Some teachers tell students not to “squeeze” or “grip” their gluteal muscles when backbending because this will compress the sacrum and lower back. Others say that it’s essential to use the glutes in backbends. What do you recommend?
First, let’s acknowledge that different students may benefit from slightly different actions in any given posture. So, the most accurate way to answer this question is to suggest most students will benefit from engaging their glutes in most backbends. Here’s why:
THE ESSENTIAL ANATOMY
The gluteal family is composed of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. When the glutes and hamstrings engage—particularly the lower fibers of the gluteal msucles near the hamstring insertion—they extend the hip-joint. This motion initiates all backbends and helps keep the pelvis and spine congruous. Gluteal engagement also helps fire the paraspinal muscles and stabilizes the sacro-illiac joint—both of which facilitate pelvic and spinal balance in backbends.
But, let’s answer the question with a little more nuance since some backbends are enhanced by gluteal engagement and others are not. Prone backbends like Locust Pose and Cobra Pose probably don’t benefit as much from gluteal contraction because the weight of the pelvis rests on the floor during these postures. This means that you don’t need gluteal strength to lift the pelvis because it’s not moving in the posture; you also don’t need the stabilization that the glutes provide because the pelvis is supported by the floor.
In kneeling backbends like Camel Pose and supine backbends like Bridge Pose and Upward Bow Pose, gluteal engagement is more helpful. These postures produce a greater degree of spinal extension so it’s even more important that the pelvis and spine move cohesively. Engaging the glutes, particularly the lower fibers of the gluteus maximus near the hamstring insertion, will help maintain this balance rotating the pelvis slightly back over the top of the legs. This will help reduce lumbar compression—the feeling of your lower-back “crunching.” Even more, the glutes help lift the weight of the pelvis in supine backbends. If you don’t use the glutes in these postures, it’s more likely that you will unnecessarily burden less efficient muscle groups.
Some teachers and students are concerned that using the glutes will make the knees splay too far apart. This is a legitimate concern, but it’s easily managed. All you have to do in this situation is co-contract the muscles that line the inside of your thighs, the adductors. Firing the adductors while you engage the glutes will keep your thighs nice and neutral.
THE YOGA SEQUENCE
Notice that the face-down backbends are instructed with passive glutes, whereas the kneeling and reclined backbends are instructed with active glutes. I encourage you to experiment a little in these postures and observe what works best for your body.
This variation of Locust Pose does not focus on engaging your glutes. Lay face down on your mat. As you exhale, lift your upper-body away from the floor. Root down through the top of your feet and be sure to ground the top of your smallest toe. Keep the glutes passive and focus on your spinal muscles working.
Lay face down on your mat and place your fingers inline with the center of your chest. Press down through the tops of your feet and your pubic bone as you partially straighten your arms. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and hug your elbows into your sides. Keep your glutes passive and allow your spinal muscles and arms to guide you into the posture.
Upward Facing Dog Pose
Transition into Up Dog from Chaturanga or from laying prone. Once in the posture, allow the glutes to be relatively passive. Focus on grounding down through your fingers, hands and feet while lifting your thighs, hip-points and chest.
Bridge Pose with arms overhead
Lay on your back and pull your feet close to your hips. Separate your feet hip-width. Reach your arms overhead—your arms will be on the floor next to your head instead of underneath your torso in the posture. This position of the arms will make all of the muscles of your hips and legs, including your glutes, work more intensely. Press down through your feet and raise your hips. Your glutes will fire to help raise your hips. Gently engage your inner legs by imagining that you’re squeezing a block between your thighs.
Kneel on your mat and touch your hip-points with your finger tips. If you have a block, place it between the inside of your thighs. Lift your hip points up and lengthen your tailbone down. This action will begin to fire your glutes near the insertion of the hamstrings. One of my teachers, Richard Rosen, calls this part of the glutes, the LBM’s or Lower Buttock Muscles. It’s the lower fibers of the gluteus maximus. Take your hands to your heels, lift your chest and lengthen your breath. If there’s a block between your thighs, squeeze it firmly. This engages your adductors simultaneously with your glutes and inhibits your thighs from separating.
Upward Bow Pose
Lay on your back and pull your feet close to your hips. Separate your feet hip-width. Lift into the posture on your exhalation. Once you are in the posture, bring your awareness to your glutes. Given the demand of the posture, your glutes will be firing. Feel the support that they’re providing while being mindful to simultaneously engage your inner thighs by hugging them toward your midline.
Jason Crandell is a natural teacher and author with more than 15 years of experience. His accessible, grounded classes integrate the best elements of power yoga, anatomical precision and mindfulness teachings. Considered a “teachers-teacher,” Jason has taught on countless teacher-training faculties, leads trainings globally, and regularly presents teacher-training content at esteemed conferences. Follow Jason on Facebook and Twitter.