If you’ve ever experienced lower back pain, you know how frustrating—and even debilitating—it can be. What you might not know, however, is that your gluteal muscles could be the cause.
As one of the largest muscle groups in the human body, the glutes are an essential piece of a complex machine. They aid in nearly every physical task you do daily, including getting up from sitting, standing, walking, and even just bending over to tie your shoe.
Many people have weak glutes—often from an excess of sitting while working, studying, and relaxing. Suppose you’re dealing with back pain caused by your glutes. In that case, it’s essential to strike a balance between stretching and strengthening, overworking and underworking—all in the effort of finding the essential ‘Goldilocks zone’ to help transform your glutes from problem zone to powerhouse. Let’s break it down.
Signs of Tight Glutes
Have you been feeling as if things are too tight or sore even while sitting down? It’s very likely you’ve been overworking your glutes. If these signs sound almost like what you’re going through currently, it’s a sign you need to relax those glutes of yours:
- Tension or Tightness – Whether sitting down or standing, feeling tension in your glutes constantly is not only a sign of overuse, but also it can be a sign of several other potential issues.
- Poor Posture – Do you have a persistent slouch, with your shoulders rolled forward? Even though posture problems tend to present around the shoulders, neck, and upper back, they can actually be a sign of tight glutes, pulling the pelvis into a round back position.
- Persistent Soreness – It’s possible your glutes need a break if they’re in a frequent state of soreness.
- Flat ‘Mom Bum’ After Giving Birth – The pelvis positioning while holding a baby can be called a posterior pelvic tilt, where your pelvis tilts back and your bum tucks underneath you. This can also lead to tightness and perceived “flatness” in your gluteal muscles.
- Diminished Performance – This can lead to decreased power and strength in your glutes during exercise.
How to Relax Overworked or Tight Glutes
If your gluteal muscles have become tense and overworked with repetitive motions, or an injury, there’s a good chance you’re beginning to feel the effects in your lower back. If this sounds like you, it’s important that you get proactive about addressing the issue. Here are three ways to help relax your glutes:
- Contract/Relax Technique
The contract/relax technique is an approach designed to help us become more conscious of a certain muscle group, allowing us to identify the tension we’re unconsciously holding there. With practice, this technique will help you release this tension and keep your glute muscles healthy and relaxed. Here’s how to do it:
- Stand in a neutral position.
- Notice what tension you’re holding in your glute muscles while relaxed.
- Contract (squeeze/flex) your glute muscles for about 5-10 seconds.
- Relax your glute muscles. Do you feel less tension than you did at the beginning?
- Repeat 2-3 times, and continue this little exercise several times each day.
Over time, keeping up with the contract/relax technique will help you to be more mindful of tension in your glutes. With enough practice, you’ll notice these muscles feeling less tense, which can greatly reduce your lower back pain as time goes on.
- Fascial Release
Fascial release is the act of stretching, lengthening, and relaxing fascia, a network of connective tissue that lies between your skin and the muscle at various levels. Fascial release is one of the services we provide at ProActive Pilates, and this simple technique can work wonders for relaxing the tissue surrounding your glute muscles. This allows the muscles themselves to relax as well, gradually alleviating tension and reducing pain in your lower back over time.
Signs (And Causes) of Weak Glutes
As with so many of the body’s mechanisms, it can sometimes be hard to tell how well the glutes are working until something is wrong. If you’re dealing with any of the following symptoms or situations, it’s likely a sign that your glute muscles could benefit from a strengthening program:
- Knee or Hip Pain – This is a common sign of weak glutes. If you experience pain in your knees or hips, whether it’s during a workout, when bending over at work, or simply while sitting at your desk, it could be a sign that your glutes are in need of attention.
- Sore Hamstrings – Weakness of the glutes means that other surrounding tissues need to work harder, leading to yet more tightness and pain. Your hamstrings are meant to work with the glutes to extend your leg at the hip. But if you find your hamstrings are excessively painful, especially after a run or another endurance workout, it’s probably a sign that your hamstrings are being overworked.
- Altered Gait/Walk – A late sign of weak glutes is a change in your gait, which is the way that you walk. You may notice that your body sways slightly to one side as you move, or you may find yourself developing plantar fasciitis or blisters because of the new way you’re moving.
- Lower Back Pain – This is probably the most common symptom associated with weak glute muscles. Because the glutes aren’t able to do their part of the workload of hip extension, your low back muscles are left to pick up the slack. Over time, this leads to your back muscles and spine becoming overworked, which can cause pain and stiffness.
