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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 243– January 2018
If these days you were to read the fitness pages of newspapers and magazines you would be justified in thinking that the glutes are the new core. The word glutes and its synonyms are cropping up all over fitness articles and in fitness classes and sessions. And if you were a little bit of a prude some of these words could sound a little bit rude.
In the course of my painstaking research I came across names such as “classes for arses”, “Ass & Abs sessions”, “Bad Ass class”, “bum boosting classes” and “Best Butt Ever”. The list is not exhaustive but it offers nevertheless a glut of glutes. And if you could not be bothered to go through these punishing sessions you could instead opt for sportswear and buy yourself Power Leggings, in other words ‘butt-sculpting leggings’. Even the rather proper Financial Times1 could not resist using the ‘g’ word (actually, the ‘a’ word) with a journalist telling us that her daughter advised her to consider an “ass lift”. With so much glorifying of the glutes, the mind boggles.
Why, one may ask, are gyms and fitness studios focusing so much on and targeting the gluteus or buttocks muscles? I suspect that people are experiencing a feeling of lassitude with the vague, indefinite and misguided core muscles concept which is failing to keep its promises. It does not mean that the core is all forgotten as, apparently, the glutes are now thought of being “the forgotten core”, whatever that means. I rest my case though: the core is a loose concept.
The fitness industry is big business and gyms need to keep the punters coming and any bait will do, even butt baits. Enter the advertising and marketing industries which fabricate wants and desires and herd people into fashionable consumption. The goal is to create uninformed consumers who will then make irrational choices. And in these days of ‘Twitter’, when brains are taxed by anything longer than one-sentence thoughts, one or two catch-words are favoured by our publicists. Single words like ‘core’ and ‘glutes’ are used without context and do not require much reflection or inquiry. Unfortunately, this leads to reductionism which although at times useful in science, is misplaced in fitness.
This is not to say that the glutes are not important muscles – all muscles are important – and I have even written one or two columns on the subject for Positive Health. But to write that “…good glutes (…) are the building blocks of an overall strong physique” and “…a sylph-like silhouette”, and that “…working on your glutes could also be the secret to elusive washboards abs” is giving the glutes unjustified and fanciful powers. It’s not helping anybody to put the glutes on such a pedestal (or throne).
Whether it is glutes or other muscles, two important factors have to be considered: posture and nutrition. There is a very common mal-posture which I call the ‘posterior eraser’. Usually called sway back, it refers to a standing posture where the hips are in hyper-extension. The pelvis is pushed forward and it results in or is caused by hyper-tonic ilio-psoas muscles. Over the years, this inelegant stance flattens your posterior reducing it to a sad affair. A few weekly hours in the gym practising your bum boosting drills won’t do much good if you are guilty of the ‘posterior eraser’ stance. Moreover, this mal-posture has to be put into a larger postural context where the poise of the head relative to the spine is of primary importance.
Personal trainers will tell you that the best exercise for glutes of steel is the deep squat. Maybe so, but I can see in my crystal ball knee injuries and bad backs galore. You just have to look at people engaged into a deep squat and observe the way their back is arched to understand, I hope, why the quest for the greatest glutes could cost you your knees and back.
When it comes to nutrition, we are told in an Evening Standard article2 that “muscle eats fat”, meaning that if you build those glutes you’ll burn more fat and say goodbye to “those stomach rolls”. For a start, and call me pedantic if you like, I would be very worried if you had “stomach rolls”: the stomach is a digestive organ not to be confused with the abdominal wall.
As for muscles eating fat, they are rather force-fed fat. If you are overweight or eat a fat-rich diet, especially animal fats, the fat goes into the bloodstream and ends up inside your muscle cells. This intra-myocellular lipid causes insulin resistance which in turn leads to type 2 diabetes. In that sense, “muscle eats fat” is certainly not a good thing.
Even if “muscle eats fat” was meant to say that exercise burns calories, it is still misleading. People greatly overestimate the number of calories burnt by exercise. It takes about a two hours walk to work off a Big Mac3. To eliminate the calories from two chicken legs (steamed and skinless) requires a three miles run4. Nutrition trumps exercise every time. I am not saying that you should not exercise but that, unless you are a marathon runner, in the absence of optimal nutrition exercise won’t do much to get rid of fat stored in your abdomen, thighs and derriere. Eat plant-based!
To obtain or retain good enough glutes that serve their anatomical and aesthetic functions you just need sound nutrition, good posture, a correct use of the self and regular natural exercise. Now, if you wanted glutes of steel you’d need to put in a lot more effort and risk injury in the process – all that for no real benefits. But who needs glutes of steel unless you are Iron Man or Iron Woman?
In the course of my serious research I have learned a new word: belfie. This porte-manteau word refers to a butt-selfie. Narcissism, rampant in our affluent societies, has reached new highs or should I say new lows. So, if you were unfortunate enough to need a boost to your ‘arscissism’ you could always, once you have sculpted a perfect peachy posterior, take a belfie of your VIP (very important posterior).
1. Jo Ellison, Help! The gym is turning us all into slobs, The Financial Time, Sunday 19 October 2017
2. Elizabeth Bennett, The bottom line, Evening Standard, Monday 18 September 2017