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The Surprising Muscle Weakness Linked to Back Pain

Science says your back pain could really be the result of your derrière not doing its job. Here’s how to engage your glutes more to make sure they've got your back.

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Your butt is home to some of the largest, most powerful muscles in your body. But if you’re like many, on most days those muscles don’t do much more than to serve as a seat cushion. Researchers and therapists alike say that’s a big problem.

“The rear-end should act as support for the entire body and as a shock absorber for stress during exercise, but if it’s too weak, other parts of the body take up the slack and it often causes injury,” says Chris Kolba, Ph.D., a physical therapist who specializes in orthopedic and sports medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Sitting is a great way to weaken those butt muscles, the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius. Kolba calls the condition that results “dormant butt syndrome.” Stuart McGill, Ph.D., the director of the Spine Biomechanics Laboratory at Waterloo University, describes it as “gluteal amnesia” because people afflicted with it seem to “forget” to use their glutes when they perform tasks like squatting or hinging at the hips. Whatever you want to call it, when the glutes are effectively out to lunch, a host of extra strain winds up on the hamstrings and lower back. That can kick off a vicious cycle that leads to chronic back pain.


Related: Understanding the Source of Back Pain


McGill’s research has conclusively shown that pain, whether it stems from the back or the hips (another common trouble spot), inhibits the glutes. When the glutes are restricted somehow, more stress winds up on the back. You end up in a chicken-or-egg situation where it’s no longer clear whether the back pain is shutting down the glutes or vice versa. What is clear is that the two issues often go together.

The good news? McGill’s work also shows that when someone manages to get his or her glutes back in working order, the pain they had experienced in their lower back subsides or disappears entirely. Follow his three steps below to unlock your buttocks’ full potential and live a more pain-free life.

Step 1: Rebuild the mind-muscle connection.

Try this simple technique to check whether you’re still in touch with your bottom half. Lie back on the floor and place your hands underneath each of your butt cheeks. Take turns contracting each of your glutes. Your hands are there to notice if those muscles are indeed firing. This may feel a bit silly, but it serves an important purpose. “It’s getting your brain to connect to the muscle,” McGill says.

McGill cautions that this is a self-exam and corrective exercise, not a new way of life. “Some people think that they should walk around with their bottoms clenched all the time. But that’s just silly,” McGill says. “Your glutes are a very phasic muscle, you should use them only as you need.”

Step 2: Get your glutes back in business.

During his more than three decades of research on back pain, McGill tested several many different exercises to see how they affected the glutes. Over and over again, the two moves he found to be the most effective at getting the glutes to work well within a person’s daily movement patterns were clamshells and glute bridges. He suggests performing 3 sets of 10 reps of each move at least once per day. (McGill compiled these exercises and dozens of others in his new book Back Mechanic, a guide to self-assessments you can use to identify and solve your own back pain.)

Clamshells

 

Lie on your side with your knees slightly bent. Rest your head on the hand of the arm that’s on the ground. Place the hand of your elevated arm on your hip, so that the thumb rests on the hip bone and your fingers wrap around overtop the upper part of your butt. Keeping your feet together, separate the knees as if they were a clam opening its shell. Try to point the knee of your upper leg toward the sky. Do 10 reps, then flip over and repeat on the other side. This move isolates and activates the gluteus medius, which is the smaller of the two glute muscles located higher up on the butt above the gluteus maximus.

 

Glute Bridge

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands under your butt to feel its engagement, then squeeze the cheeks as if you were trying to hold a coin between them. Your goal is for the pelvis to remain neutral and not tilt in any way. From there, bridge up, using your butt to drive the movement. The bridge activates the gluteus maximus, the larger muscle that makes up the bulk of your rear.

Step 3: Keep your body—and your backside—more active throughout the day.

Sonima.com’s pain and anatomy advisor, Pete Egoscue, agrees that inhibited glutes can wreak havoc all over a person’s body. “The idea that a person’s glutes are going to suffer from all of that sitting is correct,” says the creator of the Egoscue Method. So while you’ve probably heard this before, remember you should try to avoid sitting for prolonged periods. When you’re at work, get up and take a break every 20 to 30 minutes. Consider a standing desk—they’ve become a lot more affordable in recent years. Egoscue also has two exercises he suggests people perform to give their booty an occasional wake-up call throughout the day.

Rear-Leg Knee Bends

Stand up and take one step forward with your right foot. Make sure your feet are hip-width apart and pointing straight ahead (or as close to straight as you can manage). Keeping your torso vertical, bend the knee of your left (rear) leg , then straighten it. When you straighten your rear leg, focus on feeling the line of energy from your butt down to your heel on the ground. If you place your hand on your butt, you should be able to feel your glutes contract as you do this. Perform 10 reps on each side.

Three-Position Toe Raises

Stand with your big toes touching, your right heel pointing at 5 o’clock and your left heel pointing at 7 o’clock. Engage your quadriceps (the big muscles in the front of your thighs) and rise up onto the balls of your feet then lower. Keep your toes pressed against the floor and focus on keeping the quads tight as you move up and down. You should be able to feel the muscles of your upper thighs and glutes flexing as you rise. Do 10 reps.

Then switch it up so that your heels touch and your toes are pointing outward (toes pointing to 1 o’clock and 11 o’clock). You should feel even more glute engagement along with a bit more sensation in your quads as you perform 10 more reps in this second variation.

Lastly, stand with your feet pointing straight ahead and roughly hip-distance apart. Repeat the toe-raise 10 more times, keeping your quads engaged and pelvis neutral (not tilted forward or backward).

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