How to Activate Underworked Glutes
Just as overly tense glutes can cause issues, underworked glutes can create an equal number of problems, including pain in the lower back. Thankfully, there are a few ways to activate your glutes and take some of the burden off your sore back.
1. Bridge Position
- Lie on the floor on your back, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor and hip-width apart.
- Activate your core muscles and press your heels into the floor to use your glutes to lift your pelvis up toward the ceiling, making sure your core stays engaged while you do it.
- At the top of this motion, squeeze your glute muscles even more. Hold this position while activating your glutes for a couple of seconds.
- Relax your glutes, and slowly lower your pelvis until your hips begin to crease. Don’t return all the way to the floor. Repeat.
- Do 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions of this exercise.
2. Standing Glute Contraction
- Standing upright and holding on for balance as needed.
- Balancing on 1 leg, engage your core muscles and then tighten the glute muscles of the other leg and slowly take that straight leg diagonally back behind you.
- Hold your leg in the air for a few seconds, then slowly bring it back to the start position.
- Do 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions (per leg) of this exercise.
3. Hip Hinge-Focused Deadlifts
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent.
- Bend at your hips, pushing your pelvis backwards so it’s positioned behind the rib cage, feeling the stretch in your glutes while you do it.
- Stand back up by activating your glutes (not back muscles) to push your pelvis back underneath your rib cage.
- Do 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions of this exercise.
Balancing Stretching and Strengthening
So you’re dealing with tension and weakness in your glutes, and possibly dealing with one of the above symptoms. How do you go about addressing this issue at the root and start feeling your best again? The answer lies in a combined approach of both stretching and strengthening.
Strengthening the glutes is vital for those who have symptoms of weakness in this muscle group. This is especially true for people who sit often or generally live a more sedentary lifestyle. Here are the top benefits of strengthening the gluteal muscles:
- Improved Muscle Strength – Being such a large group of powerful muscles, a strengthening program can go a long way to improving your athletic abilities while removing excess strain from other muscles at the same time.
- Improved Posture – Gluteal strengthening can have dramatic positive effects on your posture over time. Strong glutes can better stabilize the hips, pelvis, and spine, improving your posture.
- Better Balance – As stabilizers, your glutes are naturally vital for your general balance. Stronger glutes will help you improve your balance for your normal activities.
- Lower Risk of Injury – Strong glutes protect the body’s more vulnerable parts, such as the hamstrings, knees, and lumbar spine. Strong, activated glutes help prevent injury in these other areas.
Stretching is the other, equally essential side of the glute health coin. In conjunction with a good strengthening program, regular glute stretching will help you feel more comfortable, strong, and flexible. Benefits include:
- Reduced Stiffness – Regular glute stretching will reduce tension and stiffness in the glutes and elsewhere in the legs. It can also relieve stress from your hips and lower back with time.
- Improved Mobility – A consistent stretching routine will help you move your best.
- Reduced Pain and Risk of Injury – Over time, glute stretches will give you much-needed relief from both glute pain and referred pain elsewhere, such as in the knees, back, or hips. This also reduces your risk of injury to these more vulnerable areas.
- Recovery – Developing a good glute stretching routine to do after intense physical activity can greatly aid in muscle recovery, ensuring your body has the chance to rest and heal before you get back to training.
Take the First Steps to Stretch and Strengthen Your Glutes
As you can tell, a lot goes into strong, flexible gluteal muscles. The best approach is through dedicated effort to both stretching and strengthening, prioritizing both alongside your usual physical activities. Striking this balance will help strengthen and relax your glutes simultaneously, taking pressure off your lower back and greatly reducing ongoing pain over time.
There are a number of at-home stretches and exercises that can be great additions to your custom routine—don’t be afraid to experiment to find out which ones work best for you. Additionally, I recommend mindfulness of your pelvis position, working to keep it untucked and in a neutral, non-tilted position. You can also try walking or running uphill to help engage and strengthen your gluteus maximus to better support the surrounding muscles.
Lastly, a physiotherapist is a huge asset for those who are looking to improve glute strength and mobility. Working carefully alongside a physiotherapy expert, you’ll develop a routine that helps you feel your best again.
If you’re curious to learn more about physiotherapy for your lower back pain, don’t be afraid to get in touch with me today. You can also book an initial consultation if you feel you’re ready to get the help you need to start feeling your best again.