The gluteus maximus, medius and minimus muscles in the buttocks comprise the group known as the glutes. These muscles play a large role in the rotation of the thigh, extension of the thigh and movement of the leg away from the body’s center line. Weak or inhibited glutes can contribute to lower back pain.
Weakness or inhibition of any core muscle can cause tension, strain and pain in surrounding muscles. The core group, consisting of muscles in the stomach, lower back, hips and buttocks, works together to facilitate pelvic stability, spinal stability and upper body support. They also play a role in most of our movements, such as sitting, standing and moving the legs. If a muscle in the core group isn’t working properly due to weakness or inhibition, other muscles will need to compensate for their inactivity. The muscles of the lower back are often called to action when the gluteal muscles aren’t functioning properly. Using lower back muscles for work they aren’t meant to perform leads to muscle strain and chronic tension.
Weakness and Inhibition
The main cause of weak glutes is prolonged sitting. People who have desk jobs, students who sit in class for long hours and others who lead generally sedentary lives spend much of their time with their gluteal muscles compressed and inactive. A lack of gluteal development can cause pelvic imbalance and lower back pain.
Muscle inhibition is different than weakness. When a muscle is inhibited, neurological firing of the muscle is disrupted. This means that the nerves connecting the muscle to the brain aren’t properly signaling the muscle to fire. Muscle inhibition usually occurs when the muscle is fully contracted, which means at its shortest length.
Inhibition can occur in a number of ways; one is overuse. If the gluteal muscles are compensating for weaker muscles, or if your workout plan places uneven stress on the glutes, they may be chronically tense. When the brain senses that a muscle is overly-stressed and in danger of injury, it sends signals through the neurological system to shut the muscle off. If not given adequate time to rest and recover after activity, or if they are chronically tense from overuse, then, the glutes will be deactivated. The same deactivation can occur when the glutes have suffered trauma, such as from a hard fall.
Muscle imbalances may also be responsible for inhibition. If your hip flexor and quadricep muscles are disproportionately strong, they will automatically fire into action when glutes should be activated. This is an example of muscle memory.
Diagnosis and Treatment
It is important to identify whether your glutes are weak or inhibited; if you attempt to strengthen inhibited glutes, you could end up exacerbating a muscle imbalance or injury. You can test for gluteal dysfunction with a prone hip extension test. If dysfunction is detected, simply walking backward can indicate whether weakness or inhibition is present. See http://www.jeffcubos.com for more information on these tests as well as exercises that can strengthen the glutes if they are found to be weak.
If the glutal muscles are chronically tense, self-myofascial release may be employed to relax them. This treatment will cease inhibition of the muscle, since the brain will no longer detect a threat of injury once it is loose. Conversely, if the hip flexors and/or quadriceps are taking over the activities of the glutes, those muscles will need myofascial release. Removing the tension from those overly-tight muscles and progressively developing the glutes will retrain the brain to activate core muscles properly.
See www.t-nation.com for instructions on how to perform self-myofascial release on various muscles with pictures at the bottom of the page.
Whether you’re sedentary or active, your gluteal muscles could be the source of lower back pain. A simple test can help you determine whether your glutes and back pain are linked.