Dispelling the Glute Mythby Bret Contreras
In 1995, my cousin and training partner at the time bought me The Complete Book of Butt and Legs because, in his words, he'd "never met someone so obsessed with training his glutes."
I pored over that book, and since then I've read almost every study, article, and book ever written on the glutes. My bookshelf is loaded with glute and hip extension exercise material, including four extra-large three-ring binders full of glute articles and studies that have been printed and highlighted over the years.
Whether the publication was geared toward bodybuilding, powerlifting, or sport-specific training, if it pertained to the glutes in any way, I read it.
In 2006, I opened up Lifts, a Scottsdale-based fitness studio that specialized in glute training. I developed several brand new glute exercises, which my clients and I believed were much more effective than what most people were doing for their glutes. Lifts quickly became known as the butt-perfecting gym in Scottsdale.
Early in 2009, I was trained by Noraxon to use their Myotrace 400 and Clinical Application Software, a system that measures and records the muscular activity of exercises via a process known as electromyography, or EMG.
I'd long suspected that the methods and exercises I developed in my training studio were far more effective than what the typical fitness publications were printing, but after performing thirty straight leg workouts and experiments in my skivvies with wires and electrodes attached to me so I could measure and record the glute, quad, hamstring, and adductor activity of over a hundred different hip extension exercises, it became clear to me that the glutes are the most wrongly-pegged muscle group in fitness.
I tested common and unique bodyweight, dumbbell, band, barbell, apparatus, and machine exercises, and then tested three other individuals with varying anthropometry or body segment lengths to make sure the results I saw weren't atypical.
Knowing that the fitness population would seek scientific explanation to lend support to my data, I knew what my next step needed to be. Fourteen years after reading the book my cousin bought me on the glutes, I wrote my own glute-book entitled Advanced Techniques in Glutei Maximi Strengthening.
Within its 675 pages, you'll find pictures and descriptions of over 200 glute exercises, many of which you've never seen or tried before, as well as over 700 references and links to other sources. The book dispels many myths surrounding the glutes, "functional training," and "sport-specific training." If you're interested in glute training, this book is a must-read.
The Glute Guy
Recently, a colleague of mine nicknamed me "The Glute Guy," and it stuck. I'm certain that I've done more research on the glutes than any other person on this planet. My research has made me realize two things.
First, the experts don't know shit about the glutes. Yes, this means all of your favorite authors, professors, trainers, and coaches. Despite the fact that the gluteus maximus muscles are without a doubt the most important muscles in sports and the fact that strength coaches helped popularized "glute activation," none of them have a good understanding of glute training. Neither do bodybuilders, powerlifters, or physical therapists. They all think they do, but they don't.
In fact, the experts are so far off the mark that their best glute exercises can only activate half as many fibers as the glute exercises I'm about to show you.
And second, athletes' glutes are pathetically weak and underpotentialized. Even people who think they have strong glutes almost always have very weak glutes in comparison to how strong they can get through proper training.
Follow the Logic
I expound upon these concepts much more in Advanced Techniques in Glutei Maximi Strengthening, but for this article I'll be very brief. Some of this might contradict what you've read in the past but keep in mind this is coming from "The Glute Guy."
• The lower gluteus maximus is involved in three distinct actions; hip extension, hip hyperextension, and hip transverse abduction.
• The upper gluteus maximus is involved in five different distinct actions; hip extension, hip hyperextension, hip abduction, hip transverse abduction, and hip external rotation.
• These motions are the most important motions in sports and include sprinting, leaping, cutting from side to side, and twisting.
• The strongest joint action at the hip is hip extension/hyperextension.
• The hip can hyperextend ten degrees with bent legs, twenty degrees with straight legs, and thirty degrees when forcibly pulled back.
• Hip hyperextension is safe and occurs naturally during walking, running, sprinting, grappling, throwing, lunging, and hip flexor stretching.
• Length tension relationships dictate that a muscle contracts best when it's at resting length, which means that the gluteus maximus muscles contract the hardest from zero to twenty degrees of hyperextension.
• Hip flexor flexibility allows for hip hyperextension and is an absolutely critical component to maximum glute activation; tight hip flexors prevent hip hyperextension and maximum glute activation.
• A vertical jump involves maximal vertical propulsion; whereas a sprint involves maximum horizontal propulsion.
• A sprint activates 234% more mean gluteus maximus muscle than a vertical jump.
• Due to the increased glute activation, sprinters commonly experience "butt-lock;" whereas repetitive vertical jumpers experience "quad-lock."
• In resistance training, there are two distinct types of hip extension exercises; those that mimic vertical jumping and those that mimic sprinting.
• Hip extension exercises that mimic vertical jumping have vertical or axial directional load vectors and include squats, deadlifts, and static lunges.
