The glutes are the largest and most powerful muscles in the body. They also control a lot of athletic movements. They help you lift more weight but also help you jump higher and run faster.
It is no coincidence therefore that they cause so much interest in the opposite sex. In a wild environment, well-shaped buttocks were a good indicator of the survivability of their possessor. The urge to look at other people’s buttocks is in our genes.
Weak buttocks not only detract from attractiveness and physical performance, they are also often the cause of pain and injury. The buttocks stabilize the hips and maintain an upright posture. If they do not perform these activities correctly, other muscles must compensate for their function, increasing the risk of, for example, lower back pain or knee injuries.
Unfortunately, this large musculature now lies dormant most of the day. Its main function seems to be to cushion our long hours of sitting. Modern life damages its aesthetics and inhibits its function.
In this article you will learn how to regain their strength and beauty. It is time to wake up these giants.
The gluteus maximus (or gluteus maximus) is the largest and most superficial muscle, representing 2/3 of the total size. It is a powerful hip extensor (it pushes the hip forward). It therefore contributes to straighten your body in the rise of movements such as deadlift or squat.
The gluteus medius, along with the gluteus minimus, rotate the hip outward and abduct the leg (pull it away from the body). Weak gluteus medius often leads to poor stability and more lower back pain .
If you see runners whose hips dance from side to side with each stride, this may be the cause, raising the risk of injury.
A weak gluteus medius is unable to stabilize the hip when running, increasing the risk of injury. This problem is called “Trendelenburg gait”.
Keys to improve the buttocks
The glutes are versatile muscles, involved in a multitude of movements. Therefore, the best way to train them is to incorporate different planes and angles, also varying the volume and intensity of the exercises.
In addition, different movements involve to a greater or lesser extent different portions of each of the muscles that make up the gluteus, achieving a greater stimulus thanks to a good combination.
That said, we must not forget the basic principles of training. At the base should always be the big movements, which in this case will be three: hip thrust, squat and deadlift.
Secondly, we must incorporate assistance work, without forgetting the lateral exercises that involve the gluteus medius to a greater extent, such as all those responsible for abducting the hip.
Finally, adding some variety of isolation exercises with less intensity will achieve a good additional stimulus, improving results. Isolation exercises are also useful for correcting possible muscular imbalances between sides.
The best gluteal exercises
There are many ways to classify the different exercises:
We can look for example at the direction of movement. The squat and deadlift are vertical, while the hip thrust is horizontal.
We can also distinguish between quad-dominant exercises (such as the different squat variants), hip-dominant exercises (such as the deadlift and reverse hyperextensions) or glute-dominant exercises (such as the hip thrust, glute bridge or donkey kicks).
This dominance also depends on one’s anatomy. As I indicate in this infographic, different anatomies result in different techniques and therefore different muscle activation. Some people notice more glute activation with some exercises than with others, hence the importance of experimenting with many and adjusting according to sensations and results.
Let’s do a quick review of some of the best exercises.
No single exercise will give you the glutes you want, but if you could only choose one, the hip thrust would probably be the best option. That’s why we start here.
It’s the perfect complement to the other two big moves: squat and deadlift. While these maximize tension with the gluteal muscles stretched, the hip thrust does it with the muscles contracted and the hips neutral. Its technique is also simpler, accessible to even the most novice.
Some basic recommendations on technique:
The bottom of your shoulder blades should be just above the edge of the support bench.
Keep your pelvis in a neutral position, without hyperextending your hips at the end of the movement.
Place your feet shoulder-width apart, or slightly wider apart. You can make small adjustments in the position and opening of the feet if you do not notice tension in the buttocks.
Think about raising the bar with your hips as high as you can, contracting your glutes as much as possible in the end position. To maximize the contraction, hold for a second or two in this position before lowering.
At the end of the movement your knees should form a 90° angle (or close to it).
Your knees should move above your feet, aiming to open slightly outward. One way to accomplish this, and enhance the exercise by engaging the gluteus medius, is to place a glute band around your knees.
To prevent the bar from digging into your hips, use a pad like this one.
It is advisable to include sessions with more metabolic stress (less load and more repetitions, perhaps 10-15) and sessions with more mechanical stress (more load and fewer repetitions, e.g. 4-6).
If you don’t have a barbell, place a kettlebell or any weight on your hips. You can make the movement more difficult by using one leg at a time. This way you also engage the stabilizing muscles.
If you don’t have a bench, you can perform the Glute bridge, resting your back on the floor instead of on a bench. It is also easier to perform, but somewhat less effective in reducing the range of motion.
As with the hip thrust, you can perform the glute bridge with a weight on the hip or using one leg at a time. And again, you can work the gluteus medius at the same time using a closed band.
If you have resistance bands (or access to a pulley machine) you can perform the so-called pull-through. It could be considered a standing hip-thrust. It is a good exercise, but requires more stability and therefore generates less glute activation.
We’ve talked about the squat many times, so I’ll keep it short. The classic barbell squat allows you to move heavier weights and strengthen the glutes to a greater extent. That said, it’s better to use slightly lighter weights but look for more depth, thus achieving better gluteal activation
Deadlift is the most complete exercise for developing the entire posterior chain, including the glutes and hamstrings (back of the thighs).
Donkey kick (or quadruped hip extension).
This is a good isolation exercise, very interesting for warm-up or as part of a metabolic routine for the end of the workout. By isolating one glute at a time you can also use it to correct possible imbalances.
To make it more difficult, use ankle weights or glute bands.
This is a little known but effective exercise. You can perform it on a bench or on a table that offers good support.
Squeeze your glutes hard at the end of the movement.
Keep your back neutral during the exercise, do not hyperextend it at the end.
