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”). 🙂

 

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!

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.

Path to fitness.

Regardless of whether you’re a Psychology major or not, the nature vs. nurture debate is probably one you’re familiar with. Although it is evident that they are both important, I think that people underestimate the influence that culture has on behavior. You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this, since this blog is supposed to be about getting fit again. It’ll all tie in I promise. Examining the culture that surrounds us is essential because our culture tends to “frame” the individual choices that we make (whether we’re conscious of it or not). Therefore, our health related behaviors arise out of the socio-cultural contexts of our environment.
 
Personally speaking, after recovering from an eating disorder five years ago, I made the decision to get fit. So I got a membership at LA Fitness and spent six days a week doing weightlifting, cardio on the treadmill, body weight exercises such as push ups. Relative to our cultural perceptions of what “fit” is, this was a seemingly logical course of action. It’s a course that most people take: becoming a gym rat who blindly does the same traditional exercises while repeating the “no pain, no gain” mantra in hopes of attaining health and wellness (and a “sexy” body).
 
For awhile, I thought I was doing great. I had a nice muscular tone, was seemingly strong for my size and was in shape to spend a grueling two weeks training with the best Muay Thai camps in Thailand (try doing intense pad work in the sauna, that’s kind of what Thailand feels like). Although people who blindly follow the “traditional” workouts might achieve results, it is most likely not sustainable for the human body in the long run. Especially when coupled with the dysfunctional stressors present in our environment.

For example, I had chronic back pain which stemmed from the fact that I spent all day sitting in school, tightening my hip flexors, and shortened my upper abdominals which contributed to an anterior pelvic tilt. However, I would still go to the gym after and place excess stress on my lumbar doing exercises like sit ups. My chronic shoulder pain stemmed from my internally rotated shoulders, since I was constantly hunched over the computer and then went to the gym to further that dysfunction when doing bench presses.

From an objective perspective, I realized something had to change in order for me to implement a fitness lifestyle that’s sustainable in the long run. I needed to make the change to my workout regimen so I can continue to train martial arts, so I can be physically healthier, but most importantly so I can live a pain free life. When one decides to abandon the current inefficient cultural paradigms, it’s essential that a better alternative exists. Luckily for me, I have Functional Patterns. And this is a documentation of my journey towards functionality and fitness, so I can hopefully one day instill relevance in others and bring value to the world.

PS: I suppose this whole post is an elaboration on how the notion of “live intentionally, not habitually” directly impacted my life 😉