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Yoga Anatomy 101: Stop Relaxing Your Glutes in Backbends
One cue that has gotten a lot of publicity and perpetuation throughout the yoga world is “relax your glutes” while practicing backbends. While the intention behind this well-meaning cue is noble, the results can actually be the opposite of their intention.
When backbending, we utilize—you guessed it!—the back body. Working large muscles such as the hamstrings, spinae erectors, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and, of course, the gluteal group, we recruit just about all the muscles on the posterior side of the body to support backbending.
Of course, this depends on the particular backbend being practiced, but the point is that we definitely do use the posterior chain of the body to backbend.
If we neglect to engage the glutes, we have the potential to actually strain the lower back (rather than protect it, as many believe). By not supporting the spine with these massive and powerful muscles, we can leave it vulnerable and unsupported as we move into extension.
What Are the Glutes?
Let’s start with the basics and dissect this enormous muscle group.
First, referring to this muscle group as one unit doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Depending on the actions happening, the gluteus maximus and the gluteus medius and minimus can serve very different functions. So, lumping them together as the “glutes” doesn’t really mean much.
So, we have to further dissect them individually.
The Gluteus Maximus
The most superficial muscle tissues of the buttocks create the gluteus maximus—the largest of the gluteal muscles. Like most large muscles, these massive, multi-functional tissues serve many purposes. Specifically, the superior, inferior, anterior, and posterior fibers of the gluteus maximus serve very different purposes.1 2
The gluteus maximus primarily works to extend the hip.2 The superior (upper) fibers can abduct the hip and the inferior (lower) fibers can adduct it.3
4 The anterior fibers of the gluteus maximus primarily serve to medially (internally) rotate the femurs (the thigh bones) within the acetabulum (the hip socket).2 Whereas the posterior fibers of the gluteus maximus primarily serve as lateral (external) rotators of the thighs.2
The Gluteus Medius and Minimus
It is somewhat fair to lump the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus together as they serve very similar functions. Situated deep to the gluteus maximus as well as slightly superior (above) reaching up to the iliac crest (the top of the pelvis), these two smaller muscles work primarily as stabilizers of the hip.5 6 They help to draw the femur (thigh bone) into the acetabulum (hip socket) from the lateral side of the body.
These muscles also work as abductors of the legs (meaning they draw the legs away from the midline of the body).6 7
The posterior fibers work as synergists (helpers) to the gluteus maximus to create both hip extension and external rotation8, but the anterior fibers also have the capacity to create internal rotation and hip flexion6.
While all of this can sound contradictory and confusing, it’s important to remember that muscle functions are not very linear or clear cut. And depending on the muscle fibers that are activated, what orientation the body is in, or which muscles are collaborating to create a movement of the skeletal system, muscles can change their functions and/or even completely reverse their primary roles.
The Function of the Glutes in Backbends
Without engaging the gluteus maximus (which is the primary extensor of the hips), you likely aren’t going to move very far in backbends. The hamstrings (which are also synergists to the gluteus maximus for hip extension) may be able to lift you partially, but it’s safer and smarter to initiate the movement from the prime mover of this action: the gluteus maximus.
So, to even lift into a backbend, you need to contract the gluteus maximus.
But, you’ve likely heard the cue “relax your glutes” when backbending numerous times. So, if we need the glutes to engage to lift into a backbend, how can we relax them? And, perhaps more importantly, why are we being asked to relax them?
The issue that arises here is that the gluteus maximus (as well as its supporting synergists) have the capacity to externally rotate the thigh bones. For many, external rotation of the thighs can create “congestion” in the back of the pelvis and “clenching” of the superior fibers of the gluteus maximus. This, in turn, can potentially lead to lower back pain and/or uncomfortable bony compression during backbends.
The trick, however, is to learn to fire the appropriate muscle fibers of the gluteal group rather than to relax them completely—which, for most, isn’t even anatomically possible in backbends.
So, the question then becomes how?
How to Safely Activate the Glutes in Backbends
In order to fire the targeted fibers of the gluteus maximus and its synergists in backbends, we first need to stabilize the surrounding tissues in order to isolate these fibers for hip extension without external rotation. We also need to initiate internal rotation before we lift.
We can examine this in the standard backbend bridge pose (or Setu Bandhasana). Lie down on your back, plant your feet roughly hips-distance apart, stack your heels under your knees, and relax your arms by your sides.
How to Stabilize the Hips in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor.
2. Root down into your feet and actively press your heels into the floor. Feel how this engages the backs of your legs (primarily your hamstring and gluteal muscle groups). Maintain this.
3. Energetically, without movement, isometrically draw your feet apart from each other. Feel how this engages the lateral side of your hips (primarily your abductors like the gluteus medius and minimus and tensor fascia latae—which is also an internal rotator!). Maintain this.
4. Energetically, without movement, isometrically draw your legs toward each other. Feel how this engages the medial side of your hips (primarily your adductor muscle group). Maintain this.
5. Keep all of these seemingly opposing actions happening simultaneously to maintain stability throughout your whole hip girdle.
6. Then, press evenly into your shoulders and your feet to lift your hips off the floor. Ideally, your thighs will stay in their neutral (or even slightly internal) rotation and all of the fibers of your gluteus maximus will be working equally to create hip extension rather than the upper fibers excessively contracting to create external rotation.
You can work these same actions in any backbend to try to isolate the hip extensor fibers of the gluteus maximus (and its synergists)—rather than recruiting fibers that externally rotate the hips.
So, Stop Relaxing Your Glutes in Backbends! Instead, Activate Them Wisely and Consciously.
Ideally, we use the massive muscles of the gluteal group to support many poses that we practice in yoga. As spine stabilizers, external and internal rotators, hip extensors and hip flexors, adductors and abductors, this muscle group undoubtedly does a lot and serves many varying functions.
If we are able to carefully manipulate, articulate, and control its varying functions, then we will likely be able to flow through our yoga practice with greater precision, comfort, and ease.
Study with Olga Kabel and YogaUOnline - Yoga for Every Body: How to Adapt Yoga Poses for Different Situations, Conditions, and Purposes.
Leah Sugerman is a yoga teacher, writer, and passionate world traveler. An eternally grateful student, she has trained in countless schools and traditions of the practice and teaches a fusion of the styles she has studied with a strong emphasis on breath, alignment, and anatomical integrity. Leah teaches workshops, retreats, and trainings both internationally and online. For more information, visit www.leahsugerman.com.