Gluteus Maximus

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Whenever I see “fitspo” pictures on Tumblr and Instagram, a lot of them consist of pictures of butts with captions that indicate that the perfect & “sexy” ass is attainable by working out. While this might be sound in theory, it isn’t necessarily valid relative to our dysfunctional environment. What people don’t realize is that a culture that revolves around sitting leads to muscular imbalances that directly affect your workouts by comprising your goals (like working on a “sexy” butt). But more importantly, these dysfunctions impair athletic performance consequently leading to injury. When you are constantly sitting, this shortens your hip flexors, which leads to reciprocal inhibition of your gluteal muscles. In layman’s terms, your butt stops working. When your body is stuck in an anterior pelvic tilt with a lordosis type curvature, your posterior leg muscles (especially your gluteus maximus) lengthen and deactivate, which makes muscles such as your quadriceps (especially your rectus femoris) shorten to work harder to bear the brunt of the tension during your squat (rather than your gluteus maximus). This is a key concept not only for those who are solely concerned with the aesthetics of their rear end, but more importantly, for those concerned with exercising and adapting efficiently to the environment around them. Overly active quadriceps are directly linked to injury, knee pain and back pain (which are very common in our culture). Moreover, your gluteus maximus is one of the most powerful muscles in your body, so it is clearly going to help your biomechanics if you are able to recruit this musculature in your movements.

 

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When I have people do squats, I have them pay attention to where they are feeling the activation (whether it’s their quads or their glutes). If they feel more activation in their quadriceps, I will have them roll their quadriceps on a pvc pipe (preferably) or a foam roller before focusing on the mechanics of their squat. They complain about it because they don’t think rolling out the front leg muscles will help them work on their gluteal musculature but that’s when I have to explain the science to them. When you engage in myofascial release, it stimulates your golgi tendon organs, which inhibits the excitation of the quadriceps (otherwise known as autogenic inhibition). This can help in enabling your glutes to activate during your squat (among other exercises), rather than solely relying on your overactive quadriceps.

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I know I’ve worked my gluteus maximus muscles (rather than my gluteus medius or minimus) when it is the most painful thing in the world to sit down. I swear after working my gluteus maximus muscles, every time I take a piss I wish I was a man so I wouldn’t have to sit down. However, I am glad that I am finally able to recruit and emphasize my gluteus maximus muscles when exercising because it makes me more efficient and less prone to injury. While I understand a lot of people are solely interested in fitness from an aesthetic perspective, I’m more into working out to make myself more adaptable and efficient relative to my environment, and once I started engaging my gluteus maximus musculature (along with my transverse abdominis), I feel more explosive in my movements and have been less prone to lower back pain (which to me is personally more important than looking “sexy”). 🙂

 

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Tackling the upper trapezius

The upper fibers of the trapezius muscle

The upper fibers of the trapezius muscle



I have always dealt with overly tight upper trapezius muscles. Perhaps it stems from my easily stressed personality, or the fact that I was raised in a cold environment (once they cancelled school not because it was snowing but simply because it was too cold). Overly active upper trapezius muscles are common in many people and can cause trigger points which are aggravated by subconsciously contracting the muscles due to psychological stressors, anxiety, cold and postural imbalance. However, the fact that I have been doing myofascial release and cupping religiously while working on my thoracic extension (which implements the lower and middle trapezius for postural stability) made me wonder why I was still feeling excessive pain in my upper trapezius.

Since completely eliminating a problem entails knowing WHY the problem occurs, I decided to be cognizant of my habitual movements to see where I could be placing excess stress on my upper traps. I realized putting my arm out the car window while driving placed stress on my upper traps. Putting my elbows on the table while eating put excess stress on my upper traps (while I am skeptical of the relative cultural paradigm from which “table manners” arises, I stopped putting my elbows on the table after this). I stopped shrugging the phone between my shoulder and ear while multitasking and instead use a bluetooth or speakerphone. I started carrying lighter purses since it puts uneven pressure on one upper trap. While all of these actions contribute to my upper trapezius pain, I was disregarding one huge culprit.

