Clamshell Exercise – How to Perform, Variations & Benefits

Clamshell Exercise

The clamshell exercise… it might sound like something from a beach workout, but it’s actually a lower body movement that targets your hip abductors (outer hips), specifically the gluteus medius.

This small but mighty muscle plays a vital role in stabilizing your pelvis and maintaining your balance.

Whether you’re standing, walking, or running, a strong gluteus medius is key.

In the clamshell exercise, you’ll be lying on your side, moving your knees apart while keeping your feet together, much like a clam opening its shell.

It’s a simple movement, but don’t let that fool you… it’s a highly effective way to strengthen your glutes and improve hip function.

You can also add resistance bands to add progression to the exercise too.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll dive deeper into the clamshell exercise, including how to perform it properly, benefits, and variations.

Quick Summary

  • The clamshell exercise is a targeted movement that primarily strengthens the gluteus medius, a key muscle in hip stability and mobility.
  • Common mistakes associated with the clamshell exercise include rolling the hips, lifting the feet, rushing the movement, and failing to engage the core.
  • Variations of the clamshell exercise include the reverse clamshell, banded clamshell, side plank clamshell, standing clamshell, and weighted clamshell.
  • The benefits of the clamshell exercise include improved posture, enhanced hip mobility, and stronger gluteus medius, contributing to better overall body stability.

What is the Clamshell Exercise?

The clamshell exercise is a targeted movement designed to work your hip abductors, primarily the gluteus medius. This muscle might not be as famous as the gluteus maximus, but it plays a vital role in our daily movements and overall stability.

The name ‘clamshell’ comes from the unique movement involved in the exercise. Picture a clam on the seafloor, opening and closing its shell. That’s essentially what you’ll be doing with your legs and hips during this exercise… but on dry land, of course.

To perform the clamshell exercise, you’ll start by lying on your side with your legs stacked and knees bent at a 45-degree angle. Your feet will remain together throughout the movement. As you engage your core and glutes, you’ll lift your top knee, keeping your feet together, much like a clam opening its shell. Then, you’ll lower your knee back down, completing one repetition of the exercise.

The beauty of the clamshell exercise lies in its simplicity. It doesn’t require any fancy equipment or a lot of space. You can do it at home, in the gym, or even while traveling. Despite its simplicity, it’s a powerful move that can help strengthen your glutes, improve hip mobility, and contribute to a more stable and balanced body.

Hip Abduction Vs Adduction

Two terms associated with hip health include “abduction” and “adduction”. Abductor muscles help move the thigh away from the body and adductor muscles help move the thigh towards the body.

How to Perform the Clamshell Exercise

To do the clamshell exercise:

  • Begin by lying on your side with your legs stacked and knees bent at a 45-degree angle. Rest your head on your lower arm, and use your top arm to steady your frame. Your feet should be in line with your spine.
  • Before you start moving, engage your core. This will help stabilize your body throughout the exercise.
  • Keeping your feet together, lift your top knee as high as you can without moving your pelvis. Avoid the temptation to roll back. Your pelvis should remain steady, and your body should form a “clamshell” shape.
  • Slowly lower your knee back down to the starting position. This completes one repetition.
  • Aim for 10-15 repetitions on each side, or as many as you can manage with good form. As you get stronger, you can increase the number of repetitions or sets, or add a resistance band for an extra challenge.

Coach’s Tip – Remember, the key to the clamshell exercise is control and quality of movement, not speed or quantity. It’s better to do fewer repetitions with good form than to rush through the exercise with poor technique.

Muscles Worked

The clamshell exercise primarily works the muscles around your hips, especially the gluteus medius. It also engages your gluteus maximus and core too.

Gluteus Medius

The star of the show during the clamshell exercise is undoubtedly the gluteus medius. This muscle, located on the outer surface of your pelvis, is one of the primary hip abductors. It helps in stabilizing your pelvis and maintaining your balance, especially during single-leg movements (such as hip airplanes, single leg RDLs or just balancing on one leg).

Gluteus Maximus

While the gluteus medius is the primary muscle worked, the clamshell exercise also engages your gluteus maximus to a lesser extent. This is the largest muscle in your buttocks and plays a key role in hip extension and external rotation.

Core Muscles

Although they’re not the main focus, your core muscles also get a workout during the clamshell exercise. As you engage your core to stabilize your body, you’re working your abdominal and lower back muscles.

Try and squeeze your core to help provide stability around the hips as your knees move up and down. This helps to avoid rolling your hips.

