A common claim in fitness is that squeezing your butt and tightening your abs during exercise will fix back pain and prevent injury, but is there any truth to this?
To quote that They Might Be Giants song “Yes, no, maybe, I don’t know. Can you repeat the question?”
As always, context matters and it depends.
First, I’ll say that while smart training can help you minimize the risks of injury, there is nothing that you can do to truly prevent injury. Life happens and bodies are amazing aaaa-aaand weird. There are people who will do everything by the book and still end up with some sort of injury or pain. There are also people who will do everything contrary to research, science, and common sense and never experience an injury in their life #notfairbuttrue
With that in mind, I don’t believe that squeezing your butt, or following any one rule for movement is the panacea for back pain and injury prevention. Rather, we’re better served by approaching movement from a place of curiosity, exploration, and thoughtful application.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about squeezing and activating muscles and how it might be best applied in the context of fitness or addressing pain or movement patterning issues.
To understand this idea of muscle activation, it helps to know how muscles respond to movement.
This is very simplified, but here’s the gist. You go to do a task. Based on the position of your bones, amount of load (aka how much weight you’re pulling or pushing against), and effort required, muscles will engage to stabilize your joints and move you through space.
If there is a lot of load and effort, you will need more muscular engagement. If there is minimal load or effort, you will need less muscular engagement. If you have good movement patterns and all your stabilizers (aka the smaller muscles that track your joints) and global mobilizers (aka the big muscles that move you through space) work well together, then it will take less muscular effort to complete the same task.
When you can do this, you have something called efficiency. Efficiency is awesome. It means you can do more with less work.
There’s some science (and debate!) behind this, but the general thought is that you can’t consciously control exactly what muscles turn on or in what order. Muscle activation occurs quickly and unconsciously via your nervous system.
This is one reason about why I’m on the fence about cuing squeezing muscles to make movement happen, but I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do it or that it’s bad. Rather, I’m proposing that it’s helpful to understand why you are squeezing a muscle to create engagement, when you might want to do it, and what position your body should roughly be in when you think about squeezing said muscle.
Now, let’s talk about applying this to fitness and daily life.
Here are three scenarios where squeezing your butt/abs/whatever might make sense:
- If you are someone who generally has low tone or has devoted most of your movement practice to modalities based on stretching or somatic work, and you have difficulty creating tension and controlling where you are in space. Not to pigeon hole, but I have noticed that this does seem to apply to people who have spent a lot of their time practicing certain styles of yoga without cross training.
- When you are lifting a heavy weight and you need to create a lot of external stability, strength, or force production.
- If the cue works for you and gets you the desired result.
In regards to scenario #1, there are people who’ve spent a lot of time stretching, opening, and releasing tension from their body to the point that they experience pain, because their nervous system can sense that they don’t have the strength and control to hold themselves together. These people might feel relief from joint pain when they learn how to create more muscular tension in their system by squeezing and engaging things. This is also a situation where the butt squeeze *could* theoretically help with back pain in some individuals.
Re scenarios #2 and #3, lifting heavy weights requires more muscle. While your muscles should turn on, in response to pushing or pulling against the heavy weight, there is something to be said for squeezing or engaging a muscle to help you execute the movement and teach your body how to manage tension and create force production.
Take deadlifting 1-2x your bodyweight. Would it help to think about using your lats to control the position of your shoulders and the bar, bracing your abs, and squeezing your butt to maintain a good spinal position and generate more force when you stand? Sure.
Will your back explode if you don’t squeeze all these things? Probably not.
However, might you be less likely to hang out in your low back if you think about creating stiffness in your spine to control the weight? You betcha.
Will these cues work for many people? Probably.
Is there a person who will overdo this idea of squeezing (aka over recruit their bigger muscles and bypass their stabilizers), disrupt the natural movements of their joints, and experience pain or biomechanical injury, because they squeezed a bunch of muscles without understanding the nuance of body position? Also, yes.
Enter this novel thing called critical thinking.
It’s not just enough to squeeze your abs or your butt. You need to understand what position your body should be in first and how these movements should feel when you are in said body positions. If squeezing a muscle helps you find an optimal position, hooray! You should do it. If it feels terrible and creates tension or pain, you might need a different cue and/or a different position.
So, let’s talk about some scenarios when squeezing isn’t my favorite cue:
- It causes you to put your body in a weird position that creates noticeable discomfort or pain.
- You have a lot of muscle guarding, pain, and are already hyper-tense and high stress.
- You’re doing general, gentle, unloaded movement in daily life that shouldn’t take a lot of effort or concentration.
Re scenario #1, this doesn’t always happen, but as I alluded to above, sometimes when people think about squeezing muscles, they end up forcing their body into a less than idea position and creating dysfunctional movement patterns, which might not feel great.
Take the butt squeeze. If squeezing your butt at the top of a deadlift lands your pelvis in a neutral position (aka where you have a little low back curve present, and fairly optimal force absorption through your spine) great.
However, I’ve seen some people who overdo it. They end up driving their pelvis way forward while sending their shoulders behind them. Positionally, this means the pelvic floor and deep core may not fire as well and the back has a big arch in it. Experientially, for some people this might mean back pain, but because pain is complicated…maybe not.
I’ve seen the same thing happen when someone overuses their rhomboids and bypasses their shoulder stabilizers to “squeeze” their shoulder blades together in a dumbbell row. They get neck tension/pain, arguably because they ended up hiking their shoulders towards their ears as they pulled their shoulder blades together, which activated the neck muscles.
If they focused less on squeezing and more on the position of creating a true shoulder blade retraction (aka the movement that should happen), they’d end up in a better position with less tension, because they aren’t actively pulling their shoulders back in an exaggerated position.
Finally, and this might just me being picky, but I think muscle cues should match the movement. We shouldn’t be telling someone to squeeze their butt, which promotes hip extension, if they’re trying to do a movement that creates hip flexion.
Likewise, we shouldn’t be telling someone to squeeze their lat and pull their shoulder back and down when they are pushing their arms overhead and should be doing upward rotation. This is when I see the potential for injury, if done enough over time, because you can invite dysfunction if you train your joints to do the opposite of the action that the exercise is calling for.
Re scenario #2, there are some people who already have a lot of stress and tension in their system for various reasons. When they squeeze muscles, it increases this sense of stress and pain. Will squeezing hurt them in the sense of tissue damage? Doubtful. However, in this scenario, this group will sometimes experience pain relief when they learn how to create movement by doing less. This is where somatic work, breathing, and release work can be incredibly beneficial.
Re scenario #3, remember that thing I said in the intro about how our muscles respond to movement and we don’t need to micromanage? I really hope you don’t need to squeeze your butt and abs with every step you take or when you’re standing in the grocery line. At that point, it’s a bit of an #overachiever moment 😉
Your body is smart. When you’re out and about in normal life, there isn’t a lot of load and you probably don’t need shit tons of muscle activation to casually move through space. In fact, when you overthink it, you may experience greater tension, because you’re disrupting the movements that your body already innately knows how to do.
Beyond that, movement should be like breathing, a hopefully effortless experience that happens without needing to think really hard about it.
It comes down to knowing how to manage tension. The ability to move well and be strong comes from being able to effectively create AND let go of tension. How much one needs to practice creating tension or letting go of it, is dependent on the individual.
Some of us naturally have a lot of tension and others very little. This can be your individual genetics, the activities you practice, your stress level, and a myriad of other things.
As always, there is no one right answer. Just an opportunity to ask questions and explore choices and potential solutions.