Ultimate Guide: What Is Glute Imbalance and How to Fix It
You typically don’t think about a glute imbalance until it has manifested itself into broader issues that hinder your athletic performance. You may not even have known your glutes could have uneven activation. But just like training only one bicep can lead to a mismatch in strength and size, your glutes are susceptible to the same issues of uneven development.
This article covers everything you need to know about what glute imbalances are, how they can affect your athletic performance, and the tools and exercises you can use for fixing glute imbalances that have developed over time.
- Importance of the Gluteal Muscles
- What Is a Glute Imbalance
- Glute Imbalance vs. Gluteal Inhibition
- How to Fix a Glute Imbalance
Importance of the Gluteal Muscles
Your glutes are comprised of three different muscles:
- Gluteus Maximus
- Gluteus Medius
- Gluteus Minimus
Together their primary role is to keep you upright and propel your body forward. While those two roles may seem relatively straightforward, there’s quite a bit going on in the background to make it happen.
Keeping you upright covers a broad category of maintaining posture in both static positions (sitting around the house) and athletic positions alike. Your glutes work with their surrounding muscle groups to extend, rotate, and abduct the hip, which is crucial for aligning the pelvis, stabilizing the spine, and keeping you balanced in motion.
At a fundamental level, proper posture’s role is to keep your body out of compromising and unnatural positions, protect your body from injury, and ensure the correct activation of the right muscle groups during movement.
Your body is a complex interconnected machine. Your posture is what determines how effectively you can engage the right muscle groups when you need them. For example, if your glutes are weak or imbalanced, your hips can fall out of alignment or provide reduced effectiveness of their main function in extending the hips.
When this happens, the muscles whose role is to support this movement provided by the glutes step in and overcompensate. The problem is, these supporting muscles weren’t designed to handle the additional load and quickly become over-exerted. This sets off a chain reaction of recruiting the wrong muscle groups to perform a movement, leading to either substantially reduced performance or, worse, injury.
This also ties in as the foundation for the glutes’ second essential role: propulsion.
Whether you’re walking, sprinting, or jumping, your glutes play a significant role in generating power and moving you forwards. Just like posture keeps your body out of compromising positions that may cause injury, posture also dictates how effective every muscle group will be during a given movement, including the glutes. If your glutes underperform, less equipped muscle groups step in to compensate, and as a result, your end up with less effective propulsion.
And things can become even more complicated when instead of both glutes underperforming, one glute is more developed than the other – creating an imbalance that can send shockwaves through your kinetic chain.
What Is a Glute Imbalance
A glute imbalance is an uneven activation, force output, or size of either side of the gluteal muscle group.
There are nearly uncountable ways that glute imbalances can develop. Poor posture throughout the day can cause shortening of muscles on one side of the body and lengthening muscles on the other side. Over time, this can cause improper activation of one glute over the other during exercise or repetitive training.
Another common cause for glute imbalances is asymmetrical movements in sports. If you think about a movement in sports as simple as throwing a football, you are activating different muscle groups across both sides of the body determined by which dominant hand you throw with. Over the course of a few years, you’ll have repeated that asymmetrical movement thousands of times. Creating patterned movements and development favoring specific muscle groups on one side of the body.
Asymmetrical development is a process that can happen with the glutes as well. And over time can impact your performance and biomechanics in various ways.
How a Glute Imbalance Affects Your Body
Have you ever driven a car that has one wheel out of balance? Just the one wheel performing differently than the other three creates a chain reaction in how the car behaves. You feel intense vibration in the steering wheel, the suspension system begins overcompensating, and if you take your hand off the wheel for just a moment, the car veers off to the side.
Asymmetry in muscle groups that are supposed to be working together can have a similar effect on your body. In running, for example, you have to move both legs at relatively the same rate, which means your left glute and right glute are both required to maintain your biomechanics across the entire motion.
For symmetrical movements like running, when one muscle outperforms the other, it can lead to issues in gait mechanics, which can manifest itself in unpredictable ways, and ultimately lead to performance degradation or injury development. Poor hip stability on one side from a glute imbalance could affect knee rotation on the opposite side of the body. Or it could introduce reduced mobility, which could create issues on the same side of the body.
Ultimately, the question comes down to asymmetry’s impact on your entire array of athletic performance. But what about if your sport itself is asymmetrical? The research itself is all over the board for identifying the relationship between sporting asymmetries and performance improvements. However, even though there’s conflict, there is evidence for asymmetries related to impaired athletic performance in many cases.
Where that leaves you is identifying your outcomes and determining if muscle imbalance is a root cause for introducing performance limitations or creeping injuries. If you’re unsure where to start in that exercise, finding a qualified coach to give you an assessment would be the best option for ensuring a more successful outcome.
What Does a Glute Imbalance Look Like – Is It Always Uneven Glutes?
There are times when a glute imbalance may be identifiable visually, but it’s not always the case.
For non-visual tests, if you’re well in tune with your body, you’ll be able to feel differences in activation between your left and right glute during bilateral exercises like a standard squat. Alternatively, you can perform unilateral exercises like single-leg glute thrusts and determine if there are performance differences between either side of the body.
