Last week, in our regular game of old-man basketball, I planted myself in my usual spot. Low post. Before each play, I backed into the body of my opponent, making space for me to catch the ball, move right or left, then shoot. I hit five, six, seven shots in a row. “Stay down there,” my teammate repeated. “He can’t guard you.”
The reason? It wasn’t because I’m a great shooter (I launch my share of bricks). It wasn’t because I can jump (my vertical is weak). It was because my anatomical weapon—an ass the size of a Smart Car—can clear enough space down low for me to get clean shots.
My whole life, I’ve been saddled with more gluteal square footage than the typical guy. A college buddy said it was tough to bring me down in a group dog-pile ritual because of my “child-bearing hips.” Another friend said I was a decent basketball player because of my “big butt defense.” As an admirer of Charles Barkley’s game, I wanted to take it as a compliment. I wasn’t stronger in the back, just bigger. The extra baggage is something I feel every day—when I run, when I sit, when I get dressed. I think about it negatively, but the reality is that many men don’t give the gluteus maximus and its supporting muscles much thought at all.
In the pecking order of what we care about body-wise, we tend to put show-off muscles—chest, arms, abs—at the top of the list. For whatever reason, the gluteus maximus gets minimus attention. Maybe it’s because it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” Maybe it’s because we don’t know much about why it’s really one of our body’s most important muscles. Maybe it’s because stupid taboos mean you can’t talk about one function of a body part without some people making jokes about other functions.
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We don’t even have a good name to talk about it as a muscle. Fat-ass usually refers to beer bellies. Badass is for courage. Jackass is for idiots. Dumb-ass is reserved for guys who reveal they’ve been told they have child-bearing hips. Butt, booty, hump—they hardly feel right for a discussion about the machinery of these muscles. Ass is crass, and I hear Beavis’ voice in my head every time I write the word butt.
All that aside, the truth is that the GM (that works!) and its brother muscles serve as foundational structures in our anatomy—ones that can prevent injuries, and ones that can make us stronger, faster, and healthier.
“There’s a reason why they are some of the thickest and strongest muscles in the body,” says Mike Young, PhD, owner of Athletic Lab Sports Performance Center in North Carolina. “Working together, they are the engine for human locomotion.” So maybe we should take a look in a double mirror and give it a few minutes’ attention.
When we think of the GM, we tend to only think of the GM—the gluteus maximus. The reality is that the back end of our bodies is designed more like a freeway of musculature with a variety of tissue, most notably the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius, but also others, such as the piriformis. All have a role in movement and how the chain of muscles in the whole body works. A closer look:
Maximus: The biggest of the bunch, the maximus muscle gives our butts their shape. It works to rotate and extend the hip (so we can move our legs forward) and helps our quadriceps when we decelerate. It’s credited as one of the main muscles used in powerful and explosive movements, like jumping.
Medius: This is the primary stabilizer of the hip joint. “Any time we have only one foot on the ground during standing, walking, running, or jumping, the gluteus medius ensures that the knee and pelvic alignments are preserved,” Young says. If that alignment is off, you can’t move efficiently, which hurts athletic performance and increases risks of injury.
Minimus: This deep muscle assists surrounding muscles with hip rotation, as well as other functions in the entire area.
Together, these muscles—and the entire cast of supporting ones—provide strength and stability to control the lower body and whole pelvic area. Athletes who need to change direction (basketball, soccer, tennis) rely on the medius and minimus to help rotate the hip, while athletes who sprint forward with no need to change direction activate the gluteus maximus, says athletic trainer Garrett McLaughlin, CSCS. “Hip extension as a movement is one that is so vital to sports because it provides the propulsion and power behind acceleration, sprinting, and change of direction,” he says.
Certainly, the gluteus region is a unique one in the animal kingdom. Our bipedal movement is largely controlled by the area. Some argue that the size, shape, and function of our glutes evolved when we needed to run long distances in search of food. Another study found that glutes were activated much more in “power” movements, rather than steady-state activities, like long-distance running or walking. The “power” moves included jumping and, most notably, punching, where the highest level of activation occurred in the study.
