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Yoga Anatomy: Engaging Your Glutes in Backbends
In this post, we take a look at the gluteus maximus in backbends and how to avoid splaying out your knees in yoga poses like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). I will share some cues for sequencing muscle engagement and also address a misconception about contracting your adductor muscles.
Why You're told to "Soften Your Glutes in Yoga Backbends"
For decades now we’ve heard the instruction in yoga, “soften your glutes in backbends” with no valid explanation why. Your hips are extending in backbends, and your gluteus maximus is the prime mover for that action. Why wouldn’t you want to contract the very muscle that creates that movement?
Let’s look closer. When you deliberately soften your glutes, then the hip extension comes from the hamstrings, because your hamstrings work as synergists to the gluteus maximus for this action. So, why not just use your hamstrings to extend the hips and avoid getting scolded for using the prime movers (glutes)? Well, if you do that enough, you potentially set up a muscle imbalance that can lead to “synergistic dominance” wherein the hamstrings become the prime mover of this action. In the hip joint, this can result in abnormal kinematics, and ultimately, pain.
One side effect of using your gluteus maximus is that it is also a powerful external rotator of the hip. Thus, when you engage your gluteus maximus in a backbend, your hips will rotate outward and your knees tend to splay apart.
Do we care if the knees splay out? Well, it depends on your objective in the pose. Recent literature shows that if the femurs are parallel, you fire your entire gluteus maximus, whereas when they are splayed apart, you fire mainly the upper portion (1. Selkowitz, 2016).
The “solution” that is usually proposed for this is to have folks try to squeeze a block between their knees to “fire those adductors!” In India, this instruction was often accompanied by much shouting at the frustrated person attempting it. There is a reason, however, why this cue works so poorly, despite the yelling. That is because when your hips are extended (in a backbend), the orientation of the adductor muscle fibers makes them become external rotators of the hip and synergize the gluteus maximus in splaying your knees apart. So it’s a bit like hitting the brakes and gas at the same time. Frustrating. Figure 1 illustrates this.
Figure 1: Note the orientation of the fibers of the adductor group and how contracting these muscles leads to splaying out of the knees in backbends.
The real counterbalance for the gluteus maximus causing the knees to splay apart is to contract the muscles that internally rotate the hips, namely, the tensor fasciae latae and front part of the gluteus medius.
This cue works well, but it must be implemented in a sequence to function optimally. You have to engage the hip internal rotators before going up into the backbend. It’s difficult to engage them once you are up in the pose because when the hips are extending, the tensor fasciae latae and front part of the gluteus medius are at a biomechanical disadvantage for initiating contraction. Thus, you want to first train the cue to engage these muscles with the hips flexed, where it is easy to contract them. Then bring in the gluteus maximus to do the backbend. I’ve taught this sequence all over the world and had great feedback. Done properly, the muscles form a “sheath” that lifts the pelvis in a balanced and stable fashion. (Figure 2)
Figure 2: Note how the muscles at the front of the hips internally rotate the thighs to balance external rotation from the gluteus maximus.
How to Engage the Gluteus Maximus and Medius and the Tensor Fasciae Latae
Lie on your back and bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the ground as shown. Place your hands on the front part of the pelvis to feel your internal rotators contract. Now, on exhalation, press the feet down and attempt to move them apart while allowing your knees to roll inward. Don’t actually move your feet. You should be able to feel your tensor fasciae latae contract. Release on the inhalation and repeat for about 10 times to train the action. Press your feet down and then attempt to move them away from the midline. The feet should remain fixed on your yoga mat, as your knees roll inward and you should feel your muscles contract if you’ve got it.
Figure 3: Press your feet down and attempt to drag them apart as you allow your knees to roll inward. Place your hands on the front of your hips to feel the TFL and front of the gluteus medius contract with this action.
Follow the instruction from step 1, maintain the cue of pushing away from the midline with your feet and then dial in contraction of the gluteus maximus to lift the pelvis. You will be pushing down and away from the midline to engage your internal rotators and then engaging your gluteus maximus to extend the hips. Go up on the exhalation and down on inhalation. Try this about 10 times (2-3 sets). I recommend working with this set of cues for a few days before integrating them into a full backbend. Once you get it, then try the block thing (if you want). You’ll find it works better this way.
If you experience knee pain in this pose, try pressing down with the heels more. This often helps.
Figure 4: This illustrates the sheath of muscle surrounding the pelvis and lifting it into the bridge.
Use muscle engagement as a barometer to help identify imbalances between the two sides of the body. Then carefully work to balance things. This is one of the benefits of practicing Hatha Yoga using knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics.
Interested in more tips for your backbending practice? Read this post from YogaUOnline and Olga Kabel - Healthy Backbending: How to Organize Backbends in a Yoga Sequence.
Or study with Olga Kabel and YogaUOnline - Avoiding Yoga Injuries: Common Alignment Mistakes in Backbends and Lateral Bends.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Bandha.
Author, Ray Long MD, FRCSC is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. Ray graduated from The University of Michigan Medical School with postgraduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, The University of Montreal and Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over twenty years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters.
3d Graphic Designer / Illustrator Chris Macivor has been involved in the field of digital content creation for well over ten years. He is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, Sheridan College and Seneca College. Chris considers himself to be equally artistic and technical in nature. As such his work has spanned many genres from film and television to video games and underwater imagery.
1) Selkowitz, D. M., Beneck, G. J., & Powers, C. M. (2016). Comparison of Electromyographic Activity of the Superior and Inferior Portions of the Gluteus Maximus Muscle During Common Therapeutic Exercises. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 46(9), 794-799. doi:10.2519/jospt.2016.6493