My Pain In The Butt: Thinking Abundantly About Capacity

I’ve been nursing a nagging pain in my butt for the last year or so.

Literally. The tendon at the top of my right hamstring is worn out and inflamed—and it manifests as a giant pain in my butt. I’ve been focused on lower-impact exercise all this year, but it never seemed to get any better. So, finally, I went to see a sports medicine doctor.

She diagnosed my pain in the butt as tendinosis, which basically means the tendon is breaking down from overuse. That much I had surmised using Dr. Google. But what surprised me is that she said it wasn’t so much rest it needed but the strengthening of a different muscle. She had me lay on my left side on the exam table with my knees bent. Sort of like I was setting up to do some old-fashioned Jane Fonda clamshells. Then she pressed down on my right leg and asked me to resist. As I battled her hand with my leg, she poked at my glutes. 

She poked around at the top of my right glute and tried to coax the muscle to life. No dice. Quads? Good. Hamstrings? Okay. Hip flexors? Firing on all cylinders. Glute medius? Completely offline. It turns out, like most middle-aged people who have spent a good amount of time bathed in the glow of a computer screen, my glute muscles don’t work very well. I need to train and strengthen my glute medius so my hamstring tendon won’t need to compensate so much while lifting or running. It’s early yet—but by targeting that muscle specifically, I’ve been able to lessen the pain in my butt and introduce some of the activities I’ve been missing.

The more I learn about strength and endurance training, I realize how much stabilizing muscles, like my pesky glute medius, are integral to my performance.

I can strengthen my big muscles—glute max, hamstring, quadriceps, delts, lats—all I want. But if I’m not also training the smaller stabilizer muscles, I will end up hurt. I might be strong—but I’ll also be dysfunctional.

What’s more, it’s incredible to experience how much more load I can bear when I’m intentional about “turning on” those stabilizing muscles. Using proper form, doing targeted warm-ups, moving mindfully—I can lift more and endure longer when I invite my stabilizing muscles to the party.

This morning, I was thinking about the coming year and how I’ll be managing my capacity differently.

Can I view my capacity as a sustainable and abundant resource instead of something I’m carefully meting out as a precious commodity? 

As I considered an abundant perspective of my capacity, I was reminded of this definition of strength from Holly Myers of Lift With Holly And Arryn. Strength is “integrity under load.” Strength and capacity go hand-in-hand. The relative strength of my muscles, lungs, and mind will determine what my capacity is for a particular activity.

The activity—whether it’s squatting, running, coaching, teaching, writing—is the load. To maintain integrity under that load, I need brute strength, sure. But perhaps more importantly, I need the support of my stabilizers. For squatting, that might mean working my glute medius or practicing abdominal bracing. For writing, that means working ideas for longer and practicing shitty first drafts.

The more mindful of the stabilizers I am, the more abundant my capacity is.

Of course, capacity is not infinite. There is a point at which brute strength, finely-tuned stabilization, and mindful form give out. 

Friends, this is the week of the year that I dread most. Daylight saving time ends on Sunday. Without fail, this is when I feel the scarcity of my capacity the most. It’s when everything I’ve done to stabilize and manage my integrity under load can’t compensate for the strain anymore. This is the time of year when I need to set things down, recalibrate, accept the shift into a new rhythm of light, attention, temperature, activity. 

As I write and process anew this struggle I face the first week of every November, I’m reminded of a book I read at the tail-end of this past winter, Katherine May’s Wintering. She writes:

“There are days when I can say with great certainty that I am not strong enough to manage. And what if I can’t hang on in there? What then? These people might as well be leaning into my face, shouting, Cope! Cope! Cope! while spraying perfume into the air to make it all seem nice.”

I’ve been coping for a long time now.

Coping with my pain in the butt. Coping with a particularly unyielding depressive cycle. Coping with undiagnosed autism. Coping with the world.

Coping always feels precarious, unstable—its own form of scarcity. I’m always finding ways to compensate for muscles that aren’t quite firing or serotonin levels that just don’t seem to stay balanced. So as I consider whether I can see my capacity as abundant, I am drawn toward imagining what capacity without coping or overcompensating looks like. What stabilizers do I need to have in place to prevent injury and stay healthy? 

I know that this is the time of year when many of us start to consider what we might want out of the following year.

And this year, more than most years, many of us are thinking about some pretty dramatic changes. It’s easy to focus on the drama of those changes—the program you’ll launch, the book you’ll write, the social media you’ll do away with! But these dramatic changes won’t happen—and can’t happen well—without care for the stabilizers that build our integrity under load and give us a sense of abundant capacity.

As you start to think about what you want out of 2022, you might find some of these questions helpful:

  • In what ways am I currently coping? What feels like a pain in the butt right now?
  • When do I feel most stable? What contributes to that feeling of stability?
  • What are the big muscles I want to work on next year? And what stabilizers do I need to target to actually get stronger?
Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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