Glutes – The under-appreciated muscles
I decided to write about these hard-working but often under-appreciated muscles as they can be sneakily responsible for many aches and pains within the body. So many people come for massage because of problems which they don’t realise are related to their glutes. I’ve had many issues with my own glutes over the course of many years. I’ve found that understanding these muscles, how they work, the way they can affect the body when they’re dysfunctional and how to solve the problems has been one of the most worthwhile things I’ve learned.
It’s one of my favourite groups of muscles to massage because often it has a significant effect in decreasing pain, increasing range of movement and flexibility and solving niggly lower back or leg pain that people never realised was caused by the glutes.
So, where are they?
When I say glutes, I’m referring to the Gluteal muscles, specifically Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Minimus and Piriformis. These muscles surround the hip and buttocks and their jobs are movement of the hip and rotation of the thigh, as well as stabilising the hips when moving between standing and seated positions and in balance. They are a big group of muscles that work hard in almost any movement we make including walking, running, climbing stairs and moving from seated to standing positions. Understanding what an important role these muscles play in everyday movement allows us to appreciate and care for them more.
Often, the symptoms of problems with the glutes include lack of flexibility in the hip joints, pain in and around the hips, lower back ache and lack of core strength and even sciatic type nerve pain down the legs.
These issues can be caused by tightness in the muscles from either overuse or weakness in the muscles. When the muscles lack strength, they struggle to perform all the tasks demanded of them in every day life and can become tight and sore. This can lead to a takeover of other muscles, such as those in the lower back, and compensatory patterns which further exacerbate the initial problem.
People with weak or tight glutes may also suffer with anterior pelvic tilt. This is when instead of sitting in a neutral position, the pelvis is tilted back so that the bottom sticks out creating a more pronounced curve in the lower back. With the pelvis in this position, the glutes and hamstrings become weak and the hip flexors (the muscles at the front of the hips) and quadriceps at the front of the thighs become tight. Pelvic tilt can also cause strain on other areas of the spine causing muscular problems higher up the body too.
The pirformis is a small muscle which runs right across the middle of the buttocks from hip to sacrum. It is responsible for rotation of the hip. This little muscle also happens to sit on top of the sciatic nerve. This means that when it becomes tight, it can irritate the nerve causing shooting sciatic type pains down the leg.
Do these symptoms sound familiar? Don’t despair – this is solvable!
What to do!
Pinpointing the origin of problems with the glutes can be difficult. Many factors play a part in the patterns our muscles fall into such as posture, daily activities, types of exercise, injuries, the type of work we do and even things like pregnancy. It’s like a chicken and egg scenario – often it’s difficult to tell whether weakened or tight glutes are a cause of postural problems or a symptom of them. However, there are some simple steps you can take to alleviate tension and begin to address any pain, weakness and tension.
1) Massage – Of course, massage can help. Some people feel uncomfortable asking for massage of the glutes because of their location in the buttocks – but these are important, hard-working muscles. When massage therapists are working in this area, they are thinking about the muscles beneath the skin and nothing more! When I work in this area, often the glute medius is worked on skin to skin because these muscles sit at the very top of the hips just where they meet the lower back. Glute maximus, minimus and piriformis are a little lower and appropriate draping of the towels means that they can also be worked on skin to skin. However, often I work on these muscles through the towel. This is just as effective and means you don’t have to bare any skin if you feel uncomfortable.
Massage techniques involve kneading the muscles, stretch and even deep tissue massage into the deeper muscles to provide relief. It can be a tender area to have worked, but often results in immediate relief from some of the symptoms.
2) Stretch – Stretching the glutes can really help to provide relief from some of the uncomfortable sensations tightness can produce. Remember that not all stretches are suitable for everyone. Each person has their own level of flexibility and stretches should always only be performed to a level that you feel comfortable with. Below are a few ideas of great stretches that will help to keep these muscles looser:
3) Strength building – During a remedial massage session, it’s possible to investigate which muscles are struggling with weakness and if there is an imbalance between left and right. Once you know what the issue is, strengthening exercises can help to bring a sense of balance and harmony back to the muscles. Increased strength means less tiredness and tightness in the muscles and the opportunity to correct unhelpful posture.
4) Self-massage – If you’ve ever seen me for a massage which included glute work, the likelihood is that I will have harped on to you about the benefits of self-massage using a tennis ball! I absolutely advocate this method of self-massage because I have personally found it so useful myself. All you need is a tennis ball and a little space against a wall. Pop the tennis ball into the area around your buttocks and lean back against the wall. Using your legs you can now adjust the pressure by stepping closer to or farther away from the wall and use your body weight to press into the ball and move it around the hip muscles.
So, hopefully I’ve given you some useful information here about how to appreciate and care for these amazing muscles. And perhaps an idea of where your niggly lower back ache or strange sciatic pain may be coming from.
Have you tried massage in this area before? Did you find it helpful? Do you have your own tips and tricks for reducing tension in this area? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on my facebook page.