T Nation

Lower Back vs Glutes

A bit of relevant background:

I’ve always been “in shape”, but I’ve never been much of an athlete in the training sense. I discovered martial arts tricks a decade ago and that, plus the occasional free weights session, has been the majority of my athletic outlet. I was in the Army for four years, so that involved plenty of running and body weight exercises.

During my first visit to a chiropractor, I learned that I’ve got mild rotational scoliosis in my lower back. Eventually, I injured myself in that area with repetitious, strong, unidirectional torquing and mediocre dead lift form. Some years later, I was advised that my lower back had been doing the work of my glutes for all these years, which (in conjunction with the scoliosis) would explain why having the lower back muscles rubbed has always felt better than any other muscle group.

All that being said, my question for you all is as follows:

How does one re-train the glutes to fire when they’re supposed to and re-train the lower back to stop doing so much work?

Musabi, the low back has to work a ton during most heavy movements as the spine must be stabilized and the spinal erectors are the major players when it comes to maintaining core stability during posterior chain exercises including deadlifts. So even if your form looks perfect, your erectors would be working very hard to prevent buckling to allow for a neutral spine while the hips move from flexion to extension.

Perhaps your spine moves dynamically during a deadlift rather than statically. If so, this is a natural tendency for many lifters as many folks are stronger pulling heavy weight with a rounded back. The solution is to:

  1. Learn the hip hinge and never stray from that form. Don’t go too heavy to where you lose the arch.
  2. Keep training the glutes very hard, initially with low-load exercises, and eventually with heavier movements.
  3. After a couple of months the form will feel automatic, though you might never reach a point where you feel stronger pulling with an arched back compared to a rounded back - your body might just be well-built for pulling with a flexed spine. Just accept that you’ll have to go a bit lighter than normal in order to maintain excellent form.

Some good initial glute exercises are bodyweight glute bridges, bodyweight hip thrusts, single leg glute bridges, single leg hip thrusts, side lying clams, side lying abductions, posterior pelvic tilt hip thrusts, band seated abductions, and side lying hip raises (I have many of these on my Youtube channel).

You want to progress to barbell glute bridges and barbell hip thrusts. Eventually you’ll feel your glutes kicking in big time. But the low back will always fire a ton to stabilize the torso during squats and deadlifts and good mornings. Best of luck!

Author Bret Contreras is pretty much the go-to “glute guy” around here. Check out the following two articles, then review his others.

I don’t think he’ll address how to remove the low back from the work, but he has some great ways to get the glutes firing.

Also check out Eric Cressey & Mike Robertson’s “Get Your Butt in Gear” series.

Edit: speak of the devil.

Thanks to BC for dropping in.

Single-leg/bulgarian squats really seem to wake up my glutes, as well. And bodyweight those is doable anywhere.

Also note how the hip hinge is listed as 1 - not by accident

Bret Contreras is interested in everybodies ass.

Musasabi - recently, having started doing high rep KB swings has really woken up my glutes for squats and deads

Holy cow, you got a response from BC himself!

Good stuff and I would state that pretty much everything he says I have been applying for a couple of years and it has made a simply huge difference in pain-free mechanical function. My addition here: You should really look up the interviews with Stuart McGill and read them too.

Soundbite you can take home from all of this: The load limit of every exercise is what breaks neutral spine.

Learn neutral spine. That is hard and will get in you excellent shape, btw. Some people (probably not you, from the sound of it) can fudge this. They are special, so accept that what they say works for them, but require very good proof it will work for you before changing anything.


– jj

The glute is designed to be the primary mover in hip extension. The hamstrings and lumbar erectors are designed to assist in this movement, however more often than not they become more active than the glute and become the dominant movers. Essentially you need to restore a balance of strength and recruitment to that area. This begins neurologically so targeted isolation excercises such as quadruped extensions, hip bridging, band walking ect. need to be used so you can teach yourself to recognize when the glute is firing and perhaps more importantly when it is not.

In regards to the low back, it is important to realize that in theory it is designed to be stable while the hip is mobile. That is why through the process learning to fire the glute while maintaining posture in the core is critical. Excercises such as the Cook hip lift place you in a situation where you can get an appreciation for how little range of motion you have without heavy low back or hamstring contribution. Planking and bridging are two simple excercises that learning to do with perfect form will go a long way setting a foundation for more advanced movements, try taking the time of the holds down to 20-30s each and to focus on your posture throughout.

I would also recomend investing in the flexibility of your hip flexors, as restrictions in this area will inhibit glute function and increase stress on the low back, not only in training but day to day life as well.
A basic kneeling hip flexor stretch is a very practical way of doing this. While doing this squeeze your glute as it will give you a slighty greater range of motion for the stretch and reinforce firing in that area.

The real crappy part of all this is until the glute catches up to the rest of the posterior chain, compound excercises will continue to favor the hip extensors that are stronger, in this case the low back and I’m assuming hamstrings as well, so while supplementing hip excercise will help, the gap won’t narrow nearly as quickly and you are still at an increased injury risk. I would recomend biting the bullet and taking some time to just focus on your particular issue which is the activation of the glute and training core stability as well as hip mobility. Exercise execution is important so hit youtube on some the guys the other commentors mentioned so you ensure you aren’t shooting yourself in the foot. It takes a lot of time to fix an imbalance that developed for years, so keep that in mind as well. 15 minutes a week on isn’t going to get you results.