My husband has a small butt. There, I said it. A tiny hiny. Minimal maximus. Diminutive derrier. The two lumps of muscle on the backside of his pelvis are underdeveloped, and I have been curious about that for a while. Turns out, the term “use it or lose it” is at play here, and it seems to be a common problem for a slice of the athletic population. So we're going to look at the symptoms and see if we can help some of you “under-utilizers” out there.
The gluteal group of muscles is something we all know about as a basic part of our muscular skeletal system, and their utility is commonly understood as something we use to open the hip joint. With such an important role—especially for us rowers—you would think that the brain automatically knows how to deploy those resources to do work. It turns out that's not necessarily true. One reason for their lack of use in some individuals is that there are LOTS of other muscles involved in opening the hip. As an example, let's do the following test:
Lie down on the floor and bend your knees, planting your feet flat on the ground at a natural distance from your hips, and about shoulder width apart. Now lift your hips towards the ceiling until they align with your knees and shoulders. It's a basic back bridge, and it can help us identify what muscle groups we tend to utilize for hip extension. Drop back down and try it again, and this time really focus on what muscles are doing the work. If it helps, you can employ some tactile feedback by actually poking your butt with your hand while doing this drill to see if those glutes are actually firing. Once you have done that a few times, play around with the two extremes. Try and lift your hips using ONLY your glutes, then try again NOT using your glutes at all. Which version feels more natural to you?
So, when my husband and I do this drill together (yes, this is the type of thing two fitness professionals do in their living room for kicks), we are at opposite ends of the spectrum. His natural tendency is to leave those butt muscles dormant, instead relying on hamstrings and hip flexors to get the job done. I, on the other hand, primarily engage my glutes anytime I am looking to get work done with my hips. And if you were to take a silhouette of our bodies from the side, you'd see clearly what a lifetime of these preferred motor patterns have done for our posterior development (let's just say I am much more shapely through the backside). Furthermore, if you look at our athletic history it sort of makes sense. My collegiate career was in rowing where that posterior chain is critical, and more powerful slow-twitch muscle firing was the name of the game—like a high horsepower, rear-wheel drive muscle car. His collegiate career was volleyball, followed by a bunch of endurance sports, which developed more of his anterior muscle groups and focused more on faster-twitch muscles—the zippy front-wheel drive speedster.
Now, if you were an active glute-engager with that drill, or you know that your backside runs on all cylinders already, congratulations, you can just move on to another article. But if you think you might be in the same category as my husband, or if you coach people who may be leaving some power on the table because of this muscle recruitment deficiency, read on and we'll see what we can do for you.
First off, start using your butt! Seriously, fire that thing in every possible way you can. Do those back bridges and go glute-heavy with the movement. Do some deadlifts and squeeze your butt through the top half of the movement. Make those cheeks dance while you are cooking dinner or standing in line. Remind yourself with cues when you are working out, like “pinch the nickel” or “crack the walnut.” The more your brain is consciously engaging those muscles, the more neurological pathways you are burning along the critical brain-body super-highway of muscle control.
Next, hop on the indoor rower and do some drills. We do “Legs/Hips/Arms Only rowing” as a skill, so spend some time with “Glutes-Only” rowing. Row for 10 minutes at a moderate pace and initiate your leg drive with a squeeze of your butt. Keep squeezing all the way through your stroke, right to the finish, and then make sure you consciously turn those bad-boys off on the recovery so you can use them again. While you are bringing attention to these untapped resources, occasionally switch back to your regular rowing technique to feel the difference. And realize that the goal is not to completely shift your power source to the butt. Your quads, hamstrings and hip flexors are still critical pieces in the complex puzzle of hip extension. But the more you can FEEL the different muscle groups working towards a common goal, the more you can manage their relationships and better coordinate their roles in the task. Then when you are integrating this new awareness into your daily rowing, you can closely monitor what muscle groups are getting fatigued and shift things slightly to regain balance.
Hopefully, after some solid sessions on the indoor rower and some slightly odd behavior while stirring the soup in your kitchen (might be helpful to warn your family why your butt is jiggling so much), you will adopt a better-rounded and more powerful stroke. The glutes are a powerful resource, and the more we can tap them as a power source the better we will be at all types of movement. As for my husband's butt, after 46 years of under-utilization we are thinking that in another 46 years he will have some serious “junk in the trunk” to show off around the old-folks home.