As stated in my previous blog post, “Cross-training can improve run performance”, I absolutely love the StairMaster Gauntlet machine, which is also called the Step Mill (if you didn’t read the post before this one, please do). I decided to expand on why that particular machine is useful for runners that are injured, injury prone, in the off-season, and really any gym goer that wants to move better in their activities of daily living, including just walking down the sidewalk.
In the pic collage above, the picture on the left is me on the StairMaster. Please ignore the scoliosis and slightly turned out stance foot. Haha! Just pointing it out if there are any observant critics out there. The illustration on the top right shows the anatomical location of the gluteus medius (glute med) muscle. The left half of the bottom right illustration demonstrates if the glute med is properly contracting, it will hold the hip opposite of the stance leg level. If it is weak, not contracting, or not “firing” properly, it will cause the opposite hip to drop as shown in the right half of the illustration. As observed in the picture of me, my left hip is being held pretty level with the hip of the stance leg or the leg that is still in contact with the revolving stairs.
When we walk or run in the forward direction, we are doing so in the sagittal plane of motion. Glute med stabilizes the hips in the frontal plane of motion, so for simplicity reasons, think left to right or lateral to the body. Given that description, the primary function of glute med is to abduct the hip joint, which means to move lateral, away from the body. A side stepping motion, would be targeting the glut med. This motion, side stepping can be done on the StairMaster. Another reason why I love the machine!
Because the glute med has anterior (front), middle, and posterior (rear) fibers it is a contributor to other motions at the hips as well, including hip flexion and extension. Some runners do a dynamic warm-up, mobility exercise, or neuromuscular control exercise called, walking high knees. Basically, walking high knees is an exaggerated hip flexion exercise, where you thrust your knee forward so that your thigh is parallel or just above parallel to the floor. This exercise can be done on the StairMaster. Because the stairs are moving it will provide a greater challenge to the core muscles to stabilize the single leg stance for more bang for your training buck! Additionally, one can do an exaggerated hip extension at toe off of the stance leg while on the StairMaster. I did say that the glut med “contributed” to hip flexion and extension, so there are other prime mover muscles also being targeted, but the point is that the StairMaster has a lot to offer runners and anyone that has weak hip musculature.
The above may sound like jibber-jabber, but if I said the words iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) or patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFSP), suddenly I may be speaking runners language. PFPS, also known as “runner’s knee” accounts for approximately 20% of running related injuries. PFPS occurs when the abductor musculature is weak, allowing for an increase in femoral adduction (thigh moving in) in the frontal plane (Dierks et al., 2008). This is the exact motions that glute med prevents when it is strong. Therefore, weak glute med can contribute to PFPS. Fairclough and colleagues (2007) suggest that ITBS is predominately a proximally based dysfunction of weak hip abductors, which decreases the control of thigh moving laterally. Glute med being one of the hip abductor muscles.
When I screen my runners I often find weak gluteus medius muscles on most of them. This muscle is so vital to performance not just when running, but walking and moving in general. I can guarantee the next time you see someone walking or running with a dropped hip on one side or their thigh bone looking like it is going to cross the midline of their body, you will be thinking about good old Coach Gina. There are exercises to target this muscle, but this blog post was more about explaining in greater detail why I love the StairMaster as a supplement to running and if done at 70-80% maximal heart rate, run miles can be substituted for time spent on the StairMaster. My disclaimer for this post... there are other issues that can develop from weak hip musculature!
Dierks, T. A., Manal, K. T., Hamill, J., & Davis, I. S. (2008). Proximal and distal influences on hip and knee kinematics in runners with patellofemoral pain during a prolonged run. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 39(8), 448-456.
Fairclough, J., Hayashi, K., Toumi, H., Lyons, K., Bydder, G., Phillips, N.,…Benjamin, M. (2007). Is iliotibial band syndrome really a friction syndrome? Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 10, 74-76.