It's no secret that sitting for long stretches isn't great for your body. Research has linked it to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, even cancer. But there's another health risk from sitting all day that most people don't know about: gluteal amnesia, or dead butt syndrome.
It almost sounds like a joke, but it's not uncommon, says Andrew Bang, a chiropractor at the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute: "I see the injury all the time in varying degrees."
Dead butt syndrome develops when the gluteus medius—one of the three main muscles in the booty—stops firing correctly. That can happen if you spend too much time parked in a chair, explains Kristen Schuyten, a physical therapist at Michigan Medicine. "But it can also occur in very active individuals who just don't engage the glute muscles enough," she adds.
Since the gluteus medius normally helps stabilize the pelvis, gluteal amnesia can lead to lower back pain and hip pain, as well as knee and ankle issues, as the body tries to compensate for the imbalance.
Dead butt syndrome has to do with reciprocal inhibition—the process that describes the give-and-take relationship between muscles on either side of a joint. "In general, when one muscle contracts, a nerve signal is sent to its opposing muscle to relax," says Bang.
When you spend hours on end in a seated position, your hip flexors are contracting while your glutes rest. "Over time, we're basically training our glutes to be weak," Bang says.
The same type of muscle imbalance can happen in highly active people who have very strong quads or hamstrings. Bang has even seen marathon runners develop dead butt syndrome
How do you know if you have gluteal amnesia?
One way practitioners pronounce a butt dead is with the Trendelenburg test, a physical exam in which a person lifts one leg in front of them while standing. "If the pelvis dips down on the side of the body where the leg is lifted, that indicates weakness in the gluteus medius on the opposite side," says Bang.
The curve in a person's back can also suggest gluteal amnesia. While the lumbar spine (or lower back) should naturally form an S shape, more extreme curvature may signal that the hip flexors are so tight they're pulling the spine forward, says Bang.
What can you do to avoid dead butt syndrome?
Try to take frequent breaks from your chair throughout the day. Get up and walk around, or do some stretches at your desk. Schuyten recommends setting hourly reminders on your phone, to prompt you to squeeze your butt muscles at regular intervals.
And when you work out, don't forget to target that booty. Along with squats and bridges, lying-down leg lifts are a good move to add to your routine, says Bang. "Start on your left side with your right leg lifted and the big toe pointing toward the floor as you lift," he says. "This angle isolates the gluteus medius and minimus muscles the most, so you'll feel it within 10 to 15 lifts of the leg." Add a band or ankle weight for extra resistance.
Above all, the best way to avoid gluteal amnesia is to mix up your daily routine, says Bang. Sit on an exercise ball for part of the day. Spend some time standing up, working at a high countertop. "Whatever you do, just don't allow your body to get into a repetitive cycle," he says.
Ways to combat dead butt syndrome
Get up and move at least 5 minutes per hour. The movement doesn't need to be vigorous or lengthy, says Jo; some jumping jacks or squats will do the trick. It's about consistency. "The more we move throughout the day, the better it is for your health," says Jo. One easy fix? Instead of sitting at your desk, start pacing while taking your calls.
Practice proper posture while sitting. That means your elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle, your hips should be at a 90-degree angle, and your knees should be at a 90-degree angle. "Keep both feet level on the floor versus sitting cross-legged or with one hip higher than the other," says Fitzgerald—that'll keep your hips properly aligned.
Stretch every day, unrelated to your workout. "Target the front of your body—your chest, shoulders, and hips—which gets chronically shortened while sitting," says Jo. Do these two moves for at least 2 minutes (or 1 minute per leg): the Half-Kneeling Hip Stretch and the Marching Glute Bridge. Incorporate these into your day, and your butt will be good to go.
Daily moves for your booty
Marching Glute Bridge. Lie flat on back, knees bent, feet hip-width apart, heels a few inches from butt, arms at sides. Squeeze glutes to lift hips. Keep left foot on floor, lift right foot, maintaining a 90-degree bend at knee. Lower right leg, and repeat on the left side. Continue alternating, doing 12 reps.
Grasshopper. Lie on stomach, bend knees, and bring feet together with a little separation between the knees. Squeeze your glutes to lift the legs about an inch off the floor. Lower back down. Do 10 reps.
Side-Lying Leg Lift. Lie on right side with right arm extended on the floor, left hand in front of your body for support. Rotate the left leg so the big toe points toward the ground, then lift it up and back diagonally. Return to start. Do 10 reps, then switch to other side.
Lateral Lunge. Stand with feet together and hands clasped in front of chest. Take a large step out to the right, immediately lowering into a lunge, sinking hips back and bending right knee to track directly in line with right foot. Keep left leg straight but not locked, with both feet pointing forward. Push off the right foot to straighten right leg, step right foot next to left, and return to starting position. Do 10 reps, then switch to the other side.
Chair Step-Up. Stand with feet hip-width apart, arms at sides, facing the front of a chair or bench (about 20 inches high). Place right foot on the seat and drive through right foot to step onto the top of the chair or bench; bring left knee up to hip height, keeping core engaged. Very slowly lower the left leg back to the floor to return to start. Do 10 reps, then switch to the other side.
Lateral Walk With Band. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and a resistance band looped just above knees. Bend knees slightly and lower into a slight squat. Take 20 steps to the left, pause, then rotate the right knee in and out 10 times. Repeat in the opposite direction.
Half-Kneeling Hip Stretch. Start in a half-kneeling position, right foot forward and both knees bent 90 degrees. Place hands on front thigh for support. Tuck hips forward and pull belly button toward spine. Then, rock forward gently without untucking hip or rounding back. Hold for 30 seconds. Do three sets of 30-second holds per side.