Is it necessary to squeeze the gluteal muscles during backbends?

May 1, 2023 0 Comments

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Every field of study has its share of heated controversies. One of the long-simmering debates in the yoga world is whether we need to engage our glutes (or squeeze our glutes) in backbends.

Back curves are a problem for many of us. Poses like Ustrasana (Camel Pose) and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Outside the City) take us into the opposite of our usual forward bending pattern. Emotionally, this can cause us to feel expansive yet vulnerable at the same time.

Physically, the shape and orientation of our vertebrae means that our ability to bend backwards is largely determined by the anatomy of our lumbar spine. When we reach the end of our safe range of motion in backbends, there is a possibility of compression between our lumbar vertebrae or the junction between the vertebrae and the sacrum. These are body parts we tend to protect—and for good reason. The fascia in the lower back is one of the most densely populated areas of nociceptive (sensitive to threat) nerve endings. Our bodies know to be extra careful here.

It goes without saying that we can look to our yoga teacher for tips on what to do to feel more secure in these poses. While some teachers swear by the need to engage the glutes to create more space and support for the lumbar spine and sacrum during backbends, others are just as adamant that the same benefits come from doing the opposite.

As with most passionate and adversarial arguments, there is truth to be found on both sides. A little research shows that there is less direct disagreement than it seems.

(Photo: library of scientific photographs of Sebastian Kaulitskyi)

Why you can squeeze your buttocks

The school of thought behind the gluteal squeeze explains that the contraction of the gluteus maximus provides a significant contribution to the curvature of the back. The gluteus maximus is our main hip extensor. This means it pulls your femurs closer to the back of your pelvis, effectively moving your pelvis forward.

Imagine coming into Bridge Pose or Urdhwa Dhanurasana (Wheel or Upward Bow Pose): You need to contract your gluteus maximus to lift your hips off the mat. Or, changing your orientation to gravity, imagine Salabhasana (locust pose): you need to contract your gluteus maximus to lift your thigh bones off the mat.

In addition to brute force, there are two additional benefits of gluteus maximus action. The anatomical movement of hip extension, or moving the hip bones toward the back of the body, helps shape the arch of the back, reducing the range needed for just the lumbar spine and buying some time before you reach maximum range.

Second, the gluteus maximus plays a subtle but important role in supporting and stabilizing both the sacral and lumbar spine. The muscle fibers cross between the two sides of the downward-pointing triangle of the sacrum and the bones of the back of the pelvis into which it fits (the sacroiliac or SI joint). Engaging this muscle strengthens the network of strong ligaments that stabilize the joint.

In addition, each side of the gluteus maximus has strong fascial connections with the latissimus dorsi on the opposite side of the spine. This connection with the latissimus dorsi provides support for the lumbar spine. So, once again contracting the gluteus maximus adds muscular support to this key transitional part of the body.

Students of anatomy will probably agree with all these points. So, if the glutes are needed to extend the hips, which is a key part of most backbends, and provide stability to the sacrum muscles (and to some extent the lower back), why don’t we contract the glutes?

Why you can relax your glutes

The opposite school of thought agrees with the importance of the gluteus maximus during backbends. But it looks at the large superficial muscle, or “prime mover,” of the player, which fulfills several important roles.

The lower fibers of the gluteus maximus, which run across the sit bones, are primarily responsible for the key action of back flexion, ie hip extension, but can become a bit sleepy from hours of sitting on them. The superior fibers, which are located on either side of the sacrum, are more familiar and easier to press, but actually play a bigger role in external rotation of the hips, or turning our femurs away from the front midline of the body, as we do in Utkata Konasana (Goddess Pose).

The problem is that when we force our glutes during backbends, most of us try to use the more familiar upper fibers instead of the lower fibers, resulting in more external rotation of the hip. This reduces hip extension, which can be so beneficial in reducing the depth of range of motion required in the lumbar spine.

In other words, the vigorous “squeezing” that some people find so beneficial can lead you back to the unwanted feeling of lower back tightness.


For many of us, engaging the lower fibers of the gluteus maximus requires a more subtle approach than a generalized squeeze of the entire muscle. This can feel like lengthening through the sacrum, engaging our sit bones, or softening the glutes along either side of the sacrum. This is the same muscle action, but the approach and intensity have been slightly changed.

So, which replica is right for you? Both arguments have their merits, which is probably why the debate has been going on for so long. I suspect that the correct approach, as with many things in yoga, depends on the student, the pose, and the day.

About our contributor

Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor who offers group and individual yoga classes in Queenstown, New Zealand, and by request at Passionate about the real-world application of her research into anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students build strength, stability, and mental clarity. Rachel is also the co-host of the new Yoga Medicine podcast.

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