The gluteus medius — one of the four muscles comprising your “rear end” — acts as much like your hip as your seat. When it’s sore or used improperly, it makes itself KNOWN — sometimes as hip pain, other times as lower back pain. Either way, it’s no fun when it’s angry.
Luckily, yoga comes to the rescue to strengthen this muscle and improve its function. Just be sure your alignment is precise. Read on for how to refine…
First, what is the gluteus medius?
Located on each outer hip, the glute medius attaches to the top of the ilium (the rim of your hip bowl) in a broad, fan-like fashion. It crosses the hip joint and then connects to the greater trochanter, a knobby protrusion of the upper femur.
It spans your body from front to back with both posterior and anterior fibers, which, as you’ll see, makes this muscle quite a sophisticated, maybe even high maintenance, mover.
What is the action of the gluteus medius?
When a muscle crosses a joint, you can be sure that its action has to do with the movement of that joint. In the case of the glute medius, its action is indeed at your hip, but because of its unique possession of both anterior and posterior fibers, it acts as its own antagonist! Meaning: it does one action and also exactly the opposite of that action. Don’t get intimidated or bleary-eyed yet.
The glute medius externally rotates the thigh AND internally rotates the thigh. Contract the whole muscle at once and it will abduct the thigh (bringing your leg out to the side, away from the midline). Essentially then, it’s got three major actions.
All three of these actions lead to one important function –> STABILIZE THE HIP.
Functionally, it also does a lot to support your posture and therefore keep your back healthy.
If its multilayered function makes strengthening and stretching this muscle a complicated affair, you can be pleased that it also ensures that your hip is protected by a heavyweight champion and skillful, nimble fighter of a muscle.
When do we need the glute medius? // What’s its daily function?
We need it all day long.
Most notably, it stabilizes the hip joint while standing. It also stabilizes the hip when balancing or when shifting weight from one foot to the other, as in walking, climbing steps, or moving side to side.
We use it when we lift a leg out to the side for any reason — getting into a vehicle, for instance.
Essentially, there’s no way to not be using it all day. What a reason to keep it happy.
When do we need it in yoga?
The gluteus medius is the powerhouse of your balancing game.
All standing balancing poses require the glute medius OF THE STANDING LEG. Remember how we said it internally AND externally rotates the leg all at once?
Just picture that! On your base/foundation leg — the one planted on the ground — it rolls the thigh rotationally inward at the same time that it rotates it outward. This creates an ever-active, always dynamic l i t e r a l balancing act. It’s no wonder we wobble!
You’ll also use the glute medius in the floating leg in poses like Half Moon, (when you suspend the leg out to the side against gravity and therefore make use of its abduction powers).
It is totally possible to be underutilizing this muscle, particularly in standing lunges, like Warrior 1, 2 and High Lunge (on the front leg especially). If we underutilize it for long enough, we will likely, eventually, experience PAIN — often manifesting in the low back. It’s not good for the knees; you might feel it in the hips; and underuse isn’t great for longevity in the practice.
All of this is to say, it’s wise to get to know this muscle, like, yesterday.
Can yoga can strengthen the gluteus medius?
You bet. …When we pay close attention.
Standing Balance Poses to Strengthen the Glute Medius
Tree Pose is a great example.
How to: Standing in Mountain Pose, come on to your left tippy toes or ball of the foot; turn your left knee out to the side. Next, slide your left heel onto your right inner ankle.
This is where your Tree will live for now. No need to hype up the balance just yet. For the purposes of this exercise, bring your hands onto your waist. That’s essentially IT as far as the pose goes. But let’s take a look at what the glute medius is doing.
First of all, notice your right hip. Where is the weight? Is it shifted out to the right, or is it squarely centered?
The tendency can be to let the weight shift laterally. If you find yourself doing this, know that you’re placing pressure on structures not meant to take this kind of weight.
