I’ve got three muscle groups to talk about today; diaphragm, core, and glutes. A preface; if you read this post and watch the video you will learn how to develop these parts of your body together, thus improving your structural integrity in whatever sport you do. The reason I bring this up is because of the amount of wincing, breath holding, and shallow breathing I see in the world of lifting, movement, martial arts / yoga, and training. As a fitness and anatomy geek I’ve gasped through workouts, winced in competitions, and probably used all kinds of funky muscles to pull off accomplishing some sort of task at hand. However- eighteen years into training I’ve finally become wise enough to know that there is a more effective way to get the results you want.
My intention with this post:
To inform and educate so that you can better distinguish your own athletic muscular control relative to the part of the body you want to move. I am not denying the effectiveness of training programs, and I am not denying the gluteal strength of weightlifters, strong men, powerlifters, or any other athletes that deadlift, squat, or lunge as a part of their sport. I am merely suggesting that there is a biomechanical advantage to accessing your gluteii and hip muscles via your core. If you’re an athlete or lifter of any kind I am not saying, “ hey you, you’re not using your glutes when you do those squats. “I cannot make those sorts of assumptions without seeing you move. However, if you buy the adult beverage (or coffee) I am always happy to talk about performance, strength, efficiency, and other anatomically correct nerd things.
Did you know that most westerners suffer from diminishing glute syndrome (also known as DGS)? Basically the idea came about when enough physicians noticed that people are sitting more than ever, thus diminishing their glutes. I won’t get into the evolutionary role of the glutes and how they came to be, but know this- we are bipeds (beings that walk on two legs) because of our glutes. Every other animal that has come to be stays on all fours, but we evolved past that, developing a glute large enough, toned enough, and functional enough, to erect us upright.
Why do I care so much? Because we aren’t using our butts when we workout. Even worse, we’re falling under the illusion that they’re working, so we stop learning how to use them. This post intends to inform you how to make your glutes work with your diaphragm and quads. I hope this post gets you to wonder about the biomechanical advantage of building the glutes, core, and diaphragm together, so that you can bring their functionality into your sport, life, and body.
It is not satisfactory to say, “bridge up, squeeze your butt, squeeze your sphincter, feel that massive butt cheek scream!” This is an old way of understanding glutes. That being said, it is also a fundamentally flawed way of understanding the ever so complex and unappreciated butt muscles. To fully get how to engage your butt start with your diaphragm. You know- that umbrella shaped muscle inside of your ribcage that houses things like your lungs and heart. To understand this better I’ve included a photo of Tom Myers’ myofascial meridian of the deep front line. In this photo you can see the continuum of muscles from the temple of your head all the way to the posterior compartment of the calf. In the past fifteen years we have learned that the diaphragm connects to the muscles in the jaw, cheek, neck, and all the way down to the inside of your pelvis. It is also made up of your deep glute rotators, your inner and back thigh, eventually finishing at the bottom of your foot. Essentially your tight neck could be the cause of your tight and short hamstrings.
The deep front line
DFL & FL- Okay- so now we understand that the diaphragm connects much deeper and longer than we thought. How does that pertain to the glutes? Well I’m glad you asked, because next we’re going to look at what we call the functional myofascial sheaths in the body. Notice how big players like the lats connect to your glute max. Observe in the front how your pec muscles seamlessly connect to your rectus abdominis (the six pack muscles). I want you to visually comprehend how none of these muscles are isolated either in their connections or functions. Each muscle is contained in fascia, which then assists in transferring force to the next muscle, eventually the joint, to create movement.
The functional line
SFFL- Now finally, lets look at the superficial front line. One of my favorites, the superficial front line shows us additional core connections starting at the head and neck, and reaching as far down as the top of your foot. Look how the front of your throat ties to your quads, the extensors of your foot and ankle, essentially the entire length of the front of your body! So performing something as simple as a deadlift involves your lats on the back, which connect to your glute max, and your rectus abdominis on the front, which again help keep the ribcage stable and close to the spine.
The superficial front line
Now why do we want this sort of information? Why is it important to keep the body relaxed when executing a lift, gymnastic, or other body movement? Because everything is connected. Let me say it again, everything is connected. So when you take a big breath before a lift, you are locking your diaphragm, glutes, leg muscles, back muscles, and anything else involved into place. You are creating a restriction and inhibition within your own system. It isn’t wrong (lifters- I’m not saying locking in your butt and gut is wrong, it just may be a bit more inefficient). Though every time your jaw becomes rigid or bites down, you’re essentially tightening muscles on the opposite end of yourself. Think about it, if one muscle squeezes tight, another muscle has to let go a bit. In this case you could be intentionally holding your breath for the sake of keeping your core rigid and sturdy, but the signal to your glutes stopped the second you tightened up and held the breath.
Calm down! Neck breathing shuts off other muscles
When things get hard during training, whether you run, lift weights, dance, fight, whatever it is, the first thing to go is your breath. Your breath gets heavy, shallow, and all the breathing is done from your chest up. Your neck muscles, shoulder muscles, everything north of your heart starts working extra to keep your brain and body in the moment. All of a sudden your breathing, which we call respiration, only occurs in the upper body. Your brain has to work harder now to keep the oxygen up top and we quickly leave out everything south of our waistline. This includes low abdominals, transverse abdominis, adductors, quads, hamstrings, and of course pelvic floor muscles.
