In today’s post, I will touch on the basics behind how to train your glutes effectively. I will discuss why we must train our glutes, basic anatomy, and demonstrate and describe 5 basic exercises you can do to strengthen all parts of the glutes for optimal development and strength.
The research I’ve included on this post comes from one of most knowledgeable coaches in the field, Bret Contreras.
So what’s so great about glutes, anyway?!
Your glutes are surprisingly the largest muscle in your body. Without going into too much of the scientific details, your glutes are responsible for several different functions: extension, abduction, external rotation, and internal rotation. Therefore, all essential glute exercises will fall under one of these functions.
Additionally, strong glutes help stabilize your sacroiliac (SI) joint, stabilize the knees, reduce lower back pain and injuries, and increase overall power. What’s not to love?
The problem is that most of us work at a desk job all day or are sedentary. Over time, certain muscles get tight and others get weak, which causes pain and muscles imbalances. In this case, the glutes get weaker and the hip flexors (in the front of the leg get tighter). This is also called anterior pelvic tilt. As you can see in the picture below, this also leads to weak core musculature, weak hamstrings, and tight back extensors as well. Ever had back pain? This may be your culprit.
Thus, when someone decides, “Hey, I want to activate my glutes!” and they start doing glute bridges, they can’t feel their glutes working. The glutes are too weak and not neurologically programmed to activate the way they should. Taking a step back then is important – we will discuss how to do this later in this post.
Anatomy of the glutes
Just so you can get a visual for how the glutes are structured – take a look at the photo below.
We actually have three gluteal muscles: glute maximus, gluteus minimus, and gluteus medius. I won’t get into much detail on this, but it is important to know for the exercises I will be demonstrating later in this post!
Okay, so how do you train the glutes?!
Many a time, I see both men and women of all ages doing leg presses, squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc. while not actually directly targeting the glutes. Bret Contreras, Ph.D, did a study that analyzed the different between different “glute exercises” and actually found that neither squats or deadlifts or their variations were considered the best glute activators.
Bret Contreras found that the glute bridges and hip thrusts (we’ll discuss the differences later in this post) were most effective at activating the glutes. While squats, deadlifts, and lunges are notorious for making you sore in the glutes, these exercises surprisingly are not the most effective exercises to strengthen your glutes. Sore does not equal strong. I’ll dive into why this is in another post, but it is very important to remember.
To illustrate the point that sore does not equal strong, let’s look back at an old client of mine. He came to me saying that he could squat and deadlift 300+ pounds. During our first session, I had him do a glute bridge for me. He couldn’t do it. As his tried to lift off the ground, his whole lower body was shaking and he couldn’t really feel his glutes activating, just his lower back (which is very common with those who don’t know how to activate their glutes). Case in point, squats and deadlifts don’t always equal strong glutes.
This does not mean squats and deadlifts do not activate the glutes however. They are still important to include in your programs, but they should be treated as an “end-all” to glute training.
Below I will include a squat and deadlift variation in addition to other staple exercises that can very effectively target the glutes!
5 Basic Exercises for Glute Strengthening
This is your money-making exercise. All beginners (including athletes who are starting any type of more isolated glute strengthening) should start with the glute bridge. Cues to remember are to think of pushing through your heels, squeezing the glutes before raising, and not extending through the lower back. If you do it right, you should feel it in your glutes.
The most common mistakes on this exercise are pushing through the lower back instead of the glutes. If you cannot do the glute bridge without feeling it in your glutes yet, start with simply lying in the beginning position and doing glute squeezes. Do sets of 20 squeezes a few times a day and soon you should begin to feel your glutes starting to work.
If your hip flexors are tight, try the stretch below on each side. Do not lose neutral spine, keep chest tall, and squeeze the glute that is in the back. Hold each side anywhere from 30-60s. Repeat multiple times a day if you sit most of the day.
The hip thrust is simply a progressed version of the glute bridge. Hip thrusts take the glutes through a fuller range of motion (ROM) and actually produce a lot more quad activation than glute bridges. In this exercise, more set-up is required as you must have a bench at the appropriate height, a barbell pad of some sort to protect your hips (you can purchase one here or here) if you use heavier loads. Below is me demonstrating a bodyweight hip thrust with no weight.
Cues to remember are to keep your gaze straight ahead (do not let your neck fall backward), upper back on the bench, push through your glutes and not your lower back, and squeeze the glutes at the top of movement.
Below is a video of the barbell hip thrust and how it should look. Here Bret himself talks about proper set-up and form as well. Barbell hip thrusts should be done until you master the glute bridge and body weight hip thrust first.
You can purchase your own hip thruster station here where you can easily set up for hip thrusts and even keep it at your house!
The American deadlift (popularized by Bret Contreras) is an excellent exercise to target your glutes and posterior chain as well. The difference between this type of deadlift and a Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is simply the top position. The Romanian deadlift is considered primarily a very hamstring dominant exercise while the American deadlift involves a squeeze of the glutes at the top. You can do an RDL and feel absolutely no glute activation, so add in an extra glute squeeze and posterior tilt of the pelvis at the top and you get the American Deadlift!
The goblet squat is a basic squat movement that should be mastered before moving on to more complicated movements like a barbell squat. All you need is either your bodyweight if you are just starting or a dumbbell or kettlebell. Cues for this exercise include keeping the knees out and aligned over the toes. Come down to where your mobility allows, drive through your glutes and push up, and end by extending through the hip (not the lower back!) and squeeze your glutes.
If the goblet squat hurts your lower back, you will probably need to either regress this exercise to a box squat (sitting down to a seat and up) or tinker with your form. It’s also surprising how much your core has to work to keep you stable in this motion, so if you lack the core strength to do this exercise, consider adding planks to your exercise routine a few days a week.
Lateral band work
Finally, lateral band work is the icing on the cake. Lateral band work can be done before your lower body days as a glute activator and warm-up and it can be used throughout or at the end of your workout for a “glute pump.” This type of work strengthens the entire gluteal region making it a must-have in anyone’s program. These exercises can be done even on off days to activate the glutes or as a corrective exercise without creating too much stress on the muscle tissue. These exercises should be done for high reps.
Banded Side Clam: Lay on your side and have band either below your knees or just above your knees (your preference). While keeping heels together, lift from the glute and hip of the top leg. Repeat for 15-20 reps.
Lateral Band Walk: With band around your ankles (or higher if this is too hard at first), walk side to side while keeping constant tension in the band the entire time. Repeat 15-20 steps on each side.
You can purchase your own bands like I am using in the video here!
- Strong glutes = less pain and injury
- Glutes are composed of 3 muscles: max, min, and med
- Squats and deadlifts are not the best glute activators, but should still be performed for overall strength and stability
- Glute bridges and hip thrusts produce the highest glute activation and should be a staple in anyone’s program who is looking to build and strengthen the glutes