• Hip extension exercises that mimic sprinting have horizontal or anteroposterior directional load vectors, involve hip hyperextension, and include reverse hypers, back extensions, hip thrusts, pendulum quadruped hip extensions, and pull throughs.
• Hip extension exercises that mimic jumping will be referred to as hip extension exercises, whereas hip extension exercises that mimic sprinting will be referred to as hip hyperextension exercises.
• The propulsion phase of a vertical jump involves simultaneous hip, knee, and ankle extension, whereas sprinting involves hip hyperextension.
• Hip extension exercises are usually performed while standing.
• Hip hyperextension exercises are usually performed in the supine, prone, or quadruped positions.
• Hip hyperextension exercises can be performed with bent legs or straight legs.
• Straight leg hip hyperextension exercises maximize hamstring contribution.
• Bent leg hip hyperextension exercises place the hamstrings in a shortened state which limits their contribution and maximizes gluteal contribution.
• In order, the hip extension exercises with the highest glute activation are the kneeling squat (67%), deadlift (55%), sumo deadlift (52%) and Zercher squat (45%).
• In order, the hip hyperextension exercises with the highest glute activation are the single leg bent leg reverse hyper (122%), hip thrust (119%), pendulum quadruped hip extension (112%), bent leg reverse hyper (111%).
• Hip abduction, transverse abduction, and external rotation exercises often maximally recruit the upper gluteus maximus muscles to a much greater degree than hip extension or hip hyperextension exercises.
• A well balanced gluteal routine involves hip extension exercises, hip hyperextension exercises, hip abduction exercises, and hip external rotation exercises.
As mentioned earlier, most people think they have strong glutes, but they don't. They believe this because they think that squats, deadlifts, and lunges are the best glute exercises, and they've spent years getting very strong at these. Even though they can make your glutes very sore, squatting, deadlifting, and lunging don't strengthen the glutes much. They target the quads and erector spinae. Even box squatting, walking lunges, and sumo deadlifts don't activate much glute in comparison to the exercises below.
If you studied glute activation like I have, you'd be blown away by the data. Most individual's glutes contract harder during bodyweight glute activation exercises than from one-rep max squats and deadlifts.
This isn't due to the fact that the individuals don't know how to use their glutes or don't adhere to proper exercise form. It's due to the fact that biomechanically the glutes aren't maximally involved in squatting, lunging, and deadlifting. They're only maximally contracted from bent leg hip hyperextension exercises.
Furthermore, just because someone's glutes are big, it doesn't mean that they're strong. In addition to training around three hundred "normal" clients over the past few years, I've trained various elite athletes, from NFL players and powerlifters to sprinters and figure models. I taught each of these individuals the exercises listed below, and I almost always had to start them off with their own bodyweight for resistance.
Although one of the powerlifters could do raw squats and deadlifts with over three times his bodyweight, when he first performed hip thrusts, he had to start out with two sets of twenty reps with his own bodyweight. We initially tried using 135 pounds on the hip thrust, which was roughly a third of what he squatted and deadlifted, but he could barely budge the bar.
The NFL players were both 350-pound offensive lineman who'd do hip thrusts for two sets of twenty reps as well. When you weigh 350 pounds, bodyweight exercises can be very productive! Both linemen mentioned that the hip thrust was the best posterior chain exercise they'd ever performed and remarked about how they loved the fact that they didn't have to wrap their knees or wear a belt to perform the exercise.
The Olympic sprinter had the best relative glute strength of the bunch, easily being able to perform twenty single-leg hip thrusts on his very first workout.
Strength gains for the new exercises come very quickly. I started off using 185 pounds for ten reps on the hip thrust and within a year I could do 405 for five.
The following plan will get your glutes much sexier, stronger, and speedier. Since everyone possesses varying ranges of glute strength, I'm going to provide four phases, which become progressively more challenging and difficult.
If you belong at phase one and start off at phase three, you'll just end up improving your existing dysfunctional patterns, which will lead to a pulled low back, hamstring, or groin muscle. You'll have to be the judge as to which phase you start at, but I suggest playing it safe and starting on phase one, spending two to three weeks in each phase.
I also included an array of exercises, some of which can be performed at your local gym or garage gym, and some of which require specialized equipment. I believe that the equipment below should become staples in glute training and sport-specific training, as they effectively train the sprint-vector and maximize glute activation.
Don't stop performing your squat, lunge, deadlift, and back extensions movements. Do these on your regular leg day and perform two weekly glute workouts on separate days. The workouts will be brief and won't get you very sore. Always begin each glute workout with a simple warm-up consisting of hip flexor stretches and a couple of bodyweight glute activation exercises.
