One Quick Move to Strengthen Your Glutes

A few weeks ago, I wrote about chair pose, a glutes-strengthening pose. When you practice chair, you should feel the pose working muscles of the quads, glutes, core, and back. If you try this pose and you can’t feel it in your gluteus maximus at all, you may be experiencing gluteal amnesia. This means that the glutes aren’t activating as well as they should.

Problem

Even though you’re active, you may also sit a lot. All that sitting means the hip flexors get shorter and the hip extensors (primarily glutes and hamstrings) get elongated, weaker, and atrophied. After a while, the muscles of the glutes stop working effectively and other muscles compensate—particularly the muscles that comprise the hip flexors, hamstrings, or low back. This creates imbalance, and it’s also incredibly inefficient: the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body. We want that muscle doing its job!

Solution

Donkey kicks are the perfect solution to the problem of gluteal amnesia. Start by coming to your hands and knees and moving in and out of cat-cow to warm up your spine. Next, find a neutral spine and deeply engage your core. (As you do this movement, you will to keep your core engaged to protect your lower back.) Extend your left leg about level with your hip and bend your knee, as if you were stepping your left foot on the ceiling. This is your starting position:

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Chris O, 51, models the starting position for donkey kicks.

Keeping your belly engaged, lift your left thigh a little higher, “kicking” your foot up toward the ceiling:

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As Chris’s left thigh lifts higher, his hamstrings and glutes activate.

Move in and out of these two positions, making sure to breathe. Continue this movement until you need a break—maybe 10-20 kicks. Rest afterward in child’s pose, and then set up on hands and knees and repeat with the right leg lifted. Try to do this movement a few times a week or add it into your daily yoga practice.

As we age, it’s especially important that our glutes are strong and that they’re activating when they should. We need them for yoga, balance, and athletics, but also to simply stand up from a seated position—something of utmost importance for independent living in our golden years.

—Alexandra

One Quick Move for Outer Hip Strength

When we think about strength in our lower body, we should think first about the most superficial muscle of the glutes: gluteus maximus. But strengthening your seat isn’t the only important focus for hip stability. In fact, there are some smaller muscles of the outer hip (the abductors) that keep you stable in balance poses and sports such as running, tennis, hockey, and skiing. Yoga offers some good poses for abductor stretching, but the quick move offered in the video here is a strength-building variation on a Pilates movement. You can do it just about anywhere: all you need is a wall or chair for a little stability, and you’ll be on your way to stronger outer hips. This two minute video will get you started:

 

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Chair Pose For Chair Relief

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” If you’re looking for a pose that’s the antidote to sitting, the answer is chair pose.

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That’s right: one of the best poses to counteract sitting a lot is indeed chair pose. Chair pose helps fire key muscles of your torso and legs. In this challenging pose, your core has to support you, your shoulders activate, and the muscles of your seat and thighs have to work.

The Sanskrit name of this pose is utkatasana, which translates to fierce pose. It’s commonly referred to as chair pose because it mimics the shape we take seated. If you find the pose spicy, though, it might help you to remember its real name.

Why

This pose challenges balance and strengthens the glutes, quads, and core. It also strengthens the muscles of the shoulders because you must actively draw your shoulder blades down.

How

Take your feet hip width apart, and inhale to sweep your arms overhead. As you exhale, bend your knees and sink down, as if you were sitting into an armchair. Try to keep your seat far back and your shins perpendicular to the earth. (Shifting your body weight into your heels will help keep your knees over your ankles.) On your next inhale straighten your legs, and as you exhale release your arms next to your body. Repeat this, moving in and out of the pose, 5-10 times. As you feel warmer, you can move into the pose and hold the squat position for 5-10 breaths.

Variations

Your elbows can be bend, your arms can be wider, or your arms can be lower—or all three. Don’t let your shoulders be the limiting factor of doing the pose. Keep your shoulder blades sliding down your back and keep a lot of space between the tops of your shoulders and your ears. Adjust your arms accordingly.

