Peter Francis Column - New meaning for bums and tums

In his health and fitness column in the Limerick Leader, Peter Francis writes about the importance of having strong core and glutial muscles.

In his health and fitness column in the Limerick Leader, Peter Francis writes about the importance of having strong core and glutial muscles.

For the past decade, coaches, trainers, and physical therapists like me have told runners to “work your core” or “draw your belly button towards the spine”.

That is because the muscles of your torso when active act as a corset or brace around your midriff to support your every move.

So many athletes across sports have added crunches and planks that strengthen the abdominals and back to their routines. While these exercise are a positive addition to your training routine when performed correctly, abdominals are still only one isolated muscle group in our core.

As we all know movement particularly in sport never occurs in isolation, our entire chain from head to toe must move in sync. In reality our core encompasses the whole lumbar – pelvic area i.e. any muscle which attaches to the low back and hips. This means that low back muscles (quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi), hip flexors (iliopsoas) and the muscles in your buttocks (gluteus minimus, medius and maximus) added to your traditional core abdominal muscle make up a fully functioning core. As discussed previously the right balance between mobility, stability and control in these muscles is essential for postural health and sporting performance.

Today we are going to pay particular attention to the gluteal muscles. Repeated crunches do little for the powerhouse muscles that surround the pelvis. The gluteal (buttocks) muscles are so commonly left out of athlete’s strength programs; I call them the forgotten core.

The main role of the gluteal muscles is to initiate extension of our leg and provide single leg stability. When we run or walk the gluteal muscles hold our pelvis level, extend our hip, propel us forward and keep our legs, pelvis and torso aligned. Due to their location and function, when our glutes are dysfunctional, our link from upper to lower body is disrupted and therefore the entire kinetic chain is out of sync. So let’s think about what sports might require hip extension and single leg stability? Well as no-one ever runs on two legs at one time, almost all sports require it.

This time last year Ronan O’Gara kicked a superb winner at Thomond Park after some 40 phases of play and while this demonstrates years of practice, concentration and learning to be calm under pressure, the physical platform for this action was laid in the gym. To kick accurately Ronan would have required a very solid base from which to execute his masterpiece, a base built on single leg and core stability. To kick accurately after 80 minutes of play would require an athlete who had strength but also endurance, something our glutes must have also.

So Ronan provides a performance example of where core and gluteal strength is required, but inactive glutes can have serious consequence for the injury prone athlete too. Ever watched that tired runner at the end of a fun run, did you notice what looks like their knee falling in?

This is due to a lack of stability and control in this region which become more pronounced with fatigue. Studies link gluteal weakness to achilles tendinitis, shin-splints, runner’s knee, and iliotibial-band syndrome.

Indeed, many injured athletes I treat come to physical therapy with strong abdominals and backs but weak glutes. Part of the problem is that glutes aren’t as active as other running muscles during routine activities, which can make your hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves disproportionately stronger.

Another issue is that most strength-training routines don’t isolate the glutes. If an exercise requires several muscles to perform the movement, the majority of the work will be done by the strongest of those muscles. If our hip flexor and quadriceps region is particularly tight we may not be able to extend our leg to a position which can fully activate the glutes.

This is why when I previously wrote about muscle imbalance I emphasized we must always lengthen before we strengthen; in this case lengthen the quad/hip flexor region before strengthening the gluteal region.

The cyclist pushing the pedal downwards, the rugby forward’s initial push in the scrum, the GAA player with an outstretched arm reaching for a ball, all stand to benefit in terms of performance and injury prevention through activating the powerhouse of our hips. A range of exercises demonstrated in video clips online can be readily viewed to help activate those muscles.

I suggest to start by standing on one leg!