Deadlifts, Squats, & Gluteal Amnesia

By | January 26, 2014

Contrary to the variety of images the title might elicit, this post isn’t about muscle-heads, restroom breaks, or posterior-focused psychologists. But it is about reviving a long-forgotten set of muscles that, much like the Whirlpool repairman, is far too often stuck sitting on the bench in the modern game of life. That’s right, we’re talking about your gluteus maximus, and actually your gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, and tensor fasciae latae too for completeness. You can check out Wikipedia for a more complete description of the gluteal complex.

With a career in the investment industry, I used to think I had many health advantages over those who had more physical jobs, exposed to the elements and worn out over the course of time. While there no doubt are some advantages to working at a desk with a roof over your head, there are also more disadvantages than I realized, one of the largest being the health effects of extensive sitting. I had never heard of the term gluteal amnesia until after my twenty-nineth birthday, but after an hour of reading up on it, I could easily self-diagnose myself. It’s a condition coined by Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in in Ontario, Canada, in which someone loses strength and control in their gluteal muscles after lack of use and the constant pressure placed on them while sitting.

The most frequent issue that arises from gluteal amnesia is low back pain, and that was certainly my issue as well. I would notice that instead of using my glutes to hoist myself out of the chair or push off from the bottom of a squat to pick something off the floor, my low back wound up taking the load instead. I also noticed my knees bearing some extra pressure as well, especially during walking and running. I’d soon learn that running after a long work day without properly conditioned glutes would lead to a lot of pain and injury. If you think about it, the impact of extensive sitting during the day on our physicality is a lot like the impact of eating a modern, processed diet on our nutrition. And, in fact, if you read a lot of paleo/primal materials, you will likely come across the importance of mobility and activity alongside all the diet discussions too.

If you have a sedentary job, even if you do work out a lot during the evenings, I would venture to say that this issue impacts you at least to some extent, even if you don’t notice any obvious symptoms or pain. I found it to be a cumulative issue, both on the way towards amnesia and on the road out of it, so if it isn’t impacting you yet, it’s possible there are issues brewing for the future if you are not taking counteractive measures.

What can you do, then, to kickstart your rear end’s memory and reverse the amnesia? Well there are a number of things, fortunately, but at least some of it will require you to reduce your sitting, whether that’s taking a few extra breaks from the desk for a walk or taking stairs instead of elevators. The other things I found most effective, though, are the following:

-Mobility Training: I found that it’s equally important to stretch, massage, and do whatever else it takes to get stiff tissues some room before and during the strengthening process too. I got most of my help here from Dr. Kelly Starrett’s MobilityWOD program and his book Becoming a Supple Leopard, which is also great for any self-physical therapy work beyond just glutes.

Foundation Training with Dr. Eric Goodman: This is essentially a variation of yoga moves specifically targeted to engage the “posterior chain” of muscles to reverse the effects of sedentary lifestyles. He also has a lot of introductory videos out on YouTube that you could try before purchasing anything, and I made some good headway on those alone.

-Bodyweight exercises such air squats, lunges, and one-legged squats. I’ve found many good videos on YouTube demonstrating some of these.

-Weighted exercises such as squats and deadlifts once you get very competent with your mobility and your form.

And speaking of deadlifts, they were basically the last and biggest piece in the puzzle for me to really get back both my coordination and strength with my glutes. I had to work up to that place with the other techniques to make sure I could do a deadlift with correct form and without pain, but now that I can, they are giving me some great benefits. When I initially had back problems at an early age in my late teens, I basically wrote off squats and deadlifts thinking they would just injure me more and that they didn’t really serve a purpose if I wasn’t playing football anymore. The more I read into paleo and primal concepts, though, the more I realized they are extremely fundamental to human physicality. And not only do you get the benefits of strengthening the glutes, but since they are very heavy and demanding lifts on the body, you get a significant challenge to the central nervous system which can boost your growth and sex hormone levels and jumpstart a lot of other things too! And the extra nervous system stimulation and hormone production means that the other lifts you just did, maybe bench presses or curls, are going to be that much more effective in increasing strength and lean muscle mass when coupled with the deadlifts. Make sure you start slow, though, and master form before pushing yourself too far as poor deadlifts can do way more harm than good.

Another general thing that I’ve found success with is to do more of my exercise in a standing position to offset the daily sitting. For example, I used to use a lot of the machine work at the gym, the military press machine for shoulders being one of them. The problem, though, is that when you do a lift from a sitting position, your hip flexors and quads then tighten to brace that position and help you generate the lifting force. So not only are you spending more time sitting, but you’re strengthening the muscles to hold that position. Anything that I can do to keep my legs straight, I do. I do as many presses as I can standing rather than sitting. I do more pull-ups and only with my legs straight down – and glutes flexed – rather than having my legs bent up or crossed. I don’t do sitting arm curls; I stand. Now some things, like rows, are tough to do without some hip flexion, but the more you can do without the better, I’ve found, to continue offsetting the effects of sitting. The tightness you get on your anterior (hip flexors, quads, etc.) can have just as much to do with your restrictions on the posterior (glutes, hamstrings, etc.), so it’s good to emphasize stretching and lengthening of those areas as well. Hitting the problem from many angles and with a number of tools tends to get better results. Here was another good resource I found addressing many different issues of gluteal amnesia. 

So there’s a lot of information to digest, but I hope you can see how much the sedentary lifestyle can inhibit the ability of one of the most important muscles for human movement, the gluteals, from performing as they were designed, causing a number of other problems in the rest of the chain of movement. If you do a lot of sitting, and especially if you also have back pain, I’d highly encourage you to take care of and condition your glutes as much as possible. I already know it’s made a world of difference for me. Now it’s time to get off this computer and do some squats!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *