Featuring Catie Brier, contortionist and contortion coach
There are a few super hot topics in circus/yoga/performing arts, and this is one of them…what should your glutes be doing in a backbend? Should they be engaged, or should they be relaxed?
There are a lot of strong opinions out there on this topic…and I, too, am highly opinionated on what glutes should do in a backbend. However, I’ll reserve my opinion for the end of this post, after we discuss the cold, hard facts below:
Lets get started.
We’re going to talk about the two main glute muscles, for the sake of brevity: gluteus maximus and gluteus medius.
In layman's term...
Glute max attachments: this muscle starts on the back of our pelvis and sacrum, then attaches on the top of our femur.
Glute max actions: this muscle extends the hip (leg behind you, like an arabesque) and externally rotates the hip (like turning out in dance).
...huh? The aBRIDGEd version (see what I did there?!)
Glute med attachments: This muscle originates underneath, and slightly lateral to, the glute max: on the back/side of the pelvis (ileum). It attaches on the side of the femur.
Glute med action: this muscle abducts the hip (brings leg to the side of our body, as in a jumping jack) and internally rotate the hip.
the glutes start out on the pelvis and sacrum, and attach on the top of our leg bone (femur)
Glutes do not attach on, or cross, the lumbar spine (low back). When glutes activate, they do NOT cause any movement at the low back. They cause the hip to move backwards, and rotate in/out.
Biomechanics of a technically correct backbend
Catie Brier, perpetually adjusting and improving my bridge. Thanks, Catie!
For the sake of simplicity, we will discuss the bridge (or wheel, for those of you who speak yoga!), which is the pose pictured above. We’ll go joint by joint, and discuss (the basic version, sorry anatomy nerds...) of what anatomic position each region should be in for a technically correct bridge.
Not too complicated, right?
All together now
To attain a technically correct bridge, we can infer that we want to activate the muscles that cause the above joints to move towards those positions described above.
Because activated glutes cause the hips to extend, and hip extension is part of a technically correct bridge…YOU answer the question.
Should your glutes be engaged in a backbend?!
YES, yes they should.
Argument #1 against activating glutes in a backbend
The argument I most commonly hear from those who advocate relaxed glutes in a backbend is this:
“When you squeeze your glutes, you cause more bending and compression in your low back! That’s bad, because it can lead to back pain.”
My answer: look at the anatomic attachment points, and the action of the glutes. Because they DO NOT cross, or attach on, the lumbar spine, isolated glute activation does NOT cause extension of the lumbar spine.
The next argument:
“But that doesn’t make sense. When I squeeze my butt in a backbend, I feel like my low back is getting more compressed/I feel the backbend happen more here!”
My answer: You probably don’t know how to isolate your glutes from your low back muscles. Super common. Our glutes are inherently lazy, and our low back muscles tend to kick in and activate when we don’t necessarily ask them to.
Take Home message
If the backbend variation that you’re working on involves hip EXTENSION, your glutes should be activated. When you activate your glutes, you’re causing more of the composite backbend motion to come more from your hips vs low back, which takes pressure OFF your low back.
Want to learn more about how to properly activate your low back and hips in a backbend, so you can avoid injury? Start by reading this blog post.
Still want more? I have an active flexibility plan for that…check it out here.
Questions? Comments? Vehemently disagree? Leave me a note below, and we can chat!
What does current performing arts culture tell us about muscle soreness? Aches and pains? Bruises, burns, and rope rash?
“Train through it.”
“Tears are for home, not circus”
“Here, have some circus candy (advil/ibuprofen).”
These are all common "circus-isms" that I've heard, and I want to talk a bit about soreness- is it productive? How much is too much? How do you train optimally while simultaneously avoiding OVERtraining and subsequent injury?
This is a HUUUGEE topic, and I’m only going to address a small component of it in this post.
I was recently reading an article on implementing pitch counts in little league players (woah, #notcircus?! I know…what was I thinking…) and it REALLY got my gears turning. Not because I love baseball (…I don’t), but because one of the criteria they used for progressing pitch intensity and frequency was something I felt could also be applied to circus artists who are returning to training after a long hiatus, or even to those who are wanting to progress skill and strength levels in an efficient amount of time, without getting injured.
the soreness rule
This criteria for training progression is referred to as the “Soreness rule.” It was initially created for pitchers, but has since been adapted and modified to fit other sports as well (running, weight lifting, etc). These rules give athletes the ability to modify their progression of skill/strength according to the soreness they experience. If the athlete feels sore, tender, or stiff, then they can use the soreness rules to guide their training for the rest of that week.
Start by finding your anterior-superior iliac spine (ASIS, also known as the “pointy front hip bone"). The bottom ball of the peanut goes just inside this bone. With the peanut in place, lie on your stomach. Start by taking deep breaths into the peanut. Once the initial intensity subsides, lift and lower your back leg, on the same side as the peanut. Still not enough to loosen those hip flexors? Try adding a push up into a cobra position as you lift your back leg. Your psoas(..es?) will be singing "Joy to the World" in NO time!
Need a peanut? You're in luck.
Like these tips? Find even MORE awesome, flexibility-promoting, injury-preventing exercises and mobilizations in one of my two online training programs for splits and mobility:
GLUTE MAX BIAS:
Start on the floor in a one-legged childs pose, one leg behind you, both arms in front of you, sitting on your back heel. First, straighten your leg all the way. Then, keeping it straight, lift it off the ground. Hold 5-10 seconds, then relax. DO NOT come up off your heel. DO NOT let your hips tilt.
