Gluteal musculature plays a pivotal role in your lower back health, as well as the health of your lower limb in general. The gluteal muscles allow your lower limb to effectively transmit forces into the trunk during all manner of movements. These muscles are unfortunately left without cultivation in modern life. We spend ever increasing numbers of hours sedentary and as we age we consider activities like walking sufficient to stay healthy. This simply isn’t good enough and neglect of this important region of the body begins to show in increasing disability. An ailing ability to move around the house, go up stairs and get out of chairs.
In this week’s article we’ll be going deep into the glutes to better understand their impact on lower back pain, or more accurately, how weakness in this vital musculature contributes and reinforces lower back injuries.
The gluteal musculature constitutes the largest and most powerful region of our body. Our hips are tremendously stable joints and the mechanical movements that are driven by the glutes are ones that have the capacity to generate power and control significantly greater than any other region of our body.
What are the Glute muscles doing for our back?
These muscles are responsible for driving us, in tandem with the other muscles of the leg from seated to standing positions and vice versa through slow and controlled lowering. They provide stabilisation and control, for the lower leg by means of protecting both knee and ankle health in the way they oppose the deviation of the knees towards the midline. Tension and activation of the gluteal musculature works to provide tension through the thoraco lumbar fascia which is a sheet of fibrous tissue running across the lower back. For example during the hip hinge movement, the gluteals along with the hamstrings work to provide the power and the thoracolumbar fascia along with the lower back musculature acts as an immovable lever, like a drawbridge, that is raised and lowered with integrity under the influence of the aforementioned muscles.
When the glutes are powerful and working effectively we are more comfortable going down into a squat position to pick up things from the floor. When we get out of a chair, we more instinctively use the glutes to drive the movement keeping our spine and torso upright in a position of relatively lower strain.
Why are your gluteal muscles weaker than they should be?
In previous articles we’ve gone to great lengths to cover the many negative impacts of modern life on the body. With the exception of the very athletic in our younger years, modern life drives us towards this issue. From the moment young children start school, chairs begin to retrain our body to get used to sitting for long periods. Sat with our glute muscles, particularly the Gluteus Maximus, in a relatively stretched out position. We spend many hours of the day in this stretched and disengaged position. Passively the Gluteus Maximus begins to go to sleep.
As we progress through the schooling system and into work or university, many will continue to spend an ever increasing number of hours seated. Whether we are driving for work, or sitting in a cubicle, or now, working from home, the result is the same. Continued disuse atrophy – muscle weakening – of this vital power driver. Once more, it isn’t like we are just getting weaker, the resting position becomes lengthened too.
In keeping with so much of what we say regarding muscle “tightness” being weakened and often lengthened muscles of the lower back that do not need further stretching, we see this same phenomenon in the gluteals. Know that the natural “neutral” position for the glutes would be found in a standing posture. This is particularly noticeable for the Gluteus Maximus, the biggest single muscle in our body – or what should be! This position has the hip in a neutral load bearing position. So as the hip moves down into a squat you’ll benefit from a certain degree of elastic stretch in the muscle to propel you back up to standing. However, if the “adjusted neutral” position of your glutes is an elongated sitting position with the hip at 90 degrees instead of 180 degrees, this innate elasticity may well not be as present. The glute doesn’t want to go back to its neutral position when you get out of the chair, because it is already in its most natural position, sitting – this is not good.
So we begin to use other means of getting out of our numerous chairs on a daily basis – we round our back and with the elegance of a fish out of water we tip ourselves out of the chair with just enough momentum to get upright.
Our bodys are miraculous creations and will adapt tremendously to how we use the machinery of life on a daily basis, either adapting to be stronger in the environment or weaker, we don’t have to think about it, the body simply acts based on how we use ourselves. These processes therefore are as sure as the day follows the night.
Spend a little time adding up, honestly, critically, the amount of hours you spend in a seated position.
Not only is there this influence of sitting, but also a warped understanding of what constitutes exercise. Many will unfortunately fall into the habit of focusing on walking, or running alone for “exercise”. Assuming that these activities are sufficient. For the sake of this example, we will exclude sprinting as the explosive nature of this movement is quite different to longer distance running in the average individual. Both walking and jogging are activities which do have benefits but they do not benefit your gluteal muscles much. These activities will frequently be recommended as a means of staying strong during the aging process. Very recently I was having a conversation with a member who’s In the latter stages of the program and working well with resistance beyond the Phase 4 level. It was suggested to her at a recent doctor visit that walking would be helpful for her strengthening process, this was particularly with reference to bone density in spite of the fact that bone density has been increasing – likely in no small part due to the use of resistance training over the last few years! Walking will not provide greater stimulation than the body is currently under and if we tie this back in to the gluteal musculature, walking does next to nothing to stimulate your gluteal muscles, your hip hardly moves during the activity of walking, perhaps 20 degrees or so out of the available 100-120 degrees of movement in this range.
