For the longest time, training the glutes wasn’t something the average lifter was proud of.
Thanks to scientific advancement and a general increase in training education, however, that mentality’s changed.
Now we’re aware that it’s not only cool, but it’s incredibly important.
With that said, it’s worthwhile to brush up on the why before getting into the how.
And that’s where this article comes in.
The Truth about Your Butt
I was once asked a completely unrealistic question by one of my clients: If there was one muscle group you had to train, neglecting all others, which would you train and view as most important to health and wellness of the body?
Suspend your disbelief for a second and play along, like I did.
As far as the muscle group that would have the greatest “reach” where its healthiness was concerned, I chose the glutes – even before the abdominal complex. They’re the largest and strongest hip extensor in the body, and having those muscles in proper working order can create a list of benefits:
- Strong hip extension
- Hip capsule stability, and improved hip mobility
- Proper knee tracking
- Reduced back stress
- Low susceptibility to hamstring injury
Needless to say, training the glutes for improved strength and function is a necessity. Before I continue, it’s probably worthwhile to weed out some of the misconceptions first.
Myth 1: Deadlifts are All you Need
I’ll go out on a limb and say that most lifters who like to deadlift don’t achieve full glute activation from the start. I’ll take this a step further and say that most lifters who like to deadlift, usually like to pull heavy too.
With that said, both of the above are strikes against optimizing gluteal engagement, especially when considering the glutes serve more functions than simple hip extension. If you think you’re covering it all by doing heavy pulls, you’re in left field.
Myth 2: If you squat, you’re training your Glutes
Ok, this may not be entirely false, but a person would be remiss to use that blanket statement without considering two things:
- The build of the individual
- The depth of the squat
I’m a 6 foot 4 lifter with long legs and a short torso. To squat to full depth, my knees need to pass far forward over my toes so my upper body doesn’t pitch forward. It’s not a strength imbalance issue, as I am capable of moving well over 400 pounds to full depth. It’s an issue of anthropometry.
With that in mind, my geometry makes a full depth squat very quad – dominant, and not so much glute-dominant. Squatting to a parallel range with a much more angled torso and a vertical shin position (like a box squat) is what works best for me, and likely many other lifters when it comes to glute stimulation.
These hacks aside, you need more than just squats if you want to target the glutes.
Want Glutes? Smart Moves to Add
This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the hip thrust as a great glute developer. Doing them with lighter weight for higher reps can allow you to zero in on the hinge/hip extension pattern on its own, without it being eclipsed by ankle and knee flexion, or lower back dominance.
Of course, with every lift that allows you to move a significant load, it’s important to beware of going too heavy. Lifting heavy weight on the hip thrust may be doable, but it’s worth thinking of your particular goal (that of glute-specific development) how much other stuff would “kick in” during a heavily loaded set of thrusts.
It shouldn’t take too much weight to burn out the glutes. Stick with lighter loads before hitting your max.
The single leg pull through is an exercise I’ve become very fond of since tampering with single leg deadlift variations. The problem most people have with the single leg deadlift is that of finding the right balance to keep the hips square and stable, while properly hinging with a flat back to activate the glutes and hamstrings.
Banking the foot on a bench behind (as seen in the video) while using a rope and pulley setup eliminates the balance aspect of the lift, and mimics the same pattern while changing the force angle to directly counter hip flexion. All of this leads to a glute activation that is hard to find in other lifts.
The step up is an often overzealously butchered movement that can act as a prime developer not only for the gluteus maximus but also the gluteus medius, depending on how they’re performed. Loading up on movements that are meant to assist other movements, isolate a select few muscles, or improve structural balance is, in my books, an opportunity squandered.
Among other single leg movements, the step up is one movement I see people using way too much weight on or using far too high a box to execute them with good (and safe) technique. It doesn't take much weight to challenge the hip extensors if you focus on these simple cues:
- Don't push off the ground with the supporting leg.
- Don't bring the supporting leg onto the box until the working leg has completely extended.
- Control your descent to the floor.
- Whatever torso angle you choose, try to commit to keeping it, and don't let it change.
- Aim to keep a vertical shin on the working leg.
- Avoid pelvic obliquity (meaning, avoid letting your hips "slant" significantly to the left or right through the movement. Keep them centered.
Moving a load is much different than loading a movement. And in the video below, it’s clear that 35lbs per arm is more than enough for me on a fairly low step up that gets my upper thigh to parallel, as you can see. Also, I'm going slightly across the body so as to hit the glutes a little more specifically.
One More thing: for Sleepy Glutes, Use Isometrics
If you’ve been having issues feeling the glutes during or after your workout, chances are they’re stubborn links and could be overshadowed by other muscles that are doing more than they need to be.
With that in mind, a prolonged maximal effort contraction on an immovable object could be just what they need to be properly engaged, especially if such an act is done in a typically weak point of a movement. Using isometrics to activate the glutes prior to typical isotonic weight training can be a great help to making them light up during your loaded sets.
To do it, find a wall and start with a glute medius activation by standing with one side facing the wall, and raising the leg closest to the wall until the heel contacts it. From there, simply stand tall, and using the glutes as much as possible, push out hard against the wall.
Hold this contraction for anywhere from 20 to 60 seconds, depending on your rep quality and conditioning.
Next, stand with your back to the wall and do a straight leg hip extension with one leg, and follow the same instructions as seen above, driving the heel into the wall using the glute to do it. In both cases, feel free to adjust your body’s positioning and angles in order to find the perfect spot of best activation.
These are just a few examples of many when it comes to smart directives for glute training – but it first comes down to recognizing their importance to your health, your program, and your overall development.
Your glutes are the powerhouse behind compound movements and general athleticism.
Don’t neglect them, and if you have been and aren’t yet injured, count your blessings. Now’s the time to make a change.