“Relax Your Glutes” has become a common cue when teaching backbends and may stem from the fact that some students experience back pain when engaging their Glutes in this position.
Let’s explore this in a bit more detail and start by looking at the anatomy and function of the Gluteal muscles.
The Anatomy of our Gluteal Muscles:
Gluteus Maximus is the largest muscle in the body and is one of the most characteristic features of the human musculoskeletal system supporting our ability to stand on two limbs for prolonged periods of time. It originates on the ilium of the hip bone and the sacrum and inserts into the greater tuberosity of the femur and the iliotibial tract.
Glute Max's main roles are extension and external rotation of the hip joint.
Gluteus Medius originates on the outer Ilium of the hip bone and inserts into the greater trochanter of the femur. The anterior fibres of the muscle flex and internally rotate the hip joint while the posterior fibres extend and externally rotate the hip joint. When the anterior and posterior fibres work together they abduct the hip joint.
Gluteus Minimus lies underneath the Gluteus Medius and has similar actions. Both of these Gluteal muscles act to stabilise the pelvis when we do any asana that requires us to stand on one leg.
So What’s the Big Issue?
Many people have weak Gluteal muscles and the reasons for this can range from lack of awareness of the muscles due to their posterior location, prolonged sitting which can degrade the fibres of Glute Max to lack of physical activity.
We mentioned earlier that Glute Max’s main roles are extension and external rotation of the hip and the majority of backbends involve hip extension. The other main muscle that extends the hips are the Hamstrings but if the knees are bent (like in backbends such as Wheel Pose) then they are already shortened and won’t play a huge role in hip extension. The QL and Erector Spinae are involved in backbend but act to extend the spine and not the hips.
Backbends are intended to be a full body movement involving activation of the whole back of the body.
When a backbend is primarily focused on the lower back this can lead to strain and an increase in tension in this area. Engaging the Glute Max brings the pivot of the backbend away from the lower back and to the pelvis that takes excess strain off the lower back.
Engaging the Glute Max allows tight hip flexors to release through the action of reciprocal inhibition and the more we use the Glutes the stronger they become.
It is important to remember that a balanced action is required here otherwise we can create too much contraction and potentially impact the Sacro-Iliac Joint (SIJ). A balanced action is achieved by initiating some internal rotation of the hips. This in turn nutates the SIJ enough to unfurl and lengthen the spine allowing the lower back to extend with integrity.
How do we know that we’re clenching or gripping the Glutes instead of simply engaging them? The breath is often the clue so look out for students who are holding their breath or unable to breathe fully. When we clench the Glutes we often tense our face too!
The key is engaging the Glutes without creating tension and creating a balanced action by internally rotating the hips.
Click here to watch a preview of a short Glute Conditioning class on Movement For Modern Life that will help you to strengthen and tone your Gluteal muscles.