You can do it with your legs straight or slightly bent.
You can lift both legs at the same time or do it unilaterally.
Hip Abduction Exercises
While exercises like the squat and deadlift work more the lower part of the gluteus maximus, abduction movements develop the gluteus medius and the upper portion of the gluteus maximus.
They are therefore a great complement to the big movements, but remember that they should not represent the basis of your training.
To work different angles, combine standing exercises with others lying down or sitting. In all cases it is advisable to use closed bands to add some load.
Side walk with band
Place the band above (or below) your knees and take wide steps to one side, then repeat to the opposite side. Or you can also alternate sides if you’re short on space.
To make it a little more difficult, move into a quarter squat stance (with hips and knees slightly bent)
You can also walk forward in a zig-zag motion, opening your legs at 45° angles to each side.
Hip abduction on the floor
There are a multitude of variations, as the following images indicate. Each exercise generates slightly different stimuli, hence the importance of variety.
The glutes are little activated when walking or running at half throttle, but they are recruited to their maximum in explosive movements such as sprinting or jumping .
It is true that explosive movements are not very effective for building muscle mass, but they are a great complement to any traditional program. They also enhance our athletic capabilities.
Both box jumps and sprint intervals are powerful exercises, but incorporate them gradually and with the right frequency.
One explosive movement I recommend to start with is the kettlebell swing. It allows you to deploy maximum explosiveness with minimal impact. To make it more effective, remember to push with your hips and maximally tense your glutes at the end of the movement.
Gluteal Amnesia I can’t feel my glutes!
Many people have a hard time strongly activating their glutes in exercises that theoretically involve them. This is what some call gluteal amnesia, caused by our sedentary lives.
The modern world not only atrophies our glutes, it also inhibits them. Fortunately, it is a reversible process. It is not generally an anatomical problem, but a neuromuscular one. Not using our buttocks weakens the connection that the brain has with them, hindering their proper activation.
Some ideas to recover their function:
Before training, pre-activate the glutes, using some of the gentle exercises we saw earlier, such as lateral band walks and other variations of hip abductions.
Being fresh, even on rest days, perform isolation exercises, such as donkey kicks. Isolating the muscle facilitates neuromuscular connection.
Touch the buttocks with your fingers while performing these isolation movements. This manual feedback can help reconnect your brain with your muscles.
In addition to the above, I recommend frequent stretching of the hip flexors. Spending many hours sitting tends to shorten them, making it difficult to maximally contract the glutes.
Before showing sample sessions, I summarize some typical mistakes when it comes to gluteal enhancement:
Lack of intensity: the glutes, like any other muscle, require tension to grow. To create this tension progressively increase the load on the basic movements: hip thrust, squat and deadlift. In Spartan Warrior and Free Bar I show how to achieve this.
Lack of effort: By intensity we usually mean the load used, but we can also push ourselves with lower loads. You should occasionally (but not always) include sets with RIR 0-1 (zero or one rep in reserve). Your glutes need a good reason to grow.
Low frequency: The glutes are big muscles, which tolerate a lot of punishment. If you want to develop them, you should work them at least two or three times a week. Once you’ve achieved your goal, you can reduce the frequency. It is much easier to maintain than to develop.
Excessive cardio: Again, the glutes are governed by the same laws as the rest of the muscles. If you’re looking for hypertrophy, cardio is not the way. There’s no problem incorporating a couple of short sessions (30-40 minutes) a week, but beyond a certain threshold, cardio will interfere with your gains.
Wrong nutrition. To gain muscle mass you must consume enough protein and calories (more detail). You can certainly gain muscle mass in caloric deficit, but progress will be slower.
Putting it all together (sample sessions)
We should think more about programs than individual exercises. If you want to boost your glutes you will have to put more emphasis on them for a few months, but without neglecting the rest of the body.
My recommendation is to follow a general program, which helps you to improve your overall physique, but complemented with more gluteal work.
The possibilities are endless, but we could consider a full-body workout three days a week, with the following characteristics in each session:
Start with one big movement each day (rotating hip thrust, deadlift and squat).
Alternate upper-body and lower-body exercises.
Incorporate an assistance exercise in the middle.
Finish with an isolation exercise, or even a circuit if you have time.
Let’s look at an example.
Hip thrust 3 x 8-10
Torso exercise 1 (e.g. push-ups or bench press)
Bulgarian squat 3 x 10-12
Exercise torso 2 (e.g. prone pull-ups)
Side walk with band 2 x 20
Deadlift 3 x 6-8
Exercise torso 1 (e.g. military press)
Step-up 3 x 10-12
Torso exercise 2 (e.g. supine pull-ups)
Gluteal bridge unilateral 3×10 (per side)
Squat 3 x 6-8
Torso exercise (e.g. rowing)
Pull-through 3 x 10-12
Torso exercise (e.g. parallel dips)
Hip abduction on the floor 2 x 20 (vary exercise in each session)
If you have more time, you can replace the last isolation exercise with a “combo finisher”. This involves performing several glute exercises in a row with minimal rest in between (only one set of each). For example the following:
Donkey kick x 10 (per side).
Kickback x 10 (per side)
Reverse hyperextensions x 10
Hip abductions on the floor x 10
Another possibility would be to include a fourth day where you perform some plyometric work (such as kettlebell swings or box jumps) and then 3-4 rounds of the above exercises as a finisher.
Summary and conclusions
The glutes are powerful muscles, but lack of use weakens and inhibits them. Strength work is the best strategy to restore their function and beauty.
Include in your workouts movements such as hip thrust, squat and dead weight, complementing them with different assistance and isolation exercises. Progressively increase the load or difficulty of the exercises, and as you progress you will see your glutes grow, awakening from their long lethargy.