Your glutes are the biggest muscles in the body and one of the most important for athletic performance and weightlifting. However, your average person probably has a weak or underactive set. Untreated, this increase the risk your client has of back pain or injury. In fact, they possibly already have lower back pain, and this may be more pronounced after the workout.
Why does this happen?
As humans in the modern age, it pretty hard not to spend a lot of your day sat down. Sitting down is an evil in its own right best saved for a later blog post, however, in this case, it may be causing your hip flexors to shorten. Consider the role of the hip flexors, particularly the psoas. Now what does that role and sitting have in common? Hip flexion!
Sitting puts you into hip flexion and the psoas muscle into its contracted (concentric) position. Over time, this puts stress on the muscle and can leave it shortened. At the same time, your gluteal muscles, in charge of hip extension are in their eccentric lengthened position. This then leads to 2 potential issues. Lower crossed syndrome and/or altered muscle recruitment and coordination issues.
What is lower crossed syndrome?
Sherrington's Law of reciprocal inhibition states that if one muscle becomes overactive or tight, in order to maintain homeostasis, the opposing muscle will be ‘turned down’ by the brain. Over time this leads to a pattern of tightening and inhibition leading to dysfunctions in the body. In the case of lower crossed syndrome, the tightness of the hip flexors leads to inhibition of the gluteal muscles. The erector spinae are therefore required to take on more duties in hip extension, and as a result and this muscle already being prone to tightness, quickly leads to the lower abdominals being inhibited. This predictable pattern was termed by Jandra as ‘lower crossed syndrome'.
How does this effect the client?
Overall, this tends to lead to visual changes in the client’s lower spinal curve (Lordosis) and, due to the attachments of the muscles to the pelvis, anterior (forwards) rotation of the pelvis (see figure 1).
During hip extension movements, when the gluteal muscles would normally be the prime movers, the hamstrings and lower back muscles are instead increasingly recruited. This can change the coordination of extension movements, leading to more spinal extension and back pain, or, overload the hamstrings greatly increasing the risk of strains.
How can you check for this?
Complete the following exercise with your clients. Ask them to complete a glute bridge. Make sure that they activate their core and actively stop extension of the spine, ensuring movement comes from the hip. Then ask the client to take one foot off the floor as seen in image 1. Hold this isometrically for 20 seconds on both sides.
What does the client feel working?
If they feel their glutes fire up on both sides without any back pain, they have good strength and coordination of the muscles.
If they feel strain in their lower backs, they either have a coordination issue or their pelvis is out of the neutral position (anterior pelvic tilt). In this case, you need to work on activation and coordination drills with your client, whilst mobilising the hip.
If the client feels their hamstrings working hard or even cramping, then they have a weakness of the gluteal muscles. You will need to work on activating and strengthening the gluteal muscles.
If the client feels the strain in their quadriceps, the posterior chain may be completely shut down. This client will need to be gradually built back up to strength exercises through phases of activation, integration and strengthening.
Check back for part 2 of this series where we will look at the best exercises for activating, integrating, mobilising and strengthening your clients suffering with these issues.