At first, glute training sounds like a fad or a trend stemming from the aerobics videos of the ‘80s. But, take a better look and you’ll see that it is actually far more functional! A good pair of jeans can be made even better by a full glute, but there are a lot of functional aspects that can be improved with strong glutes. That means glute training is not just for the ladies!
Regardless of gender, training the glutes is a major part of training the posterior chain of the body. The posterior chain of the body includes:
Latissimus dorsi and trapezius
Basically, any muscle group on the back side of the body. No one will complain about filling out their jeans a little nicer, but the benefits of glute training extend beyond a plump derrière. You can dramatically improve your hip, core, and leg strength and mobility while seeing advances in your squat, deadlift, and lunges. Hip extension is a major part of sports and powerful movement. Those who play sports can also advance their athletic performance with the right butt exercises.
In a sedentary world where most of us spend more time sitting than moving around, the posterior chain can literally become a pain in the butt! Sitting causes the front of the hips—the hip flexors—to become tight or overactive. This can lead to many dysfunctions. The biggest one is the inability to activate the glutes! So, even if you are doing your squats and lunges on a regular basis, you may not truly be activating the correct muscles in the process.
The Bottom…The Foundation
Building stronger glutes takes more than just the basic exercises. To truly activate the entire set of glute muscles, activation exercises and abduction and adduction must be a part of your routine.
The glutes consist of three major muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. The gluteus maximus is the outermost layer that gives your backside its shape. The gluteus medius and minimus are often inactive or forgotten. When neglected, the imbalance can lead to knee pain, poor lower body movement patterns, and the tendency for the quadriceps to dominate during movement and exercise.
Weak glutes contribute to lower back pain and issues with the hips as well. Let’s start with the activation exercises. Incorporate these as accessory exercises or as a part of the warm-up on your leg day…every time!
First, What Is the Purpose of Glute Activation?
Glute activation will increase blood flow to the gluteal muscles, but also initiate neural activation. That means the nerves that control your muscles are activated as well. Without neural activation, your brain cannot signal the muscle to fire.
Abduction is moving the leg away from the midline of the body while adduction moves the leg towards the midline. Abduction and adduction are specifically required to truly activate the gluteal muscles. Your first activation exercise—a banded lateral walk.
Mini Band Lateral Walk
Secure a mini band or cloth band around your ankles (or just below the knees if preferred). You’ll start with your feet about hip-width apart. With a soft bend in the knees, hinge from the hips and push your buttocks back slightly. Step to the side with your left foot making sure to keep your left knee above your left ankle. Shift your weight to the left leg and move your right leg back under your hip. Repeat 5-10 steps leading with the left leg before you change directions and move back to the right for the same number of steps.
The lateral walk is mostly hip abduction as you take the lateral steps.
You can also abduct or adduct the leg using an ankle cuff and a cable machine.
Cable Hip Abduction
Secure an ankle cuff around the right ankle and attach it to a low cable machine. The machine will be opposite of the direction you’re moving your leg, so your left side. Shift your weight onto the free leg with a soft bend in the knee. Grab something for balance if you need it. Keeping your right leg straight, move it away from your body until your foot is about knee height. Gently lower back to start position and repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions before switching legs.
The weight does not need to be heavy, especially when using this as an activation exercise. You can always revisit the cable hip abduction in the workout and add some weight once you’re warmed up.
The mini band clamshell is another great glute activation exercise.
Mini Band Clamshell
Pull a mini band over both feet and move it just below your knees. Lay down on your side on an exercise mat and bring your knees to 90 degrees. You can lay all the way down with your ear on your shoulder or prop your head in your hand with your weight on your tricep. Stack your feet and hips. With a controlled tempo, open your knees and press against the mini band. Only come high enough to feel your glutes squeeze, but don’t let your hips shift or your feet come apart. With the same tempo, lower your top knee back to the start position. Repeat for 15-20 reps before turning over and switching legs.
This abduction and adduction activation can also be done as a leg lift with an extended leg from the same position. You can decide if you want to add a resistance band or not.
So, you should be feeling pretty warm by now! Your glutes will probably feel different, too! That’s because you’re actually using them! Now that your activation exercises are done, let’s dig into the workout.
Exercises to Build Your Backside
Muscle activation is the first step. Now, you can begin to build stronger, bigger glutes. The main exercises that target your activated glutes are squats, deadlifts, lunges, and step-ups. Each has some important variations to try.
Before you begin, make sure you’ve mastered the hip hinge! This is a great piece to add to your warm-up with or without a light bar or dowel.
Perfecting the Essential Hip Hinge
A hip hinge is a movement that utilizes the posterior chain—the back of the body—to drive flexion and extension of the hips with a posterior weight shift. The musculature involved in the movement pattern includes the hamstrings and glutes, erector spinae, the rhomboids to aid in a neutral spine, and the core muscles for bracing the upper body.
Begin standing with a barbell or dowel gripped at shoulder width and the feet hip-width, knees stacked over the ankles. Screw the feet into the floor and drive the knees out. This is an important intricacy that engages the glutes from start to finish.
