To Clench or Not to Clench (Your Butt), That Is the Question
People are frequently given the cue to intentionally and constantly contract their butts to find better core support or stability.1 That said, let’s first talk about stability and support as it pertains to the human body more broadly before I get all snarky about butt clenching in particular. (Spoiler alert! I’m not a fan.)
We are designed to be supported from the inside out. Sometimes I give the analogy of a suspension bridge, which, although simplistic, gives an idea of what I mean.2 If you picture the Golden Gate Bridge, you want to drive over that bridge because all of its cables are doing their correct job. If some of those cables were too short and some were too long, you wouldn’t want to drive over that bridge.
In an ideal world - one where we are never injured, sick, or stressed out - we are like the fully functioning Golden Gate Bridge. All of our cables are doing their proper job and we are happily supported, or suspended, from the inside out. We are springy, bouncy, secure, and mobile in all in the right places as we move through life.
Let’s now enter the real world where injury, stress, and dysfunction happen. Now we have a suspension bridge with some cables that are too long and others that are too short. Our bridge is not accepting loads properly. It has lost spring in important places, and its stability has being worn away in important secure places. This bridge is no longer safe to drive on and is not going to last long at this rate. There need to be some repairs, so how should we repair it?
Two Ways to Repair Your Suspension Bridge
Option one says we can repair our bridge by accepting that these cables are not doing their proper job and instead of repairing the cables to their original supportive and springy positions, we decide to bolster the bridge by building support structures underneath it, next to it, on top of it - anywhere it seems to need new, extra stuff. This approach is basically propping up the dysfunction by adding on more material anywhere that seems weak.
The problem with the add-on approach is that it’s difficult to predict the impact of these new structures, as you have now completely altered the original engineering of the bridge. The reason you don’t see the “keep propping it up” approach in architecture and engineering is because it doesn’t work long term. These new structures are going to add new and often surprising problems to the whole.
Option two says we can go back to the blueprint and repair the cables to their original design, thus restoring the optimal structural integrity to the bridge based on how it was engineered to function best. This is the less risky (long term) and less clumsy, or random, approach.
Butt Clenching Your Bridge
Butt clenching for support is, you guessed it, a bolster-the-dysfunction tactic. Just to clarify: I’m not talking about never activating your gluteals or deep lateral rotators. Clearly they are meant to work. In particular, I would want them to work when I am lifting heavy things, getting up and down, and when I am walking (not clenching while walking - give that a try and see how fun it is - I just mean the activation needed for normal leg extension in walking). They work plenty in normal, natural movements, so they really don’t need to be perma-clenched.
Perma-clenching is often an unconscious habit created by deep core weakness, pelvic misalignment, pelvic floor weakness, and lumbar instability. Ironically, though people are often trying to gain more support by butt-clenching, the long-term results of it can include increased wear on the lumbar discs and the sacroiliac joints, hip pain, decreased core support, and a too-tight pelvic floor (which isn’t as much fun as it sounds).
If you find that you are the person who is gripping when simply standing in line at the grocery store, or washing the dishes, or even when trying to walk down the street (which will also cause your legs to externally rotate giving you a duck waddle), you’ll need to replace it with things that get you back to your original supportive architecture.
Rebuilding Your Architecture
First, see if your pelvis is habitually forward of your ankles. If you usually feel most of your weight in your forefoot, this is almost certainly the case. Try backing your pelvis up so it is supported right over your ankles. Stop when you have more weight toward your heel, but before you need to contract your quads to keep from falling backwards.
This should be an effortless position - no clenching is required anywhere - so don’t trade quad clenching for butt clenching. Also note that I am not talking about tilt - this is not a tuck your butt or arch your back exercise. Please skip out on doing either of those things and just let your lumbar curve be in its natural shape.
Next, see if you also live in a perma-corset. This means your abdomen is always rigid and your extrinsic muscles, in particular the rectus abdominus of six-pack abs fame, are overly developed. It also means you will have lost not only some breath fluency and capacity, but will also have a harder time getting the deeper core musculature, in particular the transversus abdominus of Pilates fame, to be active. Try some of the Coregeous self-massage that I demonstrate from the Yoga Tune Up world in the video below, and also back off of any regimen you have that is overtraining your more superficial abdominal musculature.
Sometimes these bolstering habits that we develop can be challenging to let go of as at some point our nervous systems decide that they are our normal. Other systems that can help you to find your way back to your innate support, or “blueprint”, are Rolfing or other forms of Structural Integration, Alexander Technique, and Feldenkrais.
Unraveling compensatory patterns may be more complex than the quick-fix of just clenching a muscle group (just as going back to the drawing board and reestablishing support in the bridge’s cables would be more complex than simply propping it up). But taking the more complex path in this case is a solid investment in the health of your bones and soft tissue for the rest of your life.
1. “Butt” is hardly an anatomical term, so what I am referring to are the gluteals and deep lateral hip rotators, though the tensor fascia latae can get involved as well.
2. We’re actually built more like geodesic domes, or tensegrity suspension structures. The Kurilpa Bridge in Australia is a good example.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.