Updated: May 26, 2020
The other day someone mentioned they were sore from their workout with a friend who is a personal trainer. During this workout their trainer friend told them their glutes weren't firing because of their psoas being tight (the idea of reciprocal inhibition). The trainer friend also mentioned that this individual has a lot of imbalances from too much indoor cycling and not enough functional training. My immediate perception of that short conversation was "damn, get a new trainer friend." Yeah, yeah, yeah I'm being slightly dramatic but I did feel a sense of helplessness. Who wants to be told they have all these things wrong with them? As I was trying to figure out my outline for this post, I just kept wondering: Where do I even begin? This is why I feel that a misunderstanding of human biology can really get us into trouble, and why its important to always challenge what we read and hear.
Imbalances. First I need to ask: how are we defining imbalances? Of course (!!!) we are all going to have "imbalances." We write, eat, brush our teeth, swing a bat, throw a ball, kick a ball, kick up into handstand (you can think of more examples I'm sure) all with our dominate limb unless of course we are ambidextrous. We get in and out of the drivers side of our vehicle X amount of times every day, every month, year in year out WITHOUT running over to the passenger side to offset that movement or to "balance" ourselves out. We could have a leg length discrepancy. One foot or hand may be slightly bigger than the other. The list of examples could literally go on and on. As a personal trainer, yoga teacher or pilates instructor, is it in our scope of work to tell people what their imbalances are? I don't believe that it is. Our job should be helping people see their movement potential which should start with building them up. Then we should help them load.
Fire your glutes. Essentially the statement the trainer friend made was that this individuals glutes were NOT firing which is why they have low back pain. That is a bold statement to make. Now I didn't ask what exercises they were using to test activation but a lot rides on those exercises in getting the glutes to "fire" because as we know different movement patterns will have different muscular activation patterns all depending on the angle of our joints. Regardless, it's reasonable to ask here: how did they measure muscle activity? By EMG or did they use their hands palpating through layers of clothes, skin, superficial and deep fascia, fat, more layers of stuff before finally reaching the muscle? I suppose they could have simply use their superhuman eyes and just eyeballed the glutes to determine what was firing and what wasn't (Gatt, 2019). Then I wondered which gluteal muscles did they determine to be the cause of the back pain?
(Side note: I'm not totally knocking palpating. In fact I think it feels great! I have been a practicing massage therapist since 2003 but EVEN still I do have some pretty strong opinions regarding that subject that would make for a nice post another time.)
I don't see the value in emphasizing one group of muscles over the next as though one is more important than the other. I mentioned this in a previous post, that thing in our bodies called connective tissue.....yeah c o n n e c t i v e as in its threaded, weaved and (woah! lookin' at my drip, lookin' at yo drip) connected; so without an EMG test how accurate can we be in what's "firing"? It's important to bring up again, from that same previous post, that our nervous system doesn't recognize individual muscles. Rather with the help of sensory information such as muscle and joint receptors it generates and organizes movement (Schwartz, 2016).
We live in a world where humans are obsessed with sensations. I personally really love feeling all the sensations during a workout and feeling sore after a workout, BUT let's say I didn't feel the burning sensation during or muscle soreness day(s) after my workout. Would that mean that my workout wasn't effective or that my glutes weren't firing? Negative brah. Instead it could mean that maybe I needed more load or some kind of variation.
Activate muscles = to infinity and beyond. Allow me to paint this picture: you're standing still surrounded by gravity with the intention to walk forward. Gravity being a force acting upon your body. You start to move one foot in front of the other REACTING against that force. During a forward movement such as walking we tend to need to decelerate motion. This is done with an eccentric contraction = an active muscle lengthening under load/gravity. Now with walking this is all done (hopefully) subconsciously and efficiently. In this example some of the lengthening muscles are your posterior chain or antigravity muscles......which (cha cha cha cha cha, woah!) include your glutes. If these muscles weren't working you would fall flat on your iced out money maker. Gravity, that saucy bitch, would have taken your non firing ass right out. The glutes will NEVER turn off or stop "firing" you guys.
With that in mind let's agree that the glutes ARE causing this individuals low back pain BUT not for being under active. Instead let's assume they are expressing too much activity. First we should ask: when do the glutes need to be highly active? Throughout normal daily activities you DO NOT need a ton of gluteal activity. Even in running this study shows that the ankle plantar flexors, soleus and gastrocnemius contribute the most in longer distances, whereas with sprinting its the hip flexors and extensors. Those lower limbs, bi-articular muscles (crossing two joints: hamstrings, rectus femoris, gastrocnemius) contributed the most in all running speeds (figure 4).
Ok, so lets get personal.....are you clenching your butt right now? Don't worry you're not alone. There are a lot of butt clenchers out there in the world. A lot of people, in fact, walk around consciously aware of their glutes and abdominal activation. Maybe you read somewhere or someone told you that this is the posture you should follow for low back pain. Clenching your butt and sucking in your belly is not necessary and could be indicators that these areas may need to simmer down a little. Moving around like that is probably pretty exhausting. Our bodies naturally understand how to reflexively respond to life perturbations IF WE ALLOW IT. But if you have been counterproductive, bracing protectively in these areas, have no fear! Believe that you can improve the coordination of your lower limbs/bi-articular muscles, to help accept and distribute load and dampen stress making it easier for the glutes to take a more subconscious role.
Reciprocal Inhibition. Is an idea, a spontaneous reflexive phenomenon that when one muscle is turned on or firing the nervous system will try to inhibit the opposing muscles to activate or fire at the same time, helping to create efficient movement. This idea makes sense with walking because we understand now that not a lot of gluteal engagement is necessary during this task. This task should be easy, breezy and beautiful. IF everything was firing at once then something as simple as walking would become a very inefficient task. (Take note butt clenchers.) Where this idea doesn't make sense is with high metabolically active movements: heavy load and end ranges as with squatting and deadlifting.
Back to the trainer friend when they referenced that the glutes weren't firing because of the "tight" psoas. This idea that one muscle contracts while the other opposing muscles relaxes is a little nutty because muscles co-contract and are always adjusting to whatever tone they are experiencing. Understanding that we can only create concentric contractions means that there has to be an external resistance to create an eccentric contraction. This means that for an eccentric gluteal contraction (example here: lowering part of bridge, hip thrust, squat, deadlift) to happen you need to apply an opposing force or external force that is greater. Gravity, along with whatever extra weight you may have racked front/back is pushing you down. In that lowering position your glutes are under tension, eccentrically lengthening, opposing that load. They are firing! There is no way they aren't.
Now muscles can definitely become weak! Usually from under loading, which is why resistance training is so important. I'll save that for another post.
Functional training. How do you define what exercise is functional and what is not? I define it as any movement or exercise that will improve my overall power, endurance, speed, strength, tolerance to whatever task I am doing. It is ANY movement or exercise that will help create a body that has the CAPACITY to endure whatever demands that are specific to a persons lifestyle and goals. Basically continue to do what you enjoy and if you haven't yet, throw in some resistance training a few times week.
The take away here is the sooner we all start joining forces to stop the crazy fear inducing "you're broken message" and flip the narrative to "your potential is endless" the movement world will be the second happiest place on earth. Apparently Finland is the first.
Hopefully this post was helpful. I try to keep them to a short 5-6 minute read. But a subject like this one could go on for a while. Maybe it will with you continuing to ask questions and further your research.