With the shoulder blades down and packed and a neutral head and thoracic spine, engage the core muscles to brace and bend from the hip joint to push the glutes posteriorly.
Maintain a slight bend in the knees to keep the shins as vertical as possible. Continue until a stretch is felt in the hamstrings ensuring the lumbar spine remains neutral and supported by the core muscles.
For a basic hip hinge, the stretch in the hamstrings indicates maximum flexion of the hip flexors and the body moves in one unit like the mouth of a Pac-man. At the endpoint, the lateral floor-up view of the hinge has the knees, then the hips, then the shoulders. If the butt is below the knees, this is a squat, not a hinge!
Squeeze the glutes and begin hip extension until the neutral start position is achieved to complete the hip hinge pattern. Resist the urge to hyperextend the hips forward. Simply squeeze the glutes instead. If someone struggles to maintain a neutral thoracic or lumbar spine, use a dowel held with one hand behind the neck and one below the glutes. The dowel should lay directly on the spine and maintain contact with the back of the head, thoracic spine, and tailbone during the entire range of motion.
Read the full ISSA article on mastering the hip hinge to improve your form on this essential move.
The squat is a good full-body exercise. The upper body and core support the load while the lower body does the moving. There are two considerations to keep in mind with a squat aimed at firing up your posterior chain: bar placement and foot placement.
To target the posterior chain most effectively, the back squat is preferred over the front squat. However, most people just step under the bar and pick it up higher on the back or traps. A low bar placement is more effective for shifting your weight back, activating the hamstrings and glutes, and minimizing the use of the lower quadriceps during a squat. For a low bar squat, you’ll place the bar a little farther down the back on the rear deltoids instead of on the top of the shoulders. This will require a little more shoulder mobility and the hands may need to shift a little wider.
Working angles can help target your glutes as well. Traditional squats put your feet about shoulder-width. A wider stance with a slight foot turnout is a sumo squat. You’ll set up just like your normal squat with a low bar placement but start with your feet just outside of the shoulders with the toes at about a 45-degree angle. Be sure to hinge as you begin the movement and lead with the glutes!
The hip thrust is all about the posterior chain. It differs from a glute bridge since you’ll add weight in the form of a barbell or dumbbell and it’s traditionally performed off a bench or platform. You’ll keep your upper back on a bench and load the weight at your hips focusing on hip extension as you squeeze your glutes and raise the weight. You’ll lower the weight about halfway down before the next rep versus all the way. That little tidbit is key! Lowering about halfway will keep your glutes engaged through the entire set!
These can be performed double or single-legged and activate the gluteus maximus, your quadriceps muscle group as well as the hamstrings and core muscles.
Traditional deadlifts are a tough move to master. However, when you do, you’ll really be able to target your glutes. The secrets to the deadlift are proper form and glute activation. Learn more about how to properly execute a deadlift in this informative ISSA blog post—Deadlift: The Forgotten Exercise
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is a variation of the traditional deadlift (of which there are many!). The RDL focuses on the upper origin of the hamstrings, but also the glutes when you squeeze them at the top of the movement. Since the hamstrings support the glutes on the posterior chain, this exercise is critical.
Lunges, when done properly, target the gluteus maximus, hamstring complex, and quadriceps. They require good hip mobility and are a good option for finishing a leg day off right. Make sure your step is long enough that, when you bend your back knee towards the floor, your front knee can stay stacked over the front ankle to protect the knee. If your knee passes your front toe, you run the risk of injuring your knee.
Lunges can be done in so many variations. Stationary, walking, lateral, curtsy lunge, and elevated (split squat) to name a few. While it’s not ideal to try all the variations in the same workout, there is plenty to try to keep your lunges fresh each workout.
The step up uses the same range of motion as the lunge, but you’ll elevate as you move onto whatever you’re stepping on. The higher the box, the more challenging the movement is for your posterior chain. Change up the way you load a step up or your direction of movement to add a challenge!
Dumbbell or Kettlebell
Unilateral or bilateral (one weight or two)
Sideways (lateral) step up
Once you’ve gained the proper strength to start adding some power movements into your routine, try the kettlebell swing. The glutes are in control of the hip hinge and extension during this exercise. This quick and explosive movement will also challenge the core. Make sure you don’t hyperextend the spine as the hips extend. Drive the top of the head straight up towards the ceiling and really squeeze the glutes to protect the lower back.
Get Your Booty in Gear!
So, if you didn’t know, now you know! Glute training is more than just the aesthetics. No matter what your fitness or athletic goals, taking the time to focus on glute activation and strength can benefit everyone. Don’t let preconceived notions of having a stronger butt keep you from reaching your full potential.
If you’re looking to get your personal training certification or are looking to expand your knowledge and expand your career as a trainer, there are so many options for you! Become corrective exercise certified to help you identify things like glute weakness and muscle dysfunction! Our updated and all new strength and conditioning certification is the perfect option if you want to help athletes reach their peak through training and nutrition. Come join the ISSA elite and let’s change how the world performs…one client at a time!