You can make it spicier by lifting one foot. Lifting one foot makes this a bigger balance challenge and offers a serious wake-up for the glutes. Try one foot for 3-5 breaths and then switch.

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Make it sweeter by using a wall. Doing this pose against a wall (or a tree!) allows you to focus on alignment and makes it less load-bearing for your knees. Over time, you can build up to practicing it without support.

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—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Warrior III

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” If your time to do just one pose is right before or just after your workout, Warrior III is your answer.

Anne Wander, Christine Cotton, and Mimi O'Grady, all fast runners in their 50s
Anne Wander, Christine Cotton, and Mimi O’Grady, all fast runners in their 50s

Why

This pose strengthens your lower leg, thighs, hips, and core, while stretching your hamstrings. Practicing it dynamically—pulsing in and out with the breath—will warm up and loosen your hip and thigh, a good preparation for movement. (Such warmups are increasingly important as we age.) And holding the pose for several breaths after your workout will improve your balance and core strength, setting you up to perform even better in the next workout.

How

Shift your weight into one foot, lifting the other foot behind you while holding your body in a long line from your raised foot through your head. Work to keep your hips square—don’t let your top hip lift—and your spine long and supported by your core. If you’re feeling stiffer or wobbly, keep your back foot near or on the ground. If you’re feeling loose or steady, lower your chest and lift your back leg toward parallel with the floor.

Variations

For a dynamic warmup: connect the movement with your breath. Exhale to lift your leg and lower your chest; inhale to lift your chest and lower your leg. Repeat for 10–20 breaths on one side before doing the other.

For a core/balance challenge: come to Warrior III and hold for 5–15 breaths. To sweeten the pose, rest your hands on your hips or in prayer position. To add spice, spread your arms to a T, or stretch them overhead, creating a long line from your raised foot to your fingers. Switch sides.

—Sage

Consistency and Variety

In order to adapt and grow, we need to have the right balance of consistency and variety—the consistency helps us get into a groove, and the variety prevents that groove from becoming a rut. This is true both in our sports training and in our yoga practice.

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Sports

In order to get stronger, faster, or able to go longer, you’ve got to have consistent application of the right amount of stress. Too little stress means no growth; too much means breakdown and injury. This is why you might do weights two or three nonconsecutive days a week, and play tennis on another two or three days. It balances the consistency and variety of your training stressors to give your body time to adapt without breaking down. Too much consistency makes you stale; too much variety never lets your body figure out the most efficient path of movement.

Yoga

The same applies to your yoga practice. Doing a little bit of yoga several times a week will yield better benefits than making it to a ninety-minute class once every six weeks. The key is to establish consistent frequency of the practice. Once that’s in place, variety matters. Your body adapts to the familiar, then plateaus, and it can be easy to check out mentally while going through routines you know inside and out.

You’ve probably got consistency down. As we age, we grow more set in our ways, preferring the familiarity of our regular routines: doing the same workouts, attending the same yoga classes, sitting on the same spot on the couch, eating the same meals. But variety is what challenges us to continue to grow and adapt. Here are some ways to add variety to your practice.

In Class

  • Go to a new class. Alexandra’s primer of yoga styles gives you ideas. If you’re in central North Carolina, she has a new series of Yoga for Aging Athletes at Carrboro Yoga starting Thursday, February 18.
  • Try a new teacher. Even when class content is the same, you’ll find huge variety among teachers. A different teacher might turn a phrase in such a way that things click into place for you. (My regular sub, Sara, reported that when she filled in for me last month, students loved doing “new and different” things—even though she taught the very same sequences I do! The cueing, not the content, changed.)
  • Set up in a different spot in the room. It’s easy to fall into a habit of always being in the right corner, say, or in the center of the back row. Move around and see what shifts.
  • Venture outside your usual routine by streaming classes. Between the two of us, Alexandra and I have dozens and dozens of classes at YogaVibes.com. (Hers are here; mine are here.) Streaming classes lets you try something with no etiquette around stopping if you don’t like it!

