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Cross-sectional Area of the Gluteus Maximus Muscle Varies According to Habitual Exercise Loading

Tuesday, June 6, 2023 - 9 Likes

Brent Brookbush

Brent Brookbush

DPT, PT, MS, CPT, HMS, IMT

Research Review: Gluteus Maximus Cross-Sectional Area is Dependent on the Type of Habitual Exercise

By Jacky Au, PhD, CPT

Edited by Brent Brookbush DPT, PT, COMT, MS, PES, CES, CSCS, ACSM H/FS

Original Citation:

Niinimäki, S., Härkönen, L., Nikander, R., Abe, S., Knüsel, C., and Sievänen, H. (2016). The cross-sectional area of the gluteus maximus muscle varies according to habitual exercise loading: implications for activity-related and evolutionary studies. Homo67(2), 125-137. - Abstract

Introduction:

The large size of the gluteus maximus (GM) is a feature that differentiates modern humans from other primates (1). Scholars have hpyothesized this is an adaptation to endurance running, allowing our ancestors to travel long distances for hunting and scavenging (2,3). This 2016 study from Finnish researchers challenges this notion by comparing muscle cross-sectional area (CSA) of the GM of athletes from various sports. Compared to physically active controls, they found GM size is greater in athletes who participated in sports with high explosive forces, high magnitude-loading or quick changes in direction, and smaller GM size in endurance athletes. This suggests a large GM is not necessarily an adaptation for endurance, and may have implications for training prioritization based on sporting demands.

Study Summary

Study DesignCorrelation Study
Level of EvidenceIII Evidence from non-experimental descriptive studies, such as comparative studies, correlation studies, and case-control studies
Participant CharacteristicsDemographics
  • Age: 25 ± 6 (mean ± standard deviation)
  • Number of participants: 111 women
    • 9 triple-jumpers
    • 10 high-jumpers
    • 9 soccer players
    • 10 squash players
    • 17 power-lifters
    • 18 endurance runners
    • 18 swimmers
    • 20 physically active non-athlete controls

Inclusion Criteria:

  • Competitive athletes at the national or international level or non-athletic but physically active controls

Exclusion Criteria:

  • Underweight or overweight individuals as determined by body-mass index
Methodology

Group Assignment:

Athletes were recruited from national sports associations and local athletic clubs, while controls were recruited from a local university.

Participants were selected by sport and organized into groups based on the following criteria:

  • High-Impact: involves absorption of high force loads from a specific direction, such as from maximal jumps or leaps (e.g., high-jumpers and triple-jumpers)
  • Odd-Impact: involves rapid acceleration and deceleration, with quick turns of the body and hip region in directions to which they are not normally accustomed (e.g., soccer and squash players)
  • High-Magnitude Loading: involves intense muscle force production (e.g., powerlifters)
  • Repetitive Impact: involves repetitive weight-bearing impacts (e.g., long-distance runners)
  • Repetitive non-impact: involves repetitive movements that lack ground impact (e.g., swimmers)
  • Physically active controls not actively competing in a sport

Procedure:

  • Participants came into the lab for a single session to measure muscle cross-sectional area (CSA) of the cranial (top) portion of the gluteus maximus (GM) via magnetic resonance imagining (MRI).
  • The following variables were also measured to determine their possible confounding influences on CSA:
    • Age
    • Weight
    • Height
    • Dynamic force production
    • Isometric force production

Data Collection and AnalysisData Collection
  • Dynamic muscle force production was measured using a force plate (Kistler Ergojump 1.04, Kistler Instrumente AG, Wintherthur, Switzerland)
  • Isometric muscle force was measured with a leg press dynamometer (Tamtron, Tampere, Finland)

Data Analysis

  • Data was analyzed using the statistical program SPSS 21.0 for Windows (IBM SPSS Statistics for Windows, Version 21.0, Armonk, NY: IBM Corperation, releasted 2012)

Linear regression was used to identify which sports type or body metric was most predictive of larger CSA.

Outcome MeasuresDependent Variable
  • Muscle cross-sectional area (CSA) of the cranial portion of the gluteus maximus (GM).

Independent (Predictor) Variables

  • Sport Type
  • Body weight
  • Body height
  • Age
  • Dynamic force production
  • Isometric force production
ResultsSport Predictors of GM size
  • Triple/High jump (i.e., high impact; p = 0.01, B* = 0.047)
  • Soccer and Squash (i.e., Odd-impact; p = 0.001, B = 0.058)
  • Powerlifting (i.e., High-magnitude loading; p = 0.025, B = 0.043)

Sport Non-Predictors of GM Size (p’s > .05)

  • Distance Running (i.e., repetitive impact)
  • Swimming (i.e., repetitive non-impact)

Body Metric Predictors of GM size

  • Greater body weight (p = 0.049, B = 0.002)
  • Higher isometric force (p = 0.028, B = 0.127)
  • Dynamic force X body weight (p=.022, B = 0.011)

*B effect size values represent the unstandardized beta coefficient in the regression model. Larger values indicate larger effects.

