What's Up With your butt in wheel?

“Release your glutes.”

Actually you should use those glutes.

Wait. What?

You’ve probably heard this cue in a yoga practice, especially in a backbend like bridge or wheel.

So, let’s put that cue to the test with a perspective on where that cue may have grown in popularity, and why it may not be offering a true picture of how to use our bum in backbends.To start, where did ‘release the glutes’ come from? Often when you hear the cue it’s given as a precautionary measure to avoid compression in the lower back.But in other fitness classes we actually use bridge lifts as an exercise to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings.

So - what gives? It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: different people benefit from slightly different cues and form in every pose. Backbends are no exception.But given what the function of the glutes are for the body, I believe most students will BENEFIT from using their glutes in backbends. BUTT (see what I did there) that’s just part of the story, and here’s why.

Let’s start with looking out our big butt muscles,  their function, and some of the other key players in wheel.

They are big for a reason.

The big glutes - gluteus maximus - is what most teachers are referring to when you here the word ‘glutes’. They’re your cheeks, my friend, and when you squeeze ‘em you know.The glutes arise from the inner, upper ilium (where the backside pelvis bone meets your sacrum), and insert on the gluteal tuberosity of the femur (bottom of your butt, top of the backside of your thigh bone) AND the IT tract (side of your thigh). The gluteus maximus muscle lies directly behind the hip and acts primarily as an extensor of the hip joint.  Based on it attachments, it can also laterally rotate the thigh and tighten the iliotibial band. Unfortunately, it is not very active in walking since little active extension of the hip is involved, and most of us are sitting on it all day. But it comes into play in activities such as climbing stairs, rising from a squatting and lunging positions, running.

However, if you aren't doing much of those activities - you may have a lazy bum and the lack of butt strength is actually the source of some issues (a topic for another day.)Back to function, when a muscle contracts it pulls the insertion towards the origin. So in this case, when the glutes squeeze they pull the back of the thigh towards the back of the pelvis. And we call this hip extension. They also pull the side of the thigh around the back and up (which results in external rotation - which we will talk about later). They are big and powerful for a reason because their primary job is to stabilize and move the heaviest bones in our body.To feel this, stand up, squeeze your cheeks hard. Where the muscle arises on either side of your - well your butt crack - is where the glute max starts on either side and then they go down and out to sync up with the myofascia and muscle on the back and side of the thigh.Think about something such as the basic squat.  Gravity aids in the lowering, and flexing at the hip. The powerful glutes then have to not only reverse the direction of those big bones, they have resist gravity while doing it.

Some degree of hip extension is desired in backbends. In demanding backbends like bridge and wheel where we are lifting those bones and resisting gravity we need to recruit our big muscles to do big work. Extending the hips while also extending the spine to the degree wheel demands creates a little bit of tension in opposition so the lumbar maintains some space ( = no pinch!). Don't let the word 'tension' scare you; it's a word that’s gotten a bad rap. The truth is that a complex system of tension is the only reason we’re upright!

Activation, not isolation. 

It's important to remember that in yoga poses, nothing is happening in isolation. Wheel being perhaps the most obvious example of this. Every major joint is involved, an the action of getting up at all requires team work!

The glutes in hip extension are also assisted by the hamstrings, and can be moderated by the inner thighs. But coming up into wheel by simply relying on the press of your arms and the bendiness of your back, you likely will feel a little pinch - because you are pressing in one direction, and your pelvis is heavy allowing gravity to pull it in the opposite direction. This is why we need the glutes to help us out. The big bones of your bum need to be stabilized so that your body doesn't simply take the path of least resistance and overuse your flexible lumbar.

Prioritize pressing with your feet as the mechanism that lifts you up (down through your heels AND the ball mounds of your feet and toes to be more specific because we have toes for a reason - we will tackle the 'lift your toes' cue in another post) you’ll get super duper stable, and that level of leg engagement will assist in lifting the pelvis and sacrum with less stress on the lumbar.

Total load matters.

When we are doing postures when it comes to recruitment of muscles one of the biggest variables is LOAD.  So the orientation of our body and gravity will determine the load of the posture.

