cable down low on the cable machine. When you pull the cable out, rather than standing straight, lean your whole body slightly forwards. Let the weight pull your arms backwards and sit down in a squat position.

Tips

  • Squeeze your glutes and posteriorly tilt your hips when you move up… I think of it as ‘hip thrusting’ forwards
  • Maintain an open chest with your shoulders retracted, don’t let your chest cave in.
  • If you feel this in your lower back too much as opposed to your glutes, lower the weight until you find the right form for you where your glutes are primarily activated before loading the weight back up

Narrow Stance Goblet Squat

The squat is more of a quad-dominant exercise, but you can tweak a few things to help get the glutes to fire more.

Your legs should be closer together than in a standard squat, i.e. a bit narrower than shoulder-width. Externally rotate your hips by pointing out your toes. When you move up from the squat, push out your knees to hip abduct.

Tips

  • Add in a dumbbell and hold it close to your chest. This will help you to balance and get into a deeper squat
  • Use a power band to force you to push your knees out.
  • Maintain a neutral spine and contract your abs.
Categories
Scientific Training

Scientific Reasons why you should Train Glutes

Since the start of time, humans have always been fascinated by bums. The recent rise of social media has only increased our appreciation of bums to literally astronomical proportions

There is no doubt that training your glutes can give you a bigger bum, but is that it? Do the advantages of working out the glutes stop there? What are the real reasons to train glutes and why should you schedule more booty days at the gym?

Peach, bum, booty, butt – they sound much more delightful than gluteal muscles don’t you think?

A little bit of anatomy

The gluteal region is made up of many different muscles. They are classified as either deep or superficial.

The deep muscles include the piriformis, obturator internus, gemelli and quadratus femoris. They are small muscles that act to externally rotate the leg as well as to stabilise the hip joint.

The more superficial muscles include the three main gluteus muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. These muscles are the ones that we mainly talk about when we’re training the booty. Keep in mind that the gluteus maximus is the largest and most superficial of the three muscles, hence it is responsible for the shape of your bum.

Gray’s Anatomy – The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice

Funnily enough, our obsession with booty is actually quite unique to humans and it isn’t purely lustful! Scientific literature has found that the gluteal muscles played a big role in our evolution from primates. There is conflicting evidence, however, as to whether we developed gluteal muscles before or after we started to walk upright on two legs. Regardless of which came first, the gluteal muscles are still considered to be quite a human characteristic. The backside of four-legged animals that we like to call their booty is actually hamstrings, not glutes!

Strength Training Anatomy by frédéric Delavier

I like it when you talk biomechanics to me…

To understand the benefits of training glutes, knowing a bit about what the gluteal muscles do is worthwhile.  It also helps us understand why certain exercises can be better than others in targeting the booty. Remember how every muscle can be concentric (contracted, shortened muscle fibres), isometric (static contracted muscle fibres) and eccentric (lengthened muscle fibres)?

When the gluteus maximus is in its concentric phase, it allows us to do hip extension, abduction and lateral rotation. It also tilts the pelvis posteriorly.

When the gluteus maximus is in its isometric and eccentric state, it does the opposite motions. It prevents us from doing hip flexion, hip adduction, internal rotation and prevents the pelvis from tilting anteriorly.

If we want to become a bit more specific, we can further subdivide the gluteus maximus into upper muscle fibres that abduct the hip and lower muscle fibres that adduct the hip. This is valuable information when we want to specifically target areas of the booty.

The two smaller gluteus medius and minimus mainly stabilises the hip during motion and allows hip abduction and internal rotation.  A recent study found the gluteus medius had three subdivisions which were activated differently according to the type of exercises done. Again, this could have implications in targeting specific areas of the booty. 

What does this actually mean?

What these motions translate to functionally is the ability to do explosive movements such as walking fast, run, jump, rotate and climb stairs. The gluteus maximus also allows us to stand erect after bending over and squat. Note that I wrote ‘walk fast‘ instead of just walk. This is because, even though walking involves hip extension, the gluteus maximus does not play a significant role when you walk at a slow or normal pace… it is more hamstrings that are working. The gluteus maximus is only recruited when force and power is required like the other activities I mentioned above. Test this out on yourself by putting your hand over your glutes and walk, then do a step-up or run. You can feel the difference in contractions!

What I have written so far only accounts for what the gluteal muscles do locally around the hip joint. The gluteal muscles also lend themselves to the biomechanics of the foot and ankle as well as affecting the functionality of the knee and spine. I will talk more about these in the benefits below.

A strong case of booty benefits – reasons to definitely train your glutes

Aesthetics

Aesthetics is often the number one reason why people like to train booty. Buttocks have historically been a key element of female beauty. Social media has undoubtedly glamourised the big buttocks and small waist. A recent study in 2016 found that the ideal waist-to-hip ratio had increased to 0.6 and 0.65, signifying that the population now preferred curvier figures.

Clothes these days are designed to showcase the backside – think high-waisted skinny jeans, bike shorts, bodycon dresses and skirts. Furthermore, our back and side views make up the majority of the angles that people see when they look at us, as opposed to when we look at ourselves front-on in the mirror.

