For many people, appearance is the top priority when it comes to their posterior. But yoga practitioners also know that the glute muscles do so much more than look great in jeans: They’re the primary players in many of the movements that make it possible to do yoga.
The gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus—along with many other smaller, supporting muscles—act as a base of support for the pelvis and hips. What’s more, these hard-working muscles stabilize your femur (thighbone) in your hip socket, rotate your femur internally and externally, and draw your leg back. And yes, all of these actions also help us stand and walk, and even support us when we sit.
They help you rotate your hips externally and they support your SI (sacroiliac) joint. That’s what keeps you erect, aligned, and in good posture, whether you’re sitting or standing. Without the glutes, we couldn’t walk on two legs, according to Andrew McGonigle, author of Supporting Yoga Students with Common Injuries and Conditions.
Unfortunately, there are a number of ways we jeopardize the health of this important muscle group. For starters, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles are leading to what experts call “gluteal amnesia,” in which the butt muscles become overstretched and underused (read: weak). On the flip side, it’s also possible to overuse and overexert these muscles—whether we’re excessively clenching the tush in certain asanas, such as Warrior II or Wheel Pose, or pushing too hard while running or hiking. Not only do under- or overworked glutes affect the range of motion in the hips and sacrum, but strength imbalances can also lead to instability or pain when we’re on our mats.
The anatomy of the glutes
The gluteals are made up of three layers of muscles:
The larges muscle in your body sits partway under the gluteus maximus and connects the ilium (hip bone) to the side of the upper femur. It helps you externally rotate your leg when it’s extended behind you, and internally rotate your hip when your leg is flexed in front of you. Together with the gluteus minimus, this muscle abducts the hip (moves it outward). This is your chief “side stepping” muscle.
This is the biggest of the gluteals, and it attaches to the side of the sacrum and femur. It’s responsible for extending and externally rotating the hip joint. The maximus creates forward thrust as you walk, run, and rise from a squat.
A smaller muscle located under the gluteus medius, the minimus helps you abduct, flex, and internally rotate the hip. You’ll use this muscle when you make circular movements with your thigh.
Underneath these three main gluteal muscles are what are commonly referred to as the “deep six” or “lateral rotator group,” all of which externally rotate the femur in the hip joint. These muscles include:
- Obturator internus (not pictured)
- Quadratus Femoris
- Gemellus inferior
- Obturator externus
- Gemellus superior
Use your butt for better backbends
The gluteus maximus can be your best friend when it comes to safely performing backbends. Yet overusing this big muscle by clenching your butt as you backbend can lead to irritation and injury in the spine and sacroiliac (SI) joint. In order to mitigate excessive spinal compression in backbends, it’s helpful to use the buttocks and adductors (inner thighs) to support the weight of the pelvis, hips, and spine. Work on the following actions:
STEP ONE: Make sure your feet are parallel to one another—and that the hips and legs are not externally rotated. External rotation compresses the SI joint and causes the sacrum to tilt forward (nutation), possibly leading to pain.
STEP TWO: Activate your inner thighs to ensure that the gluteus maximus doesn’t turn the hips outward. Squeeze a block between your thighs in almost any backbend to train your adductors to “turn on.”
STEP THREE: Contract your gluteals in order to posteriorly tilt (tuck) your pelvis while simultaneously activating your abdominals as if doing Ardha Navasana (Half Boat Pose). This will minimize lumbar compression and transfer more of the backbending action to vertebrae higher up the spine.
Fixes for gluteal amnesia (dead butt syndrome)
Are you sitting right now? Squeeze your buttocks, then release them: You should feel them tighten, then go slack. While slack muscles aren’t necessarily a bad thing—our muscles shouldn’t be firing all the time, after all—resting all of your body weight on your slack gluteal muscles (as you do when you sit) weakens them. The pressure lengthens the fascial tissues within and surrounding the glutes, which reduces the gluteals’ natural tension. When the buttocks are weak, the quadriceps and hip flexors have to work harder to compensate. These muscular imbalances often sneakily follow us into our every day movements and onto our mats, causing problems and pain.
Want help? Try these poses:
Start in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog). Exhale and step your right foot forward between your hands, aligning your knee over your heel. Keep your left leg strong and firm. Inhale and raise your torso upright and sweep your arms up overhead, palms facing each other. Lengthen your tailbone down, being careful not to overarch the lower back. Reach back through your left heel. You can bend the back knee toward the floor. Hold for a few breaths. Lower the hands and the torso toward the floor and return to Downward-Facing Dog. Repeat with the left foot forward.
Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your hands several inches behind your hips and your fingers pointing forward. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor, heels at least a foot away from your buttocks. Exhale, press your feet and hands down against the floor and lift your hips until you come into a reverse tabletop position, torso and thighs approximately parallel to the floor, shins and arms approximately perpendicular. Keeping the hips lifted, straighten your legs one at a time until you are in a reverse plank position. Lift your hips still higher without hardening your buttocks. Press your shoulder blades against your back torso to support the lift of your chest. Without compressing the back of your neck, slowly drop your head back. Hold for 30 seconds, then slowly lower the body back down in Dandasana with an exhale.
