I recently wrote an article called “10 Things to Stop Doing in Your Yoga Practice.”
In it, I suggested that we stop “overusing your quadriceps.”
In response, a reader left a really wonderful question. She wrote:
Thank you so much for sharing so passionately those ideas with us yoga teachers and yoga practitioners. I am a brand new yoga teacher and I have a question regarding not overusing the quadriceps.
A lot of people in classes have a hard time distinguishing the use of the gluteal muscles versus the hamstringsand also as you mention overuse their quadriceps. Any suggestions on teaching a balance between these muscles would be really useful and appreciated. Thank you so much.
I replied this:
That’s a tough question to answer in a comment, so if I write a blog on it, I’ll share the link. That said, this is difficult, especially because much of it is experience and trial and error.
One easy way I’ve found for basically everyone to feel the difference between using their quads and their hamstrings (which, as you know, isn’t just one muscle and that alone is a separate conversation) is to take students into warrior one and just have them play with the sensation of pressing into the heel and, without moving the foot, digging backwards on their mat. Try it, and you’ll feel how this activates the hamstrings. Another one is to get them into chair pose and cue them to press into their heels and lift their toes (but I prefer warrior one because most students can stay in it longer and play with it a little bit more).
As far as the glutes versus the hamstrings, in my experience at least, even more seasoned yogis can have difficulty with this mind-body connection. Good poses to work feeling the usage of glutes versus hamstrings are generally backbends and poses of extension (like warrior III) where people tend to overuse the piriformis muscle and under use the hamstrings.
Take them into bridge pose where they can play with this pressing of the heel-engagement of the hamstrings connection and also into poses like baby cobra where people engage their upper glutes when they shouldn’t. (Although I’m of the school that engaging the lower portion of the glutes, kind of by the crease where your butt meets your upper thigh) is ideal, but learning to activate the different gluteal muscles while relaxing others is, again, a very difficult mind-body sensation to feel and activate much less teach.
Needless to say, I decided to write a blog on this because it truly is an important concept to play around with as a yoga practitioner, student and teacher.
Let’s get to work.
Obviously, you’ve hopefully read my brief, imperfect-as-a-blog response above, so I won’t regurgitate what I’ve already shared. However, I do want to expand on a few things.
I’d like to begin by stating that this article is being written more from experience within my own practice than from an anatomy textbook or things you could Google yourself. That said, my experiences might not be yours or, more, it might take a lot of experimentation—as I’ve done—to achieve the recognition of these sensations.
Let’s dig in.
The hamstring muscles run along the backside of the legs and extension involves the straightening and separating of joints. In other words, in our yoga practice a wonderful example of extension involving the backs of the legs is Warrior III.
In Warrior III, we extend the body in one long line, parallel to the ground, while standing on one leg. In both the standing leg and in the extended leg, it’s ideal to work the hamstrings efficiently while not overworking muscles in the gluteal region, such as the aforementioned piriformis. It’s also ideal not to lock the knees and put the joint at risk by falsely thinking you’re engaging your quads.
Here’s what I suggest:
For one, we need to strengthen the glutes.
Weak glute muscles attribute to this overuse of the piriformis muscle, which can ultimately lead to terrible pain and injuries like piriformis syndrome (which involves pain and your sciatic nerve).
Basically, learning to tell the difference between the engagement of the quads, hamstrings and glutes can not only lead to more well-rounded strength within the body, but it can also prevent unnecessary injury and harm.
So now you know that you should pay attention to overworking your piriformis in Warrior III while under-working, well, everything else. And how do you do that?
Let’s discuss backbends next.
Practicing mild backbends is one of the best ways to begin distinguishing between the muscles of the glutes and the legs.
Many teachers will incorrectly cue students to lift up from the quadriceps—I cringe even writing that—rather than properly encouraging to lift from your hamstrings.
Think simply about a backbend—again, in your own experience and not in a textbook manner.