“These results show the size of the gluteus maximus is about explosive behaviors, acceleration, and maybe striking—even more than running at maximum speed,” says David Carrier, PhD, professor of biology at the University of Utah and one of the study authors.
That would make sense in a combat society, where we had to fight predators with close-range weapons. And it might explain other roles the glutes play.
“It may be why women pay attention to this muscle,” says Carrier. “If in the past males played a big role in protecting the family, back before we had ballistic weapons, when people were fighting hand-to-hand, it would have been incredibly important, and one place to look [at a male’s strength] is the shape of their butt.”
For the last three or so months, I’ve been trying to reframe my frame. Instead of being burdened with a back side, I figured, why couldn’t I sub out my adipose tissue for muscle tissue? The benefits would be two-fold: One, I’d become a better weekend athlete. Two, it might prevent me from being sidelined with low back pain.
Over the last decade and a half, I can tell you exactly what I was doing every time my back went out—and by “went out,” I mean that I strained my lower back so much so that I could barely walk for a few days at a time. Four times, it happened during basketball. Once after a sneeze. Once when I twisted from the front seat to give something to my then-toddlers in the back seat. Once when I was pulling up my underwear. Once when I was standing at the toilet—a time when the pain was so spear-sharp that I dropped to the floor.
The back pain-GM connection is a strong one. Most of the time when I’ve strained my back, I can feel the exact origin of tightness—and it’s dead-center of my left glute. Press on that one spot and my whole posterior will light up like a first-time visitor to Colorado. Once, I went to see a sports masseuse who relieved my pain when she worked (from the front lower abdomen) to release my tight psoas muscle—one of the deep muscles inside the hips that stiffens when you sit a lot.
Another time, I saw a strength coach who works with Olympic athletes, who explained that my chronic back pain may originate from tight glutes and hamstrings. He proceeded to lay me flat on my back, and as he stood perpendicular over me, pretzeled my legs between his legs in a configuration that I still have no idea what it looks like. He then moved his legs to stretch my glutes. I either whimpered, yelped, cussed, or did all three in one breath. But when he released, so did my back.
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I know I won’t exchange my pillowy posterior for and engine-like one overnight, but I have been working on stretching them and taxing them with moves that target the area—deadlifts, squats, step-ups, lunges, and one-legged moves. (Doing exercises on one leg will activate your gluteus medius more, Young says.)
“Weak glutes contribute to many problems in areas besides the pelvic area—from ITB syndrome to patellofemoral syndrome to back pain and a host of other problems. Developing both strength and also flexibility at the back and hip region is critical for lower limb health and function,” says Stephen Pribut, DPM, a sports-medicine podiatrist.
The bottom line: When your glutes are weak, other parts of your body will work to compensate for that deficiency—meaning you can overwork, strain, and tax muscles and joints in the back, knees, and more.
And that’s why people like to think of the glutes as part of a chain of movement, not a group of muscles that work in isolation. “The emphasis, or overemphasis, on any one muscle group as being the ‘most important’ is often the cause for faulty exercise prescription or rehabilitation programs,” says Paul Marshall, PhD, senior lecturer of sport and exercise science at Western Sydney University.
These days, our glutes tend to get attention not for what we do with them, but because we park ourselves on them. The science of inactivity—too much sitting and not enough moving—has been linked to increased heart disease and a whole host of health problems. And a study this year showed that inactivity may change the way your cells work, making you more susceptible to negative effects of aging.
Just the other day, I was doing front kettlebell squats in a group strength session. I was tilting too far forward, the trainer said—most likely overcompensating for lack of strength in the GM. When I made the adjustment, I could feel my glutes firing differently than they had before. It hurt, it was hard, and I could barely walk the next day. But—in the spirit of turning mush into muscle—that’s a good thing. For everything except my game in the low post.
Ted Spiker (@ProfSpiker) is the chair of the department of journalism at the University of Florida and the author or co-author of about 20 books on health and fitness.