Glute weakness and back pain
This weakness, as you can see in the last segment, will build under the radar over our years, in part because of life’s requirements, and in part because we simply know no better in many cases. Slowly activities such as getting in and out of chairs become more and more strenuous on the lower back. Eventually injuries occur, perhaps attributed to this slow degradation of the gluteal musculature or because of other areas of weakness and disuse in the body, perhaps through poor repetitive strain on tissues due to poor care of the back. Nevertheless the outcome is the same. The back now needs protection in the short term and one of the essential muscular regions is weak and unable to participate in the bracing of the lower back and force generation required to drive yourself out of seated positions, or lower your body gracefully into said position.
The glutes are now a barrier to recovery. Their weakness means that our back is not protected from forces coming up from the ground, as our body moves off balance aroure glute muscles are lazy and slow to respond with stability, usually in conjunction with an unhelpful core. Even simple acts of shifting weight from one leg to the other can be problematic as these muscles do not absorb shock the way they once did in the distant past. Now with an injured L5, S1 disc this is felt all the more with each step or each quick turn.
You see our musculature plays a role of force transference too, like in the drawbridge example earlier, when working well with good control and bracing ability our musculature, including the glutes, blends together to provide a continuous sheet of support, some muscles providing static support, like the lower back muscles and the core, and others like the glutes and hamstrings providing dynamism and driving movements. These roles naturally vary with different movements. When we have a weak link in the chain, especially such a large weak link, we can really struggle!
The simple fact of the matter is that without conscious effort on the part of the individual these muscles and their poor quality will act as a major stumbling block in the recovery process, arguably of not just back pain, but hip, knee and ankle pain. People seem obsessed with the need to stretch these muscles but fail to see that weak muscles tighten, as it is their only way of providing some stability! This is not helpful either! The stability is not dynamic, it’s stiff and rigid – stretching is not the answer.
For a great example for those of you who’ve ever ice-skated or tried rollerblading, whenever you start you are extremely tense, the muscles cannot deal with the fine control required in conjunction with greater force required to stabilize the body in such a dynamic way. So much like when you move through life with weak muscles, they stiffen up to try and stop everything from moving – if we don’t move we cannot fail! But as your muscles get stronger and used to the dynamic requirements, you begin to see a dynamic control of these muscles, they’re active, strong, stable but changing, happy to tense at certain times and relax at others, now the movement becomes fluid again.
When you begin to start working these glutes and rebuilding weak muscles, you might well find you’re a little more rigid in the short term, you might well feel tension, stiffness as a result of challenging these muscles. As you progress, you’ll find these muscles start to become more happy with the daily stresses of life as they become more attuned to a requirement for dynamic stability, a concert of engagement and relaxation, providing stability and relaxation when it’s needed. When you’re coming out of an injury this process can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. But giving yourself time and being consistent you’ll find you can strengthen your glutes and rebuild a vital supporting structure and one whose competence is so inextricably linked to strength and mobility into older age.
Comment of the week – Alice
“18 months ago I was in excruciating pain with a flare up of an existing L5/S1 problem. I could barely do the Phase 1 exercises…persistence has paid off and yesterday I completed my first ‘official’ open water race…”
4 Steps to strengthen weak glutes and help your lower back
- Start with safe basic movements
When starting out, simplicity is key, simple movements like the squat and marching bridge begin to get stimulation to these muscles in a way that is akin to and no more stressful than the activities we are required to do on a daily basis. We include these two exercises early on in the Back In Shape Program because they offer both a symmetrical option and an asymmetrical test engaging the glutes in tandem with other areas of the body, the lower leg and the core.
- Try using bands to protect from knee deviation
In spite of best intentions, sometimes those with really weak glute muscles struggle to hold the legs square even on a squat. If you’re someone with co-occurring knee or ankle trouble with your back pain you likely fall into this category. Using a glute band during the squat & marching bridge mentioned above can help you more consciously engage the right parts of your glute musculature and begin to feel what the correct movement, with glute involvement feels like.
- You need power movements to improve strength & glutes are no different
At the right time, incorporating resistance and focusing on exercises like the loaded squat, hip hinge, hip thrust and lunge provide the foundational exercises necessary to successfully build strength in these muscles. Without progressively increasing resistance or load on these essential movements you will not increase the strength of your glutes significantly. For those of you in the program, again you will recognise these movements and see them added in at the relevant stages of the program!
- Pre-fatiguing and burnouts for maximum stimulation
As you move further on using glute bands again, but for different purposes can help to target the glutes in a pre-fatiguing manner before certain glute exercises. You can also use those same bands as a burnout at the end of a session to really exhaust the musculature and maximize your workouts targeting specific movement parameters.