Training

Glute Activation | The Best Exercises For Firing Up Gluteal Muscles

 

By Melody Coleman |

Personal Trainer

Whatever you train for, your glutes are an incredibly important muscle group, deserving of some close attention. A strong set of butt muscles will exert huge amounts of power and strength for athletes in every sport; bodybuilding competitors are judged with a close eye on their derrières; and average Joe or Jane? How about protection from back and knee pain, reinforced movement patterns and a comfy seat on which to rest? Not to mention the fact that we can all recognise and appreciate a 5 star butt when we see one!

Whatever your age, gender or training goal, this is one area not to be missed when training. If you’ve never trained glutes, or even if you have, here are the most effective exercises to boost glute engagement, strength and power.


#1 – The Deadlift

 
deadlifts kirk miller

The reason I’ve listed this exercise first is simply because it is the most functional. At some point in our lives we will need to pick something up from the floor, and it might be heavy. Ever heard the phrase “Lift with your legs, not with your back”? Well, that’s what a deadlift is. This movement is also highly transferable, and can be used to improve sprinting speed, jumping power, and hundreds of techniques including tyre flips and kettlebell swings.

Safe and proper form in this movement sees a neutral and braced spine throughout, shoulders locked into an externally rotated, retracted position, and all of the load controlled concentrically via the glutes and hamstrings. Good technique is key, as it could be the difference between preventing/rehabilitating injury, and causing damage to your soft tissues. Here are some of my favourite deadlift variations:

The traditional deadlift

The hips drop back and knees soften, creating a “lever” controlled predominantly by the glutes and hamstrings

The sumo deadlift

A super wide stance with toes and knees pointing outwards, allowing for greater glute activation

The stiff-leg deadlift

Requiring more hamstring flexibility than the traditional deadlift, the knees soften far less in order to achieve more eccentric loading through the hamstring, and a new challenge for the glutes themselves

The single leg deadlift

Fantastic for rehab, balance and core strength goals, this movement can be loaded using free-weights, resistance bands or cables to surprising effect.


#2 – The Hip Thrust

 
Barbell Hip Thrust

Research conducted by glute guru Brett Contreras demonstrates that the best exercise to achieve maximal glute engagement is hip thrusting. It’s not the most functional exercise past a certain point, but many lifters and athletes might be shocked when they realise how little they’ve been engaging their glutes after just 20 good reps performed without load.

The trick with this movement is focus during time under tension. Using a 2022 rep-timing format, ensure your hips are hyperextending at the top of the concentric contraction from all the crazy glute-squeezing you’re doing. It’s also important to note that you should not be using your lower back as part of this movement, and so your core should be engaged and contracted, allowing your hips to maintain a posterior tilt.

The glute bridge

Plain and simple, flat on your back on the floor

The hip thrust

Performed with either your shoulders, feet, or both on a bench or step, allowing greater range of movement

The kneeling hip thrust

Seated with your butt on your heels, squeeze your glutes to leave your feet and rise into full hip extension (your body will create an “L” shape), before lowering back to a seated position.


#3 – The Squat

 
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget! This popular power move is an essential part of glute training, and can engage the glutes either a little or a lot, dependent on your body type and which squat variation you choose. Contrary to common knowledge, squatting is not the best way to build a better behind, although it certainly will help!

squats

The traditional back squat

Everyone’s favourite. Butt back, knees out, braced core, and neutral spine are required to perform this big compound safely

The front squat

Greater glute activation and a more upright spinal position can be achieved through holding the bar in a front rack position. You may not be able to lift as heavy as in a back squat, but your glutes will feel the benefits

The sumo squat

A super wide stance with toes and knees pointing outwards encourages better glute activation, and greater adductor recruitment

The split squat: not to be mistaken for a lunge, this movement is the strength-training version of a single leg squat, allowing heavier weight to be used due to the stability provided by the back foot. All the normal rules of a squat apply for the front leg (toe and knee positioning, hip movement etc), and the back foot should take a wide stance, providing support for the hard-working front leg

The single leg squat

A great choice for athletes in any sport who run, and for filtering out any common muscular imbalances. Personally, I make sure to include a unilateral (one-sided) phase of programming every few months to keep injuries at bay

The pistol squat

A glute-heavy version of the single leg squat that relies heavily on ankle and hip mobility, as well as quad and glute strength to reach a full range of motion with the non-working leg extended out in front.


#4 – The Lunge

 
This movement allows for complex variations to be used for wide-ranging applications. Lunges improve the strength, balance and biomechanical efficiency that come with strong and mobile glutes.

lunge

The walking lunge

Does what it says on the tin. Can be loaded with dumbbells, a barbell, or a bungee cord if you’re feeling adventurous

The lateral lunge

Requires good adductor flexibility, and gets the glutes to work in what for many people is a difficult position

The reverse lunge

A step backwards into a lunge position. Step forward to return to your start position before repeating with alternate legs

The curtsey lunge

My personal favourite, this move is similar to a reverse lunge, but the back leg steps right under the body, lengthening the glutes and extending range of movement

The step-up

A fantastic booty burner that’s functional and can be performed with heavy weights, or with high reps.


#5 – Glute isolation movements

 
I’ve grouped this trio of movements together, as they are a fantastic, highly worthwhile, arguably necessary supplement to a programme including big compounds targeting the glutes, but are nowhere near as effective on their own. It’s important to work the entire muscle group that is the legs, in addition to isolating the glutes themselves.

The hip can perform three main movements controlled by the glutes, and there are hundreds of ways to implement them into your training. Here are just a few ideas:

glute kick backs

Hip extension

Kneeling kick-backs, cable kick-backs, and reverse hyperextensions are all great ways to get your glutes working hard at end range of motion, aka the sweet spot

Hip abduction

Try side-lying leg raises, “crab” walks, or cable abductions to hit your outer glutes hard

Hip external rotation

Fire hydrants, cable external rotations, and 180 degree step-and-squats work this under-practised but hugely important glute activator.

Top tip: perform these glute isolation movements either before or between sets of your big lifts to drastically improve your ability to activate and exhaust your glutes for function and growth


Take Home Message

 
Incorporate these exercises into your routine to promote gluteal muscle growth!

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