Like most women, I wear a bra for a majority of the time- especially when I’m out and about being active. Unlike most women who are unaware that they are wearing the wrong bra size (roughly 80%), I always knew I was wearing the wrong bra size. However, since I wasn’t able to find my bra size easily (or cheaply), I settled for wearing bras which had band sizes that were too big for me. When this happens, your bra straps constantly cut into your shoulders in attempts to support the weight of your breasts, which consequently tightens your upper trapezius muscles, which can lead to shoulder, neck and back pain over time. Theoretically, your band should provide 80% of the bust support while your straps should only be giving 20% of the support. Your shoulders and bra straps should never be the sole support of the weight of your bust. When wearing a bra that’s the right size, it should ideally support your bust without putting excess strain on your upper trapezius muscles. Although getting properly fitted for a bra and spending money to buy the right size seems like a chore, if you constantly wear a bra and are dealing with pain it will be a worthwhile investment.

Tackling my upper trapezius tightness makes me realize how postural problems and muscular pain often stem from multifaceted sources. While this might seem disheartening and frustrating when attempting to find the root of a problem to fix it, I like to think of it as putting pieces together to solve a mystery.

PS: Speaking of investments, one investment I’ve already made is using a theracane to dig into my tight upper trapezius to reverse the tension!
Theracane upper trap release

Theracane upper trap release


http://www.amazon.com/Thera-Cane-JMAS5000-Massager/dp/B000PRMCJU

Awareness & Action

When fixing a problem, the first step is to become aware that a problem exists. Although many people claim to know themselves better than anyone else, a lot of the time we are still unaware of certain behaviors that we exhibit, whether it’s physical, mental, social etc. An example of this is when I was casually explaining what an anterior pelvic tilt is to someone and my friend overheard the conversation and said “Oh wow, I have an anterior pelvic tilt, I always wondered why I walk so weird and my butt sticks out so much”. I think these kinds of realizations are pivotal because knowing exactly what the problem is and why it occurs allows you to understand the direction to take in terms of fixing it.

However, the problem with many people is that they remain stagnant at this step. Being aware of a problem doesn’t necessarily solve it, action does. That’s step two, constantly taking action towards resolving the problem. In the case of an anterior pelvic tilt, it would be religiously doing myofascial release and focusing on keeping a neutral spine. Some problems might not have a clear cut solution yet, but constantly experimenting might lead you to stumble upon an effective result. An example of this is my battle with scoliosis. Since my hips overly shoot out in one direction due to the curvature of my spine, I use a pulley machine called the Keiser to pull myself in the same direction that my hips shoot out. This reverse psychology makes my hips want to shoot out in the opposite direction, thus straightening me out while I’m hooked to the machine. This is obviously something I am just experimenting with, but at least I am working towards a possible explanation to my problem.

I think that both of these steps are important and interrelated when solving a problem; you can’t have one without the other. Once you become aware of postural problems (externally rotated feet, rounded thoracic, lumbar extension), you’ll not only notice them in yourself but in others as well. One of my friends jokingly said he feels like his posture has to be perfect around me because I’ll be like “OH MY GOD BECKY LOOK AT HER THORACIC…It’s so rounded” (That is a reference to a very popular 90s song if you missed it). However, it’s important to note that posture doesn’t become perfect overnight, it’s a long process that involves hard work, patience, problem solving and intuition with your own body. I am aware of my postural deficiencies, and have been working towards fixing them but I am nowhere near perfect yet. That’s why I figured I’d end this post with snapshots of my postural deficiencies. Pictures and mirrors are great because they are objective tools that make you aware of your problems. You just have to take the initiative to fix them 🙂

This candid picture demonstrates my rounded throacic and internally rotated shoulders

This candid picture demonstrates my rounded throacic and internally rotated shoulders


Although this isn't a candid, it demonstrates my excessive lumbar extension.

Although this isn’t a candid, it demonstrates my excessive lumbar extension.

To activate or to release?