Summary/Interpretation

High-impact, odd-impact, and high-magnitude loading sports were significantly associated with larger GM size, controlling for all other body metric factors in the multiple regression model. Thus, although body metrics, such as larger body weight and higher isometric force output were also significant predictors, the sport types listed above explained significant additional variance in GM size. The interaction between dynamic force and body weight occurred because dynamic force was only predictive of larger GM size among the highest tertile of body weight, but no significant relationships existed among lower tertiles.

Our ConclusionsRapid and powerful, rather than repetitive and sub-maximal, movements are predictive of greater GM hypertrophy. Athletes and practitioners interested in building larger glutes should engage in sports that involve jumping, sprinting, lifting, or kicking, as opposed to endurance sports such as running or swimming. Further, building a larger GM may be prioritized for sports that are correlated with increasing GM mass.
Researchers' Conclusions

Sports that involve high-impact, odd-impact, and high-magnitude loading are more predictive of greater GM CSA than endurance sports involving repetitive loading (impact or non-impact). The current data do not support the view that larger gluteus maximus (GM) muscle size in humans evolved specifically as an adaptation to bipedal walking or endurance running. Instead, larger GM size was more likely an adaptation to skills important for hunting and fleeing from danger such as sprinting, jumping, climbing, and stabilizing an erect torso.

How this study contributes to the body of research:

This study evaluated the sport-specific functions that were correlated with the gluteus maximus (GM) cross-sectional area (CSA). High-impact, quick changes in direction, and high-magnitude loading activities such as high jump, triple jump, soccer, squash, and powerlifting were associated with larger CSA compared to physically active controls. No differences were noted between repetitive-motion endurance athletes and controls. These results are congruent with the body of literature that suggest high force loads (>65% 1 repetition maximum) result in greater strength and hypertrophy than low force loads (< 60% 1 repetition maximum) (4). This study uniquely investigates the impact of load and hypertrophy by correlating the GM CSA with the demands of sport-specific activity. This may have implications for sport-specific training, as well as the selection of activity based on physical abilities.

How the Findings Apply to Practice:

Based on the findings of this study, gluteus maximus  (GM) strength and hypertrophy may be an essential component to elite performance in activities that require high-impact, quick changes in direction, and high-magnitude loading activities. It may be recommended that athletes participating in these activities be assessed for GM strength, as well as movement assessments that may identify insufficient GM strength like the Overhead Squat Assessment or LEFT Test. Human movement professionals working with these athletes should consider the incorporation of these assessments, as well as GM specific strengthening (e.g. Gluteus Maximus Activation and Bridge Progressions ) into an integrated plan of care.

Strengths

  1. The study used a multiple linear regression technique to approximate causal inference with the least possible amount of bias from confounding variables, such as body weight and force production.
  2. The use of MRI for measurement of the gluteus maximus (GM) muscle cross-sectional area (CSA) resulted in the most accurate data possible.
  3. A clear hypothesis resulted in compelling data demonstrating a significant association between GM CSA and activities requiring rapid and powerful movements.

Weaknesses and Limitations

  1. Despite compelling data, inferences about the evolutionary changes in gluteus maximus (GM) size is speculative.
  2. Exclusive reliance on female subjects limits generalizability and weakens evolutionary arguments, particularly as muscle size and strength differ greatly between the sexes.
  3. This study did not investigate possible cross-training regimens that athletes engaged in outside of their sport-specific activities, which may have affected outcomes.

How the study relates to Brookbush Institute Content?

The Brookbush Institute (BI) continues to develop a library of relevant studies in the pursuit of evidence-based practice. This study compared sport-specific activities and their relationships to gluteus maximus (GM) muscle cross-sectional area (CMA). Power and strength dependent sports were correlated with increased GM CSA, which may influence the selection of exercises for training the GM, or selection GM specific exercises based on clients goals. The BI will continue to integrate findings from various studies to refine exercise recommendations to strengthen the GM.

The following videos illustrate common exercise methods employed at the BI for GM strengthening.

Quick Glute Activation Circuit:

Ultimate Glute Bridge:

Deadlift with Posterior Pull:

Lateral Hop to Single Leg Jump to Balance:

Bibliography:

  1. Stern JT. Anatomical and functional specializations of the human gluteus maximus. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 1972;36(3):315–39.
  2. Bramble DM, Lieberman DE. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature. 2004 Nov;432(7015):345–52.
  3. Lieberman DE, Raichlen DA, Pontzer H, Bramble DM, Cutright-Smith E. The human gluteus maximus and its role in running. Journal of Experimental Biology. 2006 Jun 1;209(11):2143–55.
  4. Schoenfeld BJ, Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Krieger JW. Muscular adaptations in low- versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis. European Journal of Sport Science. 2016 Jan 2;16(1):1–10.
  5. Jonkers I, Stewart C, Spaepen A. The complementary role of the plantarflexors, hamstrings and gluteus maximus in the control of stance limb stability during gait. Gait & Posture. 2003 Jun 1;17(3):264–72.
  6. Niemuth PE. The role of hip muscle weakness in lower extremity athletic injuries : review article. International SportMed Journal. 2007 Jan 1;8(4):179–92.

© 2019 Brent Brookbush

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