By Amerlia Brown, MS, ATC
The gluteus medius plays a critical role in the stabilization of the lumbar spine, pelvis, hips, knees, all the way down to the ankles and feet. The muscle originates on the outer surface of the hip attaching to the femur below. Although a rather small muscle, respective to other leg musculature, the strength and activation of the “glute-med” is crucial to functional and pain-free activity. The actions of the glute-med are hip abduction, and medial and lateral rotation at the hip. Essentially, the glute-med keeps your hips level and decreases excess movement in your lower extremity. Weakness in this muscle may present at the hip itself but more likely presents further down the kinetic chain causing pain at the knee such as patella femoral syndrome, IT band friction syndrome, patellar tendinopathy, etc. Another location of pain that may be indicative of glute-med weakness is the low-back.
Time to test yourself. To see if your gluteus medius is weak simply stand in front of a full-length minor then casually lift one foot completely off the ground. If you notice your hips slant slightly downwards towards the side of the lifted leg you are a candidate for stronger glutes!
Time to get to work. If you are already to the point of experiencing pain in your knees, or low back, or have a history of hip injury it is best to start with a lower volume exercise such as clam-shells (top) or glute-bridges (middle). This may also be advisable if you are new to exercise in general. Once you find yourself needing a challenge try-out a single-leg squat, side-lying hip abduction, or side-lying bridge (bottom) which requires maximum activation of the glute-med.
Regardless of age, activity level, or athleticism everyone can benefit from increasing lower leg and hip stability. Working on exercises for the glute-med does not only decrease movement imbalance that could be causing pain, but more importantly may prevent them all-together.
Elbert, J.R. et al. (2016) A systematic review of rehabilitation exercises to progressively load the gluteus medius. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation. 26(5):418-436.
Nelson-Wong, E. et al. (2008). Gluteus medius muscle activation patterns as a predictor of low back pain during standing. Clinical Biomechanics. 23(5):545-553.