Training glutes can really sculpt and tone the bottom. This point is under-appreciated as we get caught in the frenzy of chasing a bigger sized butt. Toning the buttocks can enhance its appearance by making it more shapely and refined. This is important to know as the change is subtle but impactful.

Increased functional ability

If you have read my about me page, then you will know that I am a big believer in holistic living and optimising the body. Normal daily activities such as standing upright, balancing, lifting, climbing the stairs, twisting, picking up something from the floor all require gluteal activation. It is even more so if you have young children to pick up (or pick up after) or have a labour-intensive job that requires you to do these movements and more repeatedly.

When I was on my geriatrics rotation at the hospital, I came across many elderly patients who suffered from falls. The consequences of falls can turn the world upside down for older adults . One third of people return to normal function, one third never regain normal function and one third die. A study in 2014 by Inacio et al. looked at the difference in gluteal muscle composition between older adults who fall and don’t fall. They found that the faller group had a greater lipid (fat) content in most muscle groups including the gluteal muscles compared to the non-faller group. They also had weaker hip abduction which may contribute to impaired balance and increased risk of falls.

So it is truly important from a functionality point of view to have strong gluteal muscles so that we can engage in these movements easily and optimally in our every day lives.

I had a heartfelt moment with my glutes one time and it surprisingly wasn’t in front of the mirror! When I moved out of home, hiring removalists were a tad out of my budget. So I did most of the lifting and moving myself. I also did lots of DIY home renovations to the new place and that involved lots of heavy lifting and climbing! I felt that I was able to do these things without a high risk of injury because I had trained glutes. It wasn’t even about me being strong enough to lift the boxes, it was more about being safe and confident, thinking that I could do this without compromising my back (or the box that was labelled fragile!)

Increased athletic performance with reduced injury risk

Strong gluteal muscles will undoubtedly increase your athleticism. A mistake often made by many athletes is believing that specialised training of the gluteus maximus will only benefit lifting sports. Yes that is true when you look at Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting and the likes. Basic manoeuvres such as squatting and deadlifting to more advanced clean, jerks and snatches depend on a powerful gluteus maximus. However, it would be unwise to not think that the gluteus maximus is a strong determinant in most, if not all, sports and athletic activities.

As mentioned before, the gluteal muscles allow your hips to extend, abduct and rotate externally. Hip extension is vital to track events such as running (long distance and sprinting), hurdling, long and high jump. Kicking a ball requires initial hip extension to produce maximal momentum and force. Hip abduction is essential for maintaining dynamic balance and agility. This is evidently crucial in sports such as soccer, tennis and volleyball (and many others) where changing directions and lateral movement is needed. Hip external rotation is what drives the swing of the cricket or baseball bat. Similarly, this can be applied to boxing, tennis, shotput or discus.

Do also remember the isometric and eccentric functions of the gluteal muscles. Because it prevents hip flexion, hip adduction, internal rotation and the anterior pelvic tilt, it stabilises the hip during these movements. Stability and reducing unnecessary force onto your body is extremely important for injury prevention.

Many top coaches suggest training glutes will reduce an athlete’s risk of injury. There is a lack of quality scientific data that back up these claims. However, I can understand why these conclusions have been made when you look at it from a biomechanics point of view. Furthermore, studies to demonstrate whether an athlete has a reduced risk of injury has its many limitations in practicality and ethos.

What happens if I don’t train my glutes, I just won’t get the benefits right?

The disadvantages of not training your glutes is actually more compelling than the benefits of training them. The medic side of me is coming out: prevention is better than treatment. Training your glutes help prevent injury and pain – you don’t even have to get the injury in the first place!

Dead Butt Syndrome (aka Glute Amnesia) is a real thing

Honestly I feel like this is the most important post of the article. Our society is so accustomed to the sedentary lifestyle today that all we do is literally sit. The average office worker sits for about 10 hours. We sit in front of the computer at our desks to work, then we go sit down to have lunch. We take a break from work by babysitting our TVs and our phones. I’m not immune from it either – I sat down for hours on end studying for medical school exams. Aside from the myriad of things that sitting down for long periods can do to our health – weak, inactive glutes is one of them!

When we sit down for long periods of time, our hip flexors (iliopsoas, rectus femoris) shorten and tighten. Our gluteal muscles lengthen to compensate in a process known as reciprocal inhibition. This compromises nutrient supply to the neurons which become desensitised, meaning they don’t fire signals to the muscle as well as they should. So we end up with gluteal amnesia – inactive glutes that, when we try to engage them, they don’t activate or contract as forcefully as they should. And because the neurons aren’t firing signals at them, the muscles become atrophied and small. I wasn’t kidding, we actually end up with a dead butt!

Extra points if you stood up to read the rest of this article!

Posterior lower crossed syndrome (lower back pain and poor posture)

When I was on my family medicine/general practice placement, I consulted a lot of patients who had chronic back pain. Back pain, or chronic pain, in general is something that can significantly impact on a person’s quality of life. A common cause of back pain, that we don’t address enough, is weak gluteal muscles.

