Strength Training for the Glutes
In Part 1 we covered some pre-training measures you can use to get your glutes fired up and ready to go. Now it's time to get to work on strengthening them. Before we discuss the exercises, let's go over four regulations. If you violate these four ground rules, we'll kick your ass (no pun intended).
- You'll use a full range of motion (ROM) on all exercises, even if you're the most inflexible person alive.
- You'll drive/lead with the heel and not prance around like a sissy on your tiptoes.
- You'll keep the torso erect (chest high and scapulae retracted) to ensure a full ROM.
- You'll check your ego at the door and decrease the weight if necessary to perform the exercises correctly!
Every rule doesn't apply to every exercise, but more often than not, these little cues will help you to increase your gluteal function and strength. Now, let's move on to the exercises!
There are far too many benefits to squatting than we can mention here, but we can touch briefly on the benefits with respect to glute development. At many fluffer gyms you'll hear the stories of how so-and-so started squatting and all of a sudden they had a huge butt. Well, I hate to tell you, but chances are if you have what we in the powerlifting world call "Squatter's Ass," you probably had it before you ever touched a weight!
Yes, squatting will likely increase the size of your glutes. But, before you worry about getting a butt that resembles J. Lo's, remember that when you significantly develop your glutes, their depth increases, not their width. This is important because many female athletes with whom we've worked have expressed fear that they're going to get wider in the hips. This isn't the case at all.
If you're interested in squatting, basically any version can be of benefit when trying to develop and strengthen the glutes. In fact, it's often a good idea to use all types of squats for different reasons. Olympic-style and front squats with a narrow-to-moderate stance are good choices because of the increased ROM and glute activation. Powerlifting-style squats with a wider stance are a good choice due to the increased loading that can be utilized and the fact that the quads are taken out of the movement to some degree, forcing the hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) to do more of the work.
If you still aren't convinced that squatting is an excellent glute developer, maybe you just aren't going deep enough! Caterisano et al. (2002) examined how squat depth affected muscle recruitment, performing EMG analyses on the hamstrings (biceps femoris), quads (vastus medialis and lateralis) and glutes to see which muscles were most active at the different squatting depths (1). Subjects squatted to three different positions: one-fourth squats, parallel squats, and below parallel squats. All the subjects in this study had a minimum of five years of weight-training experience. Below is a table with the results:
|Muscle||One-Fourth Squat||Parallel Squat||Below Parallel|
|Gluteus Maximus||16.92 *||28.00 *||35.47 *|
* Denotes statistical significance
Adapted from Caterisano et al. J Strength Cond Res 2002.
As you can see, the deeper you go, the more glute activation you get. The only drawback of the study is that the loads used were relatively small, so hopefully further research will repeat the study with increased loading. What we're trying to tell you is that if you aren't feeling it in your glutes, you need to go deeper!
Lunge – Dynamic, Static, Walking, 6" box
The lunge is another exercise that can really blast your glutes when performed correctly. Remember that when we're working the glutes, full ROM is paramount, so don't bother stroking your ego with the 120-pound dumbbells unless you're sure that you can handle them in good form.
To begin, grab a pair of dumbbells and stand up tall with the chest held high. With the head and chest up, stride out beyond your normal walking gait, landing on your heel. This is an important point, because when you land on your toes you'll have a harder time balancing yourself, and many will find that the knees-in-front-of-toes position puts excessive strain on their knees. Plus, in this position, the quads and calves will do more of the work, which is exactly what we don't want when we're training the glutes.
Sink down until your back knee is very close to the ground, and then drive off the heel back to the starting position. This is the dynamic lunge.
If your balance isn't up to par, we suggest beginning with a static lunge or split squat. You'll start with your legs in the position described above (stride out position), and simply move up and down without moving your legs back-and-forth. This will take some of the dynamic balance issues out of the equation, allowing you to focus more on the actual movement itself.
For those of you interested in increasing the pain, we'll give you two progressions beyond the basic dynamic and static lunges. The first is the walking lunge. Performance is identical to the dynamic lunge, except instead of striding back to the starting position, you'll drive forward and move directly into the next lunge. This isn't always feasible, as many commercial gyms will have tons of people getting in your way, but if you have the space, by all means give this version a try.
The final variation is only for the true masochist; it comes from powerlifting coach Justin Cecil. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more difficult (or beneficial) version. Place a 6" box or low aerobic step in front of you, slightly closer than your stride-out position. The performance will be identical to the dynamic lunge described above, but you'll quickly notice that the increased ROM takes its toll, especially when you walk with a significant limp the next day!
