So often, clients referred to Re-Kinect for low back pain management are surprised when one of their first activities involves activating and strengthening the butt. My favorite story about this came from a client who told of going out with friends after her assessment session with me. She had been trying for years to get to the “bottom” of her low back pain, but none of the “core” and back therapies she had been through had done the trick. Her friends were eager to hear what this “Amanda Harris” thought was the cause of her trouble. Was it arthritis? Maybe, but her doctor admitted that there wasn’t enough shown on her x-rays to explain the pain. Was it a disc? No, that had been ruled out by MRI. “So what is it?,” asked a friend. Pause for effect. Then my client said, “She told me I have a lazy [butt!!!,”] (actual word substituted to keep this article PG.) I howled with laughter when she recounted this story to me, but the genuine surprise she and her friends had at this revelation is quite common. So let’s explore the butt’s role in keeping your back healthy.
First, it’s important to note the butt’s actual job. The butt muscles extend the hip as well as support the spine. Think of walking or running. The butt muscles push the body forward over the foot, thereby extending the hip. In standing, they help to hold us upright, again by straightening the hip. Without them, we’d have to put our knuckles down to rest, as chimps and apes do. How does this fit in to back pain, you ask? When the butt doesn’t work properly (possibly due to injury or just poor movement patterns,) something else has to take its place. That something else may be the spinal muscles, which were meant to hold the spine erect off the foundation of butt, not in place of it. Over-reliance on the spinal muscles in standing quickly leads to fatigue, poor posture, and ultimately pain. Strengthening the core helps, but without the butt, the cycle will begin again: fatigue, poor posture, pain.
Now let me stop you before you don your headband and pull out your old “Buns of Steel” tapes. Not all butt strengthening exercises are the same. Moreover, if you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you’ve likely learned that our bodies are great compensators. Adaptability is part of why the human race has survived all of these millions of years. But it also means that our bodies are good at finding a way to carry out our orders, even if it isn’t good for us. As in the example above, if the butt muscle is somehow inhibited, the body will find another way to complete your favorite butt-blaster. You may wind up using your hamstrings or your back muscles, which could result in terrible hamstring cramps or more low back pain. The best case scenario is that you just don’t feel the exercise in your butt. So how will you know if your butt is “shut off?” And if it is off, how do you turn it back on?
Try the following: Lie on your back with knees bent, feet on the mat. Pull your legs (preferably one at a time) in toward your chest. Then lower 1 straight leg to the mat while continuing to hold the other knee to the chest. See pic below. If the thigh of the straight leg is touching the floor, your butt is likely fine on that side, and you can pull that knee back to your chest to test the other side. If the thigh or entire leg is popped up off the floor, your hip is tight on that side and needs to be stretched. If this is the case, squeeze the butt cheek of the straight leg to open the hip and press the thigh toward the floor. This should not hurt. Try squeezing and releasing that cheek until you can feel the squeeze getting stronger. It may take 10-15 reps. Repeat with the other side if needed.
Once you feel you have both cheeks working, you can try bridging. Lie on your back with knees bent, spine neutral, and a block or roll of toilet paper between your knees. Exhale to tighten your abs, and push into the heels to lift your hips just off the mat. Practice 2-3 sets of 5. If you feel your lower back or hamstrings engage, stretch (as above) and reduce your range of motion (don’t lift so high.)
Unlikely as it may seem, your butt is an evolutionary marvel. Chimps and apes don’t have one—at least, not one like ours. Love it or hate it, the butt allows us to stand, walk and run upright as only humans can. It is our engine, and the primary source of our power. Unfortunately, modern life requires us to sit on it far too much. So get up, try these exercises, and get your butt in gear! Your back will thank you for it.