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Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Buttock size matters: Researchers reveal a large gluteus maximus is key for sprint speed and performance after examining the anatomy of elite athletes

  • New paper reveals how specific leg muscles differ between groups of elite sprinters (with an average 100m PB of 9.99s), sub-elite sprinters, and untrained men
  • Experts found that top sprinters, whilst being generally more muscular, had a very specific pattern to their muscularity, with some muscles far bigger (i.e. hip extensors) compared to sub-elite sprinters but others rather similar (i.e. calf muscles)
  • They also found the size of a number of muscles relate to the 100m time, with the gluteus maximus (the large muscle that forms the backside) explaining 44% of the variability in sprint time amongst sprinters
  • The researchers conclude: “Increasing the size of the gluteus maximus in particular, as well as the other hip extensor muscles, would be expected to improve running speed and sprint performance.”

A Loughborough University study examining the muscle size of elite sprinters has revealed a large gluteus maximus (the muscle that forms the backside) is key to achieving top speeds on the track.

Rob Miller, a PhD student at Loughborough University and a strength and conditioning coach with British Athletics, and Professor Jonathan Folland, an expert in neuromuscular performance, studied the muscle anatomy of 100m track sprinters to find out if the size of specific leg muscles differed between elite sprinters (with an average personal best of 9.99s), good – or ‘sub-elite’ – sprinters, and healthy, untrained men.

To achieve this, the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences researchers used a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner at the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine on the Loughborough campus to measure the size of 23 lower body muscles in 42 men (five elite sprinters, 26 sub-elite, and 11 untrained men).

The study, in collaboration with British Athletics, is particularly unique as it used “a larger and faster group of sprinters than ever before and with more rigorous measures of muscle anatomy”.

The team found that though the top sprinters were generally more muscular, they had a very specific pattern to their muscularity.

Some muscles in the elite group were far bigger than those of the untrained men and, more interestingly, also bigger than the sub-elite sprinters – for example, there was a 32% size difference in hip extensor muscles (the group of muscles that extend the hip joint) between the elite and sub-elite runners.

However, there were other muscle groups, such as the plantar flexors (calf muscles), that were of similar size in elite and sub-elite sprinters.

When looking at individual muscles, the gluteus maximus and its size was found to be key for achieving fast speeds. 

Image showing where the gluteus maximus is located. Getty

The gluteus maximus. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Amongst all the sprinters (elite and sub-elite) there was variability in performance with 100m personal bests that ranged from 9.91 to 11.25 seconds.

The researchers found 44% of this variability in performance was explained by the size of the gluteus maximus and that this muscle was 45% bigger in elite sprinters than sub-elite sprinters.

Of the importance of this finding, Professor Folland said: “This is surprising because sprinting is thought to be influenced by many factors – technique, psychology, nutrition, anatomy of other structures – so to find a single muscle that alone seems so important, explaining nearly half the variability, is remarkable.

“It appears that muscle size is more important for fast running than we thought and especially the size of the hip extensors and gluteus maximus.”

Three MRI images of hip muscles.

The picture shows MRI scan images through the pelvis and both hip joints of three different study participants (an elite sprinter, a sub-elite sprinter and an untrained, healthy man (known as a ‘control’)) with the hip muscles highlighted in different colours. The two grey circles in each image are the head of the femur in the hip joint. The greater size of the hip muscles and especially the gluteus maximus (in orange) according to sprint ability is clearly visible.

Professor Folland continued: “The logical implication is that with a larger gluteus maximus the runner will be able to generate more power and therefore greater sprint speed.

“Thus, increasing the size of the gluteus maximus in particular, as well as the other hip extensor muscles, would be expected to improve sprint performance.”

It has previously been unclear which specific muscles are important in sprint performance, so the new research, which has been published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, has the potential to revolutionise the physical training and performance of athletes.

Rob Miller, the first author of the paper which is titled ‘The Muscle Morphology of Elite Sprint Running’, commented: “I believe this line of research has the potential to have a significant impact on coaches and practitioners working with elite level sprinters - it is unusual to find research on truly elite athletes, and it's exciting to have found specific characteristics that seem to differentiate between the good and very good.”

The team are now building on this research with a study focused on female sprinters. They are also collecting data for a comparison of muscle anatomy of runners competing over different distances i.e. sprinters vs middle distance vs long-distance.

For further information on ‘The Muscle Morphology of Elite Sprint Running’ paper, email J.P.Folland@lboro.ac.uk.

Other authors of the paper include Thomas Balshaw, of Loughborough University, Garry Massey, of the University of Exeter, Sumiaki Maeo, of Ritsumeikan University, Marcel Lanza, of the University of Maryland Baltimore, Michael Johnston, of British Athletics and Swansea University, and Sam Allen, of Loughborough University. 

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 20/161

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2020 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 6th in The UK Complete University Guide 2021.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.

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