At Home

  • Change the setting of your practice. If you’re used to unrolling your mat in your guest room, change it up. Set up in the living room, or on the porch. Spread a beach towel at the edge of a practice field. A change of venue—particularly if it includes a move to an unstable surface like carpet or grass—will add variety and challenge to your yoga routine.
  • Swap sides. If you’re used to always starting on the right side, start on the left. If you usually set up facing the short side of your mat, try facing the long edge and building your practice around wide-stance poses.
  • Experiment. Try different arm positions, use different props, close your eyes, switch up the coordination of your breath and your movement. Such experimentation can lead to wonderful revelations.

—Sage

Continuing Basics: Even Better Balance

My post Basics: Build Better Balance explains how to progressively challenge your balance by standing on one leg on increasingly unstable surfaces. Once you’ve built that strength, you can find a new challenge in reducing the amount of surface area in contact with the floor.

Standing in bare feet on a hard surface, find the good lines of mountain pose: a neutral pelvis, a long spine, a broad chest without a big backbend. Step your legs together, creating as much contiguous surface area as you can—this will make things easier. Lift your arms and your heels. You’ll probably wobble back and forth; tighten in toward the midline with both your legs and your core muscles, and use your gaze to help you balance.

Lift your heels a little or a lot as you maintain a steady mountain-pose alignment
Lift your heels a little or a lot as you maintain a steady mountain-pose alignment; photo from my latest workshop on Yoga for Athletes at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health

Sweeter

If this is tough, sweeten the experience by:

  • Keeping your heels quite low to the ground
  • Resting one or both hands on a wall or counter
  • Keeping your arms straight off to the sides, rather than overhead
  • Looking down at the floor, as you’ll see me (in blue, on platform) doing in the photo above

    Spicier

If this is quite easy, intensify the experience by:

  • Separating your heels to hip distance, instead of having your legs tough
  • Lifting your gaze to eye level or closing your eyes
  • Bending your knees and lowering your hips down and back, as if sitting into an invisible chair while wearing invisible high heels

Either way, keep your core engaged and your breath flowing. Slotting a few rounds of this balance pose into your week will keep you steadier as you move through space in your sport.

—Sage

Your Resolution: Yoga

 

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Photo credit: Ariel Adams

The brain works like this: each time we do something—a behavior, an activity—neural links form. And every time we do that same thing again, those neural connections get stronger and our action becomes a habit. In yoga, the concept samskara refers to these deeply ingrained patterns, both the ones we’re happy to repeat (daily workouts, for instance) and the ones we’d be happier breaking (daily donuts, perhaps.)

We want to repeat activities and behaviors that make us stronger. But we can all identify some habits we’d like to change. That’s where our yoga practice comes in. A regular yoga practice brings calm, more mindfulness, better posture, better breathing… and so much more. In fact, a regular yoga practice can create the space we need to cultivate vidya, or clear thinking, that will help us continue to make positive changes in our lives.

This new year, make regular yoga your resolution. You don’t have to do a long practice every day. Instead, aim for a single pose or a short sequence every morning or evening. (This blog is a helpful resource, and Sage’s Everyday Yoga offers tools for a simplified home practice.) If daily yoga feels intimidating, no problem. Commit to once a week. Even doing yoga once a week provides stress reduction and more flexibility. Yoga just makes you feel better. In 2016, do more of it.

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Supported Fish

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” When it comes to restorative yoga poses, supported fish is an excellent choice, especially if you’ve recently upped your cycling miles, have just finished a long car trip, or have been sitting for long stretches at a desk. Supported fish is calming, and it allows your mind and body to truly relax.

Why

The benefits of restorative yoga poses are numerous. When we settle our bodies into a restorative pose, our breathing slows down and our muscles release. Supported fish gives you a chance to passively stretch your upper back, shoulders, and chest. It’s a perfect antidote to stress—something many of us experience in the winter holiday months.

