The pros and cons of activating the glutes in backbends.
Have you ever been to a yoga class doing bridge pose and the teacher asks you to activate your glutes? OR, equally, have you been to a class when the teacher says not to?
While in quarantine my self-care project was to look after my back so I decided to take a deeper look at everything that may benefit my back health. And one big question mark for me was whether to activate the glutes – or not. As I started to read up on the subject I soon realised there is no straight forward answer to this question but here I will try to summarize what I learnt for you to be able to explore and make your own choice.
To start with let’s see what happens when I activate my glutes?
The gluteus maximus is normally the muscle you will automatically squeeze when the teacher tells you to activate the ‘glutes’. This action…
- tilts your pelvis back and extends the hip joint which is what you want it to do for a backbend.
- makes your hips and thighs slightly externally rotate, resulting in your toes and knees splaying out which you don’t want. However you have your gluteus medius and the Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL) that can help you correct this with an internal rotation.
- pulls the femur bone out to the side (abduction) which also you don’t want but by activating your adductors on the inner thigh you can straighten the thigh bones back into alignment. When you are encouraged to squeeze a block in between your legs this is what you do.
So knowing this what should one do? I would say it depends. There are good arguments for both sides and what suits you might come down to your anatomy, strength, flexibility or level of practice.
Embracing the squeeze
- One argument pro engaging the glutes would be that it is a lot of work for your back muscles to do all the heavy lifting by themselves in supine backbends like for example wheel pose. The lumbar (lower) spine where most of the bending happens would also get more support and the back muscles some help to lift up the pelvis by activating the glutes. If this is a valid argument you could on the other hand also say that in prone back bends (as in laying on your belly) where the pelvis is supported on the ground you wouldn’t need to activate the glutes.
- If your hip flexors are tight you might want to consider to squeeze your bum to help extending the hip.
- Some people feel a pinching pain in the lower back when doing a backbend and activating the glutes could remove that sensation.
When it is better to relax
- As mentioned previously when you activate the gluteus maximus it creates external rotation of the thighs and hips which creates undesired misalignments in the pose. However this is fixable so if you choose to activate the glutes do make sure you do the counter actions as outlined above but if that is a challenge for whatever reason then I would say it is better to stay relaxed.
- If you have a very flexible back practicing some more advanced, deeper backbends the activation of the glutes could literally become a block for the pelvis to tilt back enough to enable getting into the pose. If you belong to the minority being able to practice these poses you might be better off to relax the glutes.
- If your natural build or habitual hip/thigh state already is externally rotated then it might also be better not to activate the gluteus maximus. But in this case you would still do the counter actions to internally rotate back into straight alignment.
Final, and maybe healthiest, option is that maybe the world doesn’t have to be so black and white? Try to gently engage just the lower part of the Gluteus Maximus. This part opens up your hip without the non-desired side effects (that happens in the upper part of gluteus max) and still provides a healthy lower back support. This way forward will also ensure good sacroiliac joint health during your back bends.
I would recommend you to test some different poses and see how activating and relaxing the glutes makes you feel. You can also grab a block or a book to feel what happens when you grip it between your thighs. Breathe into the poses and connect with your body while exploring the options. Hopefully your body will tell you what it likes if you just listen to it. Good luck!
Author: Katrin Schiskin