Far more important than which muscles you use during exercise, is which positions you use.
We have this outdated concept of the body that the bones are pulled around by muscles and the whole system behaves like a series of levers and pulleys. This is incorrect and undermines the cleverness of what muscles do all the time. This might seem pedantic but in this article I am going to outline exactly why this concept of how we move isn’t just inaccurate, but harmful. If we base our training strategies, and rehab interventions around a flawed model then our methods will also be flawed. I have seen many (and been one of them) people performing stretching or strengthening routines in order to correct pain or imbalances but with no resolution. And even worse, in many cases these approaches are making the problem worse. If you are someone who feels that they do everything right, but aren’t seeing the results, then pay attention.
Why does position matter?
This whole topic came about because a client asked the good question of whether or not deadlifts or RDLs could help with an anterior pelvic tilt. If we go with the levers and pulleys way of thinking: an anterior pelvic tilt is when tight hip flexors pull the pelvis forward. This lengthens the hamstrings and makes them weaker. Hamstring training, and hip flexor stretching becomes the order of the day. Except this has never, and will never, work. For an RDL to be effective (and, many would argue, safe) the pelvis needs to be tilted forward for most of the exercise and crucially, for the most stimulating part of the exercise also. What this means is that despite training the hamstrings, you are likely reinforcing an anterior tilt. In fact, almost everyone who squats and deadlifts on a regular basis will have a significant degree of APT (which, just for the record, is not necessarily a problem until it becomes a problem). So far this is just a demonstration of the flawed methods. Next up is where things become a real issue.
If we are dealing with pain in the front of the hip like a pinching or “tightness” of the hip flexor, there are two things that conventional process would recommend. Stretching the tight muscle, and strengthening the antagonist. For people who spend all day sitting this pain is fairly common and the typical explanation is that by spending so long with the glutes in a stretched position, they become weak, and then cannot balance the hip flexor tension. This thinking throws up so many problems it’s hard to know where to begin. Firstly, it’s interesting that “stretched glutes” is a problem, but then people go to the gym and perform pigeon pose and the “world’s greatest stretch” before squatting. It’s also revealing that we intuitively know that stretching a muscle makes it weaker, then proceed to recommend stretches as a therapeutic intervention. Stretching tight hip flexors is then a process of trying to make everything as weak as each other, I guess. I’m also unsure of who these people are who are performing so much hip flexor training volume the poor glutes and hamstrings simply cannot keep up.
In terms of strengthening the glutes the main go to for most people would be squats. Going back to the first statement, we need to consider the position. The most stimulating part of a squat is the bottom. Deep hip flexion. Despite targeting the glutes, and not using the hip flexors, this exercise again becomes an intervention where we make the problem worse. You are conditioning your body to be strong is a flexed, squat position; rather than comfortable in a tall extended one. Squatting becomes the cause of tight hips rather than the solution more often than not, despite primarily training the glutes.
If you want to know which movements best train a muscle, look what it does during gait.
Hip thrusts get closer to the solution because they primarily train the glutes to be strong in extension much like sprinting. However, we know from performance-based research that strengthening the glutes with hip thrusters does not transfer to running speed. This is because, while arguably more specific than squats, they still miss crucial aspects of muscle sequencing that limit their benefit. Hip thrusts are performed with bent knees meaning the glutes do not operate together with the quads. When your feet are on the ground the glutes and quads actually perform very similar roles. The quads push the knees back into extension underneath the hips, and the glutes pull. Together this co-contraction provides tremendous force and stability through lower limb joints. Any exercise that disrupts the firing patterns involved in gait will eventually result in pain. Read that again. The coordination of movement and the positions involved with exercise are the primary factor to consider when trying to change the body and this becomes especially important when dealing with pain. This is why just about everyone who trains (ironically motivated by health in many circumstances) experiences more regular pain than the stereotypical couch potato.
It should be said that not all exercise needs to be geared to sprinting performance. However, the prominence of a movement within your programme should directly reflect its relevance to your nature. Deadlifts and squats are not bad exercises, but they can become inappropriate for individuals very quickly if more fundamental movements are compromised as a result.
As a profession, but also as a culture, we need to move away from the idea of individual muscles needing to be strong and looking at which muscles are tight or weak. Leg extensions will not make you squat more even though they both involve the quads. RDLs will not improve your posture just because they train the hamstrings. Everything is a tool in the toolbox but it’s important that they are used appropriately. It is only by having an accurate model of how the body works that we can select the appropriate tool, and then use it correctly.