Phase One: Hip Flexor Flexibility and Glute Activation
You must possess adequate hip flexor flexibility in order to open up the hips and maximally activate the glutes. Furthermore, you must be able to control your own bodyweight and learn how to contract the glutes properly before you begin adding weight. Mark Verstegen, Mike Boyle, Eric Cressey, and Mike Robertson have done an excellent job of discussing the importance of glute activation.
Perform two sets of hip flexor stretches for sixty-second static holds, progressing deeper into the stretch as time ensues.
Pick two exercises and perform two sets of ten reps with a five-second isometric hold up top:
Quadruped hip extension
Single-leg glute bridge
Pick one exercise and perform two sets of ten reps with a five-second isometric hold up top:
Phase Two: Glute Hypertrophy
Now it's time to progress into more challenging exercises and start packing on some functional glute mass.
Pick two exercises and perform two sets of ten to twenty reps:
Barbell glute bridge
Pendulum quadruped hip extension
Single-leg hip thrust
Weighted bird dog
Pick one exercise and perform two sets of ten to twenty reps:
Band standing abduction
Band seated abduction
Band external rotation
Phase Three: Glute Strength
At last, we've reached the maximum strength phase. By this time, you'll have developed a superior mind-muscle connection and will be able to maximize your glute activation through heavy strength training.
Pick one exercise and perform four sets of five reps:
Barbell hip thrust
Bent-leg reverse hyper
Bent-leg back extension
Phase Four: Glute Power and Speed
Finally, it's time to test out your new-found glute strength and increased locomotive capacity.
During these sprint sessions, you'll notice increased gluteal recruitment while running, and you'll be able to hold the "sprint position" throughout the entire 100-meter race. Make sure to spend about twenty minutes warming up and progressively increase speed as the sets progress.
Perform these workouts five days apart. On your first sprint session, work your way up to four 100-meter sprints at 80% max-speed. On your second sprint session, work your way up to two 100-meter sprints at 90% max-speed. On your third sprinting session, work your way up to one 100-meter sprint at 100% max-speed. Have a buddy bring a stop-watch and see if you can set a personal record.
When you finish with these phases, you can simply mix together your own glute program based on equipment availability and individual exercise preference. After building up strength on these exercises, your workout will never feel right without having at least one maximum glute-strengthener in your routine. The days of just squatting and deadlifting are long gone.
Tips for Special Populations
Ronnie Coleman upped the ante for bodybuilders' glutes when he showed up at the 2003 Mr. Olympia at 293 pounds with huge, shredded glutes. If you've seen Ronnie's videos, you'll know he loves his heavy squats and deadlifts, as well as his grueling parking lot lunges. I can't imagine what his glutes would've looked like had he done hip thrusts or pendulum quadruped hip extensions.
Bodybuilders are right on the mark with quad training and way off the mark with glute and hamstring training. Their arsenal of exercises is too narrow. Bodybuilders should stay away from sprints, plyos, and one-rep maxes, as the risk-to-reward ratio just isn't great enough.
A better strategy is to just integrate some of the exercises listed below into your routine for higher reps. If you're a 300-pound bodybuilder, performing 20 controlled reps with a slight pause up top on the hip thrust with just bodyweight will really tax the glutes. Since the glutes are on average a 68% slow-twitch muscle, they may respond very well to higher reps.
However, there's also much evidence that shows that since the gluteus maximus is often the largest muscle in the body, it remains dormant during low-intensity activities in an attempt to spare energy for more intense purposes. In this way they are like "sleeping giants"; they only want to be bothered when absolutely necessary.
If you're a bodybuilder and you need bigger glutes, then you must perform the exercises below. Squats, deadlifts, and lunges aren't doing it for you. I like Haney Rambod's FST-7 method where he suggests performing a couple of heavy exercises in the eight to twelve rep range, followed by seven sets of a lighter isolation exercise for eight to twelve reps with shorter rest-times.
I'd suggest performing four sets of heavy hip thrusts followed by seven sets of either an abduction movement like a band abduction or a more targeted movement like a single-leg glute bridge or even a quadruped hip extension with a five-second isometric hold up top.
Many gyms have good glute machines too. These machines can activate the glutes to a much higher degree than typical standing free-weight exercises. Just pin extra weight to the stack if need-be.
TC has alluded to the importance of the "A-shape" for sexy female glutes. While the shape of the glutes are largely genetic, women still need to attempt to preserve the sexy A-shape as much as possible and watch their upper glute to lower glute ratio.
The girls in the "good" category have a sexy A-shape and can perform all types of glute exercises. The girls in the "bad" category have well-developed glutes, but are losing their A-shape due to overdeveloped upper glutes. Their upper glutes are getting too big. These girls should avoid hip hyperextension, abduction, and external rotation exercise and stick to solely hip extension exercises. Although hip extension exercises don't work the glutes like hip hyperextension exercises do, they focus on the lower glutes and limit upper glute involvement.