You might also be interested in trying lunges to different angles; the possibilities are endless on this front.
While the various variations of lunges are all great glute developers, we'd be crazy to omit Bulgarian squats from a discussion of "booty blasters." With this exercise, your feet aren't moving, so you can focus on a full ROM, which we know is critical for cranking up the difficulty of your glute training.
To perform Bulgarian squats, grab a pair of dumbbells and place the top of one foot on a low bench behind you. Before starting the movement, make sure to force your chest up and put the weight on the "down" heel. Lower your body under control to a point where the knee of the non-working leg is close to the ground. From this bottom position, squeeze the glute while simultaneously trying to drive your heel through the floor.
Single Leg Reverse Hyper
Unless you've been living in a cave for the past five years, you've read or heard about the benefits of using a reverse hyper machine. We all know that the reverse hyper is excellent for developing the posterior chain, so we're not going to reiterate that issue here. We are, however, going to give you a variation to complement bilateral reverse hypers that you can use to strengthen and improve motor control in the glutes.
Lie prone on a reverse hyper machine with the hips hanging down and one foot resting on the bar. From the bottom position, squeeze the glute and bring the same side leg slowly up to the top. Hold for a count at the top, squeezing the glutes, and then lower under control to the starting position. When performing motor control work, a 2320 tempo works well. Once you're comfortable performing the exercise, feel free to add ankle weights to increase the loading and speed the tempo up slightly.
Glute-Ham Raise (GHR)
Like the reverse hyper, the glute-ham raise is an excellent exercise for developing the posterior chain. The key to getting this exercise right is to focus on using the glutes throughout the performance of this exercise. In the bottom position, squeeze the glutes and keep them tight during the extension of the trunk and the curling of the body up to the top. Nothing too difficult here, but all too often the hamstrings and erectors take over the movement and don't allow the glutes to do their share of the work.
If you find that your hips are flexed during the entire movement, your glutes are too weak to perform a rep in good form. Have a partner assist you on the concentric (raising) portion as you perform the movement in good form and lower yourself slowly without assistance. In time, you'll be able to do reps in good form on your own.
Step-up and Reverse Step-up
Grab a pair of dumbbells and place one foot squarely on a bench. The key to performing this exercise correctly is to drive through the heel and to focus on using this leg to do the work, not the leg that's on the ground. A good rule of thumb is to think about pulling yourself up to the bench by driving through the heel.
Lift the opposite leg up as you stand on the bench, and then lower under control to the starting position. If you are a true stud, at the top position drive the down leg up to a point where the upper thigh is parallel to the ground and hold for one second. This will give you some extra dynamic balance work and a bit more bang for your training buck.
To perform the reverse step-up, start with body weight and then work up to holding a plate in front of your chest. Start on top of the bench with the weight on the heel and the opposite leg off the back of the bench. Keeping the weight on the heel, sit back to a point where the opposite foot is very close to or lightly touches the ground. Drive through the heel to the starting position and repeat.
We should note that many of the lunge and step-up variations described above can also be performed using a barbell.
Kneeling squats are outstanding for activating the glutes and teaching you how to fire the hips forward when you come out of the hole in a squat or attempt to lock out a deadlift.
Set up some padding on the floor at the base of a power rack, and position the bar so that it's slightly below shoulder level when you're on your knees on the padding. From a kneeling position, slide under the bar as if you're going to squat it and unrack the weight. At this point, you'll be upright with a 90-degree angle at your knees.
From here, simply push the butt back while looking straight ahead or slightly up. When your butt makes contact with your calves, fire your glutes in order to push the hips forward, and squeeze the glutes together as you lock out the bar.
Believe it or not, deadlifts are one of the best ways to determine if someone's glutes are firing correctly. If you're someone whose hamstrings and lower back tend to do all the work, you'll be absolutely floored the first time you realize how much getting some help from the glutes can add to your best pull.
The dynamic warm-up and motor control exercises should give you a small taste of what this is like, as the glutes should be firing more efficiently with those preliminary exercises. You'll really start to see your numbers climb when you get proficient at firing your glutes. In order to get the most out of your rump on deadlifts, focus on driving the heels through the floor and pushing the hips forward to lock out the bar (instead of leaning back to accomplish the lockout).
Pull-throughs can be done to hammer the lower back or the glutes. Can you guess which one will be our target?
