The first time my PT/Yoga Therapist told me I had ‘sleepy’ glutes I didn’t believe her. How was it possible that an outdoor athlete/Yoga teacher like me that kayaks, SUPs, hikes, mountain bikes and practices Yoga on a regular basis could have weak glutes? And anyway, I was in her office because I was experiencing excruciating pain in my IT band, not in my glutes. Sitting in my kayak and paddling my SUP had become very painful and since paddling is my passion and my job, I needed some help.
She explained to me (and I later did more research), that it is common for even the strongest athletes to have gluteus medius that don’t fire properly or don’t fire at all. Instead, a muscle called the tensor facia latae (TFL) picks up the slack and, in turn, tightens the iliotibial band (IT) that runs down the side of the leg and acts as a stabilizer for the knee. When the TFL and IT band are overworked on a regular basis because the glutes aren’t doing their job, the IT band becomes tight, painful and inflamed.
The position we sit in our kayaks with our legs and hips externally rotated lends itself to overuse of quads and hip flexors and underuse/over stretching of the glutes. Same thing with the standing position of stand up paddleboarding if there is no awareness of releasing the quads and grounding through the heels.
Since I was experiencing pain in my IT band I was rolling it out with a foam roller even though that felt uncomfortable. I had assumed that the foam roller was the way to go and that the sensation was a part of getting out the knots. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that I was making the situation worse by over stretching facia that was already inflamed. In addition to the foam rolling I was also incorporating poses like pigeon into my practice that were also exacerbating the problem.
After only a week of incorporating glute strengtheners into my practice the pain in my IT band started to subside. I eliminated stretches like pigeon and focused on firing up my glutes instead of stretching them and a whole new world opened up! I began practicing yoga and standing on my SUP with soft knees and an awareness of pressing down through my heels and big toes to activate the backs of my legs. I discovered a strength and stability that I had not experienced before. When I walk I strike with my heels and engage my feet as if I’m pressing the ground away behind me which makes me stronger and faster. There is no more pain when I sit in my kayak and I feel stronger on and off the water.
Here are a few of my favorite glute strengthening exercises/poses that helped me heal my IT band and fire up my glutes for better paddle performance!
Place your feet hip or sits bones distance apart.
Squat keeping the knees over the ankles or keeping your shins ‘straight’ and take your butt back (I tell my students to stick their butts out like they’re bootie dancing). Don’t focus on how low you go in your squat, but on keeping your shins straight so that your glutes fire.
Press down through your heels to come back up and keep your big toes pressing in the ground the whole time. Do 10 repetitions at a time.
As your glutes get stronger you can experiment with going lower.
In the same vein as squats you can incorporate chair pose and chair twist into your practice with the same principles and positioning as the squats above. Hold the poses for 5 deep and easy breaths and as you get stronger work up to holding for 1 minute.
One-legged Bridge Pose Lifts
One of the best exercises for strengthening the glutes.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
Extend your left leg up toward the ceiling.
Press through your right heel and big toe to lift your hips up off the floor and then set your hips back down. Repeat 10 times on each side.