The glutes can't get too strong in sports. The stronger they get, the more powerfully they contract in sprinting and the better they protect against low back, knee, hamstring, and groin injuries. Charlie Francis talked about how there were only a few athletes in the world who could maintain "sprint form" in the 100-meter sprint and how sprinters knew they had a bad day if they felt their sprints in their quads.
Over twenty years ago, he was prescribing reverse leg presses as his main glute and hamstring exercise in order to prepare his athletes for the big race. The reverse leg press was like a donkey kick performed while standing backwards facing away from a leg press on a Universal gym. Talk about being years ahead of your time! The reverse leg press is a great exercise, but the hip thrust and pendulum quadruped hip extension are even better.
Q: Your research sounds pretty crazy. Is there any existing research to substantiate your claims?
A: Yes, there are, including a study performed by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in 2006, which showed that a bodyweight quadruped hip extension activated more gluteus maximus muscle than a one-rep max squat. There's also a study performed by Kearns, et al. which showed that back extensions activated more gluteus maximus muscle than straight-leg deadlifts, and a study performed by researchers at the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital that showed that jogging on a treadmill activated over twice as much gluteus maximus muscle as the Stairmaster. Even walking beat out the Stairmaster.
In Advanced Techniques in Glutei Maximi Strengthening, I explain these studies by exploring and analyzing muscle fiber orientation, load vectors, length-tension relationships, and angular kinematics. In the three studies described above, quadruped hip extensions, back extensions, and treadmill running (all anteroposterior actions) beat out squats, deadlifts, and the Stairmaster (all axial actions).
Q: You've been having your clients hip thrust for over two years? It looks pretty dangerous. Is it safe? Have any of your clients injured themselves?
A: Yes, the hip thrust is perfectly safe. In the past three years, I've had around ten male clients regularly hip thrust over 365 pounds for ten reps and around ten female clients hip thrust 135 pounds for ten reps. I've been hip thrusting 405 to 455 pounds for two year now, and my back has never felt healthier.
In almost three years of prescribing hip thrusts, not a single individual has ever hurt themselves from performing the exercise. Not only do they not lead to lower back injury, they even prevent lower back injury because they maximally strengthen the glutes; the best back-sparing muscle there is.
Why would any movement that focused on targeting the glutes — the strongest muscle in the body — through direct hip extension while keeping the spine in neutral be unsafe?
Q: Ronnie Coleman had the best glutes of all time, and he never did hip thrusts. Neither did Andy Bolton, and he deadlifted more than any man in history. Usain Bolt is the world's fastest man, and he never did any hip thrusts. What gives?
A: Ronnie's glutes would have been even bigger from hip thrusts. Andy Bolton could get stronger at his deadlift lockout if he did hip thrusts. And Usain Bolt could get even faster if he performed hip thrusts. They are that good! Expect this exercise to be very popular in time.
Q: Activation exercises were meant to just activate muscles with bodyweight resistance. I don't think you're supposed to load them up.
A: You can load any movement in exercise. I agree that you shouldn't try to load exercises like scapular wall slides, but glute bridges? Come on! We're talking about the glutes. The powerhouse of the human body!
Q: Those exercises look funny. I don't want to do them at my gym.
A: You don't like humping? What's wrong with you? Just kidding; they are indeed strange looking. I have to confess that when I first started doing these at Powerhouse Gym I got some strange looks. Now I have half the gym doing them. I have people come up to me every day and say, "You're the guy who taught my friend the hip thrust. He taught me them and I never do a leg workout without them!"
They're no more awkward than Romanian deadlifts or hip adductions, but we've gotten desensitized to them. In time, they won't look so awkward. If you're okay with settling for half your possible glute activation, then don't do them. But if you want maximum glute strength, sprinting speed, low back health, and sex-appeal, then you better start thrusting.
Q: Are you sure that lunges aren't the best glute exercise? Every time I do them I can barely sit down for a week.
A: Yes, I tested them many times on myself and on several other people to. They sure make the glute-ham tie-in sore, but they don't make the upper glutes sore, nor do they cause a burn or a pump in the glutes like the exercises listed above. Contrary to popular opinion, they only get glute activation to at most 30% of MVC, while others can get glute activation to over 120%.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Single-leg Glute Bridge
Barbell Glute Bridge
Pendulum Quadruped Hip Extension
Single-leg Hip Thrust
Weighted Bird Dog
Band Standing Abduction
Band Seated Abduction
Band External Rotation
Barbell Hip Thrust
Bent-leg Reverse Hyper
Bent-leg Back Extension
About Bret Contreras
Bret Contreras received his master's degree from Arizona State University and has been a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and fitness studio owner for the past several years. If you have comments or questions for Bret, or if you'd like to purchase Advanced Techniques in Glutei Maximi Strengthening, please visit his website at TheGluteGuy.com or email him at [email protected].
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