For a simple visual/physical test: Stand barefoot with your feet lined up next to each other, and your toes pointed straight ahead. Then, squeeze your glutes together with your knees locked and tailbone tucked towards the floor. Reach your hands behind you (or looking in a mirror for a visual test) and feel the bottom of your glutes where they meet at the top of your hamstrings. If one side is higher than the other it could indicate you have a glute imbalance.
Symptoms of Glute Imbalance:
- Improper Pelvic Tilt and Hip Stability
- Reduced Performance on One Side of the Body
- Visual Size Difference
- Unbalanced Walking or Running Gait
- Developing Pain in Lower Back or Knees
Glute Imbalance vs. Gluteal Inhibition
Gluteal inhibition happens when the neurons that fire to signal muscle fibers to contract become compromised. When this happens, the glute muscles fail to activate when you try to engage them. Glute inhibition goes by quite a few names: Sleepy Glute Syndrome, Gluteal Amneasea, or Dead Butt, to name a few.
One of the common ways this occurs is through a process called Reciprocal Inhibition, which occurs when tightness in one muscle creates length in the muscle on the opposite side of the joint.
For the case of gluteal inhibition, it’s a common scenario for the hip flexors to become tight, creating length in the gluteal muscles creating sub-optimal activation over time.
Role of the Psoas and Hip Flexors in Inhibiting the Glutes
The psoas major and glutes work together as an agonist/antagonist pair of muscles to balance the pelvis with the lumbar spine.
Our modern lifestyles create a ripe environment for developing tight hip flexors and a tight psoas muscle. Being seated for long periods of time chronically puts your body in a slouched position, shortening the length of the psoas.
This shortened psoas muscle creates the Reciporical Inhibition that can cause your glutes to become dormant.
If your goal is to improve glute activation (of one side due to an imbalance, or both sides), a smart first step to take is to ensure the balance of tension between these muscle pairs.
We won’t distract from this article by listing the steps for how to do that; you can pop open our article on releasing a tight psoas in a new tab for everything you need to know about fixing this common issue that can affect your glute activation.
How to Fix a Glute Imbalance
Unilateral (single limb) exercises are an excellent way to begin addressing a mismatch in development between your glutes.
First, they allow you to adapt the resistance in order to engage the under-developed glute properly. Using a load that may be too high in a bilateral exercise could just result in overcompensation from the stronger side and fail to address the core problem of the weaker glute.
Additionally, unilateral exercises will allow you to re-build mind-muscle connections required for stronger activation of the weak glute. If the stronger glute has been compensating for so long that the weaker glute becomes dormant during specific movements, this will allow you to “wake up” the dormant glute. This will also help address proper activation during bilateral activation, ensuring continual and more even development in the future.
Here are a few unilateral exercises to help you focus on activating each glute independently:
Single Leg Hip Thrusts
- Lie down on the floor with one leg straight, and the other leg bent with the foot flat on the floor.
- Place your arms down on the floor on each side of the hips for stability.
- Raise your body by extending the hip of the bent leg while keeping the other leg straight through the movement.
- Return to the original position by lowering the body from the hip of the bent leg, keeping the extended leg and hip straight and repeat.
Single Leg Deadlifts
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand positioned in front of the upper thighs with your arms straight.
- Stand with your feet together, lifting one leg slightly, so your foot hardly makes contact with the floor.
- Lower the dumbbells to the floor while raising your lifted leg behind you.
- Keep your back straight and the knee of your planted foot slightly bent.
- Keep the hip and knee of the lifted leg extended throughout the movement.
- Return to the original position by raising the torso while lowering the lifted leg and repeat.
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats
- Stand facing away from a bench (or small stool, or plyo box)
- Extend one leg back and place your foot on top of the bench.
- Squat down by flexing the knee and hip of the front leg until the knee of the rear leg is almost in contact with the floor.
- Return to the original position by extending the hip and knee of the forward leg and repeat.
Kneeling Glute Kickback
- Begin in a kneeling position on all fours, with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
- Place a dumbbell (or use bodyweight) in the crease of the left/right knee.
- Lift the left/right knee to hip height by moving the leg up and back.
- Return leg to original position and repeat.
How to Approach Bilateral Exercises
Just because you implement unilateral exercises to help address weakness on one side of your glutes doesn’t mean you need to avoid bilateral exercises altogether. You will just need to shift your purpose and focus for these exercises.
Once you’ve established more robust activation of the weaker glute through unilateral exercises, you can use bilateral exercises to refine the activation of both glutes symmetrically during the movement.
For this purpose, it’s an excellent idea to lower your weight and focus on technique and activation rather than strength and output. This will help reduce the risk of the dominant glute over-compensating and diminishing the intended result of the exercise.
The kettlebell goblet squat is a fantastic exercise choice for practicing symmetrical glute activation in a bilateral movement. The weight will naturally be reduced, your center of gravity will be optimized for establishing correct biomechanics to activate the glutes, and the control of the load will allow you to focus on reinforcing mind-muscle connections to ensure both glutes are firing during each rep.
You can then apply these same principles to any bilateral exercise targeting the glutes. Whether they be traditional squats, deadlifts, or barbell hip thrusts, the key is having the ability to identify proper symmetrical activation of both glutes during the exercise.