When I was 39, I suddenly started having some weird lower back pain. I was very active with yoga and swimming and didn’t want my back to hold me back. I wasn’t even 40! Why was this happening?! I went to see one of the physical therapists that I worked with (I am also an acupuncturist), and after a brief assessment, she told me that my glutes were weak. How was this possible with how active I was? But sure enough, the next time I practiced yoga, I realized that during my one hour practice, I never used my glutes. Not once.
From that moment on, I made it my mission to activate my glutes whenever possible, and to help other “glute-lite” people get to know their glutes. Strengthening them has not only kept me from having back pain for the last decade, but has also changed my approach to yoga–as a vehicle for aging gracefully and feeling good in my body. As a 50 year old, active, aging adult, I want to stay out of pain and be active for as long as possible. Giving my butt some love and attention has made that possible so far.
WHY STRENGTHEN THE GLUTES?
The gluteus muscles, aka “the glutes” are 3 muscles that make up the majority of the buttocks and create the rounded shape that we sit on. These muscles have multiple actions. One is hip extension, meaning they move our thigh backward. This is useful for movements like walking, running, and swimming, as well as going up stairs, picking up something heavy, and standing up from sitting. Another movement is abduction and adduction, meaning moving the thigh away from and toward our midline (respectively). This is helpful with any lateral, or side-to-side, movements, like rollerblading, getting in and out of a car, tennis, etc. The final movement is medial and lateral rotation, turning our leg in and out. They help us push off the floor and propel us forward and to the sides. These 2 actions account for many sports and daily activities.
When our glutes are weak, or like in my case when we don’t use them, our body compensates in other ways, relying on other muscles to the work. Over time, this can end in injury or dysfunction, since the other muscles, like the hamstrings and lower back, weren’t meant to be the leader in performing those actions. When we get the glutes to do what they were meant to do, the secondary muscles step back from over working.
I write more about the glutes in my post “Why Core Strength is Essential and How to Get it.” I include the glutes when I speak about The Core.
WHY STRETCH THE GLUTES?
With all of the work they do for us, they also need to be stretched. Tight glutes can also lead to lower back pain because if they can’t move through the range of motion we require, our movements will pull on other parts of our body (like the lower back). Stretching and strengthening are equally important, and both deserve their time. After you strengthen the muscles, stretch them out to retain or improve their range of motion. You will feel more ease in your movements and can be less sore after strengthening as well.
LOVE YOUR BUTT!
Here are some yoga poses and sequences to help you strengthen and stretch your glutes. You may have to intentionally engage them at first when strengthening, especially if you are not used to using them. My dog, Homer, wanted to be part of the photo shoot, he’s a very helpful Yoga Dog.
Locust– Lie face down on your mat with your forehead on the floor, your arms alongside your body with your palms down, and your legs parallel to each other. Engage your pelvic floor and your lower abdominals. Lift everything that you can off the mat while keeping your neck long, gaze should be slightly forward on the floor. Feel your glutes working as your thighs come away from the floor. If you aren’t sure if they are engaged, reach back with your hands and touch them. Hold this pose 3-5 breaths, then rest.
Warrior 1–Stand with your feet a leg length apart. Start with your feet a leg length apart. Aim your right foot toward the front of your mat, and rotate your left foot 45 degrees toward the front of your mat. Turn your hips to face as forward as possible; your hips will not aim flat to the front of your mat because of the back leg rotating to the left, but face as far forward as you can. Press the outer edge of your left foot backward into the mat (hip extension with lateral rotation) while pressing the outer heel into the floor. This should engage your left quads and glutes. As you do this, rotate your left hip forward. It may not seem possible to do this, but it is. With the weight into your left foot, bend your right knee over the ankle while keeping your torso vertical, shoulders over hips. Activate pelvic floor and lower abdominals. Raise your arms over your head with the shoulder blades moving downward and apart. Stay for a few breaths then repeat with the left foot forward.
Utkatasana side steps–start in utkatasana at the back of your mat facing toward the left side. Start with your feet together, activating the glutes, pelvic floor, lower abs and inner thighs. Keeping the legs parallel, slowly step your right foot about 10” toward the front of your mat, then step your left foot to your right foot. Continue until you get to the front of your mat, then go back the other way. To up the challenge, put a lateral leg lift in before you step. To up the challenge even more, put a stretchy band around your thighs. Go back and forth 3 times in each direction.
Bridge– Lie down on your back with your knees bend, feet on the floor. They should be between hip and shoulder distance apart. It should feel comfortable, not too wide, not too narrow. Feet and thighs should be parallel to each other. Engage your pelvic floor and lower abdominals, and press your feet into the floor to lift your hips as high as they will go without struggle or strain. Press your heels into the floor to engage the Glutes. You should feel your glutes initiating the action. If you don’t know if they are working, reach down and touch them. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed on both feet. Arms can be alongside the body palms facing upward, or you can bring the arms into Yoga Mudra, where the palms are pressed together and the fingers are interlaced, like one fist made by two hands. Stay 5 breaths, then rest.
Glute Stretching, aka “hip openers”
Pigeon–Bring your right knee forward on the floor so that the knee is directly in front of your hip. Slide your right foot forward toward your left wrist so that you are laterally rotating your right thigh. Both hips point straight ahead. Walk your torso forward and place your head on the floor. If it doesn’t touch the floor, you can rest it on a block or your hands. Feel free to place a block or rolled towel under your right hip for some support if you feel strain in your knee. Stay 5-10 breaths then move on to Gomukhasana.
Gomukhasana– From pigeon, tuck your left knee behind your right knee with your feet out to either side. Sit between your feet on the floor or a block, with your left foot to the right of your hips and your right foot to the left. Keep your spine vertical, or tip your pelvis forward with a flat back. You will feel the stretch in the right hip. Stay 5-10 breaths, then move on to Ankle to Knee.
Ankle to Knee–From gomukhasana, slide your knees apart so that your shins are stacked one on top of the other. If that is too intense, place your right shin in front of the left shin. Your ankles and knees should align, either one on top of the other, or one in front of the other. Stay vertical, or tip the pelvis forward with a flat back. Stay 5-10 breaths, then move to Half-Seated Spinal Twist.
Half-Seated Spinal Twist–Straighten your left leg in front of you and bring your right knee into your chest, placing your right foot on the floor to the left of your left leg. Wrap your left arm around your right knee as you twist to the right. Keep the spine vertical and rotate from your obliques, not the pull of your left arm. Stay 5-10 breaths then do the entire sequence on the other side.
Click here to watch a video that guides you through these poses!
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