It seems to me a divine ploy that some are obsessed with developing their derriere to its fullest potential. Our buttocks, which are predominantly composed of our gluteus maximus muscle, are one of the most important players in the human body. For this reason it is the strongest muscle in our body and has the potential to be great in size. Our modern life-style has us sitting on it, squashing it and thereby switching it off for most of the day. When glute max is continuously inhibited it may not engage automatically or its activation may become delayed, altering important muscle recruitment patterns in the body. ‘Glute amnesia’ has become a chronic modern musculoskeletal disorder often causing pain and injury.
This blog is about the less recognised role that this muscle plays in the prevention of low back, hip, leg, knee and foot mal-alignments and/or pain. Glute max’s major function appears to be to extend your hip joint, which it is designed to do every time you stand upright and with every step you take. However, when we stand and walk, glute max does not only extend the hip joint, it also resists forward flexion of the trunk. Gluteus maximus is an important force in both local and global stabilisation of the trunk, the pelvis, the sacroiliac joint, and the hip, knee and ankle joints.
The problem of glute inhibition seems to be exacerbated in yogis because of a predominance of forward bending postures. This is especially the case when use of the gluteus maximus is avoided during hip extension, i.e. during back bending postures. To understand this more deeply please refer to my articles “Glute Max for Maximum Extension Part 1 and 2”. Without using glute max as a hip extensor in backbends we resort to hamstring and low back muscle compensation, which can lead to dysfunction and pain. We then also limit glute max engagement to standing postures and inversions.
Let’s look at glute max’s other roles as an important stabiliser. Glute max provides important local stabilistation of the sacroiliac (SI) joint by force closure of the joint. It gives pelvic stability in the sagittal plane by co-contracting with psoas major on the front of the spine and SI joints as we flex and extend our spine. It also provides segmental stability to the lumbar vertebrae via its insertion into the thoracolumbar fascia as well as by triggering activation of the deep stabilising muscles of the low back, the multifidi muscles. In these ways it prevents excessive movement of the lumber vertebrae, especially the 5th lumber vertebra where it articulates with the sacrum (L5/S1). It is at this level that disc degeneration is most frequent in the low back. Additionally, via its attachment onto the femur (thigh-bone), glute max centralises the hip joint into its socket reducing wear and tear at this joint.
Glute max especially comes into play when we need to stabilise ourselves against trunk flexion like when we climb stairs or run, pulling the weight of our whole body up over our leg. Glute max also controls trunk rotation when we walk or run via its connective tissue links (the thoracolumbar fascia) with the latissimus dorsi muscle (lats) on the opposite side of our body. In yoga we can partially access this connection of glutes to contralateral lats in Virabhadrasana (warrior posture) especially if we enter via a crescent moon lunge and other similar variations. You could simulate this important action by being creative with Virabhadrasana, Dighasana or Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana variations and dynamic combinations!
When standing on one leg the upper fibres of gluteus maximus (along with gluteus medius and minimus) stabilise the hip joint by preventing adduction of the leg towards the midline of the body (coronal plane). Via its attachment onto the iliotibial band (ITB) glute max also provides stability in the transverse plane by countering the internal rotation of the tensor fascia latae muscle on the thigh. It is for this reason that an inhibited or weak glute max is related to ITB syndrome and lateral knee pain. The external rotation of the thigh that glute max performs is what prevents rotational stress on the medial side of the knee. In this way a strong gluteus maximus muscle protects the knee from excessive internal rotation. Internal torque on the knee can further affect the ankle joint causing it to pronate and the internal arch of the foot to collapse. Single-legged back bends are an excellent way to engage glute max as well as to determine is one side is weaker than the other.
As a chiropractor I use glute max strength or the lack of it to help me determine a myriad of disorders from L5 and sacroiliac dysfunction to an over-compensating popliteus or pectoralis minor muscle! Such a huge player not playing means that all sorts of other muscles will jump in to help get the job done… albeit usually at the expense of dysfunction, pain and often injury. Learn about the structure of your body and functional effects of the asana you practice, optimise the function of your gluteus maximus muscle and allow them to express their full potential. In this way your derriere will not only look good but your body will feel great and thank you for it.