Position yourself with your back to a low pulley with a rope attached. Reach back between your legs and grab the rope with a neutral grip; make sure you're positioned far enough forward to ensure that the weight stack doesn't touch down on the eccentric portion of the lift.
With a slight knee-bend and a tight arch in your lower back, the chest high and the head up, drive your heels into the floor (as in a deadlift or good morning) and fire your hips forward. Contract the glutes as you pull through and lock out the hips. Be careful of your "boys," though. Rope burns and pinches in that area tend to be a bit painful.
Hip flexor variations 1-6
Now that we've thoroughly taxed your glutes, it's time to open up and relax the hip flexor muscles. The following are some hip flexor stretches to relax these commonly tight muscles.
For the beginner stretch, place some sort of padding on the ground to protect the "down" knee. All we're doing here is performing a deep lunge, so keeping the head and chest up, let the hips sink down so that you get a stretch in the front of the hip. It's important to avoid placing your hands on your knee or leaning forward to increase the stretch; instead, focus on letting the hips sink. Hold for 15-20 seconds and then switch sides.
The second version of this stretch is a serious upgrade from the first, so make sure you're comfortable with the beginning version before moving on. Instead of a lunge position, this time we're in a position similar to a Bulgarian squat. You'll still want some sort of padding to protect your knee, so place it a foot or two in front of a low bench or even a low-sitting couch.
Take the toe of the down leg and place it on the bench or couch behind you while your forward leg is in the Bulgarian squat position. The same rules apply as with variation #1: keep the head and chest up and the hands off the knee. If you're having trouble balancing, place a chair to your side that'll allow you to relax into the stretch. Hold for 15-20 seconds and then switch sides.
Variations 3 and 4 are the identical to variations 1 and 2, but they'll be performed with you reaching to the sky with both arms.
Variations 5 and 6 are spin-offs from variations 1 and 2 as well. The set-up is the same in both cases, but the only difference is now we're incorporating some trunk extension and rotation to make the stretch even more comprehensive and challenging. Set-up as described above, but now reach over the shoulder of your forward leg with the opposite arm. You'll notice this is very similar to the reverse lunge with a twist from Part I. This added trunk extension and rotation will really amplify the stretch you get in the hip flexors.
This little known stretch is good for relaxing the external rotators of the hip. Many athletes and clients have described this stretch as "hurting so good," so we hope you'll give it a try and feel the pain for yourself!
To begin, sit on the ground and place one leg in front of you at a 90-degree angle with the opposite leg off to the side at a 90-degree angle as well (hence the 90/90 name!) Keeping the chest up, lean forward slightly along the front leg. Hold for 15-20 seconds and then repeat with the opposite side.
If you have the flexibility of a circus freak (and we're guessing not too many of you do), you can increase the intensity of the stretch by leaning toward the front leg's ankle rather than straight down the leg. If you're humbled by the first version, try leaning to the outside of the leg first and then progress to the next two versions.
Bulgarian Squat, Eccentric Quasi-Isometric (EQI)
Tony Schwartz drew attention to EQI's in Christian Thibaudeau's e-book, Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods. It's a great way to relax into stretch, and you'll even work up a bit of a sweat in the process. Moreover, as Tony details in his write-up, EQI's offer several benefits over traditional static stretching because the muscle to be stretched is contracting, thus shifting the emphasis from the series elastic component (SEC) to the parallel elastic component (PEC) (2). These benefits are structural, metabolic, and psychological. Check out the e-book for Schwartz's outstanding review.
The Bulgarian squat is an excellent EQI for loosening up the hip flexors, especially if you become proficient enough to do it with added weight. Basically, you're attempting to hold an isometric muscle action for as long as possible. However, as you fatigue, this isometric action will become a slow eccentric action, thus stretching the muscle in the "contracted" state. The same guidelines go as with the actual Bulgarian squat: keep the chest high and scapulae retracted.
You're now equipped with a four-pronged attack plan for the glutes that incorporates dynamic flexibility, motor control, strength training and static flexibility. There's no excuse to have a small, weak, useless derriere. Now get your ass to work!
- Caterisano, A, Moss, RF, Pellinger, TK, Woodruff, K, Lewis, VC, Booth, W, Khadra, T. The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles. J Strength Cond Res 2002 Feb; 16(3): 428-32.
- Schwartz, T. "Special Topic: Eccentric Quasi-Isometrics." In C. Thibaudeau. Theory and Applications of Modern Strength and Power Methods. 2003: 135-143.