Let’s talk about your glutes! The muscles that comprise your backside are a powerhouse. 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. I love talking about this so much that I’m teaching a workshop on glutes strength on April 9th at 1:30 PM at Carrboro Yoga Company. You can sign up here!
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 include 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 when the glutes don’t activate as they’re supposed to. The latter issue often gets called “gluteal amnesia” or “inhibited glutes” or —and I’m serious, y’all—”dead butt syndrome.” Yikes, right? But these crazy terms just mean 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.
OK, OK: So what do you do about it? Try building your glutes strength with movements that isolate the gluteal muscles. Opt out of squats for the time being (although I’m sure you’ve heard they are the go-to glutes movement); instead, try simple yoga poses that get your glutes to wake up! Here are a few that are helpful:
- From your back, try bridge pose, lifting and lower the hips with your breath. Focus on engaging your glutes at the top of every lift into bridge pose.
- From hands and feet, try “reverse table”: come onto hands and feet, with your belly facing upward, knees bent and thighs parallel to floor. Lift and lower your hips, focusing on glutes and core engagement at the top of every lift. (You can also do this with your legs stretched out in upward plank pose, as I’m modeling in the image above.)
- From a belly-down position, try prone leg lifts. Focus on keeping your lower back out of the equation, by deeply engaging your core.
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 walking or jogging up 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!