The importance of gluteal strengthening in relation to hip stabilisation, injury prevention and athletic performance is well established. Rather than traversing this well-documented field, what I would like to address in this month’s practice theme is the slightly narrower distinction between activation and strengthening within this discussion. Furthermore I look at the role in which yoga can play in relation to gluteal activation in terms of reducing exposure to injury due to particular attention paid to imbalances within the hip complex musculature.
Yoga: Your 3 Dimensional Movement Discipline
In the grand scheme of things, what makes the discipline of yoga so unique is the breadth and variety of poses that extend beyond the most commonly worked upon plane of movement in the gym known as the sagittal plane. The repertoire of poses commonly practiced within a typical yoga class challenges a practitioner within all planes of movement including both frontal and transverse planes.
Most of the time, we tend to perform exercises within what’s known as the sagittal plane of movement. The sagittal plane divides the body between left and right and mostly involves both flexion and extension movements. Typical exercise patterns include lunges, abdominal crunches, bicep curls – anything that doesn’t involve crossing over the midline of the body from right to left or vice versa.
The frontal plane divides the front of the body from the back and mostly involves side to side movement. Imagine if you were standing in between two sheets of glass, one placed in front and the other behind and you had to restrict all your movements within these barriers. Typical exercises within the frontal plane might be something like jumping jacks or side lunges and lateral dumbbell raises – fundamentally anything that keeps the torso square to the front and could also involve external hip rotation, abduction or adduction. Additionally the 3rd plane which is least explored, the transverse plane divides the body between top and bottom from the waistline. Motion within the transverse plane mostly involves rotation of the trunk. A typical yoga pose encountered within the transverse plane includes a high lunge coupled with a side twist. Another one is the Twisted Triangle Pose. In contrast to its younger sibling, Triangle Pose which takes place within the frontal plane, Twisted Triangle involves the rotation of the trunk past the coronal midline, thus moving into the transverse plane of motion.
All that being said, the breadth and variety of poses that can be found within the lexicon of yoga asanas that cross over into the transverse and frontal planes is rich. Hip-openers as they are commonly known play a fundamental role within the yoga discipline given its sacred connections with the sacrum, and hip-openers primarily involve external hip rotation and abduction. Another area of practice, twists, is a significant component of the yoga discipline and anything that revolves around the rotation of the trunk as we have established starts to move within the transverse plane of motion. Other than its kindred spirits, both dance and gymnastics, no other physical fitness regime offers, in my humble opinion, a greater array of movement dynamics challenging each and every aspect of the body’s musculature, its patterns of motion within all the planes of motion. A typical yoga class whatever it’s level of difficulty, including beginners classes, will always include poses that move through all the planes, especially both frontal and transverse. Yoga as such, is the ideal physical discipline for challenging the activation of all muscles within the hip complex.
The Domino Effect of Weak Glutes
The 3 key muscles of the glute complex include:
a. Gluteas Maximus: the most superficial muscle taking up the bulk of the meaty part of the buttocks and is the prime mover for extension (bringing leg back past the frontal midline) and external rotation whilst assisting with hip abduction. It is the most powerful of the three muscles.
b. Gluteas Medius: located laterally within the hip complex and is the prime mover for abduction (e.g. raising the leg to the side) whilst assisting with medial or internal rotation. Has a stabilising effect on the hip complex during walking and running activities by slowing down medial rotation. This as we will see is a significant factor for prevention of injury within the closed chain movement from the hip down to the feet, including the pressure points of the knee and ankles.
c. Gluteas Minimus: deepest and smallest of the 3 muscles and similar to Gluteas Medius, is a primary mover for abduction as well as medial or internal hip rotation.
Whilst each of these muscles serve a primary role in movement, together the 3 groups function to stabilise the hips to facilitate all types of movement. The importance of the hip complex musculature in the proper functioning of movement is well-covered and debated upon. However, my point is this – over emphasis of movement within the sagittal plane in typical gym training combined with lifestyle habits can leave a muscle like the Gluteas Medius (and Minimus) largely weak and unchallenged (compared to the Gluteas Maximus for instance). This can then lead to imbalances that could expose other parts of the body within the kinetic chain vulnerable to injury. Typical injuries that can arise from weak glutes include both knee and ankle injuries.
Studies have shown that instability within the gluteus complex can contribute towards poor control over medial rotation during running and jumping/landing activities (internal rotation of the femurs) and this in turn can increase the valgus factor (collapsing of the knees towards the midline of the body), which through repeated action over time can leave an athlete vulnerable to knee, and lower down the chain, ankle injuries. In the worst case scenario, this can lead to a serious knee injury like an ACL tear.
