Glute Activation: What the Science Says

Introduction

We’ve all at least heard about the practice of doing glute activation exercises prior to leg day. It’s EVERYWHERE nowadays. I myself had been doing this until I started researching the topic and it blew my mind. Here’s what the science says about the idea.

Glute Activation Definition

Glute activation exercises, the ones we’re talking about here, are very light-weight glute-specific movements done at the beginning of a weight-lifting session that will involve any kind of glute work.

  • Examples are glute bridges, donkey kicks, fire hydrants, side-lying leg raise, clamshells, etc.

The reasoning is these practices ramp up the often-lacking mind-muscle connection with the glutes prior to your leg work, allowing you to work your glutes more during these exercises.

But does that actually work?

Does Glute Activation Work? What the Science Says at Belle of the Barbell Woman doing front squat dumbbells

What The Research Says

Surprisingly, there isn’t that much research that exists on this subject despite the extreme popularity of this practice.

After several days of literature review, I was able to find 7 total articles published in peer-reviewed journals that studied the following:

  1. The use of any kind of low-intensity glute-specific movement prior to exercise 
  2. Evaluation of some kind of performance measure in the exercise afterward

Here are the studies below:

Improved PerformanceNo change in PerformanceWorse Performance
Crow, 2012 (jump) RHealy, 2014 (jump)Comyns, 2015 (jump)
Pinfold, 2018 (jump) RCochrane, 2017 (squat & hip exten) R
Parr, 2017 (HHP jump & deadlift) R
Barry, 2016 (sprint) R

As you can see, the data is VERY mixed.

  • Two of the studies showed improved performance (Crow, 2012; Pinfold, 2018)
  • Four of the studies showed no difference in performance (Cochrane, 2017; Healy, 2014; Parr, 2017; Barry, 2016)
  • One study showed WORSE performance (Comyns, 2015).

It’s worth noting that 5 of the 7 studies were performed on the same group of semi-professional rugby union players (the ones marked with “R” above). Of the two studies that were independently done (Healy, 2014 & Comyns, 2015), one showed no change and one showed negative performance.

It’s also worth noting that the “performance” that was measured in all of the studies used exercises involving many muscle groups not just the quads (jumping, sprinting, squatting, or deadlifting).

Measuring speed or force of a jump or sprint may mean that the glute is producing more force but it also may mean several other factors are at play, such as:

  • The entire group of lower body muscles are warmer in temperature (which as we’ve seen in previous can improve performance)
  • Participants have had the chance to practice and therefore improve on subsequent trials (which is how most of the studies were structured)

Also, all but one of the studies focused on immediate performance only, not measuring long term strength or hypertrophy of glutes which is really all of our primary focus with this activity.

Does Glute Activation Work? What the Science Says at Belle of the Barbell Woman doing back squat

The Cochrane, 2017 Study

I’d like to highlight and dig deeper into the Cochrane, 2017 study because it actually did not fall into either of these faults above (it measured glute-specific exercise performance AND was long term).

This study had participants measure strength on hip extension on day 1, and then again 6 weeks later.

The hip extension is much more glute-focused exercise than the others and so much more relevant.

Study Design:

After measuring initial performance on the hip extension, the participants continued their regular strength training three times per week for 6 weeks.

Half were instructed to do glute activation exercises prior to their workout during this time, and the other half, the control group, did only their workout without any glute activation exercises prior.

They then measured their performance on the hip extension again after these 6 weeks.

Of note, the participants were the same rugby players, but I think the design of this study is still strong enough that its results are well founded.

They found no difference in the gain in strength on the hip extension between the group that did the glute activation warm up and the group that didn’t.

Overall, the results are highly mixed with highest trend toward no difference at all.

Does Glute Activation Work? What the Science Says at Belle of the Barbell Woman doing Deadlifts

The argument against

Among all the data, it doesn’t seem like there is any benefit to doing this. So what are the downsides?

1. Waste of Time

The biggest downside that is readily apparent is wasted time!

We all have much better things to do with our time, especially our precious gym time than waste it on something that won’t benefit us at all.

2. Risk of Building Imbalances

The other possible downside is that you risk tiring out your glutes earlier on in your workout. 

Subsequently, you build up your body’s tendency to use other supportive muscle groups to compensate for your already spent glutes. Then these compensating muscles are the ones being activated during actual strength-training work. 

This leads to high risk of developing imbalances that cause knee, hip, and back pain.

In fact, in the study by Parr et al (2017), they found that the participants jumped the same height but the measurement of glute activation by EMG was actually decreased in the participants that did the glute activation warmup. 

Now, EMG is not a great way of measuring how much a muscle is working. It measures how much nerve stimulation a muscle is receiving, not how much it actually contracts. 

It’s possible, as the authors note, that this meant that the brain didn’t have to send as much signal to the glutes to have them activate and therefore possibly improved their use. 

But it’s equally possible that the brain was aware that the glutes were less fresh than others and therefore stimulated the compensating muscles more.

Again, the EMG measurement is unclear in this sense, but the results seem concerning.

Does Glute Activation Work? What the Science Says at Belle of the Barbell Woman doing Leg Press

Conclusion

Overall, the evidence for glute activation is mixed. The studies that exists don’t really focus on the goal of glute strength or hypertrophy. The ones that do show no change – no harm but no benefit. 

If you feel like it helps your training, go ahead; there’re no longterm studies that show it’s harmful. 

Based on the evidence though, I don’t recommend it. Mostly because it’s a big waste of precious time! But you also risk tiring out your glutes earlier and building up muscle imbalances.

Next week I’ll go into some cool research about what actually does improve glute activation during your workout. Stay tuned!

Happy lifting!

Dr. Elle Rosenberg, MD

Sources:

  1. Barry, L., Kenny, I., & Comyns, T. (2016). Performance Effects of Repetition Specific Gluteal Activation Protocols on Acceleration in Male Rugby Union Players. Journal of human kinetics, 54, 33-42.
  2. Cochrane, D.J., Harnett, M.C., & Pinfold, S.C. (2017). Does short-term gluteal activation enhance muscle performance. Research in sports medicine (Print), 25(2), 156-65.
  3. Comyns, T., Kenny, I., & Scales, G. (2015). Effects of a Low-Load Gluteal Warm-Up on Explosive Jump Performance. Journal of human kinetics, 46, 177-87.
  4. Crow, J.F., Buttifant, D., Kearny, S.G., & Hrysomallis, C. (2012). Low load exercises targeting the gluteal muscle group acutely enhance explosive power output in elite athletes. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 26(2), 438-42.
  5. Healy, R., & Harrison, A.J. (2014). The effects of a unilateral gluteal activation protocol on single leg drop jump performance. Sports biomechanics, 13(1), 33-46.
  6. Parr, M., Price, P.D., & Cleather, D.J. (2017). Effect of a gluteal activation warm-up on explosive exercise performance. BMJ open sport & exercise medicine, 3(1), e000245.
  7. Pinfold, S.C., Harnett, M.C., & Cochrane, D.J. (2018). The acute effect of lower-limb warm-up on muscle performance. Research in sports medicine (Print), 26(4), 490-9.
Does Glute Activation Work? What the Science Says at Belle of the Barbell Lady doing glute activation exercises
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