If you are pressing yourself up from the ground into wheel, your bum needs to do some work to lift the bulky bones of the pelvis and thighs off the earth.  However, if you’re on the ground in cobra, the pelvis is staying ground and the glutes role is this might be lesser because the legs and the pelvis are pretty much staying put in comparison to wheel.

So, why even cue 'release the glutes'?

Remember how squeezing our big glutes also has an additional affect of externally rotating the hip? The cue to not squeeze may be an attempt to avoid compression by avoiding the widening of knees in Wheel. However, it’s a cue that might be attempting to resolve something that isn’t too big of an issue, and also is very easily fixed.

To counteract widening knees simply engaging the inner thighs will immediately offer some counter-tension and rectify any wayward knees. This will actually create a much more stable wheel.

Engaging your inner thighs while also engaging your glutes will keep your legs in a great relationship with your hip socket.

Speaking of knees, let's go down the chain to the feet.

Some people  find a more spacious and healthful wheel with feet slightly wider than hips-width, and others with feet straight forward. This could be for many reasons: stability from the surface area, the degree of bend in their knees when they begin, the natural set and depth of their hip socket etc.  For those that have a naturally wider stance it may be easy to confuse a naturally wider stance with knees that are splaying out from a lack of control.  Look for a comfortable relationship between feet - knees - hips. If you were to draw a line from feet to hips, and the knees are navigating farther in or out from those two points, a simple cue to engage the inner thighs to hug splay knees back in, or engage the glutes and outer hips to pull the knees back out, can help.

So rather than forcing someone to narrow their stance, I often ask a question, which is, “How does this feel for your back and knees?” If they say, “Fine.” believe them.

Don't hate. Collaborate!

When we stop thinking about what to avoid, and start thinking about what to activate, the beautiful interconnected landscape of our bodies come alive! Often our own culture is to blame for our binary mindset.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘this or that’ ‘right or wrong’ ‘on or off’.  And while the glutes and the adductors may someone oppose each other in their function, they are not at war with each other.

They do their individual jobs in order to WORK TOGETHER! The tension created by either action is the exact thing that creates stability, rather than eliminate it.

Great. Now what? How in the heck do I get up there?

Ready to put it in action in a bridge pose? Let’s put it all together.

Anchor your body and lift from a stable base!  

  • Lay on your back with your with knees bent and your feet hips-width(ish) distance. Remember we’re talking about YOUR hips so there’s not definitive distance; its an approximation based on your bod. Better landmarks to feel include starting with the ability to put even pressure on all sides of your feet (pinky toe mound, big toe mound, and heel), and you can sense that your knees are tracking over your ankles.

  • Press down through your feet to lift your hips up in line with your knees (legs and butt, my friends.)

Tether the spine and make some space!

  • Once you're up, steer your tailbone towards the back of your knees (glutes & hamstrings.)

  • Wrap your inner thighs down (adductors!)

  • Draw in and up with the low belly. (abdominals!)

Express the pose - your way!

  • If you're feeling stable here, flip your fingers towards the heads of your shoulders.

  • If the heels of your hands and all of your fingers can easily press into the floor, press down to lift off. The same skill and personalization you used for foot placement applies to your hands. Some folks may be wider with their elbows slightly out. Some may not straighten their elbows all the way.

We'll leave shoulder mechanics for another day ;)

About the Author:

Julia Lopez (Co-Owner & CSO, Honest Soul Yoga) is a teacher that believes principles and practice of Yoga are transformative tools way to experience vibrant living that is rooted in true confidence and contribution!  Through the offering of asana and meditation, coupled with a deep respect for exercise science and the magic of the human body, Julia weaves classes that use the body as a metaphor to speak to the Spirit. A lifelong student of yoga, first coming to the practice at the age of 16, Yoga expanded from personal practice to lifelong calling when she began teaching in her early twenties. Now, Julia's extensive study of Yoga philosophy and the human body has led her to her most meaningful role yet, as the developer of Honest Soul Yoga's formats and yoga programming. She is excited to see yoga-based formats founded on personalized intensity and pacing (not levels, or pose-chasing) shake up an industry in deep need of a reboot, and humbled to watch the HSY community embrace Yoga that challenged and uplifts mind, body, and soul.

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