As a varsity sprinter, I learned the hard way that a properly functioning set of glutes can be a make or break factor in your muscular performance and body’s health.
The glutes are the largest and (ideally) the strongest hip extensor muscles and should lead off the firing pattern of the posterior chain.
If you’ve got a previous muscle imbalance, which is an incredibly strong possibility, then you will be at a disadvantage right out of the gates.
This will carry over when it comes to making sure your glutes are doing the right thing through conventional movements, even if you’re using proper form in those moves.
This is how to give the glutes no choice but to get in gear.
The hip thrust takes the hip extension right down to its element and zeroes in on loading the execution to target the glutes. To do them, set up a bench in a place that will ensure it doesn’t move around. Wrap the bar with a pad or towel for comfort. This will come in handy when the weight gets heavier.
Next, position the bar over the hips and position the feet to be just outside hip width apart. Point the toes slightly outwards. Dig in with the heels and drive the weight upwards. Check out my friend Ben Bruno getting the job done here.
Remember, one of the functions of the glutes is to posteriorly tilt the pelvis. With that said, it’s easy to slip into an overarch (hyperextension) of the back when performing reps of this movement. That’s why it’s important not to go too heavy if stronger glutes are truly your focus. Be sure to maintain activation.
The box squat is a smart choice compared to a typical squat. It can create the needed difference to a squat that’s dominated through the quads due to missed geometrical form or due to different proportions that make targeting the glutes a bit more of a hassle.
It’s important to realize that the more you flex at the knee, the more quadriceps you’ll include in a squat. This can act to mute the glutes’ involvement, especially when they’re not functioning as efficiently as they should be.
With that said, stopping momentum and inhibiting the stretch reflex by using box squats can do plenty to light up the glutes and not have them simply “come along for the ride” via momentum.
If you’re used to deep squatting, it may do you well to avoid using a box that’s so low that it almost compares to your typical squat depth. Instead, try using a box that brings you to a depth just below parallel. This equals less knee flexion and a taut hamstring position that sets the stage beautifully for the glutes to be involved. Check out the video for an example.
This may seem like an odd choice, but hear me out.
Unilateral exercises like lunges and split squats provide an advantage that no bilateral stance movement provides. They’re dynamic in nature and can create a much greater range of motion to be achieved at the hip joint.
In the case of the walking lunge, the fact that the body is travelling forward makes the glute continue working to step through into the next lunge rather than just bearing load at the bottom of each rep. Furthermore, this exercise deserves a place in mention since it’s also usually dumbbell loaded.
When coupled with a split stance, it can be performed for higher reps with less risk for injury. Plus, the load on the lower back is significantly less due to lowered shear forces (there’s no barbell loaded on the back or axial load of any sort).
Walking lunges can serve as a good “finisher” and don’t necessarily need to be placed at the beginning of the workout for efficacy. Using them as a superset to a late movement (like a Romanian Deadlift, for example) would be a smart call. And remember, let assistance exercises like this do their job.
If your goal is to assist the strength of your squats and zero in on your weak glutes, don’t default to using 80 pound dumbbells just because your overall body is strong enough to lift it. That won’t have any carryover to the strength of your big lifts in any case. It doesn’t take too much weight to really hit the right muscles and get a great benefit from the move.
To contrast, I have a 435 pound back squat and a 550 pound deadlift, and have never lunged with more than 40lb dumbbells in my hands.
Honorable Mention: Tennis Ball Glute Bridges
Like I said at the outset, sometimes you need to strip things down to the simple basics in order to get things to work the right way and build your foundation. In the case of gluteal firing, bodyweight could be all you need to ensure the muscles are being used.
Adding a simple tennis ball can be the humbling element that makes you rethink your entire strategy. View the video below. The role of the tennis ball tucked in the hip fold is to activate the psoas muscle on that leg. That will counter the posterior tilting that the glutes are responsible for.
Thus, it will make them have to work even harder to achieve full hip extension to overcome this. If you can perform sets while achieving full extension without losing the ball, your entire hip capsule will show to be in good working order.
It takes something far less than a “meathead” approach when hitting the glutes. A carefully engineered program will get you closer to your goals than trying to go all out with squats or deadlifts. Even if it means taking a 4 week phase that goes lighter on the big stuff, take the opportunity to use the exercises above to correct your weak links.
If you don’t work on the foundation now, it’ll expose a bigger problem in the future.