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How Constantly Gripping Your Glutes and Abs Ruins Your Stability

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 30 August 2018
Hits: 8944

There is so many things I have learned over the past 14 years as a trainer and I have made so many mistakes. There is so many things I firmly believed in for years only to completely reverse my thinking years later. And when it comes to gripping, this is something I definitely did myself for many years believing I was doing a good thing. As a result I regularly suffered with all types of injuries all caused from my own training, or constant habits that I was not aware of that had become subconscious pain creators. This article we are going to take a look at what is a very common problem to the keen gym person and sporting athlete and how over doing something good can lead to causing problems with how you move.

What Is Gripping?

There is a constant need for strength training using glutes and abs as a focus. However too much of a good thing can ruin your body's ability to effectively stabilize.

There is 4 areas where we see gripping regularly:

  1. Shoulder Gripping
  2. Trunk Gripping
  3. Hip Gripping
  4. Toe Gripping

Out of the 4 areas this is usually seen, all except toe gripping are often created from conscious attempts to alter one's posture. Toe gripping is in nearly all cases an unconscious effort by the body and many do not even know this is a problem. As for the first three you can see these are all things that many people have been told to do at one point or another, and in some way it was right to do, and may have even provided some great response. But as I said earlier you can have too much of a good thing, and what was originally going to help you, now creates a massive problem! Below is a video about hip gripping to explain this better.

Gripping will create a loss of joint centration and ultimately a loss of stability.

This is definitely a problem that is associated more with the "educated" training person. What I mean by that is, someone who has some gym experience and aware of posture, where various muscles are, and what exercises used to improve them. This is where they think more is better only to create a new problem.

I first heard of this gripping concept from world renowned physiotherapist Dianne Lee and read about this in her book "The Thorax" many years ago. And more recently I was reminded of this in the book "Common Exercise Solutions For The Hip & Shoulder" by Dr Even Osar. Both fantastic books and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting an in depth look at corrective exercise. Dr Osar just like me had also made the same mistakes early in his career, and also in his own training suffering with a labral tear to his shoulder by applying what he had been taught at the time. From his clinical experience, his own rehabilitation, and constantly researching and learning, he was able to really grasp how the body truly moves and develop incredible programs to correct them. And one of the key concepts he learned was that constantly pulling shoulders back or over tightening the glutes can cause a great deal of problems and pain.

What Causes Gripping?

Really this comes down to two factors.

1: Reaction To Injury

Firstly gripping patterns can develop following any type of injury. The body sensing it has lost stability to a specific joint "turns up the volume" of muscles in the affected area in an attempt to provide greater stability and protection of the joint. Unfortunately this in turn creates a loss of joint centration, loss of mobility and loss of movement. So while it may protect the joint from dislocation or severe joint damage it now comes at a cost to the ligaments, tendons, cartilage inside the joint.

2: Habit

Secondly this can be created from repetitive habits! Standing poorly, sitting poorly, poor training techniques and overuse of various postures in the belief it is providing a great benefit. This problem is common to the experienced gym person and the one I have seen several times this past fortnight. In comparison to the first problem this is much easier to change but will take discipline and awareness.

Let's take a close look at each of the various gripping problems.

Shoulder Gripping

The old saying “pull your shoulders back” IS NOT a good instruction to ever give someone, in fact it can cause many of the shoulder related problems like shoulder impingement, rotator cuff tears and labral tears. The better instruction is to say, "stand tall".

Dianne Lee refers to this as back gripping and states

"Back gripping is a common strategy seen in dancers, gymnasts and others who have tried to 'sit up tall', be bigger, stick out their chests etc. It is the military stance. The consequences of sustained back-gripping are that this strategy:

  1. forces the joints of your spine together and potentially causes a mid or low back ache, especially when you stand for prolonged periods of time,
  2. limits the ability of your spinal joints to bend forward and lengthens your anterior abdominal muscles which makes them less able to support you."

