Gluteus maximus! Kind of sounds like an ancient emperor doesn’t it? It IS an emperor of sorts, as it dominates your buttocks. Made famous by colloquial expressions and Sir Mix A Lot, the gluteus maximus is one of the three gluteal muscles responsible for support and movement of your hip joint. It originates at the posterior aspect of dorsal ilium posterior to the posterior gluteal line, posterior superior iliac crest, posterior inferior aspect of sacrum and coccyx, and sacrotuberous ligament, spans across your backside, to insert primarily in the fascia lata at the iliotibial band on the outside of your thigh and into the gluteal tuberosity on the posterior femoral surface. It is the most superficial muscle of the gluteal group and protects the muscles that laterally rotate the hip, notably the piriformis, under which the sciatic nerve makes its appearance.
The largest muscle in the human body is said to have developed to allow homosapiens to run after their next meal or maybe it was to avoid being another animal’s meal? It is a powerful hip extensor, acting in synergy with the hamstring muscles to propel the body forward when running. Furthermore, it also acts as a spinal stabilizer in conjunction with the erector spinae to control trunk function at the hip and sacroiliac joint. According to a study by David Lieberman, it is the most active as running speed increases. You are more likely to “feel the burn” chasing the bus or playing tag, than you are going for a leisurely jog.
Dysfunction in the gluteus maximus can show up as coccyx (tail bone) pain when lowering yourself to sit down or rising up from a seated position as the muscle stretches and contracts, pulling on the coccyx. Adhesions to the gluteus maximus also affect the mobility of the muscles it covers, which can lead to the dreaded piriformis syndrome, where the sciatic nerve is irritated or compressed, causing numbness and pain deep into the buttocks. Further irritation can also degenerate into often debilitating sciatic pain. No doubt this is where the expression “pain in the butt” originated!
Another way Gluteus maximus dysfunction can appear is through IT band syndrome. If I had a dollar for every time I walked into a fitness facility and saw athletes rolling out their IT bands…. Well, I wouldn’t be too worried about my yoga pants addiction. If I had a dollar for the times I observed athletes working on strengthening their gluteal muscles in isolation, I may be able to afford a small non-fat sugar-free decaffeinated lactose free no foam extra hot latte, with a hint of cinnamon.
What does the gluteus maximus have to do with your knee pain?
Weak glutes and hip dysfunction are often the culprit behind patellofemoral syndrome, Achilles tendinitis, and iliotibial-band syndrome, according to Reed Ferber, Ph. D., director of the University of Calgary’s Running Injury Clinic. “Inadequate hip muscle stabilization is a top cause of injury in runners,” he says. “The hips need to be strong to support the movement of the feet, ankles, and knees.”
The gluteus maximus and gluteus medius attach to your IT band, Ferber explains. When these muscles contract, they pull on the IT band and keep your hips and knees aligned. However, weak glutes can be a cause of knee pain: if these muscles aren’t strong, your hips and knees can twist. This triggers the IT band to rub over underlying tissue and cause pain on the outside of your knee, he says.
In 2007, Ferber conducted a study of 284 patients who complained of leg pain and found that 93 percent of them had weak hip muscles. 93 PERCENT!!!! Even if you don’t have gluteus maximus pain, pain in your legs or in your hips, or if you suspect gluteus maximus dysfunction, get out your Roll Model® Therapy balls and join me on Friday for the next installment of this article, One Less Pain in Your Butt, and learn some self care techniques for the hips.
- Suzuki, David – The Nature of Things – The Perfect Runner (Documentary) http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episodes/the-perfect-runner
- Lieberman, D.E., Raichlen, D.A., Pontzer, H., Bramble, D.M., Cutright-Smith, E., (2206) The Human Gluteus Maximus and its Role in Running, The Journal of Experimental Biology, June 1 2006, 2143-2155
- Ferber, R., Kendall, K.D., Farr, L., (2011) Changes in Knee Biomechanics After a Hip-Abductor Strengthening Protocol for Runners With Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome, Athletic Training, Mar-Apr 2011, 46(2), 142-149