Refine it and kick on the gluteus medius by intentionally hugging your right hip in toward your center line. When you do this, your hip will be stacked directly above your ankle and knee instead of jutting out to the side.
Take it a step farther by intentionally squeezing the posterior fibers of your gluteus medius. (At this point, the gluteus maximus may also kick on to assist in the action — there’s nothing wrong with that!) You might feel as though your thighs are energetically rotating externally, bringing your buns closer together.
What will happen when you squeeze the posterior fibers is that the entirety of your gluteus medius will now be participating in the stabilization of your hip. It’ll be functioning in the way it is intended instead of being bypassed by your reliance on joint dumping.
Even better, you’ll notice that this intentional engagement serves to stand you TALLER, relieving pressure all the way up your spine and making it easier to kick on the abdominal muscles.
If you want some extra yoga magic, use your root lock, AKA mula bandha, to draw your energy INWARD & UPWARD. This is samana vayu (in case you wanted extra credit), and the medius helps you access it. It’s the inward/upward movement of energy. You can think of it as postural energy, spinal energy, chakra energy, and even emotional energy. Cuz… Don’t you feel better when you can stand tall and feel strong and light?!
More Balancing Yoga Poses to Strengthen the Glute Medius:
- Eagle Pose
- Half-Bound Lotus Balance – Ardha Baddha Padmottanasa
- Standing Figure Four
- All 4 of the Hasta Padangusthasana Poses
- Warrior 3
- Half Moon
- Seated wide-legged fold when you are ACTIVELY externally rotating the thighs
Yoga poses that strengthen the glute medius with abduction:
Remember, abduction is when you bring a limb away from your midline. It makes sense that the muscle sitting on your outer thigh would act to lift the leg like a lever out to the side.
It is also responsible for w i d e n i n g your legs in wide-legged shapes like wide-legged seat and — less obviously — Warrior 2, Triangle, and Side Angle.
Here are some yoga poses that feature thigh abduction:
- Half Moon
- Warrior 2 (especially front leg)*
- Side Angle (especially front leg)*
- 3-legged dog when hips are open (top leg)*
- Baddha Konasana when you are ACTIVELY sending the knees to the ground
- Seated wide-legged fold when you are ACTIVELY widening the thighs
*What’s with the asterisks?
These are poses where the medius can be accidentally underutilized. These shapes often get executed for years without appropriate enlisting of the medius. In the worst cases, the practitioner will suffer quietly with pain. Luckily, pain with this root cause is preventable and curable.
Yoga Poses where we need to mindfully make sure we’re using the glute medius:
Get in: Starting in Warrior 1, left foot forward, right foot roughly perpendicular to the front (let’s not sweat the back foot alignment for a sec).
Take your left forearm bone to the top of your left thigh with the palm facing up. For the purposes of this exercises, reach your right arm up to the sky, keeping your chest wide open.
Now, there are a thousand tiny subtleties we could focus on in Side Angle pose and its variations, but today I want you to think about your left, or front, hip.
I’d venture to say that the vast majority of yoga practitioners are prone to misusing or underusing the glute medius in this pose — especially when you get any deeper / lower than this variation.
How do I know I’m using the glute medius “right”?
#1) Does the knee point forward and not in? When you’re appropriately engaging your gluteus medius in Side Angle, it is helping to keep your knee pointing directly forward (instead of knocking inward, a common tendency). Even long-time yogis who THINK they’re doing it “right,” are surprised to learn, upon an alignment check, that their knee occasionally drifts inward.
A cue that I appreciate is to send your inner knee forward. I like this more than “point the knee in direction of your second toe,” for instance, because our bodies vary so dramatically. Though the knee isn’t moving laterally, per se, the energy and action of abduction must be present in order to hold the knee in this alignment.
When it goes “wrong,” it shows up as either a knee drifting inward or a hip jutting outward. Or both.
#2) Does your front hip sink below your knee? Does your butt stick out the left? Here’s another way it goes “wrong,” especially in the deeper variations: We lean down into the bones and ligaments and rely on a downward energy to hold us in position (did someone say “dumping”?).