Whether you’re doing rehab or working out, a frequently asked question is “am I feeling this in the right spot?” The human body is obviously complex, so it is a completely legitimate question for someone who isn’t well versed in muscular anatomy. During my time training and watching others get trained, I have generally learned that activation in certain areas is good, and certain areas are bad. Over time, certain muscles become shortened such as your pectoralis major/minor, rectus femoris, tensor fascia latae (hip flexor) and upper abdominals. When your muscle is shortened, it basically becomes tight and restricts your movement. These shortened muscles contribute to poor posture. So when I feel these muscles get overworked when exercising I know it’s not good. Conversely, over time certain muscles get lengthened (which means they are not activating efficiently) such as your gluteus maximus, transverse abdominis and lower trapezius muscles. When I do a workout and feel these muscles sore I know it’s a good kind of sore that also helps me maintain better posture.

For example, whenever I feel my thoracic spine is sore (middle back but more specifically the LOWER trapezius muscles) after a Muay Thai session I am ecstatic. However, if my pectoralis muscles are extremely sore or if my shoulder is hurting after Muay Thai I know at some point my body was compensating in a sub-optimal manner. Likewise, if my posterior leg muscles are sore after doing squats I am content. However, if my quadriceps are the only thing that’s sore after doing squats I am not impressed by my performance. If I do ANYTHING and my inner unit core muscles are sore (primarily my TVA) I am happy. Conversely, if I do ANYTHING and my lower back is in pain I get extremely depressed and then must go back to the drawing board to examine how I performed my movements and find where exactly my lumbar went into compensation. I know I’m making myself sound crazy by implying that my mood is correlated to my muscle activation, but paying attention to your body and how it reacts to certain environments is imperative if you want to maximize your performance efficiently while simultaneously reducing chronic pain and susceptibility to injuries.

What brought on this blog post was watching a fighter who was dealing with a knee problem unknowingly put a TENS unit on his IT band thinking it would bring him relief. However, since the TENS unit stimulates a muscle, and his IT band was already extremely tight (which contributed to his knee problem), he should have released the muscle through either myofascial compression (lacrosse ball, foam roller) or myofascial decompression (cupping). Mistakes like these are all too common; I have had the chiropractor do electric stimulation on my lower back in hopes of helping my scoliosis. While this might have alleviated the pain a little, it is important to note that perceived solutions like this contain a misconception that tends to ignore the root of the problem. Fixing the symptoms is not necessarily the same as fixing the problem itself. Until the root of the problem is addressed, relief will only be temporary and brief. Yes having a chiropractor place a ESTIM on my lower back gave me brief relief, but regularly releasing my hip flexors, my quadriceps, my upper abdominals while activating my posterior leg muscles, my thoracic spine and my TVA have given me a more permanent, self-sufficient solution to my scoliosis back pain.

My gluteus maximus has been sore and I'm happy. Before because of a combination of an anterior pelvic tilt & scoliosis this was previously  a muscle that wasn't able to activate when I worked out.

My gluteus maximus has been sore and I’m happy. Before because of a combination of an anterior pelvic tilt & scoliosis this was previously a muscle that wasn’t able to activate when I worked out.

The throacic spine musculature is also important!

The throacic spine musculature is also important!

Chinese Cupping.

When I tell most people I have incorporated Chinese cupping into my rehabilitation program, I can sense that they are somewhat incredulous. After all, I am such a seemingly logical person who makes decisions based on scientific evidence, why on earth would I engage in something that many overlook since it stems from the negative connotations of “alternative medicine”. However, just because something is not used as a form of treatment in typical western medicine practices today, does not mean it isn’t effective. Historically speaking, everyone from the ancient Chinese and the ancient Greeks (including Hippocrates) used cupping in attempts to fix internal disease and structural problems. Nowadays cupping has made a comeback in places such as massage and acupuncture, and even sports rehabilitation for injuries. I have personally seen it be utilized to help prevent knee injuries in MMA fighters (knee injuries tend to be quite common in all sports, not just MMA).

