The glutes are made up of three muscles…and, like silverware, each of these muscles works towards a similar goal but functions slightly differently.
— Rachel Hector
To squeeze your bum or not to squeeze your bum in backbends? A very common question without a one-size-fits-all answer. The answer, as in most things pertaining to your personal practice, is that it is a personal preference.
Certain individuals will benefit from contracting the glutes strongly to relieve pressure in their low back. Strong backbends can cause a sensation of pinching in the lumbar spine which can be alleviated by tightening the buttocks. This is especially pertinent for individuals with tight hip flexors as the ilipsoas are strongly stretched during backbends. In backbends the ilipsoas are an antagonist muscle, meaning they are relaxing and being stretched. Like we saw in our muscle post, actively contracting an agonist or synergist muscle causes deeper relaxation of the antagonist muscle. Strongly contracting the buttocks (a synergist in backbends) therefore allows the hip flexors to find a state of deeper relaxation.
Other individuals with loose hip flexors will find it comfortable to completely relax their buttocks. If there is no discomfort in the lumbar spine then it can feel completely natural to release the glutes. Having less muscular engagement sometimes makes it easier for us to find stillness in a pose, rather than exerting a bunch of effort. A benefit of relaxing the buttocks is that we become less inclined to externally rotate the hips, which can compress our lower backs.
A compromise between total glute contraction and total glute relaxation is what works most effectively for my personal practice. Instead of ‘squeezing’ I prefer to find the level of active engagement that creates stability and space to move deeper in my practice. This involves engaging the glutues medius and minimus and relaxing the upper fibers of the glutues maximus.
Differences Among the Glutes
Individual muscles that work together to create the same movement are often grouped together, like the hamstrings or quadriceps. However, the individual muscles often create other additional movements that may be in opposition to one another. Rachel Hector sums this up brilliantly by stating, “The glutes are made up of three muscles…and, like silverware, each of these muscles works towards a similar goal but functions slightly differently”. Let’s look at the three glutes individually.
- Gluteus maximus: The largest of the three muscles. It extends the leg and aids in creating external rotation.
- Gluteus minimus: Abducts the leg and aids primarily in internal rotation.
- Gluteus medius: Abducts the leg and can aid in both internal and external rotation.
Imagine coming into bridge or wheel pose. As we press our pelvis up towards the sky, the hamstrings and glutes contract to create extension. A natural tendency is for our knees to open outwards. Why do those knees want to splay out? It may be because of the contractions in your bum, primarily the gluteus maximus.
All fibers of the gluteus maximus are not designed the same. The upper, or more superior, fibers of the gluteus maximus create abduction and external rotation of the leg. The lower, or inferior, fibers of the gluteus maximus are designed to create more extension of the leg. In our backbends, we are looking to maximize our leg and spinal extension while keeping our bodies relatively straight. In essence, we try to limit rotation and lateral movement.
Experiment with contracting just the lower fibers of your glutes. This may feel very unnatural at first, especially if you are used to strongly contracting your glutes as a whole. Imagine the bottom cusp of your bum contracting (just above where your femur inserts into the hips) and the top of your bum relaxing. This will aid in deepening your backbend without allowing the external rotators to take over.
If you find your knees are still splaying out to the side, grab a block and place it between your thighs. Squeezing the block with your thighs will activate your internal rotators (like the TFL) and help to broaden your low back. With practice you may find the combination of activation between your glutes and internal rotators that provides the best stability with the least strain on your body.
Whether you decide to engage your glutes so strongly you could crack a walnut between your cheeks or relax so fully a gust of wind could shake your booty is completely up to you. You have the freedom to explore whatever feels best for your incredibly unique body. What works best for you might be a compromise somewhere in between, isolating your contractions to the muscle fibers that serve you best. Engage those muscles that serve you (the gluteus minimus and medius) and release those that don’t (the gluteus maximus, especially the superior fibers).
While you’re in your backbend and experiencing the opening across your heart, ask yourself “What am I creating space for?”. This one thought will take you deeper into your yoga than any contraction or releasing of your bum ever could.