The Chair of Death! – A Simple Glute Assessment Tool
The chair of death! I thought that might get your attention, It’s not as scary as it sounds and it’s a simple, helpful tool in assessing muscle function. In the last Sports Medicine Corner article, I discussed the gluteus medius and its importance in rotational stability of the hip. Today, the focus is going to be on the gluteus medius’ larger counterpart, the gluteus maximus!
The function of the gluteus maximus during running is to control trunk flexion (forward bending of the upper body) and extend the hip. When this muscle becomes weak or its firing pattern is off (doesn’t contract when it’s supposed to), it can be detrimental to running. Many runners may have faulty glutes and not even realize it. Running is still possible because the body compensates to perform the action. Over time, compensation causes muscle imbalances, trigger points in muscles, and overuse injury.
When the glute is incapable of stabilizing the trunk during running, it allows for trunk flexion. While some forward lean during running is good and necessary, a forward lean due to weak glutes is not good! When the trunk shifts too far forward during running, it brings the center of mass with it. In order to prevent itself from falling forward, the body will try to lean back and get upright again. Compensation occurs by arching the back excessively and over striding to get the foot out in front of the body to prevent the fall. This whole process increases the stress on the ankles, knees, hips, and spine.
Are your glutes firing appropriately? To find out, perform The Chair of Death assessment at home. Although I wish I thought of the name of this test myself, I must credit Jay Dicharry, MPT, author of Anatomy for Runners, with the name and description of it.
To start this test, stand in front of a chair with your feet under it and your knees touching the seat. Put your arms out in front of you. Now squat down and try not to let your knees push into the chair. If you find that your knees are hitting the chair or you are even moving the chair, your glutes are not working properly.
If the knees come forward into the chair, you are initiating the squat movement with your quads. This places unnecessary stress on the knees. The object of this assessment is to try to initiate the squat from the hips (i.e. stick your butt out before your try to bend your knees). Starting a squat from the hips will engage the gluteus maximus. This assessment can also be used as an exercise to strengthen the glutes and improve the movement pattern. However, before you start using this as an exercise, be sure that you know how to engage your glutes in a contraction.
What if your gluteus maximus firing pattern is so far off that you don’t even know how to engage it? This problem is more common than you think! Doing squats and other types of glute exercises will only make the problem worse if you are not using the proper muscle at the proper time to achieve the motion. Retraining the brain to tell the glutes to contract (neuromuscular coordination) is an important part of beginning a glute strengthening program.
One way of working on neuromuscular coordination for glute contraction is prone hip extension. To start, lay down on your stomach. With your legs straight and flat on the ground, put your hand on one of your glutes. Just touching the muscle that you want to work will help the brain know what it is supposed to do.
Now, contract this glute so you feel the muscle bulge into your hand. Once you have that contraction, lift the rest of the leg off of the ground, then slowly lower to the starting position. Be sure to maintain the glute contraction throughout the whole motion. Do not “turn the glute off” until the leg is back on the ground. Perform 1 – 2 sets of 10 reps on each leg. Once you are comfortable with this exercise, it is ok to begin more advanced glute exercises like the body weight squat.
Working on the strength and firing pattern of the gluteus maximus helps to prevent injury and it can also help make your stride more efficient. So go find a Chair of Death and start improving your running!