For many people, appearance is the top priority when it comes to their posterior. But yoga practitioners also know that the gluteals can 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.
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 range of motion in the hips and sacrum, but strength imbalances can also lead to instability or pain when we’re on our mats. Here’s how to find a happy medium.
Let's start by exploring how you use your backside in 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, which 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 does not 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 into vertebrae higher up the spine.
Body of Knowledge: Anatomy of the Gluteals
The gluteals are made up of three layers of muscles:
This muscle 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
Do YOU have gluteal amnesia?
Are you sitting right now? Squeeze your buttocks, then release them: You should feel them tighten, then slacken. While slack muscles aren’t necessarily a bad thing—all of our muscles shouldn’t be firing at all times, after all—resting all of your body weight on your slack glute muscles (as you do when you sit) creates a lengthening of the fascial tissues within and surrounding the glutes, which weakens the gluteals’ natural tension. When the buttocks are excessively weak, the quadriceps and hip flexors have to work harder to compensate, and these muscular imbalances often sneakily follow us onto our mats to cause problems and pain. Want help? Try these poses:
4 Yoga Poses to Strengthen Your Glutes
About Our Pros
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.