While typical myofascial releases (ie: foam rollers, lacrosse balls on trigger points) targets compression, cupping is essentially myofascial decompression. Think of it as inverted myofasical release. It helps aid in releasing the restrictive tissue that results in sub-optimal compensation by stretching out the fascia. It also increases blood flow as well as helps with mobility and flexibility. Over time, when coupled with compression myofasical releases and corrective exercise it can help provide pain relief. I like to use cupping as a precursor to (compression) myofascial release a couple of times a week since it penetrates the superficial layers and sends blood flow to the region which helps promote more of a release to the restrictive tissue.

Cupping along the intercostal regions.

Cupping along the intercostal regions to promote better breathing & relaxation.


Cupping the rectus femoris to help with lower back pain associated with anterior pelvic tilts.

Cupping the rectus femoris to help with lower back pain associated with anterior pelvic tilts.

OTHER NOTES: Bruising does occur for many people. I remember doing this at the gym and one of the guys was like “Why are you giving yourself hickeys, can’t you find a nice young man to do that for you?” HAHAH 😛 I would be aware of that before experimenting with cupping, in case you are having an important business meeting or something and don’t want people to make the wrong assumptions. I wouldn’t use cupping if you’re anemic, pregnant, or have cardiovascular diseases. I’m not a doctor just someone documenting their experiences. So if you have any abnormal conditions and want to take up cupping I would recommend asking your doctor if it’s okay before trying it and seeing a licensed acupuncturist who has expertise in that field.

I believe that if something is has positive effects, it should be added to my arsenal, regardless if it is an ancient therapeutic method, or a new revolutionary technique. If it provides value, it’s worthwhile. And I have felt the positive effects from cupping so that’s why continue to do it. Since cupping my lower back pain has reduced, and the upper trapezius pain I felt when doing Muay Thai sparring has significantly diminished. ALSO ladies, cupping is also shown to reduce cellulite, which is perfect for swimsuit season. Since a cupping set runs around $25 on Amazon, I’d say it’s a worthwhile investment! In terms of our injury rehab we should implement techniques that work, rather than just blindly doing what everyone else does….that’s living intentionally not habitually 🙂

MFR: Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That?

I remember the day I was first introduced to myofascial release. It was the day after a particularly difficult night of Randori (Judo sparring). I was unaware of this at the time, but my internally rotated shoulders caused an impingement in my shoulder which was exacerbated by the high intensity nature of Judo (gentle way my ass). Anyways, ever since I started Judo, I was used to having an excruciating pain in my right shoulder (which I brushed off due to the “no pain no gain” mentality). However, two days after that Randori session, the pain was still excruciating and I could not lift my arm. After skeptically trying myofascial release and learning how to (agonizingly) release my pectoralis minor&major, subscapularis and latissimus dorsi, I was surprised that I could lift my arms without pain simply after rubbing a $3 lacrosse ball on the right trigger points. This is when I converted to the religion of myofascial release.

Now I say myofascial release is my religion in a tongue in cheek way. I personally do not believe in blindly following dogma (live INTENTIONALLY, not habitually). HOWEVER, for the effects of myofascial release to be beneficial in the long run you need to do it religiously. This is especially important when first starting out since there will be a lot of internal restrictions in your body, and releasing them takes time. Your dysfunctions cannot be addressed through corrective exercise if there are internal restrictions present. This is why myofascial release is an important first step to any functional training regimen. Eventually, your body might not require as much time spent on myofascial release, but generally when starting out it’s imperative to dedicate time to it. Despite the fact that the trigger points are painful (I have witnessed huge, tattooed Mixed Martial Arts fighters scream like little girls when getting their trigger points released), it’s best to spend at least a couple of minutes on each trigger point. It’s funny how five minutes instantly seems like an hour when you are in excruciating pain. In general when starting out it takes AT LEAST an hour to get all the necessary trigger points released. I recommend focusing on myofascial release AT LEAST once a day when starting out. When I tell people this, their reaction is generally:
aintnobody

It was honestly my reaction to myofascial release at first as well. Most of us are extremely busy, so adding one more regimen to our routine seems daunting. However, when looking at the cost benefit analysis, the physical benefits I received from doing myofascial release outweighed the time cost. I am not in pain and I am less susceptible to injury. Moreover, I feel like I get a lot more out of my workouts and training sessions if I do myofascial release before, since my body has less restrictions. Additionally, I found ways to multitask while doing myofascial release. I arrive at the gym 30 minutes early so I can myofascialize before training. I myofascialize when studying instead of sitting hunched over a desk. I myofascialize while watching tv instead of sprawling on the couch looking like Homer Simpson. And I am actually myofascializing my quadriceps on a PVC pipe while typing this blog up 🙂
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[PS: Before all you anatomy/grammar nazis get your panties in a bunch that I said myofascialize, I acknowledge that this is a word I made up and if you google search it all the links that come up are mine].

