What If Working Your Butt Off Is Making It Bigger?

A top-down view of a skeletal muscle

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been trying to compose this post for quite some time now. I feel that there is a need for a basic explanation of how our muscles work. Maybe it’s already been written, but I just haven’t found it.

So here goes…

The subject is complex beyond belief and I would err should I give it a simplistic explanation; however, this is for those with very little background in the subject. So forgive me – to all the professionals who may shudder at the following post.

Months ago I innocently left a comment at BodyRock about modifying a workout because my aim was to narrow my hips not expand them.  A few people commented-back: What? You can narrow your hips? So I promised to explain this, but in order to understand it we need to go back a ways. I don’t believe in the ‘bottom-line’, we need back-story and must be well informed to process the bottom-line otherwise we’re just like a fish flailing in a puddle of shallow water – it might look like we’re swimming but we’re so far from doing the same sport.

It can take a lifetime to really get to the root of the following, as with any subject – it is remarkable how the layers continue to unfold as if looking through a microscope. It brings to mind the Origami artist, and in particular Eric Joisel, who “could spend more than 100-hours folding a single piece of paper in order to create his amazing pieces of art.”  Not everyone has passion for details but what if everyone could be more interested in everything they do – from what we eat to how we move, for starters.

The Pilates Method, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique and Emilie Conrad’s Continuum Movement are a few methods that I have spent time studying over the years, some in more depth than others.  When given the chance, these exceptional methods teach functional movement from the foundation.  These methods aren’t meant to be a ‘workout’ but rather the exercises are tools to better comprehend healthy movement patterning, which in the end can only support ones’ workout or sport.

My task is to explain the following for readers who have no background in physical movement and have spent very little time focusing on how their body actually functions. To have succeeded will mean that your eyes won’t have glazed over.

As the title suggests, what if you’re literally trying to work your butt off by doing exercises that you have been led to believe target a certain muscle group, such as doing endless squats in the hopes of minimizing your gluteus maximus?

What if the infinite number of side leg lifts you’re doing, in the hopes of slenderizing your ‘saddlebags’ is actually giving them the appearance of becoming over-full?

Or what if the long endurance walks or runs you do are not giving you the results you are after?

What if, what you’re doing isn’t very effective at all but you console yourself by saying, “well, at least I’m doing something”.  True, some is better than none, but what if, that ‘some’ is literally a waste of time by making things worse?  And by worse I mean dysfunctional movement patterning.

The spin-doctor in me will tell you that there is no such thing as a waste of time, because it seems to be that through failure we learn the most…with the assumption, however, that through failing we search for another solution, rather than just accepting our fate.

You get the idea…there’s a lot of what if‘s.

Oftentimes, we turn to exercise to tighten loose areas of the body.  Everyone seems willing to put in even a little bit of time to tighten body parts.  Yet, very little time for stretching and lengthening muscles. This is the root of the problem.

In order for muscle fibres to function properly they have to be healthy.  So, what exactly is a healthy muscle, anyway?  A healthy muscle at rest should feel like a bag of water, not a bag of steel; however, ‘Butt of Water’ just doesn’t sound all that sexy and doesn’t have much shelf appeal.  Surrounding the muscle is more tissue called fascia.  This might gross you out, so fair warning, but whether you eat chicken or not (perhaps you have prepared some for dinner at some point), when you peel the skin from a raw chicken you may recall a sticky transparent film, which clings to the skin and the meat.  That transparent film is called fascia – and of course it reacts differently when alive.  It surrounds all of our muscles, nerves and organs.  For our muscles to function properly this film of fascia must slide and glide smoothly over the the muscle fibres, nerves and organs.

Alison Coolican, RMT explains that “the sliding happens three-dimensionally, rotationally, up and down.  So in the forearm the tubes of muscles surrounded by fascia must all slide against each other when your forearm twists to allow for lengthening and twisting of the tubes.  The fascia and the muscles are all connected and exist more in a fluid state, some connections are very loose and airy (more sliding) and some are tight and organized (takes more strain)  the muscle fibres must move smoothly below the fascia.  Injury and repetitive movement (whether with correct alignment or not) can impact this fascia/ muscle glide relationship.”

An unhealthy muscle/ fascia relationship would be one whereby the tissue has been, from correct or incorrect repetitive movement or injury, forced into a dysfunctional pattern.  This dysfunctional pattern thereby impacts the correct anatomical patterning of the skeleton in movement.  Have your eyes glazed over yet?

Consider that the body is made up of guy wires (muscles and tendons) which are meant to stabilize our skeleton providing support and function. Over years these structures become over tight in some areas and weakened in others and therefore can affect the way our structure appears and functions.

Personal example: My bowed legs.  BUT as a child I had very straight legs.  Here’s what happened. I started gymnastics at age 4, Ballet and Track from age 7.  By the time I was 18 my legs had started to bow slightly.  At 21, having spent a lot of time teaching Aerobics/ Step/ Spinning and bodybuilding I had over-developed the lateral aspect of my quadriceps and buttock muscles and over lengthened my inner thigh muscles by working on improving my middle ‘Russian’ split.  I had created an imbalance.  This imbalance caused a painful knee condition called Chondromalacia (Patelofemoral syndrome). Which meant that my femur (the thigh bone) would grind into the underside of my patella (knee cap).  The remedy was to re-create balance by strengthening the medial side of the quadriceps (Vastus Medialis Obliquus – VMO) and Adductors, and to stretch the lateral, over tight muscles.