As I mentioned above, an action of the gluteal muscles (with the aid of the abdominal muscles) is to pull the pelvis posteriorly. Another set of muscles, including the spinal erectors and flexors, do the opposite action by pulling the pelvis anteriorly. These muscle pairs balance out the force across the lumbopelvic region and prevents your pelvis from tilting too much on either side. However, if your gluteal muscles are weak, they pull less on your pelvis resulting in the spinal erectors and flexors pulling the pelvis more anteriorly. This anterior pelvic tilt results in overarching (hyperlordosis) of the lumbar spine which can cause poor posture and back pain.

Another way that weak gluteal muscles can cause back pain is that sacroiliac joint instability. When we lift a heavy weight, our strong gluteus maximus should pull at our ligaments surrounding the sacroiliac joint to stabilise it. A stable sacroiliac joint results in us being able to maintain the natural curvature of our lumbar spine when we lift. However, weaker glutes pull less at the ligaments resulting in an unstable sacroiliac joint and the lumbar spine then curves excessively, increasing undue pressure on the back. This can result in back pain.

Knee pain

Knee pain is one of the most common complaints in sports medicine and it has been associated with weak glutes.

When we perform athletic movements such as squatting, jumping or lunging, we are placing a considerable amount of force and stress onto our knee joints. That stress, however, is counteracted by the action of the muscles on the knee. The contraction of the gluteal muscles during these movements prevent the knees from caving in. This allows your knee to track effectively over your feet and toes, reducing the stress that occurs at the patellofemoral region.

So if you have weak glutes and engage in squatting, running, jumping and the likes, your knees will cave in (genu valgum). This dysfunctional movement at the knee causes more stress to the area. This is enhanced by the frequency and nature of the movements – we are doing it at high repetitions, frequently and forcefully. The result is patellofemoral dysfunction, aka knee pain.

Furthermore, stronger gluteal muscles will change the way your body absorbs force. It will distribute more of the force to the hips and less to the knee, resulting in less pressure and pain in the joint.

Synergistic dominance – unnecessary muscle tears and pain

The cause of this can be summed up by an all too common scenario that I’m sure you have experienced yourself at work or school.

Imagine someone (you’ll know who) is the gluteus maximus muscle. You and your other group mates are the other muscles around the hip and pelvic area such as the quadriceps, hip adductors, hamstrings, hip rotators, quadratus lumborum and the abdominals. The group has an assignment worth 90% (!!!) of your grade (10% is attendance) due by the end of the week. Once you guys start working together, you all realise that the gluteus maximus is an ass, they’re not pulling their weight. So in order to compensate for their tardiness, you and your muscle friends pull all nighters and painfully ‘tear’ yourselves out. This is an example of synergistic dominance. Weak glutes can cause overcompensation of other supporting muscles and cause them to tear after a required exertion (such as a sprint).

Anterior femoral glide syndrome and anterior hip pain

People who suffer from anterior hip pain may have anterior femoral glide syndrome caused by weakened gluteal muscles. During hip extension, the gluteus maximus pulls the upper portion of the femur backwards. If the ‘pull’ of the gluteus maximus is dysfunctional due a poor and uncoordinated contraction, the head of the femur is impacted more forcefully into the hip socket. This can cause anterior hip pain.

Now that you know why training glutes is important, read my article on how to train glutes properly and the best exercises for your booty!

References

Added et al. (2018) Added MAN, De Freitas DG, Kasawara KT, Martin RL, Fukuda TY. Strengthening the gluteus maximus in subjects with sacroiliac dysfunction. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2018;13(1):114–120. doi: 10.26603/ijspt20180114.
Bartlett JL, Sumner B, Ellis RG, Kram R. Activity and functions of the human gluteal muscles in walking, running, sprinting, and climbing. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2014;153(1):124–131. doi:10.1002/ajpa.22419
Buckthorpe M, Stride M, Villa FD. ASSESSING AND TREATING GLUTEUS MAXIMUS WEAKNESS – A CLINICAL COMMENTARY. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2019;14(4):655–669.
Greiner, T.M. Hum. Evol. (2002) 17: 79. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02436430
Inacio M, Ryan AS, Bair WN, Prettyman M, Beamer BA, Rogers MW. Gluteal muscle composition differentiates fallers from non-fallers in community dwelling older adults. BMC Geriatr. 2014;14:37. Published 2014 Mar 25. doi:10.1186/1471-2318-14-37
Long-Rossi F, Salsich GB: Pain and hip lateral rotator muscle strength contribute to functional status in females with patellofemoral pain. Physiother Res Int, 2010, 15: 57–64.
O’Sullivan K, Herbert E, Sainsbury D, et al. : No difference in gluteus medius activation in women with mild patellofemoral pain. J Sport Rehabil, 2012, 21: 110–118
Steinberg N, Dar G, Dunlop M, Gaida JE. The relationship of hip muscle performance to leg, ankle and foot injuries: a systematic review. Phys Sportsmed. 2017;45(1):49–63. doi:10.1080/00913847.2017.1280370
Wong WW, Motakef S, Lin Y, Gupta SC. Redefining the Ideal Buttocks: A Population Analysis. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2016;137(6):1739–1747. doi:10.1097/PRS.0000000000002192