by Kate Krumsiek
Everyone has pain at some time during life. It can run on a spectrum from severe to mild; overwhelming agony that ceases movement to background discomfort that simply slows us down—and any stop between the two ends. It is always inconvenient, distracting and often derails our movement.
Everyone also has had a friend who sometimes acts like an enemy. That pal who talks behind your back and then smiles to your face may also convince you that the problem is not with her. She’ll tell you you’re too sensitive or you’ve misunderstood or it is really another friend who is causing the trouble. Anything to throw you off the scent that she is the real problem. Muscles can behave like this, too. Friends on the surface, enemies underneath.
As anatomy enthusiasts, we’re familiar with muscle antagonists and synergists—partnerships that counteract contraction or work alongside other muscles to make movement efficient. But there are also muscle pairs that can be at the root of dysfunction that are not linked up in the pages of anatomy books: muscle frenemies.
When things are going well, these muscles get along just fine but when there is stress or drama, trouble arises. In the world of muscles, this shows up as pain and pain makes us pay attention. How to tackle these annoying frenemy connections before they ruin relationships is where the work of self-care can be so fruitful and fascinating—in friendships and muscle function!
A Common Frenemy
Places where the body naturally has a lot of mobility are areas that are vulnerable to frenemy potential. When our bodies have options, muscles may lean on one another inappropriately or too much, taxing certain muscles beyond their capacity. Because of our internal fascial connections, where we experience pain sensations does not always translate to where dysfunction lives and this can cloud our ability to treat it.
For example, the low back is a breeding ground for frenemies. Human bodies are built for mobility in the lumbar section of the spine in comparison to the more fixed thoracic (ribcage) spine. When the more mobile area is not sufficiently supported by deep postural muscles, the lines of pull on other muscles can become distorted and create poor firing patterns for messages from the brain. When pain turns up, sufferers might train their attention strictly on the low back but the root cause can lie elsewhere.
Take the deep postural muscle the quadratus lumborum (QL), which connects the lowest back ribs to the top of the top curve of the hip bone (ilia). This muscle is a major culprit in low back pain and contributes to a lack of organization in the spine. Ask almost anyone with low back pain and they point to this spot so the treatment plan can center on this muscle alone and yet, neighboring muscles can be pulling the pelvis out of alignment causing the QL to get rather cranky at its connection to the ilia—a stage set for a frenemy. A person with low back pain might spend lots of energy focused at the site of pain but, in certain cases, they miss the root cause that is creating the pulling.
Where else to look?
Mary Kim-Garity, owner and chief visionary behind Zen Den of Norwell, MA, has a suggestion. Her experience running pain clinics for the past 20 years has taught her that in roughly 40% of low back pain cases, the gluteus medius muscle needs release, activation or both.
Gluteus medius is one busy muscle. Stationed beneath the gluteus maximus, this muscle curves toward the outer hip and connects at the greater trochanter (boney protuberance at top of the thigh bone). Prime location for a multitude of tasks. In Trail Guide for Movement, Building a Body in Motion by Andrew Biel, the gluteus medius is highlighted for it’s many “lines of pull” which determine the directions of movement that can be accomplished by the hip joint.
Gluteus medius, depending on the portion of the muscle used and therefore it’s line of pull, performs abduction, flexion, extension, medial rotation and lateral rotation at the hip joint and stabilizes the head of the femur bone in the hip socket when walking or running. Because it has so many jobs, firing patterns of the muscle can get mixed up and overuse, underuse or abuse of this muscle results. In terms of its frenemy potential, this muscle can create rotation and/or elevation on one side of the pelvis, due to its connection to the back side of the ilia, and, in turn generate a nagging pull on the opposite side QL, causing pain at that site. If you notice that one hip is higher than the other or your pelvis rotates toward one side, it may be a gluteus medius issue, even though you feel pain in your back. If you focus only on the QL, you may overlook the root cause at the gluteus medius and therefore the problem will continue to return. Frenemy, indeed.
What You Can Do
You now know that there is a problem afoot and you know that it may not be where you think it is—like the gossip from your friend, it travels away from the source and leaves you unsure of where it started. Assuming that you’re not in acute pain and have seen a professional to be certain the issue is not going to be exacerbated by self-massage and movement, go on a gentle hunt to piece together a path of pain that may allow you to unravel the crossed lines.
Using this example:
- Let’s draw an “x” through this area…if your back pain is on the low right side, tackle the left side gluteus medius. If your hip hikes on the right side, check out your left QL for pain, discomfort or that tugging sensation that shows up before pain.
- Get on the ball! Use your Yoga Tune Up Therapy Balls to iron out the area. Start with the gluteus medius and roll out the entire outer hip. In the book Fascial Release for Structural Balance, the authors suggest that “tilts of the pelvis can lead to extra strain on the structures of the lateral hip; so it can be very relieving to differentiate the tissue” with manipulation. Don’t be surprised if you get major feedback here—it is likely to be very tender.
- Here is where it gets really cool. Your next task is reactivating of the proper lines of pull into the muscle. This is that liberating moment when you tell your middle school frenemy, “It’s over!” This strategy is adapted from the work of Zen Den Norwell owner, Mary Kim-Garrity. She has developed a system that incorporates exercises layered with instability to rewire messages to muscles called CorrectiveX. For an at-home adaptation, grab a Pilates ball or a Gertie ball (a Coregeous ball is perfect) and practice along with this video.
Give these strategies a try and track your body’s responses. Let us know how you fare in the comments below. You may follow the path of this example or find a new fascial route that makes more sense in your own individual movement and pain. Always keep exploring and learning so your body can move, thrive and squash frenemy influence!
From the start, the practice of yoga did it all for Kate Krumsiek—fitness, awareness, breath, alignment and clarity of mind. She couldn’t resist her drive to pass those gems along to others from the teacher’s mat. Kate’s 200 hour training with Natasha Rizopolous provided an exceptional foundation of yogic knowledge from which to learn, teach and cast a wide net for continued study. Yoga Tune Up Teacher Training refined her lens of understanding to shine upon the anatomical and corrective aspects for practice—helping students identify and address postural habits that impair efficient, effective movement in the body.