This is obvious to the eye and can been seen when a practitioner’s hip descends lower than the knee (a shape that is possible to execute with healthy glute medius but not probable). Typically, the hip will also jut out.
But bone dumping is not always visible! Make sure you’re not doing the sneakier version of it.
To find out if you are, TRY THIS:
Begin again in Warrior 2. Mindfully, S L O W L Y move into Side Angle. Notice what the hip is doing. Does it hold your weight firmly? or does your weight shift into the joint? If you don’t notice it happening, try this to be sure:
Begin in the variation of Side Angle with your forearm on your thigh. Then move into a deeper variation like putting your hand on the floor or on a block just inside your front foot — but hang on! Do it S L O W L Y, do it mindfully, and notice any shift of the burden.
Does your hip give out? Does it hand its responsibility over to your ligaments? Does the hip swing wide to the side?
Can you still feel the connection between your foot and your glute muscles? (You will if you’re doing it in a healthy way.)
“Shoot, I think I might be bone dumping…”
Okay, let’s fix it!
To ensure that your glute med is working the way you want it to in Side Angle and in similar shapes — like Warrior 2 and even Triangle…
Come up way higher than you know you can go. There is no room for ego in this task!
THEN, mindfully — yes — S L O W L Y, even gingerly re-enter the deeper variation.
NOTICE if and when your hip stops doing its action, and if it does BACK OFF again just a couple of inches. Re-enter and back off. Re-enter and back off until you can build strength at this threshold place (This is how deep power is built — always).
Incrementally & over time your glute medius will learn to do its job well.
Can yoga poses stretch the gluteus medius?
You know it.
It’s not just weakness and underuse of the glute medius muscle that causes discomfort. Since yoga and other activities ask a lot of the glute medius, it is totally possible to strain it, inflame it, and to make it generally sore.
Sometimes it’s a sore you can live with, sometimes it’s the kind that feels intuitively wrong. Either way, gentle stretching can go a long way to making the muscle feel, well, nice.
To stretch the gluteus medius, you’ll want to think primarily of adduction — any time you’re bringing your leg into or across your midline. If you can squeeze internal rotation into the picture, it’s a double whammy since you’ll then ALSO be stretching the hardworking posterior fibers of the muscle.
Yoga poses that stretch the glute medius:
- Pigeon pose
- Gomukasana or Cow-Faced legs
- Ardha Matsyendrasana
- Baddha Konasana
- Double Pigeon Pose
To amplify the stretch:
- Pigeon with a twist
- Fallen Triangle and then set your front hip down
Pigeon with a twist:
You might want a cushion or block available.
Starting on all fours, take your right knee behind your right wrist and swing your right foot up TOWARD your left wrist (it’ll likely be pretty far from your left wrist and that is a-okay).
Support yourself on your hands and find balance in your hips. If you can take both sides of your seat down to the ground, great. If you find yourself leaning to one side, then stuff a cushion underneath your right side seat.
Fold forward, but here’s the juicy variation –> Slide your left arm under the right until you can set your left shoulder onto the ground or onto a cushion. Rest your left cheek on the ground as well. There’s a trick–
When you take this twisting variation, the right hip is going to want to lift up. Don’t let it! That would rob you of the sweet stretch.
The trick is to keep your right hip heavy on earth and then think of your heart as leaning away from it.
Stay for a minimum of 15 breaths, but 3 or more minutes is even nicer. Use breath to open your body from the inside out and to soften you everywhere.
The glute medius works damn hard for you all day, and it’s often thrown jobs that it can barely handle. Softening it is nourishing and hydrating for the muscle — and for you! As always in yoga, this is about balance. You want to be strong without strain, soft without being floppy. The tools of asana are at your fingertips. Enjoy!
There you have it. How to optimize function of your glute medius muscle with yoga.
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