Whether you’re a UFC fighter who trains twice a day or an engineer who sits at a desk for 40 hours a week, myofascial release will be beneficial. It’s also beautiful that these techniques can be done by yourself utilizing tools such as the theracane, lacrosse ball, pvc pipe, foam roller etc. I believe that these are useful investments, especially since I hear injury rehab and pain pills usually cost money as well. Releasing the bound up fascial tissue in the body is important for pain management, optimizing movement when exercising and overall physical wellness (I’m 21 but I can only imagine what pain I would have felt at 41 if I never bothered to myofascialize). I am glad I implemented myofascial release into my training regimen, mainly because it allows me to keep training.

Want a flat stomach for summer? DON’T DO CRUNCHES!

396px-Transversus_abdominis

People tend to get more ab focused in their workouts the warmer the weather gets. It’s understandable since it’s beach season and flat stomachs are culturally perceived as “sexy” (this is a whole other subject I will avoid ranting about). However, a lot of people go about gaining a flatter stomach by doing hundreds of situps/crunches and other similar variations of these popular abdominal exercises. The problem is that these exercises further ingrain postural deficiencies, as well as exacerbate pain by placing excess stress on regions such as the lower back. Moreover, popular ab exercises tend to work your rectus abdominis. However, in terms of specific core muscles to target when focusing on the abdominal region, the pivotal but often ignored muscle is the transverse abdominis (TVA).

I like to think of the TVA as a corset, since it is the innermost core muscle whose main function is to compress the abdomen, but also stabilizes the spine. Corsets were historically worn to hold in the torso in order to emphasize the hips and chest (creating a more optimal “womanly” figure). To me it’s crazy to think that on the quest to look skinny, people ignore the muscle that basically acts  as a natural corset. I’d like to note that I am not endorsing the notion that skinniness is the ideal we should all be chasing, but realistically skinniness is what a lot of  people go to gym to attain (hooray for skewed cultural perceptions of “sexiness”).

Many people tend to have a weakened TVA due to sedentary lifestyles and improper training of the core (focusing solely on crunches). A weak TVA can cause bulging of the abdomen wall which causes the pelvis to rotate into an anterior pelvic tilt thus contributing to an increased lordosis in the spine. From a vain standpoint, an anterior pelvic tilt is not good because protruding bellies do not look good in a two piece bikini.  But more importantly, anterior pelvic tilts aren’t good because they lead to lower back pain, lots of sub-optimal  muscle compensations, and increased risk of  injuries if you are an athlete with an anterior pelvic tilt.

Ever since learning this line of reasoning, I stopped doing crunches in order to solely focus on TVA activation. The easiest way to activate my TVA is by sucking my belly button into my spine while lifting my ribcage. The best thing about this is that strengthening my TVA can be done anywhere. I do it while walking to class, while standing in line etc. Optimal posture requires a strong TVA. Moreover having a strong TVA helps with bio-mechanical performance, whether you’re running, doing Muay Thai etc.  When I focus on TVA activation when doing padwork, I immediately feel like my punches have more power. Having a strong TVA is also key in helping reduce lower back pain, which is a connection that most people are unaware of. So while doing crunches can increase back pain and not necessarily make your stomach look flat, the TVA activation will reduce back pain while making your stomach look flat.

So, from a superficial limbic brain train of thought, activating the transverse abdominis seems like a better alternative since it helps you attain a slimmer looking body. However, from a logical neocortex train of thought, activating your transverse abdominis still seems like a better alternative since it reduces lower back pain and helps give the body structural support to attain optimal posture.