In the rehab world this is instructions is still evident and the belief that we need tons of exercises to drive scapula retraction and to pull your shoulders down to encourage good posture. I have been to many Pilates classes where this instruction was driven into the class for the entire hour. (There is actually a class called "abs and butts")

But what is so bad about this?

Retraction of the shoulder muscles is a normal part of bio-mechanics during the phase of pulling exercises and also in the easier phase of pushing exercises. However over doing these exercises or consciously squeezing your scapula together (usually the rhomboids and middle trapezius) can completely disrupt the timing and sequence of how the scapula and shoulder integrate together to create movement. This is a common problem to a person with a winged scapula. The term winged scapula gets it's name from its appearance, a wing-like resemblance, due to the medial border of the scapula sticking straight out from the back.

They do not need more retraction of the shoulder to correct their problem, they need less. They need to learn how to keep the scapula attached to the thorax. Pushing patterns are the correction for this person to develop stronger  serratus anterior and lift the rib cage into a better postion to stabilize the scapula. Read the article - Top 5 exercises for winged scapula for more information on this common problem.

Another big problem is when a pulling exercise is performed either poorly, or too often. In both cases it can reinforce the scapula into retraction in a downwardly rotated and anterior tilted position, creating more tightness, impingement and discomfort. This alignment and altered motor control issue cannot be improved by ‘strengthening’ the scapular retractors or by performing more scapular retraction exercises, as it will often be more of a thoracic dysfunction, and poor mobility with the scapula that is the problem.

One things is for certain where you see overuse of the scapular adductors, you are guaranteed to see NECK PAIN! Trigger points and pain will develop in your middle back muscles such as the rhomboids and middle traps due to overuse. This in turn prevents the scapula from achieving upward rotation of the scapula as the big adductor muscles hold on tight and now you will have difficulty turning your head!

Read article - How To Get Rid Of A Stiff Neck for specific examples of correcting this.

And to top it all off you now will force your shoulder into an anterior position in the shoulder leading to potential shoulder impingement. Apart from pulling your shoulders back all the time the other way people cause shoulder gripping is in the gym. This is easily done by;

  • Over squeezing the scapula together on deadlifts,
  • Squeezing scapula on chin ups or lat pulldown
  • Performing too many rowing exercises
  • Pulling the elbows in too close on rowing exercises

I myself know all about this as I suffered from a shoulder impingement in 2017 from doing exactly this. Too many rows, deadlifts and chin ups and not being aware of how the shoulder truly functions. I was stretching my pecs all the time and making the mistake of trying to do 3 rows to one push. All that ended up happening was I developed a depressed shoulder and tore my supraspinatus. Just like Dr Osar I too learned a big lesson on how to go about working with the shoulders and that true balance and posture is not about all about the back muscles doing more work.

Below is a great video demonstrating how the shoulder really functions and why it is not good to every pull your shoulders back and down.

I now know that some people will benefit greatly from more pushing exercises, for example winged scapula as we saw before. It has nothing to do with rigid rules of how many you should do but how the scapula, thoracic spine and glenohumeral joint combine together to create movement.

One of the best exercises to get out of this posture is to use the Wall Slides and Yoga Push Up drills as featured below.

Trunk Gripping

This is a big problem I see a lot with back pain sufferers, and people who are self conscious with their belly looking flat. When people adopt a trunk gripping strategy they are over-activating the external obliques that will create a posterior tilt of the pelvis. While this may give them the flat abs they were looking for, it will now cause a series of muscle imbalance chain reactions that will eventually lead to pain.

In the case of the back pain person, trunk gripping will lead to rigidity and actually more back pain! Ironic considering it is a strategy adopted by the body to prevent pain. In particular is the danger in creating a DISC BULGE as the lumbar spine is forced into flexion as they constantly tuck their pelvis under. In addition to this you will begin to see flaring of the rib cage (see picture above) that will now result in a change of breathing. Over-activity of the outer unit muscles leads to weakening of the inner unit, and over time you will see stiffness and rigidity creep into the thoracic spine. Now you you are likley to develop neck pain!

