When we talk about “the glutes” and all their functional virtues, most of us picture the gluteus maximus. It is, after all, the biggest and most noticeable gluteal muscle. But it’s not necessarily the most important one, especially when it comes to generating stability. The gluteus medius is just as critical, yet it’s often under-appreciated and, therefore, undertrained. This is a problem, especially for runners, as a weak gluteus medius can wreak havoc on your gait and invite injuries.

So if you’ve been dealing with nagging aches and pains or feel like your form could be a little tighter, it’s time to look to this smaller muscle of your backside.

Why the Gluteus Medius Is So Important for Runners

One of the three gluteal muscles, the gluteus medius is located above and to the outside of the gluteus maximus (the largest, roundest part of your butt) and over the gluteus minimus, the trio’s smallest muscle. It’s best known for abduction, or moving the leg away from the body’s midline. But, Alison Marie Helms, Ph.D., certified personal trainer and UESCA-certified running coach, explains that it does much more.

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“It also takes on the functions of hip flexion and extension and internal and external rotation,” Helms tells Runner’s World. So, every time you decrease or increase the angle between your leg and torso (like when you lift and lower your knees when running), or the thigh moves inward or outward, the gluteus medius is firing. “That makes it extremely important for maintaining stability at the hip while running,” she says.

But you don’t have to be on the trail or treadmill to need a functionally strong gluteus medius (or feel the effects of a weak one); hip stability is just as crucial to everyday movements like walking, climbing stairs, and simply getting in and out of a seated position.

Signs You May Have a Weak Gluteus Medius

Your running or walking gait may be the first clue that your gluteus medius needs to be strengthened. Ideally, during the stance phase of your gait (when one foot is in contact with the ground and the other is lifted) the pelvis remains level as the standing foot bears the weight of the body. However, if your gluteus medius is not strong enough to stabilize the pelvis, the hip of the standing leg may tilt down toward the opposite leg. This is known as trendelenburg gait or “hip drop,” Helms says, and it messes with your alignment and form.

People with a hip drop tend to excessively lean their trunk toward their dysfunctional hip (to compensate for the tilt) and collapse their knees inward on the leg that bears weight.

Over time, this kind of misalignment can cause pain and lead to injury, especially in the lower back, hips, ankles, IT bands, and knees. In fact, a systematic review of 13 studies published in 2016 on gluteus medius activity in injured runners, revealed a correlation between impaired gluteus medius activation and runners with Achilles tendinopathy (pain or swelling in the tendon) and patellofemoral pain syndrome, a.k.a. “runner’s knee.”

Even if you do manage to avoid a sidelining injury, a weak gluteus medius is bound to take a toll on your speed, power, and endurance. Helms likens the body’s compensations for a weak gluteus medius to an “energy leak” in the system. “Your energy gets poorly distributed throughout the kinetic chain, as the knee and outer hip take on more of the load,” she says. “You lose energy to move forward, resulting in decreased running economy and performance.”

The Best Gluteus Medius Exercises for Runners

Look at any workout that targets the gluteus medius, and you’re guaranteed to find a few classic floor exercises, like clamshells, side-lying leg raises, and glute bridges. While these moves do strengthen the gluteus medius, Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness podcast, prefers working from a standing position. “You have 26 bones in your foot, and between every bone, you have joint capsules and nerve endings. So, if you’re standing on your foot, you're getting a lot more nervous system input into the muscles that control the hip,” McCall says. “You don’t get the same stimulus being in the clamshell position.”

The following list includes some of McCall and Helms’ favorite gluteus medius exercises for runners.

How to use this list: Choose two to three of these moves to incorporate into your current strength-training program, performing them at least once per week, but two to three times per week is even better. Follow the reps listed below, performing 2 to 4 sets of each move. You will need a set of dumbbells and a looped resistance band. And exercise mat is option.

Jennifer Acker, Runner’s World health and fitness editor, demonstrates each exercise so you can learn proper form.

1. Staggered-Stance Romanian Deadlift

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Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms down in front of you, palms facing you. Slide right foot back so that right toes are in line with left heel. Transfer most of weight to left foot (use right foot as a kickstand to maintain balance). With a soft bend in both knees, hinge at hips by pushing butt straight back, and lower torso toward floor. Keep back straight, shoulders pulled down and back. Only lower until you feel a slight pull in hamstrings, typically right below knee level. Drive through left foot to stand back up, engaging glutes. Repeat. Do 6-12 reps. Then switch sides.

2. Split Squat

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Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms down at sides, palms facing each other. Take a big step forward with left foot. This is your starting position. Bend knees to lower as far as possible with control into a lunge position. Drive through left foot to stand. Repeat. Do 6-12 reps. Then switch sides.

3. Lateral Step-Up to Balance

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Stand next to a box or step. (The higher the step, the harder the exercise.) With the leg closest to the box, step sideways up onto the box and raise the knee of the opposite leg to hip level. Pause, holding the balance, then step down one leg at a time. Repeat. Do 6-12 reps. Then switch sides.

4. Lateral Lunge

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Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Clasp hands in front of chest. Step right foot out about three to four feet, bending knee and pushing hips back. Make sure knee and toe point forward and knee tracks over toes. Keep left leg straight. Sit back as far as mobility comfortably allows. Then, drive through right foot to stand back up, returning to feet shoulder-width apart. Repeat. Do 6-12 reps. Then switch sides.

5. Banded Squat

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With a small resistance band placed right above knees, stand with feet just wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out. Initiate squat movement by sending hips down and back like you’re sitting in a chair. Bend knees to lower down as far as possible with chest lifted in a controlled movement. Keep lower back neutral and focus on resisting the tension of the band with the glutes. Extend hands out in front of chest for balance. Drive through feet and squeeze the glutes to stand back up. Repeat. Do 8-15 reps.

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