The Piriformis is a small but troublesome muscle in the buttocks that often needs some attention to prevent it from becoming…well, you know the rest.
If you have heard of the piriformis it may be because you have suffered from ‘piriformis syndrome’ where tightness in the muscle affects the sciatic nerve causing pain, weakness and numbness down your leg.
You may also know where it is because a well-meaning massage therapist or physio has dug their elbow deep into your butt to release it for you. Though this is sometimes necessary and helpful, learning how to release it yourself is often preferable to the ignominy of someone else having to do it.
This small deep, gluteal muscle works to externally or laterally rotate the hip, but can become tight and short when the larger glute muscles become weak or inactive. Because of the repetitive, low load, one dimensional nature of cycling, the glute muscles in many cyclists are often weak and underdeveloped. Where the hamstrings are also tight at the knee, the upper hamstrings at the hips are also often weak, together with the glutes. When they are strong and functioning well, the glutes are the strongest muscle in the leg, contributing significantly to your pedal power by driving hip extension on the down stroke. However, when they become weakened by the repetitive, low-loading of endurance cycling, the piriformis muscle can progressively tighten.
Once your piriformis is tight and ‘overactive’, your other glutes will stay weak, while this poor little muscle, buried deep in the musculature of the leg, progressively overworks. Most often, you will only become aware of this at the point at which you are having quite debilitating problems. Because the piriformis is very close to the sciatic nerve, it can create numbness, weakening, or a radiating nerve pain down one or both legs. Obviously, this is the sort of problem that can stop you riding your bike, limit your power massively (by neural inhibition) and at the very least limit your enjoyment, so prevention is better that cure.
Being such a deep muscle, in order to stretch it, you need to work deep through the outer gluteal muscles. Using this simple but effective ‘tennis ball’ mobilisation can help you use your bodyweight on the ball to locate and work out the tight areas.
Position yourself sat next to a tennis ball with your front (left) hip/leg open at a right angle. Use your other leg with your foot flat on the floor, as well as your arms to lift yourself up and sit steadily and carefully back down with the tennis ball centred on your left buttock.
Gradually dropping your weight onto the ball, wriggle around until you feel you are sat on a tight spot in the area. Then, gently drop your weight onto the ball until it becomes uncomfortable for a couple of seconds. It’s important not to tense up but to try to relax onto the ball. Then relieve the tension by lifting your body off the ball slightly. Repeat five or six times until the tension eases, and then move onto a slightly different spot until you have worked through the whole area.
Work into both sides in this way, spending the most time where it feels the tightest. This is an excellent stretch for these muscles pre-ride and can help you recruit the stronger glut muscles when you get on your bike, or you can use it to loosen off your hips post-ride. Always strive for equality on both sides, and spend more time on one side if it seems tighter.