This is one big concern I have with most abdominal exercises, and in particular with Pilates that encourage "imprint" where they force the spine flat to the floor. It is NEVER a good idea to lose the natural curve of the lumbar spine, it needs to be kept in neutral. Sure some people may have too much extension and need to use some flexion to correct the excessive curve, but it must not go beyond neutral. For if it does you now create new problems.

Next person to consider when we talk about trunk gripping is the person who subconsciously squeeze in their belly in an attempt to flatten their lower abs. With practice this becomes a bad habit that will lead to huge dysfunction.

I have met quite a few clients recently who had adopted this exact gripping strategy for some time and was now causing them problems at both the lower back and the shoulder. They were constantly holding their belly in, with the belief it was toning and strengthening their abs. Several of these people were runners who adopted this strategy of holding their abs in thinking it was making their core stronger! I have heard this instruction many times before in running circles, and this is complete craziness. Not only is this going to drastically affect performance as you need the diaphragm to inflate to generate more air it will quickly cause you to create a new breathing method that will make your pelvis much weaker expose your body to joint problems at the lumbar spine and hip.

Learning to breathe properly using your diaphragm as it is intended is essential for this person. This means your belly will rise on a breath in.

Lying on your back with your knees and hips bent put your hands on either sides of your rib cage. Think about relaxing the muscles of the upper abdomen and breathe into your hands slowly expanding your lower rib cage like an umbrella - all the way around. Move this practice to sitting and then to standing. DON'T try to flatten your abdominal wall by drawing your navel to spine - this only tightens your abdominal muscles even more, relax the chest, relax your upper belly and find your cue for the deep muscle system.

Join a Yoga class and learn how to use your diaphragm again. You can read more about this in our article Do You Know How To Breathe Correctly?

A great exercise to use for keeping abdominal function without gripping is using the Prone Jackknife as seen below.

Hip Gripping

Hip gripping is also commonly known as butt gripping (Dianne Lee). This is what I was guilty of recently, and it results in the head of the femur (thigh bone) being pushed forward and out of the hip socket resulting in hip impingement. This person will have trouble with deadlifting and squats in the gym being able to maintain a neutral lumbar curve. This is a big problem with many PIRIFORMIS SYNDROME people who have also adopted this habit.

The picture below is of someone butt-gripping on both the left and right sides. Note the drawing in of the fabric at the bottom of the pelvis, sometimes you will even see the fabric go up the cleft of the bum, sure signs that you are using a non-optimal strategy for transferring loads through your pelvis and that you are a butt-gripper.

Do you subconsciously tighten your butt either on one or both sides of your pelvis all day? I know I was doing this as I caught myself doing it by mistake several times.

Ways you can determine if you are doing it is to test yourself by feeling the shape of your butt. Stand up and place your hands on the sides of your hips just behind the bones. Do you feel a big divot under your hand? Can you relax your buttock muscles and does this change the shape/divot any further?

Another test is to see if you can lift your knee into your chest and if you roll under with your pelvis doing this it is a sign you have developed butt gripping. Also notice if you sit on a chair by rolling back onto your back onto your tailbone and round out your lower back. This is a giveaway for being a butt gripper. Once you become aware of this clenching or gripping habit you will begin to notice how often during the day you use this strategy.

Butt Gripping Exacerbated In The Gym

In the gym this again can be exacerbated by overusing glute exercises or performing them poorly as with hip extensions that pull the pelvis under. Overstretching the hip flexors as seen in picture below, or poor lunging positions will also push the head of the femur forward. You must keep the pelvis maintained in neutral. Learning to maintain neutral anterior tilt of the pelvis during Deadlifts and Squats is a great way to stop butt gripping during exercises.

BUT......

You must avoid using the cue "squeeze your glutes hard".  This is something I have to mindful of with clients, as often we see weak glutes and we do want to get people to turn them on. But like anything too much also becomes a problem.