My over tight muscles and fascia were dysfunctional. My skeleton was not functioning as it should, hence the aberration at the knee cap. Later this sticky fascia caused more dysfunction at my right hip and so on.  If something is stuck at one point the body will compensate elsewhere.  Moishe Feldenkrais said it best:

“Force that is not converted into movement does not simply disappear, but is dissipated into damage done to joints, muscles, and other sections of the body.”

Long story short, the physiotherapy worked only to the extent that I truly understood what I was doing and that I took it on as a daily job – this was the beginning of daily body maintenance, I just didn’t know it yet.

For a moment, let’s return to the bowed legs and dysfunctional movement patterning. When I’m out and about I watch how people move – their mechanics. It’s not a judgement, it’s just what I see and I don’t analyze it all the time. When I see people running or cycling, I watch their alignment.  Sometimes I cringe, because I see faulty mechanics which is being repeated and I can feel the pain that will ensue. And other times I see mechanics that make me stop, take my breath away and hear myself say, wow.  It’s rare to see movement that is pure and effortless but you’ll know it when you see it, as you will know it when you feel it.  Have you ever heard someone point out an athlete and say, he or she runs like a gazelle?

Let me just say that even with the gazelle-like athlete, there can still be injury and dysfunctional movement patterning- there is no perfect – just the aim towards it. Our aim with movement, art, literature, what-have-you, is that “once we accept our limits, we [must] go beyond them.” (Albert Einstein).  So in my opinion, from experiencing a lot of physical movement I have found that refining movement is on going.  Knowing that I swim, people come up to me from time to time and state (more than ask), “Boy, I just can’t swim for exercise – don’t you find it boring?”  I am amazed by this because it is often very accomplished athletes who say this.  People whom I imagined would know about refining.  Each stroke for me is a new combination of possibilities – the accuracy of the kick, placement of pelvis, rib cage and head to the rotation of the arms and angle of pull…who has time for boredom, my neurons and synapses are on overdrive. This is not some mindless activity. If we show interest in what we do, we learn from it and can add on and continue to refine.

Which takes me to the next point, but I’m sure your eyes are beginning to glaze over, so I will return with “What If: Part 2” another day and go into more detail about the narrowing of the hips comment.

M. Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement, (NY: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 58.

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8 comments

  1. I’ve just finished reading “What if….Part 1” and will look forward to reading Part 2 and 3.
    I just felt compelled to comment and tell you how much I enjoyed your information. You write so well. You add interesting quotes. You’ve done your homework. You explain things simply (fascia explained clearly – I cut up a chicken just last night), yet very professionally. Furthermore, I can feel your energy/passion for your honest desire to share this with us and to help us understand the mystery of the mechanics of our body. You also add a little humour so that we don’t take ourselves too seriously or get too overwhelmed with the info. I’ve read somewhere that when we laugh we learn better. Every day and every workout can help us go beyond our perceived limitations. Or those limitations that we perceive others place upon ourselves. Keep up the good work. – a new fan of “You as a Machine”.

  2. Hi,
    As a Romana Pilates certified Pilates instructor for the past 13 years, I just had to point out that the Pilates method is everything you say about those groups of techniques you mentioned. However, there is one correction: that Pilates IS meant to be a workout.
    I don’t understand why you would say otherwise!

    1. Thanks B,
      You are absolutely correct. Pilates is a workout. From the stream of Pilates training which I studied, we dissected the movement techniques to such deep layers that it became physical therapy, this is why I view it more as a means to educate movement patterning. When I think of a workout, I think of training which elevates the heart rate to a challenging level, much like BodyRock type of workouts or endurance running etc. Some Pilates classes are much more challenging than others, but from my experience they are not in the same league; which is not to say they aren’t a workout – forgive me – they are simply a different type of workout…of no less value, just different. In fact, possibly the most important foundation to movement that anyone can do.

  3. Hi,

    Sincerely I did not find your name, so, sorry by not treat you properly.;
    I found you in Bodyrock site and by now I´m bodyrocking for 1 month and a half.
    I love your site. Congrats.
    Please, sorry again for the big coment…

    To explain why your post caught my attention so hard I have to tell you that I´m from Brazil and here most of the women wants huge legs, hips and butt. But, as for me, I´m in the opposite side. So, I have always had problems at the gym because none of the instructors understood what I mean, and they didnt know how things can work to make my hips/thigh smaller.

    I have a long history of injuries, as chondromalacia and the worst: plantar fascia injury. I used to run and do bodybuilding but my results are always poor. Dont get me wrong, I love to work out, I do it everyday (and maybe that was my problem since I was at the gym for 2 hours and half, maybe more…) but I couldn´t figure out how to get slim legs/thigh and straight hips. They always seem to get bigger. People say: You are thin, but the mirror shows me that above my waist, things are the other way around.

    I´m always studying, buying books, visiting websites to learn more (I truly believe that we are responsible for our health) about wellness and nutrition (I´m vegetarian – almost vegan) I´m so overwhelming by all the information that I found in bodyrock and here that I gave it a try. I gave up to the gym, and now I´m following all the workouts and now your 4 minute mornings.

    So, is there a site/book/anything where I can understand your idea better ? I´m really curious about the modification that is needed in order to make the butt smaller… Would you mind to help me in my journey?

    Thanks for your help.
    Nika

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