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Confused About Whether to Squeeze Your Glutes in Backbends?

The answer is…complicated.

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Every field of study has its share of heated controversies. One of the debates that has long smoldered in the yoga world is whether or not we should engage our gluteus maximus muscles—aka squeeze our buttocks—in backbends.

Backbends are a challenge for many of us. Poses such as Ustrasana (Camel Pose) and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) take us into the opposite of our habitual pattern of leaning forward. Emotionally, this can lead to us feeling expansive but also vulnerable.

Physically, the shape and orientation of our vertebrae means that our backbending capacity is determined in large part by the anatomy of our lumbar spine. As we reach the end of our safe range of motion in backbends, there’s potential to experience compression between our lumbar vertebrae or the junction between the vertebrae and the sacrum. These are regions of the body that we tend to feel protective about—and for good reason. The fascia in the low back region is one of the most densely populated regions of nociceptive (threat-sensing) nerve endings. Our bodies know to be extra cautious there.

It’s understandable that we might turn to a yoga teacher’s cues to know what to do to feel more secure in these poses. Although some teachers swear by the need to engage the glutes to create more space in and support for the lumbar spine and sacrum in backbends, others state, with equal certainty, that the same benefits follow from the opposite action.

As with most passionate and polarized arguments, there is truth to be found on both sides. A little investigation reveals that there’s less outright disagreement than it appears.

(Photo: Sebastian Kaulitzki Science Photo Library)

Why You Might Squeeze Your Glutes

The school of thought behind squeezing your glutes explains that the contraction of the gluteus maximus provides an essential contribution to backbends. The gluteus maximus is our primary hip extensor. That means it draws your thigh bones closer to the back of the pelvis, effectively moving the pelvis forward.

Imagine coming into Bridge Pose or Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel or Upward-Facing Bow Pose): you need gluteus maximus contraction to lift your hips off the mat. Or, flipping your orientation to gravity, imagine Salabhasana (Locust Pose): you need gluteus maximus contraction to lift your thigh bones off the mat.

Beyond brute force, there are two additional benefits to the actions of gluteus maximus. The anatomical movement of hip extension, or moving your thigh bones toward the back of your body, contributes to the backbend shape, reducing the range required by the lumbar spine alone and buying a little time before you reach your maximum range.

Second, gluteus maximus plays a subtle but essential role in supporting and stabilizing both the sacrum and lumbar spine. The muscle fibers cross between the two sides of the downward-pointing triangle of the sacrum and the bones of the posterior pelvis into which it fits (the sacroiliac or SI joint). Engaging this muscle reinforces the network of strong ligaments that stabilize the joint.

In addition, each side of gluteus maximus shares strong fascial connections with the latissimus dorsi on the opposite side of the spine. This connection with the large, superficial back muscle creates a sling of support across the lumbar spine. So, once again, contracting gluteus maximus adds muscular support to this key transition region of the body.

Students of anatomy would likely agree with all of these points. So if the glutes are required for hip extension, a key part of most backbends, and provide muscular stability for the sacrum (and, to some extent, the low back), why wouldn’t we squeeze our glutes?

Why You Might Relax Your Glutes

The opposing school of thought agrees on the importance of gluteus maximus in backbends. But it considers the large superficial muscle, or “prime mover,” a player in several essential roles.

The lower fibers of the gluteus maximus, which fall across the sit bones, are the ones primarily responsible for that key backbending action of hip extension, but can get a little sleepy from hours of sitting on them. The upper fibers, which are situated on either side of the sacrum, are more familiar and easier to tap into, but actually play a greater role in external rotation of the hips, or turning our thigh bones away from the front midline of the body, as we do in Utkata Konasana (Goddess Pose).

The trouble is that when we powerfully engage our glutes in backbends, most of us bias toward firing the more familiar upper fibers over the lower ones, resulting in more external rotation of the hip. This lessens the hip extension, which can be so helpful to decrease the depth of movement required in the lumbar spine.

In other words, the vigorous “squeeze” that some find so helpful could send you right back into the undesirable feeling of lumbar compression.

A Compromise

For many of us, tapping into the action of the lower fibers of gluteus maximus requires a more subtle approach than the generalized cue of squeezing the entire muscle. That might feel like lengthening through the sacrum, gripping our sit bones, or softening the glutes along either side of our sacrum. It’s the same muscular action, but a nuanced change in approach and intensity.

So which cue is right for you? Both arguments have their merits, which is probably why the debate has persisted for so long. I suspect the correct approach, as with so many things in yoga, depends on the student, the pose, and the day.

About Our Contributor

Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown New Zealand, as well as on-demand at Passionate about the real-world application of her studies in anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students create strength, stability, and clarity of mind. Rachel also co-hosts the new Yoga Medicine Podcast.

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