How

Place a block at the head of your yoga mat. Put your bolster on top, so it creates a ramp. Sit with your sacrum against the bolster and lie back onto it, so your head is higher than your heart. Drape your arms to the side, letting your elbows rest on the ground. Extend your legs. Close your eyes and breathe, and stay in the pose for 5-20 minutes.

Variations

To do this pose with household props: Use a heavy book as a block and a couch pillow as a bolster. Use a hand towel or washcloth as an eye pillow.

For the deluxe version of this pose: Gather several blankets or towels and use these to cushion your elbows, under your head as a pillow, or under your knees for even more support. Dim the lights, put in ear plugs, and give yourself at least 20 minutes of rest.

Change it up: Try this pose with your legs wide, your knees bent, or your feet touching with your legs in a diamond shape. One of these options might feel even better in your body!

—Alexandra

Props: Yoga Blocks for Better Yoga

Doing some yoga? You should give yourself props! And although you deserve accolades for getting to a mat and moving, the props I’m speaking of are the literal ones. This week, let’s talk about the yoga block, an important prop that can help you align, strengthen, and play your edge. In weeks ahead, we’ll explore other uses of the block (it can be supportive, too!) and we’ll look at additional props—the strap, bolster, blanket and more.

Yoga blocks are small, firm rectangular blocks, often made of heavier foam or wood. If you don’t have a block, a thick book can do the job just as well. It’s useful to have at least one on hand, and in some poses two blocks would be even better.

Align

Use your yoga block to help you find optimal alignment. In a pose like triangle pose, it’s easy to reach too far forward of the front shin or to lose integrity in the pose by reaching for the ground. Placing a yoga block under your hand helps you keep your arms in a straighter line, and it allows you to find a “just right” stretch instead of a “too much” one. Any time the ground feels far away (especially in forward folds or lunges), a yoga block can serve as the buttress for better yoga, helping you find safe alignment for your knees, hips, shoulders, and back.

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Chris Mason, 57, explores triangle pose as a counter balance to cycling

Strengthen

Use your yoga block to make poses a little spicier. In poses like plank, bridge, or mountain, you can add a block to build strength. In all three of these poses, placing a block between your thighs and squeezing will help you find more engagement in your legs and inner thighs.

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A block between your thighs will make mountain pose spicier

Play your edge

Use your yoga block to play your edge in balance poses where one or both hands reach toward the earth. In half moon pose or standing split, the block brings the earth closer to you. This creates stability so you can explore the fullness of the pose in your body. By pressing into the block, you can better stabilize the standing leg and find your edge in lifting the extended leg.

Use a block for stability and play your edge!

—Alexandra

Basics: Build Better Balance

Here are some simple tips on how to build better balance.

Why

Balance is increasingly critical as we age, and especially so for aging athletes. A sense of where your body is in space will not only reduce your risk of falls, it will help keep you nimble.

When

Spend some time challenging your balance every day. This can be as simple as standing on one leg as you brush your teeth, or as complex as enjoying a lengthy string of balance poses in your yoga practice. Hold your single-leg stance until you feel pleasant fatigue in your lower leg or hip. By the way, do you know that the science of overcoming fatigue is through the Energy Blueprint. To learn more about this, look for theenergyblueprint.com

How

Start on a hard, smooth surface, with something nearby to rest a hand or fingertip on. Having a chair back, counter, or doorknob close yields a strong placebo effect and makes balance easier. Move to a carpet, rug, or yoga mat for greater challenge. Folding the mat, or balancing on a folded blanket, makes it tougher still, especially for your lower leg. For more, try standing on a yoga block—being slightly higher in space will test your vestibular system. In any of these positions, a slow blink of your eyes, or holding them gently closed, will enhance the work, as will shaking your head from side to side.

—Sage