For the most part, poor biomechanics can cause long term misery as a result of knee pain due to IT Band (lateral knee pain) and patellafemoral stress (anterior knee pain), and impact upon performance as a result. Though remedies like stretching, massage and myofascial release can offer temporary relief, the most effective long term approach is to address the originating imbalances giving rise to such symptoms.
Activation vs Strengthening and the Effectiveness of Yoga in Firing Up Neuromuscular Function
The popularity of yoga as a mind-body discipline facilitated by breathing strategies is established. The significance of utilising breathing techniques within this movement discipline is known to improve overall parasympathetic response with heightened interoceptive and neuromuscular awareness. Yoga practices such as Yin which are marked by longer held postures, with emphasis on deep breathing and a gradual easing into a stretch can aid in the processing of sensations felt by the practitioner on a deeper and more profound level.
Generally speaking, compared to other fitness disciplines, the slower pace of yoga encourages a greater awareness for recruitment of muscle groups within the body (acknowledging of course that two Hatha yoga classes taught by different teachers can be felt completely differently since pace, cues and sequences are all factors that can fundamentally alter the feel of a class and these are conditions set by the individual instructor).
Which leads me to my second point – the value of yoga in generating greater awarensss of muscle fibre recruitment is tremendous. What I’m talking about here is muscle activation. This is the stage that should take place prior to strengthening. The Yoga Fundamentals course I teach yearly is premised upon 5 elements: Awareness, Activation, Knowledge, Strengthening and Safety. These 5 elements upon which the course is founded upon recognises that the value of a strength building programme is enhanced when there is a greater connection with the muscle groups that need to be recruited in a particular action and that connection can only be created when there is an awareness for physiological factors that might be inhibiting that process.
It behooves me at this point to clarify the semantics around a word often used in the fitness industry – the word “weak”. The word “weak” is often used in relation to describing muscle function i.e. weak glutes, a weak back and so on. Muscle functionality however can be measured by actual power available in the execution of an activity and the the efficiency of motor unit recruitment patterns, which is the activation of the muscle. It’s like that person with 300 friends on Facebook who cannot call upon more than a few when help is needed because there is no connection with the wider network as opposed to a person who only has 30 friends on Facebook but knows each and everyone of them and can count on all 30 when he needs a hand with moving houses. Thus a person with an overdeveloped physique can still be weak in the functional sense if they are unable to access the potential strength stored within the said musculature to execute a given task.
In yoga, you see this discrepancy all the time. The example I love using is the L-sit or Lolasana (Pendant Pose). Both poses challenge the practitioner to resist body weight through arm-balancing. Regularly, you see muscular athletes who cannot perform these poses whilst slightly built yoga practitioners are able to. It’s not that the latter group have greater strength but the yoga mindset which is characterised by a deeper connectivity with the internal state and wellbeing of the body, allows them to focus more efficiently in the volume recruitment of muscle fibres and therefore fire them up for the purposes of the task in question. Less becomes more in this case.
My reason for highlighting the potential of yoga as a way of generating greater internal awareness for the body and for activation of muscle groups is this – it appears that training the ability to connect and activate specific gluteal muscles during physical activity may have greater value in reducing exposure to injuries, in particular ACL, whereas training for additional strength gains in the gluteals may have minor or little influence in the prevention of similar injury. Thus, increasing work bearing activity to power up glutes may not do as much for injury prevention as training for activation. In a study conducted by Wisconsin University (Patrek et. al., 2011) a group of physically active females were put through a hip-abductor fatigue inducing protocol and using EMG, were measured for changes in hip-abductor activation. It was concluded that changes in strength levels as a result of fatigue had minimal impact upon hip-abductor activation and knee valgus angles. In other words, loss of strength in the gluteal muscles through workload and fatigue had no real discernible impact upon the ability of the participants to activate specific gluteal muscles – activation of gluteals being a crucial element in knee and lower chain stabilisation in activities exerting forces through the frontal plane.
Yoga: Made for the Glutes
The nature of the discipline and its focus on movement across all the plains, the integration of mind-body connectivity through breath and nervous system regulation highlights the value of yoga in gluteal activation training. All this month, throughout the 3 styles of yoga taught at Ewa Bigio Yoga we will explore classical yoga postures, understand how to articulate these movements through the hip joints, locate a deeper connection between these movements and the muscles fibres of the hip musculature and extract greater functionality through these gains within our vinyasa sequences. Strength without function is pointless. Yoga teaches how the ability to extract the greatest value from resources can also represent strength when resources are limited.
Ewa’s classes can be found in this timetable