The moment you start gripping and grunting, you lose your foundation. Your body crumbles like a brick house built on wooden stilts. Yet because we are highly capable human beings, we still push and power through our training. We don’t die (hopefully), though we can and do injure ourselves. Sometimes injuries are loud and obvious, but most of the time they’re silent sleepers, waiting until the straw comes along to break our back. We recover from the session, we move on, we keep training. We get exactly what we wanted; endorphins to make us happier, sweat as evidence of working hard, and the ‘polo’ muscles that assure ourselves that we’re getting stronger, more functional, and undefeatable.
In the world of biomechanics, this leads to a slippery slope of dysfunctional movement with sup-par strength results. I’m not going to dive into the importance of stretching and neutralizing your muscles post workout (which I advise all athletes to do a minimum of 30 minutes for every 75 minutes they train). I’m also not going to get into the details of how a developed athlete (take any Olympian or professional) differ from you and I. There are anomalies out there, there are people who pour their life into their sport and do not necessarily “train this way”, but these are pros, playing, recovering, and devoting their life to performance day in and day out. Not to mention, the best of the best will tell you how they perform at the highest when they are relaxed, not tense and tight. I am here to share with you the future of how we will look at training, from a progressive point of view as well as an injury prevention point of view.
Diaphragm and Pelvic Floor Health
So why the diaphragm as a starting point? Because, once the chest breathing sets in, it becomes 10x harder to use your lower body, in particularly your glutes. And remember, there are six rotators of your femur, plus three gluteii. So when I say glutes, I’m talking about a minimum of nine muscles, excluding hip flexors and pelvic floor muscles. This brings me to the one thing I did not mention up top, which is the importance of pelvic floor health. Your pelvic floor is the bottom, the most under part of your axial skeleton that there is. It is in the same group as the deep front line, and functions rhythmically with your diaphragm. When the diaphragm gets held short, from your jaw and neck tightening, you can bet that it inhibits (shuts off) your pelvic floor muscles. Which then lead to all kinds of dysfunction in your legs, hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, everything. Having a functioning pelvic floor will only boost your progress, strength, and stamina in any activity that you do.
“If this kind of thing is important why haven’t I heard about it?” Because pelvic floor health is taboo to talk about. It’s tangible, but on a more subtle level. It’s also located in an intimate part of the body, so we tend not to centralize our conversations about it. Now am I saying to go out and do pelvic floor exercises? Not really- I’m merely suggesting that to become stronger, more functional, and better at being a human mover and performer, you have got to give attention to your system as a whole, including the muscles we rarley think about. So if you use your noggin and learn to stay calm, cool, and collected during exercise you’re going to be able to harness more inner strength. A relaxed face equals a relaxed diaphragm and a relaxed pelvic floor. From there your body won’t move with any abruptness or choppiness. Hence, beautiful, powerful, and efficient movement.
To the gym rats…
I’m going to have some performance athletes out there who think some of this may sound like rubbish. Though I am one to agree that if you are competing, some of this breath holding stuff can be taken with a grain of salt. Squeezing your butt does serve a purpose when there is deliberate intent behind it (like medaling in a competition or qualifying for a race). I am not here to deny the importance of athletic pursuit in performance, I am here to discuss how to get better from a symmetrical point of view, without building inflammation in the joints. My intention is to educate movers of all kinds about the benefits of building your body proportionality to better function in the world of sport, performance, and movement. Do I think you’ll get stronger by learning and understanding the relevancy of tense upper body relative to tense lower body? Yes. Do I think your true strength potential is at a deficit is you cannot perform basic movements with ease and relaxation? Yes. Do you have to believe my theory? No. But know this; a weak back or a weak knee isn’t just sign of “a back or knee problem”. Weakness comes to light because your body is telling you that you need to get stronger as a system. Something foundational in your body, whether it’s rhythm of the muscles firing or a singular muscle, needs to be paid attention to. The body hates weakness, and it’ll rob every muscle group of strength until you address it. With over 600 muscles in the body, are you sure you’re doing everything necessary so you can get stronger?
Reflection: Okay- I read this, now what?
True strength is being able to control your body mass in all situations, while keeping your breath fluid and neck / jaw relaxed. Your neck is your motor cynlinder, and its’ activity will determine the muscle activity below it. So the more you can relax your neck and activate the deep neck muscles, the better you’ll be able to access your diaphragm, core, and glutes! As athletes the more you advance to higher levels, the more you need to revisit the basics. This one bothers me- as the weight on the bar goes up or as the difficulty increases, we throw fundamentals out the window. THIS IS A MISTAKE if you plan on constantly improving, or doing this for more than ten years pain free. If you struggle with the basic movements outlined in the video below, chances are you need more work on your glute, core, and diaphragm control, and worry less about the weight you’re using. Teach yourself to move from your core instead of your neck. Once your neck can function in a relaxed state you will be able to better access and engage your core and glutes! Incorporating these simple exercises will help you sustain peak performance!
If you can take anything from this post, learn to accept that exerting power without stability in your own body is a dangerous combination. Take it from me, somebody who has faced injuries and overcome them. When you see weakness in your back, legs, or core, don’t ignore it- take the opportunity to learn more about what is weak in your body and needs strengthening. And for god’s sake, keep your neck and jaw relaxed! When you tense up, grind your teeth, or hold your breath it’s a way of self protection (or preparation, depending on the circumstance). More than likely you’re keeping yourself from experiencing a weakness you have, and you’re standing in the way of your own true strength potential. Your glutes, core, and diaphragm are going to keep you doing everything you love to do well into old age. Stop and show them some love!