GET YOUR GLUTES ON!
The booty, the fanny, the derriere, the seat: whatever you call it, the muscles that comprise your backside are a powerhouse in their own right. For good form in yoga or your sport, strength in your movements, and an injury-and-pain free body, you want these muscles functioning well.
First, a quick anatomy lesson: there are several muscles that comprise the glutes: gluteus maximus (the largest muscle in your body), gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. Together, these muscles are responsible for the movements of your legs-- extending each leg and rotating each leg outward or inward. In addition to these muscles, there are also the deep rotator muscles, a group of muscles underneath the gluteus maximus that includes the piriformis. These deep rotator muscles help with external rotation--moving each leg outward.
Issues stemming from the glutes arise when the glutes are lacking strength or asleep on the job. The latter issue often gets called “gluteal amnesia” or “inhibited glutes.” This means that the muscles aren’t firing properly-- the body’s signal to the muscles to move or contract isn’t getting where it needs to go.
Why does gluteal amnesia occur? When we sit too much (and most of us sit too much, even if we’re otherwise active), the hip flexors in the front of our hips get tighter, while the muscles of the glutes (particularly gluteus maximus) get overly elongated and weaker. After a while, these gluteal muscles are so stretched out and “asleep” that the body recruits “awake” muscles to the do the job of the glutes. Essentially, when the muscles of the glutes stop working effectively, other muscles compensate--particularly the muscles that comprise the hip flexors, hamstrings, or low back. This creates imbalance, and it’s also incredibly inefficient. Remember: the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body. We want that muscle doing its job--we don’t want weaker, smaller muscles trying to fill the gap.
Weak or “asleep” glutes get blamed for many issues: tight hamstrings, low back pain, IT band tightness, sciatic pain (from an overused piriformis), and “pinching” of the hip flexors (front of hips). This list is not exhaustive: a quick Google search of “glute weakness and X pain” will reveal that inhibited glutes are the suspected cause of a multitude of imbalances.
Test your glutes to see if they’re activating effectively. There are several ways to do this, but here are two easy ones that I like.
Test 1: Squats Test. Stand tall with your core engaged and your feet about shoulder-width apart--toes can be turned slightly out. Inhale, bending your knees and lowering until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Push your hips back and keep your knees tracking in the same direction as your toes. Root your body weight in your heels. At the bottom or the squat, pause. On an exhale, return to standing. Repeat this 12-15 times.
Assessment: Where do you feel it? You want to feel squats in the center of your glutes. If instead you felt this exercise mostly in your quads, hip flexors, or low back, your glutes are likely asleep on the job.
Test 2: Prone Leg Lifts. Lie on your belly, with your chin or forehead resting on your hands. Engage your core, feeling your tailbone lengthen toward your heels. Keeping your right leg straight, lift it up. (Try it a few times.) Repeat this movement several times with the left leg, noting the difference between sides.
Assessment: If the knee of the lifting leg flexes or if your low back (lumbar spine) “crunches,” then you may be dealing with gluteal amnesia. Other muscles are compensating to make the movement occur, but your glutes aren’t activating efficiently.
Get your glutes on! Now you know all of this, so what do you do to keep strengthening and targeting the muscles of your seat? Here’s a list of effective movements. Add in 1-2 daily to your movement practice, and you’ll likely see results quickly.
From your back:
- Bridge pose, lifting and lower the hips (focus on squeezing the glutes)
- Wide-stance bridge pose, lifting and lower the hips (focus on squeezing the glutes, especially at the top of the lift)
- Bridge pose with one leg lifted-- you can draw circles with this leg or explore lifting and lowering with one leg lifted.
From hands and knees:
- Hands and and knee pulsations (donkey kicks)
- Hands and knees leg curls
- Hands and knees knee to elbow (stretch out leg and then bring knee out to side and to elbow)
From hands and feet in “reverse table”:
- Come onto hands and feet, with your belly facing the sky, knees bent and thighs parallel to floor. Lift and lower your hips, focusing on glutes and core engagement at the top of every lift.
- From this same position, keeping your hips lifted high, lift one foot off the floor and then begin to lift and lower your hips again, keeping your foot lifted. Repeat this with the other foot lifted.
From the belly:
- Prone leg lifts (described above in the Assessments)
- Prone leg lifts, both legs at the same time
- Slow-motion swimming-- prone leg lifts, flutter-kicking your legs
- Frog lifts: draw knees wide to edges of mat. Bend knees and bring the heels of the feet to touch, externally rotating your feet. Engage your core and lift your thighs up. Repeat 10-20 times.
- Standing side-kicks: from standing, keep the pelvis neutral and the core engaged and extend each leg out to the side for 20-25 reps. Try not to rotate your leg as you extend it. Squeeze your glutes as you do this movement.
- Standing leg circles: from standing, keep the pelvis neutral and the core engaged and extend each leg out to the side, and begin to draw controlled circles. Switch directions until fatigued.
- Squats, described above in Assessments. (One word of caution: until you actually activate your glutes, doing squats will only continue the pattern already in place, which may not be one that stimulates your glutes. You might choose to hold off on squats until your glutes are operating optimally. At that point, you could try any number of variations, including adding weight.)
In time, as you work to strengthen your glutes, you’ll probably notice that your balance practice in yoga will get better, you’ll find more power when you’re running hills, and you'll experience less tightness in hip flexors, hamstrings, or low back. Maintaining strong, functional glutes matters in the long-run, too; you need glute strength not just in athletic endeavors and movement practices, like yoga, but you also want to keep this important part your body strong and fluid as you get older. After all, the glutes help you keep stability and coordination in balancing and they help you rise to standing from a seated position-- crucial stuff for healthy aging. All the more reason to get your glutes on!