In this post we take a look at the glute max in backbends and how to avoid splaying out your knees in poses like Urdhva danurasana (Wheel). I give you some cues for sequencing muscle engagement and also address a misconception about contracting your adductor muscles.
For decades now we’ve heard the instruction in yoga, “soften your glutes in backbends” with no valid explanation why. Your hips are extending in backbends, and your gluteus maximus is the prime mover for that action. Why wouldn’t you want to contract the very muscle that creates that movement?
Let’s look closer. When you deliberately soften your glutes, then the hip extension comes from the hamstrings, because your hamstrings work as synergists to the gluteus maximus for this action. So, why not just use your hamstrings to extend the hips and avoid getting scolded for using the prime movers (glutes)? Well, if you do that enough, you potentially set up a muscle imbalance that can lead to “synergistic dominance” wherein the hamstrings become the prime mover of this action. In the hip joint, this can result in abnormal kinematics and, ultimately, pain. I’ll go over some other problems with doing backbends without the glutes in Part II of this series.
One side effect of using your gluteus maximus is that it is also a powerful external rotator of the hip. Thus, when you engage your glute max in a backbend, your hips will rotate outward and your knees tend to splay apart.
Do we care if the knees splay out? Well, it depends on your objective in the pose. Recent literature shows that if the femurs are parallel, you fire your entire gluteus maximus, whereas when they are splayed apart, you fire mainly the upper portion (Selkowitz, 2016).
The “solution” that is usually proposed for this is to have folks try to squeeze a block between their knees to “fire those adductors!” In India, this instruction was often accompanied by much shouting at the frustrated person attempting it. There is a reason, however, why this cue works so poorly, despite the yelling. That is because when your hips are extended (in a backbend), the orientation of the adductor muscle fibers makes them become external rotators of the hip and synergize the gluteus maximus in splaying your knees apart. So it’s a bit like hitting the brakes and gas at the same time. Frustrating.
The real counterbalance for the gluteus maximus causing the knees to splay apart is to contract the muscles that internally rotate the hips, namely, the TFL and front part of the gluteus medius.
This cue works well, but it must be implemented in a sequence to function optimally. You have to engage the hip internal rotators before going up into the backbend. It’s difficult to engage them once you are up in the pose because when the hips are extending, the TFL and front part of the gluteus medius are at a biomechanical disadvantage for initiating contraction. Thus, you want to first train the cue to engage these muscles with the hips flexed, where it is easy to contract them. Then bring in the glute max to do the backbend. I’ve taught this sequence all over the world and had great feedback. Done properly, the muscles form a “sheath” that lifts the pelvis in a balanced and stable fashion.
Here’s the sequence.
Lie on your back and bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the ground as shown. Place your hands on the front part of the pelvis to feel your internal rotators contract. Now, on exhalation, press the feet down and attempt to scrub them apart while allowing you knees to roll inward. Don’t actually move your feet. You should be able to feel your TFL contract. Release on the inhalation and repeat for about 10 times to train the action. Press your feet down and then attempt to scrub them away from the midline. The feet should remain fixed on your mat, as your knees roll inward and you should feel your muscles contract if you’ve got it.
Follow the instruction from step 1, maintain the cue of pushing away from the midline with your feet and then dial in contraction of the gluteus maximus to lift the pelvis. You will be pushing down and away from the midline to engage your internal rotators and then engaging your glute max to extend the hips. Go up on the exhalation and down on inhalation. Try this about 10 times (2-3 sets). I recommend working with this set of cues for a few days before integrating them into a full back bend. Once you get it, then try the block thing (if you want). You’ll find it works better this way.
(NB: if you experience knee pain in this pose, try pressing down with the heels more–this often helps.)
I hope you enjoy this post. Use muscle engagement as a barometer to help identify imbalances between the two sides of the body. Then carefully work to balance things. This is one of the benefits of practicing Hatha Yoga using knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics.