Tight or overactive glutes are a very common problem that can result in postural deviations that cause extreme pain in every part of your back and neck, hips, knees and feet. It is incredible how dysfunction in a single area can cause so many reactions throughout the body, but as you will see, all of these areas can and often are effected by tightness in this one muscle group.
During daily activity, even things as simple as walking or picking something up, your glutes and hamstrings play a huge role in almost every movement you make. Considering the importance of these muscles just to perform every day tasks, it makes sense that dysfunction in the area could have significant problems for other parts of the body that now have to pick up the slack. Tightness in the glutes can be caused by many things, so many in fact that it is difficult to even discuss the possibilities to an unknown audience.
If you believe you have tightness in your glutes, finding the exact cause could require a little bit of self observation. From my experience, people that have emotional blockages that have caused them to be protective of themselves frequently exhibit this posture. Another possibility is that dysfunction of the pelvic floor is causing the glutes to become overactive in order to compensate, a likely cause of the issue, but quite difficult to self-diagnose. The dysfunction of the pelvic floor should be managed through exercise and is likely caused by a sedentary lifestyle. Whatever the cause, the road to recovery will be very similar, however, I would not overlook the likely reasons for the occurrence, as it will be your best ally in correcting and preventing the issue in the future.
Tight glutes result in tight hamstrings, and usually in a posterior pelvic tilt (PPT). This means that the back of your pelvis is lower than the front, like a see saw pivoting on the axis of your hip joint from the profile view. This will cause the knees to bend (knee flexion) and the upper body to lean backward which will inevitably result in secondary deviations in the upper back, neck and head.
One thing to remember about posture is this, if your posture is out of alignment, your body will compensate, usually further up your kinetic chain, to prevent your postural muscles from fatiguing. A posterior pelvic tilt, left uncompensated for would cause a backward lean of your upper body that would make your torso feel much heavier than it should. As a result, your body will flex in the mid and upper back and pull that weight back over the neutral line of your body to prevent the postural muscles from tiring out and to retain some feeling of balance.
All of this can lead to discomfort and pain in a few different areas. Primarily, tightness and pain in the lower and middle back and neck but you may also have SI joint, hip and knee and foot pain. You may also notice that you have a forward head and rounded shoulders. You might suffer from knee or foot pain, because both of these areas are taking more stress than they should be taking and having to distribute that load in a less than ideal way.
Let’s take a look at what tight glutes can do to your body.
(Above) This is neutral posture. Remember that your body is heavy, and in order to maintain basic function and efficiency throughout your life, you want to keep that weight feeling as light as you possibly can. When all of the links of your kinetic chain sit directly on top of one another, everything feels light and your body functions properly. In this picture you can see my body is in good alignment and that there are no obvious compensations as a result of tight, weak or overactive muscles.
(Above) This is a posterior pelvic tilt, (PPT) You can see that my belt line is now tilted down in the back and, as a result, up in the front. In this particular image, you can see that it has shortened every muscle group in the front of my body above the waist. My abdomen, pectorals, front deltoids and sternocleidomastoid (front of the neck) have all become overactive in an attempt to redistribute my bodyweight over my plumb line where it will feel lighter. You can also see that my knees are bent, my ankles are in a greater than normal degree of flexion and that the distribution of weight in my feet has been altered as a result.
This is a more extreme example of the PPT. In this picture you can see that my head is forward and my shoulders are rounded. This is an unconscious reaction to the deviation in the hips, which has sent my upper body into a backward lean as a result of the PPT. In order to prevent the postural muscles from fatiguing in a constant effort to correct the misplaced load, your nervous system has compensated by hanging your head and shoulders back over the plumb line.
Fixing the PPT
As I stated in Part II of the series, regarding the APT; There are three primary ways to go about lengthening tight muscles; stretching, myofascial release and also dynamic range of motion, which includes exercise and weight lifting.
It is very arguable whether or not Myofascial release has any long term benefits for flexibility but it does seem to have some short term benefits. Try using a foam roller before working out and see if you have any less of the symptoms of tight hip flexors.
Stretching should also be looked at as a secondary means to correct postural deviations, and usually will have only limited and short term effect if it isn’t coupled with strength training.
Dynamic range of motion (DROM) involves simple, and low resistance full range of motion movement of the joint that will allow you to utilize any extra flexibility gained through the previous two methods.
I consider both myofascial release and stretching nothing more than a way to help relax a muscle or group as a temporary measure to allow someone to utilize better technique during strength training and thus, improving posture. As a standalone means however, stretching and myofascial release are not a great way to improve posture for the long-term but they can both be used as a very effective rehabilitation tool for dealing with injury.
One thing to remember is that when there is any kind of muscle or joint dysfunction of this type, you must teach strength within the range of motion you desire.
For practical purposes, you could address your glutes, and hamstring tightness in this way:
Start with a foam roller and dig in to the glutes in an effort to find any obvious knots that are sensitive to the touch. For the glutes, you may want to use a tennis ball, softball or lacrosse ball, depending on your experience with the foam roller. These items will dig deeper into the muscle and allow you to use more pinpoint precision for this big muscle group, allowing you to work into the knots you will inevitably find. Roll the areas of greatest sensitivity, moving very slowly or staying still when you find the center of an adhesion. The amount of time you spend here will depend upon what you feel, how much physical stamina you have to do the exercise and with consideration for allowing enough time for stretching and strengthening. I would keep the foam rolling sessions to no more than 15 minutes if your intent is to utilize many techniques within a single session for posture correction. When it comes to rolling your hamstrings, you may have to spend some time learning how to get the benefit from this technique. Members of the kettlebell Gym can click here to go to the self myofascial release video that focusses specifically on this. Because the hamstring is such a big muscle, you won’t get the sensations of knots and intense pain that you will easily find when rolling other areas, but if you know how to look and what to do you can still get a great benefit from performing self myofascial release on this muscle group.