Clamshell Benefits

Strengthens the Gluteus Medius

The clamshell exercise primarily targets the gluteus medius, a key muscle in your hip region. This muscle plays a crucial role in stabilizing your pelvis, especially during unilateral movements (for example, you’re standing on one leg).

A strong gluteus medius can help improve your balance and stability, making daily activities easier and reducing the risk of falls and injuries.

Ultimately, if you need to strengthen your gluteus medius, the clamshell is a really good exercise to use.

Enhances Hip Mobility

Regularly performing the clamshell exercise can help improve your hip mobility. This is particularly beneficial if you spend a lot of time sitting, which can lead to tight hip muscles. Improved hip mobility can result in better movement efficiency and less discomfort during activities that involve the hip joint.

(We’d also recommend using stretches like the couch stretch and samson stretch to help avoid the hip flexors tightening up too).

Contributes to Better Posture

A strong gluteus medius not only helps with balance and stability but also contributes to better posture. This is because it helps control the movement of your hips, which in turn influences your overall body alignment.

By strengthening your gluteus medius through exercises like the clamshell, you can promote better posture and reduce the risk of back pain and other posture-related issues.

Versatile and Accessible

The clamshell exercise is versatile and accessible, making it a great addition to any workout routine.

It doesn’t require any special equipment (though you can add a resistance band for an extra challenge), and you can do it just about anywhere. Whether you’re new to fitness or an experienced athlete, the clamshell exercise can be adapted to suit your fitness level and goals.

Even if you have limited hip mobility, small clamshell movements can still make a big difference.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

While the clamshell exercise is relatively simple, it’s still possible to make mistakes that can reduce its effectiveness or even lead to injury. Here are some common errors to watch out for:

Rolling the Hips

One of the most common mistakes people make when performing the clamshell exercise is rolling their hips backward during the movement.

This can take the focus away from the gluteus medius and put unnecessary strain on your lower back. To avoid this, ensure your hips are stacked on top of each other and remain stable throughout the exercise.

Lifting the Feet

Another common mistake we see is lifting the feet off the ground while opening the knees. Remember, your feet should stay together throughout the movement, just like a clam opening and closing its shell.

Imagine your heels are stuck together (and if you can’t imagine, try wrapping something around them to literally keep them together).

Rushing the Movement

The clamshell exercise is not about speed; it’s about control and the quality of the movement.

Rushing through the exercise can lead to poor form and reduced effectiveness. Take your time, focus on your form, and make sure you’re feeling the burn in your glutes.

Not Engaging the Core

While the clamshell exercise primarily targets the gluteus medius, it’s also an opportunity to engage your core. Failing to engage your core can result in a less stable and effective exercise.

Make sure to tighten your abdominal muscles as you perform the movement.

Clamshell Exercise Variations

Reverse Clamshell

The reverse clamshell is a great way to add some variety to your routine. Instead of opening your knees while keeping your feet together, you’ll do the opposite. Keep your knees together and lift your top foot, creating a reverse clamshell shape.

Banded Clamshell

Adding a resistance band to your clamshell exercise can increase the intensity and provide a greater challenge for your gluteus medius. Place a resistance band around your thighs, just above your knees, and perform the exercise as usual.

As your abductor strength increases, you can select a thicker band to continue to progress the exercise.

Side Plank Clamshell

The side plank clamshell combines the benefits of a side plank with the clamshell exercise. Start in a side plank position, then perform the clamshell movement with your top leg. This variation engages your core even more and adds an element of balance.

Standing Clamshell

The standing clamshell is a more functional variation that mimics everyday movements. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, shift your weight to one leg, and perform the clamshell movement with the other leg.

Weighted Clamshell

Adding a dumbbell or ankle weight to your clamshell exercise can increase the resistance and make the exercise more challenging. Place the weight on your top thigh as you perform the movement.

Bottom Line

The clamshell exercise is a great way to strengthen your gluteus medius, enhance hip mobility, and contribute to better posture and overall body stability.

Its versatility and accessibility make it a valuable addition to any fitness routine, regardless of your fitness level or goals.

Remember, the key to effective clamshell exercises lies in proper form and control. Avoid common mistakes, engage your core, and focus on the quality of the movement rather than the quantity.

Once you’ve mastered the basic clamshell, don’t hesitate to try the variations to keep your workouts interesting and challenging.

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Featured image and video demonstration credit – GPS Human Performance