In a backbend, aren’t we contracting the back of our bodies while opening up and stretching the front? Yep, we are. And, as we said right away in our intro, the hamstrings are on the back of the body. So we should be focused primarily on strengthening, toning and intentionally engaging—and lifting up from—the backs of the legs—and from the hamstrings.
First, play around with digging into your heels in bridge pose.
Follow the steps in the above video to get into bridge pose and then experiment with pressing into your heels and, without actually moving your feet, “pushing” your heels away and into your mat. This will help noticeably engage the hamstrings.
Then lengthen the tailbone towards your heels—these two moves coupled together will help us to understand the appropriate lengthening and activation of the quadriceps in most backbending poses. (Which is much more intricate then the ill-used expression “lift up from your quads.”)
In Warrior I, you’ll also lengthen through your lower back—engaging the lower abdominal muscles—while working the engagement of the hamstrings through the activation of the feet, specifically your heels once again.
In Warrior I, and without actually moving both feet like before, press into the heels and play with moving the heel of your front foot backwards. This pressing and backward motion should fire up the hamstrings in a way that’s pretty obvious to feel.
Then practice lifting up, using the hamstrings—almost like there’s air underneath the front leg while you’re in Warrior I. This will help you get used to strengthening the often weaker backside of the leg rather than being overly reliant on the quads.
From here, if you want to go further into this Warrior I sensation experiment, focus on using the rear leg to press down into the back heel and the outer (pinky-side) portion of the back foot. Use the inner thigh and the back of this rear leg to further root yourself firmly and strongly within your posture without compromising the back knee or overworking the front leg (another common mishap in Warrior I).
(Okay, are you hanging in there? I know this is kind of a lot. Let’s cover one more thing.)
Lastly, let’s get back into a backbend, but this time we’ll do a mild prone (or lying face down) backbend, like baby cobra.
Alright, that’s not exactly baby cobra pose.
(Yep, that’s a platinum blonde moi in cobra pose.)
Once you’re in your actual baby cobra (with bent elbows that are over the wrists), press into the entire top of the foot, especially the pinky toenails (this will help lengthen through the lower spine). Then notice (just observe) if you’re using your butt muscles to get more extension. If you are, stop.
Like I wrote to our reader earlier, it’s extremely difficult to understand the mind-body connection of differentiation between the glutes and hamstrings—difficult but not impossible.
In the meantime, my suggestion is that you begin with not using the glutes at all in your backbends.
On the one hand, the reason you might engage these muscles is because they will lift you higher into backbends—until you reach the point of flexibility where their hardening becomes a deficit. Arguably, many of us will not get there. Regardless, I have another reason to offer this suggestion.
We already discussed the over-usage of the piriformis muscles and the weakness of other gluteal muscles. In backbends, it’s truly ideal to engage the lower part of the tush—by the crease, by the back of the upper thigh…you know…ahem…the hamstrings—while keeping the upper part of the butt relaxed.
For one, this prevents injuries like those we already mentioned and, for another, it helps to strengthen areas that most of us could use strengthening in (hence our typically weaker glutes and overworked quads).
Honestly, this could be an entirely separate article—this idea of working our various gluteal muscles and leg muscles in backbends—but, for beginning experimentation’s sake, let’s merely start with relaxing your butt completely while trying to exclusively use the back muscles for the lift.
Taking the glutes out of the equation will help ensure that you’re using the muscles that we should be using in many of our prone backbends—the back muscles; and by toning the back muscles properly, you’ll be able to use them more effectively in other poses that can overwork other muscles like the piriformis—as in our already-discussed Warrior III.
Again, please notice I suggested that the ideal backbend differentiates not only between the glutes, thighs and hamstrings but also between the different gluteal muscles. That’s the great thing about our yoga practice—there’s no rush.
It’s just practice. (And maybe we’ll save that concept for another elephant article down the road.)
So here’s to happy practicing.
This article was first published on elephant journal.