It’s not what it seems.
I’m sure you’re an upstanding citizen who works hard and does what he or she needs to do. If you have back pain, I’m not talking about you as a person. I’m talking about your backside.
Let me start with a question… Have you ever had any back pain? Soreness? Tightness? Do you sit often (not just at work)? Do your hips feel tight?
If you answered yes to any of the above, your glutes (read: butt cheeks) are most likely weaker than they need to be. Those suckers are built to WORK, and in our society, they get lazy. Real lazy.
I have written a few articles regarding similar issues that I will link at the end of the article. I encourage you to check them out as well.
What I am talking about today is how the glutes should weigh heavily into the conversation when speaking about lower back pain or any hip tightness. Furthermore, once any structural issues have been ruled out, either by a physiotherapist or an athletic therapist, it’s all about ‘dat ass’.
DO YOUR JOB, GLUTES!
This is the thing. The glutes are there, just hanging out (sometimes literally) and if they don’t become stimulated and activated, they will not do the job they were built to do.
You see your glutes are what we call PRIME MOVERS in hip extension. Hip extension takes place anytime we stand up from sitting or bending down, when we finish our walking or running stride and during many athletic activities. Their job is to be the main ones creating that movement.
As I’ve said before, our bodies are excellent compensators. This is a good thing when we need to do something in order to survive, but not so good when we are compensating over and over, rep after rep until something hurts. When the glutes aren’t willing to do the work they’re supposed to, the smaller muscles- known as either SECONDARY MOVERS or STABILIZERS pick up the slack.
So now we’re left with the muscles of the lower back and the hamstrings doing all the work and killing themselves, all because the almighty glutes have decided to take some time off.
THE BEST WAY
I have literally gone to war with some pretty well known healthcare professionals in my local community over this. In my mind (and many others), there is NO SUBSTITUTE for a good hip hinge. This is the key to alleviating back pain issues and if we can teach (learn) this properly, we become known as the God or Goddess of back pain (or lack thereof).
But no one seems to know how to teach it properly… So no one does. I’m here to change that.
The No-Nonsense Guide to Teaching the Hip Hinge
1. Stand as close to the object as possible and Set it Up
If using a barbell, get the shins right up to it. If using a kettlebell, straddle it. We want the object as close as possible to the middle of the centre of gravity.
2. Pull the Hips Back
The wording here is key. When people say “push” the hips back, most clients just stick their butt out, losing any core stability and spinal positioning they had. By cueing them to “pull” the hips back, they are often forced to use their hamstrings to actively pull their bum into position, maintaining their neutral spine.
3. Grab the Implement
By this point, the hands should be pretty close to the implement and we can drop the hips slightly to get a good grip. If they’re not, we are missing range of motion and need to bring the implement closer by using blocks or weight plates to lift it up. If we don’t follow this crucial step, the client will break down starting at the shoulders to reach for the bell.
4. Pull the Chest Tall
Now, we have to activate the muscles of the upper back, ensuring the entire posterior chain is fired up and ready to pull. This is why I prefer barbells and kettlebells as you can cue the client to “rip it apart”. Essentially, we want the chest tall and the armpits as close to the midline as possible.
5. Drive the Hips Forward
Now it’s time to pull. However, most people think of the hip hinge as an up and down movement, because the weight or implement is moving that way. It works better to think of it as a forward and backward movement, looking at how the hips are moving. Therefore, the best cue here is to pull back and drive the hips forward toward the weight.
6. Crack Some Walnuts
Finally, we need to finish the lift. Since we’re shooting for hip extension here, we need full hip extension. Most people leave something on the table when they don’t fully finish the lift. My favourite cue here is to “crack some walnuts” between the glutes. The clients get a laugh and almost always know exactly what I mean.
My Favourite Variations
THE OTHER WAYS
It is very important to note that not all people are able to hinge without back pain right away. This is where I do agree with the professionals that I have battled with over this and there are many other ways to get the job done.
However, before going any further, the benefits of these exercises pale in comparison to those of a proper deadlift. The deadlift offers the following that the other exercises I’m about to present do not.
– Lat activation, a key piece to shoulder health and core stability
– Overall posterior chain strengthening, something that most people lack significantly
– The specific ability to pick things up off the floor, something we are forced to do every single day.
Your Guide to Teaching the Hip Hinge, Minus the Hip Hinge
I’d like to give almost all of the credit to the King of the Glutes and Inventor of the Hip Thrust movement, Bret Contreras.
1. Supine Lying Hip Bridge
An excellent starting point, the client has external feedback from the floor and the lower back is supported. Lie on the back with the knees bent and feet flat. “Tuck” the pelvis to flatten the lower back, squeeze the glutes and press your feet through the front of your shoes. Now ask, where do you feel it working? The glutes should be doing the majority of the work but I’ve heard everything from hamstrings to lower back to quads!
Consistent cueing and even some hands-on work is key to success here.
2. Hip Bridge with Feet Elevated
Same rules apply as above, but the feet are elevated, increasing the range of motion. This is the logical next step as the lower back is still supported and the floor still provides that feedback to maintain good spinal position.
3. Hip Thrust with Shoulders Elevated
This variation will produce the most work for the glutes and hamstrings, but also leaves the lower back unsupported, meaning you have to really watch and cue the clients to maintain a neutral spine. This is another place where reading and understanding Set it Up pays huge dividends.
The only real change to cueing here is where to support the upper body. My general response is to go just below the shoulderblades, having the mid-back in contact with the bench, stability ball or other implement.
So there you have it. Not only why the glutes are the most important piece of the lower back puzzle, but how to coach up the most crucial movements for glute strength and lower back health.
Best of luck, your glutes will thank me later!
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