Photo credit: the New York Times
The fad for baggy jeans have contributed to the disappearing buttocks, but there is a bigger culprit. Lifestyle. Buttock atrophy is a result of long hours of sitting whether at work or at home, which have wasted away the strongest muscles in the body. The buttock muscles are the main muscles, used for standing, walking and running. When they are weak, they can cause lower back pain and a host of movement faults.
LARGEST MUSCLE IN THE BODY
Another name for the buttock muscles is gluteus. We have three gluteal muscles. Glutues maximus — as the name suggests — is a large muscle. Imagine gluteus maximus to be the strongest man in the room because it is the single largest muscle in the body. The other gluteal muscles are the gluteus medius, which is medium in size, and gluteus minimus, the smallest of the three.
The main function of the gluteus is for hip extension, which is the action of bringing the thigh back at the hip joint. Gluteus is important for standing. We need to extend the thigh at the hip joint to stand tall. Gluteus also allows us to accelerate. Extending the thigh back produces a force to swing the leg forward, so that we can take a step forward.
Basically, the gluteal muscles not only help us to walk, but also to walk faster, run faster and jump higher. If the gluteal muscles were in a soccer team, they would be the most valuable players. Fast and powerful. You don’t want them on the bench. You want them to be active.
TIGHT HAMSTRINGS & LOWER BACK
Problems occur when the strongest players in the team are sidelined and other muscles like the hamstrings and/or lower back muscles take on what the gluteus does best. When the gluteus is weak, hamstrings — the posterior thigh muscles — become the main driver of hip extension. They would be the first muscles to contract in the movement of hip extension before the gluteus when we walk or run.
The hamstrings have other roles in the body, particularly as important muscles at the knee joint. When the hamstrings take on more than they should, overtime, they become tight and over-active.
Do you have hamstrings that are always tight no matter how much you stretch? The underlying problem may not be the hamstrings, but weak and under-performing gluteus. In this instance, strengthening the gluteus will bring more relief to tight hamstrings than stretching alone.
Another group of muscles, which often become tensed and over-active when the gluteus muscles are weak are the lower back muscles. The lower back muscles are not responsible for hip extension per se, but when the range of motion at the hip joint is limited, what often occur is we would arch the lower back or lean the trunk forward to increase the range of hip extension at the hip joint.
Physical therapist Andrew Walker has a good cartoon to illustrate how the lumbar spine facilitates hip extension. The cartoon highlights movement faults seen among recreational runners. Walker has a clinic in Huntsville, Alabama in the US.
Figure C shows a runner leaning forward to extend the leg back, while Figure D is an example of a runner arching his lower back to drive the leg back. It would appear there is hip extension, but in reality, it is the lower back that has moved, not the hip. In contrast, Figure B shows a runner with a good running posture. The runner uses the gluteus to generate hip extension. He did not move his lower back, but keep his lower back in a neutral position when he is running. His lower back is in the same neutral position as when he is standing (Figure A.)
Using the lower back muscles to compensate for weak gluteus create unwanted movement on the lumbar spine when in fact, the lumbar spine should always be stable. Lumbar instability is the primary cause of lower back pain and injury.
There is a compelling case to strengthen the gluteus. Resistance training, where external resistance like weights and cables are added to leg exercises, is a good form of exercise to restore gluteus strength.
There are different types of fitness. While we are more familiar with cardiovascular fitness, aerobic exercises that makes our heart stronger, we are less familiar with muscular fitness like the strength to carry and strength to jump.
Muscular fitness, as we have seen with the gluteus, keeps aches and pains away. It is also important because as we age, we lose muscle mass. Resistance training helps prevent the loss of muscle mass. Muscular fitness does not necessary mean bulky muscles, it can also mean toned muscles which is having strong lean muscles.
The old adage, “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” best described the muscles in our body: gluteus, core muscles et al. If you don’t train them, you won’t have them when you need them. Weak core muscles is another cause of lower back pain.
WHY CAN’T I JUST WALK, RUN OR CYCLE?
Walking, running, cycling or playing basketball are leg exercises nonetheless, but we can’t isolate individual muscles of the lower body in these exercises. We can’t train the weaker leg muscles, without further strengthening muscles which are over-active. We use ALL our leg muscles when we walk, run, cycle or dribble. As a result, muscles that are over-active would likely stay over-active, and vice-versa, weak muscles would stay weak.
One important feature of resistance training is the specificity of the exercises, where individual or a group of muscles are isolated and trained. As a result, we can choose resistance exercises that target the gluteus. Being specific produces faster and better results.
Additionally, we can also choose single-leg exercises, which targets the gluteus unilaterally. This is particularly useful if you have one leg that is weaker than the other. Single-leg exercises allow us to train the weaker leg more.
The ability to be specific in the training make resistance training very helpful in treating muscular imbalances. It also makes the resistance training different from aerobic leg exercises like walking, running or cycling. Add resistance training to your exercises because it can greatly improve strength.
STRENGTH TRAINING & MANUAL THERAPY
If you have back pain, strength training should go hand-in-hand with any physical or manual therapy. The difficulty is in finding someone who is a qualified physical or manual therapist, and also an exercise trainer. You get the best of both worlds. The person will be able to loosen or treat any pain that you may have, and give you an exercise program that suits you, as well as monitor your progress. Often simple, isolation exercises work well in the early stage of recovery. But there is a lack of progression in the exercises to take you back to regular activity. This often results in a relapse. So look for the right place that can give you exercise and therapy.
There is real benefit in making the gluteal muscles strong in the rehabilitation of back pain. Restoring gluteus strength keeps back pain away, and allows us to walk, run, move better, which will improve our quality of life. You are at your best when your strongest muscles are active. Don’t let your gluteus disappear. Get Started!
Medical Disclaimer: Always consult your physician if you have an existing pain or a pre-existing medical condition before beginning any exercise. The above information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or replace your healthcare professional.
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