Move into stretching of the glutes and hamstrings, and any other areas that feel tight. The kind of stretching that you do will depend on what you have available to assist you. This could take anywhere from 5-15 minutes.
Finally, you will address your postural imbalances in your strength training and this is where you can expect to see some real change. By moving from a foam roller to stretching before hand, you have warmed up your body, sent blood into your muscles and lubricating fluid to your joints. You have also relaxed some of the tension out of the tight muscles and greatly diminished your chance of injury while at the same time increasing your potential output. Now, it is up to you to chose the right exercises and decide on the correct rep and set count.
Strength training, including bodyweight, kettlebells and barbells will correct this, and other imbalances over time. In my experience, a methodical and holistic approach to corrective exercise through strength training can correct poor posture and muscle imbalances very quickly. The hip-hinge, first mastered with just bodyweight, then with resistance as a deadlift, followed by the power phase exercises in kettlebell training will go a long way to solving this problem.
For people with tight glutes, your hip flexors and quads are usually underachieve and weak. This combination of tightness and weakness will result in the inability to hip hinge very easily and the surprising ability to squat with good form. This is the opposite than for people with tight hip flexors, who are able to hip hinge, but not squat properly. Interestingly, I recommend the hip hinge as the primary exercise to fix both deviations, but also with a great deal of focus on squatting (to build quad and hip flexor strength) and lunges, to promote range of motion, single leg stability and promote integration.
If the hip flexor is tight, the most important and usually most difficult part of the hip hinge will be hip extension, and completion of the concentric phase of the movement. When dealing with glutes and the inevitably resulting hamstring tightness, it is the eccentric phase during hip flexion that is challenging. The tightness in your glutes and hamstrings will pull down on the back of your pelvis as you attempt to lengthen them out during the movement, causing your back to round and creating a potentially dangerous situation.
If you are suffering from significant tightness in the glutes and hamstrings and are not accustomed to exercise, begin by practicing the hip hinge with just bodyweight before moving to the deadlift and then progressing to the power phase kettlebell movements.
Kettlebell Gym members can simply refer to level one to learn the hip-hinge and other related body weight movements before moving to level two which teaches the same movements in the strength phase with resistance, (deadlifts, squats, lunges, etc) before moving up to level three and beyond where we use the power phase with the same movements.
The deadlift will lengthen and strengthen the glutes and even out the length/tension relationship between your hip flexors and hip extensors. Just make sure you lift the weight with your hips, in a back to front movement. Make sure you don’t round your back before you lift from the ground and limit the range of motion if you are trying to reach too low. If you are deadlifting a kettlebell, you may place it on a small platform if you are unable to hip hinge deeply enough to touch the ground without rounding your back.
(Above) This is what good starting position for a deadlift should look like, ready to lift with your legs, not your back.
(Above) Tight Glutes and hamstrings can make a good starting position difficult, causing your back to round before you even pick up the weight. Now you’re literally lifting with your back and your legs!
(Above) In this picture, I have placed a kettlebell on a yoga block to diminish the degree of hip-hinge necessary to pick it up. If you are limited in your ability to hip hinge properly with good form, this can be a good way to transition into greater range of motion deadlifts. Remember, a kettlebell will usually sit higher off the ground than a barbell, and as for hardstyle kettlebells, the heavier they are, the higher the handle will be.
The appropriate progressions in these areas are vital to your success and safety! Learning to swing a kettlebell before you master the body weighted hip hinge and also the deadlift is pointless and counter productive. Visit our basics page if you aren’t yet signed up as a member to learn these progressions and the order in which they should be mastered.
Squats can be a fantastic exercise for people with tight glutes/PPT if for no other reason than that squats are an exercise at which they frequently demonstrate competence. Deep squats done properly can also activate the glutes in a way that will have a huge impact on rehabilitation of this area.
Lunges can strengthen the hip flexor complex while also activating the glutes and are a fantastic exercise to incorporate into every aspect of your corrective training. However, one thing to remember is that lunges have a tendency to lengthen your hip flexors and quads, which may already be in a lengthened state. For this reason, use lunges as a warm up and for a supplement to overall hip strength but not as a primary corrective exercise.
When it comes to reps and set count, I highly recommend low reps and variating your set count. Reps of five to ten are usually great, with a difficulty or resistance that takes you into at least 75% of your maximum perceived potential by the end of the set. Choose your amount of sets of a given exercise by your stamina and experience and remember consistency trumps intensity. You’re better off working out five times a week with medium to high intensity than three times a week at full throttle.
For members of the kettlebell gym; use the levels tab to learn each movement one at a time and progress through the system at your own pace. It is pretty much fool-proof as long as you don’t continue on until you have developed proficiency in a given area.
If you follow the level system and do the workouts associated with each level, you will naturally restore balance to the length/tension relationship in all of the muscles in your hips and beyond. Members can also also use the foam roller series under the video series tab to learn how to do self myofascial release for your glutes, hamstrings and other possibly effected areas.
Be on the lookout for more membership updates where I will show you other pieces of equipment such as the swiss ball and barbell, that will also aid you in your quest to greater strength and posture!