The deadlift is a great exercise for someone to learn how to strengthen the glutes into a bending action without overly contracting them. However it can also contribute to making it worse if you are not aware of the technique or overdo the glutes role. See the pictures below of where the position is compromised in bending over and where excessive glute squeezing forces the head of the femur forward again. Excessive glute tightening at the top of the movement will be seen as a leaning back posture and this is also when you may see shoulder gripping happen at the same time.

The deadlift, and the squat are two of the great corrective methods to prevent butt gripping if performed correctly. I myself have been using the Romanian Deadlift exercises to get rid of my butt gripping during these exercises. The romanian deadlift is excellent for the person who struggles to keep the anterior tilt of the pelvis, and over recruits the glutes and hamstrings with bending movements. This exercise in itself is a stretch for the posterior chain as much as it is a great way to strengthen it. I like to start with just simple bodyweight  drills as shown in the video below and find this is a great way for people to learn how to master the art of the anterior tilt which forces the head of the femur back into the socket.

I also have had to spend considerable time stretching and releasing stiffness around my glutes and hamstrings. My instincts tell me to stretch the front of the hip as that is where I feel the pinch in my hip, but doing this will only lead to more impingement. The problem is actually my butt is too tight and I need to release it.

Great articles to read on preventing butt gripping are below

Toe Gripping

As mentioned earlier out of the four gripping strategies this one is by far the most common but it is also one that is not often a conscious effort to do this but a subconscious reaction from the body in attempt to stabilize the foot. Many people are toe grippers and do not know it, and many may go through their entire life with no real injury or problem from this. But many will suffer the problems associated with this poor foot stability strategy.

Constantly wearing narrow shoes like high heels, or even worse flip flops and sandals is the fastest way to adopt toe gripping. The toes learn to adopt a gripping strategy to keep your flip flops from falling off, and now acts as part of your new ‘plan B’ approach to stabilizing the foot by overusing the toe flexors instead of using the entire foot musculature. A bit like a virus in the computer. This is where you see clawing, hammer toes, bunions etc.

Gripping can be a huge problem as you have basically just narrowed the width of your foot making you unstable. Anyone who has toe gripping must spend considerable time learning to spread the toes again, and also regain function of the big toe which you will find is almost non existent. Shortly I am going to show you how you can get this back and improve your ability to spread your toes and use your big toe correctly. The person who is a toe gripper usually finds single leg exercises difficult, often cramps in calf or feet instead of feeling strength or fatigue kick into their glutes as it is mean to. You can see how this person will over time develop extremely weak glutes from a foot problem. The weak glutes then create massive problems at the hip exposing the back and knee to injury.

Watch the videos below that explain exactly how toe gripping happens and what you can do about it with simple exercises like toe spreading, trigger point release and using the foot tripod stance.

Summary

I hope this article gives you some great insight into avoiding the pitfalls and mistakes we see made on a regular basis. These mistakes by the way are common to sporting athletes who also are aware of trying to become the best they can be and easily slip into too much of a good thing. Try to be aware if you are a "gripper" and begin changing your habits, sitting position, training technique to adopt more functional and neutral positions.

  • Anyone with neck pain suspect shoulder gripping.
  • Anyone with back pain suspect either trunk or butt gripping.
  • Anyone with hip/piriformis or knee pain suspect butt gripping.
  • Anyone with foot, knee or hip trouble can suspect toe gripping.

In simple language learn how to strengthen muscles and move well, but do not over train or think that more must be better. It is all about balance and training with efficiencey and ease of movement. This is the secret to remaining pain free, but also getting the most out of your performance.

Need More Help?

Now I know I only touched on a few exercises to correct these mistakes so make sure you check out all the articles and links featured in this article as they will give you a stack more information on what to do. For fully detailed step by step programs for each of these areas you can download our online programs featured below. Each one of these programs includes assessments, exercise instructions, pictures and videos of how to implement corrective strategies to get rid of your problem for good.

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