There’s an old parable often referred to as the “streetlight effect,” that goes something like this:
A policeman comes across a drunkard searching for his car keys under a streetlight. Neither can kind the keys. The policeman asks the drunkard if he lost his keys in this spot. The drunkard replies, “No, I lost them in the park.”
“The park?” The policeman responds. “Then why are you looking here?”
The drunkard responds: “This is where the light is.”
When dealing with a problem, we often do the same thing. We look where the light is because it’s the most obvious thing we can see. But sometimes the light is misleading.
As I described in part 1 of Anatomy of a Pain in the Ass, the “light” was coming off my back in waves: I had a bulging disc in my lower back. I had signs of arthiritis in my back. The pain was in my back. Stands to reason that I, and all of the health professionals around me, were focused on my back.
But the true origin of the problem was not under the streetlight. It was in the dark, obscured nether regions of my ass (and hamstrings, to be precise).
I was in bad shape when I came to train with Matt Wenning at Ludus Magnus, in every way imaginable. Weak muscles, poor conditioning/endurance, obese. But as I stayed consistent and kept showing up for my two sessions per week, one area of weakness became glaringly apparent:
I had zero strength in my glutes and hamstrings. Absolutely nothing. I may have had a big ass, but there was no power back there. The engine was dead.
Matt is a stickler for form in all the major lifts, especially squats. He does seminars all over the country on proper squat form. One of the key elements he stresses is keeping the weight centered back on the heels and pushing out hard with the knees. This allows the glutes and hamstrings to power the lift, as opposed to having the weight on the balls of the feet, which shifts the lift into the knees and quadriceps.
Guess what happened to me when I attempted to squat with the weight in my heels? I fell over backwards. Seriously. My glutes and hamstrings were so weak that they were incapable of supporting my body weight.
As the following image shows, the problem comes down to basic anatomy: the glute muscles cradle and support the posterior lower spine, while the hamstrings support the glutes (with lots of smaller muscles, ligaments, tendons and such in there as well, but we will keep it simple for our purposes here). They are the largest muscles in our body. As upright-walking primates, they are meant to power the majority of our movements. If those muscles are lacking, if that support is not there, than all of the strain and stress of navigating the physical world goes directly to the lower spine.
Lack of glute and hamstring strength then contributes to a phenomenon known as “quad dominance,” wherein the quadricep muscles on the front of the thigh “take over” to compensate for the lack of muscle on the backside. The quadricep is a smaller muscle not designed for such an arduous task. Relying on quads pulls the lower spine even further out of alignment and keeps the true engine–glutes and hamstrings– weak and debilitated.
Once Matt helped me understand these biomechanical truths about my body, then I understood the true nature of my back pain. It would have been a miracle if I DIDN’T suffer from back pain. I was finally shining the “light” on the right spot.
So Matt helped me build those muscles slowly over time. Since this whole muscle group was effectively “turned off,” bringing them back online involved more than just strengthening the actual muscles: I had to learn new motor patterns, rewire neural pathways, work on balance and stabilization. It was a long, slow, sometimes painful process.
But it was a different, more rewarding kind of pain. It was the pain of muscle soreness, the burn of cold engines slowly revving back to life, rather than the excruciating pain of an unsupported spine. It was the pain of growing, not the pain of dying.
How did Matt help me do this? Yes, I did loads of exercises that worked the muscles in isolation, as well as exercises like reverse hypers and 45 degree back extensions that helped decompress my spine.
But compound movements like belt squats and sumo deadlifts were the real key to bringing these muscles back to life.
For the entire first year of my training, I can count on one hand the times I free squatted with some type of bar; it was all belt squats. With the belt squat, I learned to squat with proper form using a traction-based movement that minimized spinal compression. The belt also supported my body so I could work on keeping my weight centered in my heels and pushing my knees out hard, without falling backwards, until my muscles were strong enough to do it under a bar without the belt. The belt squat essentially allowed me to build strength and improve form, and protect my back at the same time.
Sumo deadlifting was another major component of my training regimen. Unlike conventional deadlifts, which use more quads and low back, sumo deadlifts (when done properly), rely almost exclusively on glutes and hamstrings. I’ve been with Matt for almost three years now, and I have only done conventional deadlifting 2-3 times, and that was just in the last six months.
For the longest time, my soreness after leg day was concentrated in my quads because I just couldn’t access anything else. Then slowly other muscle groups got in on the action. My inner thighs and groin got sore next. Then eventually my hamstrings fired up and got sore, which was pretty exciting.
My ass was the last holdout. For whatever reason, my glutes took a long, long time to come to life, and my hip joints were stubbornly tight and inflexible. But through consistent training and just doing what Matt told me to do, the day finally came about two years into my time at Ludus when I got up the day after a leg workout, and my backside was sore.
I had never been so happy to have my ass hurt. To feel the pain of growing, not the pain of dying.
I am not cured of back pain; it still flares up every now and again. But it’s a rare, fleeting event that passes quickly, not an aspect of everyday life. You know what’s crazy? Even if I’m having a flare-up today, I can still work out harder than I did when I first came to Matt in 2014. And those workouts help the flare-up resolve more quickly.
All of this talk about glute-this and hamstring-that, about different types of squatting and dealifting, may sound like vanity to some people. “Meathead stuff” that doesn’t really matter outside of the gym in real life. I thought that way at one time. But my attitude was based in ignorance, and shame at my own unwillingness to take care of my body.
What I know today based on my experience is that this “meathead stuff” has given me a quality of life unlike any I have ever had in my adulthood. What I do in the gym has everything to do with how I live outside of the gym. I firmly believe that continued strength training is my best shot at avoiding the plague of arthritic destruction that runs through my family, and living an active, vibrant existence into my old age.
Hopefully with an ass that just won’t quit.
If you struggle with chronic aches and pains, that doesn’t mean that strength training can’t work for you. Everyone has to start somewhere, no matter how small. Seemingly small efforts can snowball into big changes. If you are interested in starting your own journey, call me at 614-517-2520 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to join my other clients already working with me at Ludus Magnus.