Your glutes or buttocks are comprised of three muscles: Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius, and Gluteus Minimus. Together with a muscle called the Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL), they make up the gluteals. One of the best ways I’ve come up with to explain the difference between your three glute muscles is to draw parallels between your glutes and the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Papa Bear: Gluteus Maximus
Your Gluteus Maximus (glute max) is the largest of the three glute muscles, just like Papa Bear is the largest of the three bears. It is the most superficial of the three, meaning it is the most surface-based. It covers the other two glute muscles keeping them warm and safe.
Functionally, your glute max allows you to extend your leg, laterally rotate your thigh at the hip, and abduct your thigh (Visual Demonstration). This means it has the most power and allows for the biggest variety of movements between the three, just like Papa Bear is the strongest and most active of the three bears. It is the leader of the three glutes — the muscle most often referred to when you hear someone say “glutes.”
Mama Bear: Gluteus Medius
Your Gluteus Medius (glute mede) is the medium-sized glute muscle. It is a very important muscle, though often overlooked and unrecognized for all that it does behind the scenes. This is very similar to the Mama Bear who is the middle-sized bear. She is very important to her family and does a lot of work for them behind the scenes. She is also often the least remembered character in the story. However, without her, I do not think there would be a warm house, bowls of porridge, and freshly made beds for Goldilocks to stumble upon.
Functionally, your glute mede abducts your thigh at the hip and can also help you medially and laterally rotate your thigh (Visual Demonstration). Weak glute medes can lead to a variety of problems like change in gait, knee pain, and lower back pain. It is one of the muscles that is most critical in keeping your hip-complex in its correct position. When you have a weak glute mede, you can have a shift in the positioning of your hips. This can cause a series of kinetic changes from your hips to your knees to your feet that may place many of your muscles and bones out of alignment. The big point here is that when your glute medes are weak and untrained, during a lot of movements involving the hip and knee joints like walking and running, the knee-joint will take over the workload from the weakened hip. This means more stress and strain on your knee joints. In fact, many people who present themselves with knee pain actually have weakness or imbalances in the hips. They are generally surprised to find out that their knee pain is just the after effect of the knee taking on too much extra work and stress due to a weak hip.
When I first learned about the connection between weak glutes/hips and knee pain, I immediately added exercises to my workouts that specifically targeted my glute medes. To my amazement, my chronic knee pain that I had for most of my basketball career greatly diminished. And now, whenever I do not specifically train my glutes for a week or two, my knees start to ache again. So do yourself a favor and pay more attention to your glute medes (and your Mama Bear), because just a little extra attention and appreciation will greatly benefit your overall health and happiness. See Exercise of the Week: Single-Leg Triple Cone Taps for a great exercise for strengthening your glutes.
Baby Bear: Gluteus Minimus
Last, you have your Gluteus Minimus (glute min). It is the smallest of the three, just like Baby Bear. Your glute min abducts your thigh at your hip and can also help medially rotate your thigh (Visual Demonstration). Basically, it assists your glute mede in abducting your hip. This is just like Baby Bear, the smallest, least powerful bear, who clings to his mother’s side, assisting her around the house.
There you have it! I hope this analogy helps you understand the importance and function of your glutes. And of course you will forever remember, Goldilocks and the Three Glutes!!