It’s Time to Get Your Priorities Straight: Back, Glutes, and Abz

Back, glutes, abdominals.

These are important.  You must maintain strength in these areas.

If you train and you’re a gentleman, it’s likely that you do too much pushing without enough pulling to balance.  You love to bench, you do lots of chest flies, and you probably military press too.  Sure you also do some rowing variations and pull-ups, but they probably don’t get as much attention as your pressing movements.  It’s also common for men to neglect their legs to an extent, creating lower body instability and weakness.

If you train and you’re a lady, it’s likely that you spend the majority of your time on your favorite cardio machine, usually the elliptical.  You might also go through the machines sometimes, or occasionally experiment with the free weights.  That’s a good habit, especially if you use a full-body approach, but unfortunately a lot of women fear anything moderately heavy, so the resistance training isn’t producing as much as it should be.

In both situations, some special muscles tend to get neglected entirely.  People struggle to consciously activate their glutes to help with hip extension.  People tend to acquire shoulder pain after a few years of lifting because they don’t pull enough.  People tend to acquire back pain, not only from improper movement skills, but simply because of a weak back.  Core training just isn’t that appealing to everybody, and as a result it is often skipped or done haphazardly and results in wobbly, unstable individuals.

These are all issues, but they are all very fixable issues.  If you address your weaknesses and work to maintain strength throughout your entire body, you will undoubtedly feel better and look more appealing.

Tonic vs. Phasic Muscles

This is a concept that was originally founded by Dr. Vladimir Janda that I learned through reading a lot of work from Dan John.  You can see an article covering Janda’s philosophy and the chart I’m referring to HERE.

The difference between these muscles is that they are susceptible to unique changes as we get older.  Tonic muscles are prone to tightness or shortness, and phasic muscles are prone to weakness or inhibition.

Therefore, we should stretch the tonic muscles, and strengthen the phasic muscles.  It’s certainly not hard to understand, but it’s a little more difficult to put it into practice, especially if you’re a sedentary person.

In this post I’m only going to focus on the phasic muscles, the ones we want stronger.  I don’t have anything against stretching, and I think there are some benefits to doing so, but it shouldn’t be a priority over strength.

In my experience and observation, strengthening what is weak brings much better results than stretching what “feels tight.”  Strength is much more measurable than flexibility and has much more carryover to enhanced performance.

A Practical Example

If you tell me that your hamstrings feel tight and I tell you to stretch them for X amount of time for X amount of sets, we may or may not be accomplishing anything.  Unless we’re measuring how far you can go in the sit-and-reach test, we cannot easily measure whether or not your hamstrings are still “tight,” or if they were even “tight” in the first place.  As a coach I am not able to physically see if you have a “tight” or a “stiff” muscle.

However, if I were to ask a beginner to do a romanian deadlift and they fail to complete one good looking rep, I can instantly spot some areas where they are lacking strength and joint mobility without measure anything.  Their heels are probably coming off the ground, their lower back is probably rounding, and their hips are probably not moving much at all.  These tendencies expose mobility restrictions and weaknesses in several areas including the core, back, and much of the lower body.

Eventually, after said client has adequate mobility and has learned how to do the exercise with proper form, I can now load the movement and get them as strong as possible in it.  In the example of a nicely executed RDL, the client has now targeted their entire posterior chain and stimulated positive adaptions.

The strength gained in this one exercise is completely measurable and can be progressively overloaded throughout the program.  This can be done by varying the load, number of reps per set, number of sets, amount of rest in between sets, etc.

And also, since the RDL loads the hip hinge pattern, we are now stretching the hamstrings while holding a barbell!  A 135 lb RDL is a heck of a lot more effective at both stretching (building eccentric strength, which is very important for the hamstrings in particular) and contracting (building concentric strength) the hamstrings than holding an unloaded static stretch for 30 seconds.

Hopefully you understand that strength is important.  You always want more of it, whether you think you do or not.  It makes your life easier and longer, and attaining more of it should always be a priority even if your goals don’t include more absolute strength.

 

Glutes

Specifically:  All of them.  The gluteus maximus, minimus, and medius.

Solution:  Hip thrusts and full squats.

Your butt has a ton of potential, but it’s probably very sad.  It’s sad because it’s weak and not appreciated.  This is backwards because your butt is capable of producing massive amounts of power.  It’s also very good at protecting your spine.  Weak, inhibited glutes are common in people with excessive anterior pelvic tilt (especially common within the athletic population).  When the pelvis tilts forward, it creates a pretty large arch in the low back, which stresses the lumbar vertebrae.

Increased glute recruitment and strength will help to bring the pelvis closer to neutral.  It will also aid just about everything else you do in the weight room, such as locking out a heavy deadlift or keeping your hips in solid alignment during a heavy overhead press.

Hip thrusts are probably the best exercise for pure glute activation and strength.  Full squats (deep, below parallel) are also good for increasing glute recruitment.  Other exercises such as single-leg glute bridges, pull-throughs, and reverse hyperextensions are awesome for your butt.

Back

Specifically:  Lower trapezius and rhomboids.

Solution:  Band pull-aparts and batwing rows.

A strong back usually indicates a strong body.  Heavy deadlifts, lots of rows and lots of chin ups will waste no time getting your back strength up to speed.  However, band pull-aparts and batwing rows are especially good at targeting the mid back and will certainly supplement the rest of your training efforts.

When performing band pull-aparts, keep tension on the band at all times.  Don’t allow it to gain any slack as you bring your arms together.  You should be pulling your arms back far enough to where the band touches your sternum on every rep.

During the batwing rows, you should be pulling your elbows up as high as possible behind you.  Retract your scapulae and squeeze them tight at the top of each rep.  Use lighter dumbbells here and focus on really feeling that contraction in the muscles of your mid and upper back.

This increased back strength will do wonders for your posture, physique, and spine health.

Anterior Core

Specifically:  Rectus abdominus.

Solution:  RKC planks and loaded carries.

Stronger core = stronger everything.  I can’t stress it enough, but taking time to address the stability and rigidity of your midsection is always going to benefit you.

RKC planks are more effective than standard planks.  The lever is lengthened, the glutes are forcefully contracted, and the elbows and toes are simultaneously pulled toward each other.  These minor changes create tension all over the body resulting in more muscle activation and a much larger challenge.  When performing this type of plank, you want to squeeze your butt and tuck your pelvis under you into posterior pelvic tilt.  At the same time, try to keep your ribcage “locked down” into your pelvis, which will feel like setting your abdominals on fire.  Pulling your elbows and toes inward will also create huge contractions in the lats and quads.

Loaded carries are another game-changer.  It may seem silly to hold heavy things and simply walk with them, but it is actually very challenging and stresses the entire body.  If you don’t believe it, think about how difficult it can be to walk with a suitcase or heavy bag at your side for a considerable distance.  Or to hold multiple grocery bags in each hand as you walk through the parking lot to your car.  Wouldn’t it make sense that if you were to frequently walk with things heavier than you’re used to carrying in everyday life, that carrying everyday things would become much easier?

Simply put, loaded carries effectively build stability and isometric strength over your whole body. Beyond that, anybody can do them because there is no form or technique involved.  Get something heavy to hold, walk with good posture (chest up, shoulders slightly back), and you’re doing yourself a big favor.

Other exercises such as valslide fallouts, banded pallof presses, and hollow body holds are also good options.

Putting It Into Practice

Take pride in training these muscles. Most people ignore them, and that is why so many have muscle imbalances, poor movement patterns, and pain at numerous joints. Incorporate more exercises that specifically target the back, butt, and core and good things will happen.

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