Too hard? Try on a yoga block to boost you up (as pictured).
STILL too hard (because GLUTES!)? Do the same exercise off the edge of a panel mat/raised surface.
GLUTE MED BIAS:
Next, in the same starting position, bring your leg out to the side, as in middle splits. Start by straightening your leg all the way, then lifting up towards the ceiling. Keep your knee pointed forward, don’t let your leg turn out.
If this is too hard, do the same exercise off a raised surface, like a panel mat.
KNEE HANG HIP ROTATION (Biasing hip rotators)
Lie on your side, in a knee hang position- knees DIRECTLY under hips. In this position, it’s really important to keep your abs engaged to ensure your low back doesn’t arch. With a theraband around your ankles, lift your top leg off your bottom leg. First, drop your knee as you lift your ankle, then switch, bringing your knee up and your ankle down. As you do this, make sure your pelvis stays stable.
If this is too challenging, bring your knees forward slightly, and do the same rotation exercise from here. Progress to the knee hang position.
Yeah, these are NOT riveting...and I bet we ALL have been guilty of sloppily rushing through them before class so our Russian trapeze instructor won't yell at us for not doing our "bands." NEVERTHELESS, they are VERY important. The reason I like them and force myself to suffer through them before every training session is because they "wake up" the individual muscles in the rotator cuff. They're our rotator cuff's ISOLATION exercises, and a responsible circus artist who cares about their #circusshoulders does them before each training session, and does them with proper form.
The pec minor is a relatively small muscle that lies underneath the pec major. It attaches to the upper ribs (ribs 3-5) and to the front of the shoulder blade (on the coracoid process). Because of this, it has functions in a few different realms: in breathing (specifically, deep breathing, and “chest” breathing), and it also anteriorly tilts and protracts the shoulder blade (see photos below). When this muscle is tight, this manifests as a constantly protracted and anteriorly tilted shoulder blade: in normal terms, this looks like rounded/hunched shoulders…basically, bad posture. Underneath the pec minor, running between the muscle and your ribs, are a bunch of nerves and blood vessels, that travel from your neck down to your arm.
In my typical nerdy physio style, I like measuring and tracking progress. Here’s my favorite way to measure tightness in the pec minor. Lie on a hard surface and have a friend take a photo of you from the top down. You can either eyeball it, or measure with a ruler or tape measurer. I look at a few different things here: first, height from the posterior acromion (marked in the photo at the top of the arrow) to the floor, and second, symmetry between right and left. Research suggests that optimal measurement here should be no more than 2 cm from the ground. There should be no more than 1cm difference between the two shoulders. As you can see in the photo, I have EMBARRASSINGLY tight pec minors…I blame too much recent air travel on ergonomically questionable Chinese airlines.
Use your opposite hand to press a peanut (or lacrosse ball, or tennis ball) into your pec minor, just below the top of your shoulder on the upper edge of your ribcage. First, just take a few deep breaths— because of its attachment on the ribs, even just deep breathing is a great way to actively release this muscle. Next, incorporate some arm movements. Start with your arm out to your side at 90 degrees on the floor. From here, move arm up and over towards your opposite shoulder. In addition, you can do a similar release with a “snow angel” type movement. Make sure you keep consistent pressure on the ball the whole time, taking breaks as needed…this is NOT a comfortable exercise!! I suggest 2 sets of 6-8 slow repetitions per side. For an added stretching bonus, do each rep while exhaling. Because this muscle is tightest during the end of a forceful inhale, you will get a more comprehensive stretch if you focus on movement during exhalation.
What's this, you ask!? A foam roller AND A water bottle in ONE?! GUYS. I got this for Christmas, and it is my new favorite PT gadget. It hurts. So. Good. And then it apologizes by hydrating you.
Every aerialist I know has a love-hate relationship with their lats. We love how they help us scale a 10-meter silk, we hate how they make clothes shopping SO difficult. An aerialist (who shall remain nameless) once told me "Its bad. My boyfriend calls me LATniss Everdeen." We complain endlessly about how tight they are...especially if we do both aerial AND handbalancing (god forbid a straight line was ever easily attained!)
This post is all about relevant lat anatomy, mechanics, and how to measure progress in flexibility and control of the lats…both for a nice handstand line, and for injury prevention!
The lats are a HUGE muscle that affect many different regions of our bodies. Here are ALL of the different parts of the back and hips that the lats attach to:
Because our lats attach to so many different structures, they also influence WAY more than just the shoulder. For example- if you have problems with your lats, this can appear as pain, stiffness, or general dysfunction in your low back, hips, thoracic spine, ribs, or shoulder. Circus-wise, here are a few examples of specific tricks that you may have problems with if your lats are too tight or otherwise dysfunctional:
Starting position: sitting with your back to the wall, scoot feet forward and flatten your entire back completely against the wall. Engage abs to keep ribs in.
From here, raise one arm in front of you slowly as far as you can, with your palm facing up and your elbow STRAIGHT. Use your other hand to monitor the point at which your back comes off the wall OR the point at which your palm starts to turn INWARDS instead of staying UP. Take a photo of this point. This is your functional lat muscle length.
If you’re a super nerd like me, you can download an app like “Coaches eye” or “dartfish” that will let you actually measure this angle. If you’re not a super nerd, you can just use this as the “before” photo for lat muscle length.