Side plank with leg lift
From Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) shift onto the outside edge of your left foot, and stack your right foot on top of the left as you turn your torso to the right. Support the weight of your body on the outer left foot and left hand. Make sure that the supporting hand isn’t directly below its shoulder; place it slightly toward the top of your mat so the supporting arm is at an angle to the floor. Firm the triceps muscle and strengthen the thighs. Align your entire body into one long diagonal line from the heels to the crown. Reach the top arm toward the ceiling, parallel to the line of the shoulders. Keep the head in a neutral position, or gaze up at the top hand. With the knee and toes facing forward, lift the right leg up toward the ceiling to activate the gluteus medius. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds then lower the right leg and arm, rotating the body to return to full plank pose. Press back into Adho Mukha Svanasana, take a few breaths, and repeat to the right side for the same length of time. Then return to Adho Mukha Svanasana for a few more breaths, and finally release into Balasana (Child’s Pose).
4 yoga poses for strong glutes
Adding variation to these familiar yoga poses will gives your backside an extra boost and keep your glutes strong and healthy.
Warrior Pose III, with squats (Virabhadrasana III)
All of the gluteals must work to perform this movement—the “deep six” external rotators keep each side of the pelvis stable in spite of the different actions in each hip, and the larger gluteals add additional support for the hips. This move forces your buttock muscles to shore up their connection from the thighs through to the lower back to keep the hips and spine stable.
How to: From High Lunge with your left foot in front, stretch your arms forward, parallel to your mat and to each other, palms facing one another. As you exhale, press the left thighbone back and the left heel actively into the floor; straighten your left leg and lift the back leg to come into Warrior III. Keep your pelvis level as you bend your left knee slightly (shown), then straighten it. Repeat 6–8 times without letting the spine, shoulders, or pelvis change their relationship to one another. If you can’t balance, place your fingers on a wall and allow them to slide up and down as you move. Repeat on the other side.
Bridge Pose, variation (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
This pose is exactly the opposite of sitting: It places the hips into extension and strengthens all of the deep and larger buttock muscles. What’s more, this posture also helps you figure out which side of your glutes is stronger. The more you practice it, the better each buttock will become at supporting its counterpart.
How to: Rest on the ground with your arms on the floor. Unlike the classic version of Bridge, keep your arms and shoulders passive so that they don’t compensate for your gluteal strength. Place your feet parallel to each other and a few inches from your butt so that when you lift up, your shins are perpendicular to the floor. Activate all of your deep-core muscles at once to keep the natural curves in your spine intact. Then, activate your glutes and raise your pelvis off the floor without allowing your lumbar to curve into a backbend. The key is to reach full extension, creating a diagonal line from your shoulders to your knees, without feeling any discomfort in your back. If you feel a pinching sensation or any soreness in your lower back, reinforce the tension in your abdominals and gluteals and lower your hips until you find an angle that works. Lift your left foot off the ground 1 inch and hold the pose for 4–8 breaths without any wavering or collapsing in your pelvis/hips. (If this is too much, just lift your heel.) Switch sides. Then lie flat on your back to rest. Repeat for a total of 3 complete rounds.
Locust Pose, with block between legs (Salabhasana)
Salabhasana will mostly target your gluteus maximus by tasking it to lift each hip, thigh, lower leg, ankle, and foot against gravity. This pose also helps you determine whether your gluteals are strong enough to lift your lower body. (For optimal health, your tush should be able to carry you.) If your gluteals “fail,” you’ll likely feel this in your lower back, which can lead to back pain.
How to: Rest on your abdomen with a block between your thighs, and stretch your arms out in front of you with your palms facing one another. Activate your abdominal muscles and inner thighs. Posteriorly tilt (tuck) your tailbone by contracting your buttocks and raise your legs off the floor. This action will minimize any compression in your lower back. Activate your back muscles and raise your upper body and arms off the floor. Maintain all of this while breathing into your rib cage for 6–8 breaths. Return to the starting position, rest, and repeat 3 more times.
This pose mostly targets the gluteus maximus and medius, and the piriformis. Rather than off-loading the task of supporting your body weight like we do when we sit in a chair, this move puts stress on your glutes, which helps you build strength and endurance. Bonus: It takes quite a bit of strength to lower into the pose and to raise yourself out of it: These dynamic elements are just as beneficial as holding traditional Chair in the lower “sitting” position.
How to: Stand in your best Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your feet hip-width apart and toes pointed forward. Simultaneously stiffen your ab muscles and back muscles so that your spine moves as a single, stafflike unit into the pose, and contract your gluteals with a squeeze of your buttocks. As you do all of this, attempt to move the floor apart with your feet by firing your outer hips. Then, without shifting your spine, raise your arms overhead and sit deeply into an imaginary chair. Lower as deeply as you can without losing any of the muscular activation listed above or allowing your spine to change shape. (A quick mirror check helps you to see if your spine is compensating for lack of stability in the glutes and pelvis.) Breathe into your rib cage as you maintain core stability; stay here for 8 breaths or longer.
About Our Contributors
Writer Jill Miller is the co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide and author of The Roll Model. She has presented case studies at the Fascia Research Congress and the International Symposium of Yoga Therapists, and she teaches at fitness and yoga conferences worldwide. Learn more at yogatuneup.com.
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