I don’t think I go a single day in the office without seeing someone with a set of butt muscles that have punched out and decided to just let the spinal erectors and/or hamstrings do all the work. This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart (and butt) because I’ve been in the same situation and can sympathize with the sense of knee weakness/pain; foot pain; hamstring cramping; and aching stiffness in the back that can result.
One term I’ve heard for this that I like is “gluteal amnesia.” It’s like your butt has forgotten how to work and like your brain has forgotten that you have butt muscles that can work.
One of the recommendations you find all the time on the internet and from a lot of trainers is to do lots of squats and lunges. While these exercises may help you get your glutes going eventually, I’ve found that exercises are just too demanding for most people to do in a way that actually activates the glutes. It’s like telling someone who can’t activate their biceps to help you lift a heavy suitcase into the trunk; they’ll be able to do it, but they’ll be using any other muscle they can recruit to do it. With squats and lunges, which are generally more quad dominant exercises to begin with, the glutes stay dormant.
That being said, I know it’s possible to feel squats and lunges in your butt eventually if you can gradually reestablish a connection between your butt and your brain.
One exercise that I find quite useful for awakening your glutes is an Egoscue exercise called Prone Ankle Squeezes. It is pretty simple but for many people can be remarkably illuminating.
Here’s how it goes:
Lie on your stomach with your hands interlaced and your forehead on your hands. Place a pillow between your ankles/feet and bend your knees so there is a 90 degree bend at your knees and maintain this bend throughout the exercise. Squeeze the pillow with your ankles/feet and release.
Initially, it’s likely you’ll feel this in your inner thighs or hamstrings, particularly if your butt muscles are especially crafty sandbaggers. As you continue, though, you should gradually feel the adductors and hamstrings “butting out” (pun intended) as the butt muscles start waking from sleep. I would say that it usually takes around 30 squeezes before people really start to feel the compensatory contractions easing off and the butt muscles actually doing the exercise.
For some people, you may actually immediately feel one butt cheek firing and the other lying dormant. Keep going until you feel that snorin’ Norman working. Once you feel it working, do another 3 sets of 20 to really send a strong message to the those butt muscles of yours. Eventually, you want the glutes firing equally and in synchronicity. It can take a week or two of consistently doing this exercise before you feel your butt cheeks actually getting the picture on a consistent basis, but once you feel it, it’ll be time to move on to some harder exercises.
This is obviously not a Herculean task; it’s a low-key exercise that helps rebuild that neuromuscular connection before you start trying to do harder, more challenging exercises. It’s like laying the foundation for the house that butt built. You’ll be better able to find the right muscles when you’re doing bridges — a pretty good next step — squats, lunges, or those Bret Contreras hip thrusts.