Last month, it was my tailbone that started to act up so badly that I could barely walk to the kitchen and back. My doctor confirmed it was sacroiliac joint pain, and although it was likely caused mainly by pregnancy hormones relaxing my pelvis too much too soon, the problem was exacerbated by instability from—you guessed it—weak glutes.
I promptly went scrounging around YouTube in search of some workouts that might help. In one video by BodyLove Pilates, trainer Ali Handley shares an upper glute exercise that's done seated with a resistance band looped around the calves: While pushing the legs outwards into the band, you slowly lift and lower your heels as you maintain a steady amount of resistance.
Watch a demo starting at minute 8:18:
Following along with Handley for just eight reps, I immediately felt my gluteus medius on the outside of my hips firing up—and staying engaged even once I finished. I walked my dog around the block right after, and I could feel the muscles still turned on (aka lightly burning with each step). That activation kept my pelvis more stable, and less painful, than it'd been in over a week.
So I told myself I was going to repeat the exercise every day. Which meant I did it for two days in a row, then promptly forgot about it.
I knew I needed to somehow make it a habit. Since this is such a simple exercise that doesn't take much concentration, I realized that instead of setting aside dedicated time, I could just incorporate it into my morning routine: Now, when I first sit down to work, I simply wrap a resistance band around my calves for the first half hour (or until I get up to grab more coffee) and do a few heel lifts every so often while checking email and Slack. I keep the band next to my laptop to remind me to slip it on, and since it takes no extra time out of my day, I actually do it.
This may be the easiest workout routine I've ever done. And also one of the most effective. Within just a week or so of practicing it regularly, I could feel those tricky-to-target muscles getting stronger, and my pelvis staying steadier when I walk or run—which has meant I've felt next-to-no SI joint pain.
I know, I know: It sounds too good to be true. Are such noticeable results somehow all in my head? I posed the question to NASM-certified trainer Cecily McCullough, who works with clients at the functional fitness-based studio P.volve, asking if this kind of habit could truly be effective, or if I just want to think it is and am experiencing some kind of placebo effect.
She points out that working the glutes while sitting can be a strategic way to isolate and target the proper muscles. "When you're seated, you've got more support with the pelvis and spine so you're not working against other factors, like when you're standing or even lying on the floor, working against gravity," she says. "And with seated movement, it's also a minimal range of motion, especially since the band adds resistance." Even when I'm not paying much attention to lifting and lowering my heels, the movement is so small and contained that it's easy to keep proper form.
Physical therapist Theresa Marko, DPT, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association and owner of Marko Physical Therapy in New York City, says that my go-to exercise can indeed strengthen the gluteus medius to help stabilize my spine and control my hips and knees when I walk. She adds that it could even be a good one to do on long plane rides. But it won't work the major butt muscle—the gluteus maximus—quite as much as simply squeezing the cheeks together and releasing them while sitting. Or, even better, she says, standing up to move around. "Small frequent breaks can go a long way to alleviate problems before they begin," she says. (When she gets up to get a glass of water, she likes to squeeze her butt and kick her leg back to fit in a quick activation.)
As the cliché goes, the best kind of workout is the one you’ll do. Although there are plenty of other ways to strengthen my glutes, for now I'll keep doing the one I barely have to think about.
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