This week we are continuing our feature where we provide our view on which are the top 5 exercises for different body parts. This week we give our view on the top 5 best exercises for glutes.
What are the criteria for selecting the ‘best‘ 5 exercises? They are those that build muscle, or tone, and do so in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing way. They should work well for most people and provide maximum stimulation. As a collection they need to provide an all over stimulus that will develop a well-proportioned pleasing shape.
Not all the exercises in this series are going to work for everyone, but I have tried to choose exercises that most people should be able to perform whilst also offering variety.
What are glutes?
You’ll have heard the term, but what are ‘glutes’? They are the muscles in your bum! There are three main muscles – the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. These three muscles work together to abduct, rotate and extend the hip. Strengthening your glutes can help improve posture, as well as make sitting down, standing, picking up heavy objects and climbing stairs easier. Developing strong glutes can also improve athletic performance and decrease your risk for injuries.
Photos of well-developed glutes are often most viewed and ‘liked’ on social media. Gym goers of both genders in all age ranges aspire to building a ‘booty’. Everyone seems to want a great bum. Genetics will obviously give some people an advantage but don’t despair if you’re not one of them; everyone can improve the strength and shape of their glute muscles.
However, it is not all about aesthetics. Strong glute muscles are extremely important as these muscles can have a major impact on your overall body strength. Your glutes support your core and help to support a range of exercises and compound movements. They also help avoid muscle imbalances which can lead to decreased mobility.
Training the glutes
When it comes to training you need to train your glutes hard and thoroughly in order to build them. You need to be motivated and committed to completing your reps and sets. Don’t wimp out every time you feel the glutes burn or you decide it is too difficult. Create a positive mindset and let your muscles, not your mind, tell you when they are fatigued. Otherwise you will make little or no progress.
Your glutes are the largest muscles in your body so you need heavy weights to build them. You should select weights which allow you to work in the 5-12 rep range per set. As your glutes grow in strength and size so should your weights, sets and reps. With each incremental weight increase, first push yourself to increase reps, then increase the number of sets. Remember you are in competition with yourself so keep a log of your achievements.
Training your glutes twice a week is sufficient. I plan 2-3 recovery days between glute sessions so that I can workout to my maximum effort level. If your schedule is two whole body workout sessions a week then include one or two glute exercises. I’d recommend starting with the glutes as these are big compound moves which require you to be strong and keep good form. If you train more than twice a week, then pair glutes with an upper body part to create dedicated sessions.
I like to prime my glutes with some banded pelvic tilts and bridges. I also take time to thoroughly foam roll my quads, hamstrings, ITBs and glutes before my glute sessions.
So, with that introduction, on to our top 5 best exercises for glutes.
Kicking off the list of our top 5 best exercises for glutes is hip thrusts.
Squats, deadlifts and lunges are popular exercises for glutes. However, these hit the glutes hardest at deep hip flexion and the glutes are unloaded at the top of the move when the hip is extended. Hip thrusts are working the glutes the hardest at ‘lock out’.
I consider the hip thrusts to be the best glute builder. They build the upper glutes to a much greater extent than squats, and even to a greater extent than deadlifts. They have you really squeezing the muscles at their end range which is where you achieve maximum glute activation as the glutes are at their shortest length.
Here’s how to perform hip thrusts:
- Your set up for hip thrusts is really important. Sit on the ground with your back against a bench so that it is level with the middle of your scapulae (shoulder blades). Use a balance pad to bring you up to the correct height.
- Tuck your chin in and look straight ahead – look in a mirror to ensure that you hold your head position. Plant your feet firmly in front of you so that your shins will be vertical at the top of the move.
- Before you position your padded barbell in your lap, ensure that you have the right positioning by practising the unweighted movement. There should be little to no movement from the shoulder blades upwards. Push through your heels as you extend your hips. Your hips should be posteriorly rotated at the top of the movement. Your torso will be flat and your ribs pushed down create a good rib/hip connection.
- Squeeze your glutes together at the end range position.
This position will ensure that you do not hyperextend through your lumbar (lower) spine, contract the back muscles and risk injury. Experiment with the best foot placement for you: narrow with abducted knees, wide or narrow with knees in line with ankles.
Walking lunges with barbell or dumbbells
Next up in our top 5 best exercises for glutes, walking lunges.
I like to include walking lunges as a superset. That means, for example, I might hit my glutes with a targeted glute isolation exercise and then go straight into walking lunges to finish them off. I’ll do this throughout my workouts so that I get through plenty of lengths. You can start with weighted walking lunges then do body weight walking lunges towards the end of your session as you fatigue.
Do walking lunges like this:
- Once again ensure you slide your shoulders away from your ears by depressing the scapulae (shoulder blades) and anchor them down.
- Keep your chest proud and tuck in your chin. Try to keep your torso upright and avoid leaning forwards over the lunging leg.
- Your stride length should allow you to create a 90 degree flexion in both legs. Push through the heel of the lunging ‘front’ leg to engage the glute as you rise from the lunge.
- Keep the front knee directly above the ankle and do not allow it to move forwards over the toes.
- Step the ‘back’ leg through to lunge on the opposite leg. To help you to balance you can bring the back leg forward to stand with feet hip-width apart before lunging on the opposite leg.
Unlike hip thrusts, walking lunges hit the glutes hardest when they are in a stretched position. A lot of exercises where the muscle is hit hard in the stretched position can lead to soreness. Walking lunges are no exception.
The walking lunge is a functional exercise that provides a good transfer of benefits to sports where running and sprinting strength are key. It’s also one you can do at home and there are lots of variations.
Squats are considered essential because they increase the size and strength of the quads and glutes while also developing your core strength.
Good form is vital to avoid injury and to get the most out of the exercise. I rarely see good form from clients, mainly due to posture and flexibility issues. Of particular concern is the risk of injury, so I will always coach with caution as follows:
- I stand with my feet hip width apart and my toes slightly turned out. Then I make sure that my scapulae (shoulder blades) are depressed and ‘anchored’ down, which allows me to keep my chest up. I tuck my chin in to keep my neck in line with my spine.
- The movement is executed by pushing the hips backwards as if descending towards a low stool, so that your quads (thighs) are parallel or preferably just below. This is a controlled descent rather than ‘dropping’ into position. It will be almost impossible to return to the starting position if you have lost control and dropped into position.
- Bear in mind that aiming for a position just below parallel will work the glutes and hamstrings. Hovering at the ‘half rep’ level will work your quads.
We like the squat because it’s a good old school heavy basic exercise. Done with good form and to exhaustion, it can be brutal. But there’s also something primal about it which brings maximum effort and satisfaction.
Glute dominant leg press
Our penultimate choice in our our top 5 best exercises for glutes, is a glute dominant leg press.
I actually prefer this over the squat. The cue to good form here is to descend to an angle that matches your hip flexion. If you find yourself lifting your glutes off the seat pad then you have gone too low. We have a 45-degree angle press at the studio.
Here’s how I perform it:
- I position my feet high and wide on the angled plate.
- As I lower the plate, I push my knees out laterally. Then, as I push the plate, I squeeze and engage my glutes.
- I like to use a wide resistance band to double the torque. This means my glutes are working doubly hard in hip extension and hip abduction at the same time in each rep.
Most often you would do the leg press to hit the quads. But here, I have modified the exercise to be glute dominant. By working the glutes in both extension and abduction you are providing much greater muscle activation and stimulation for growth. Give it a go and see for yourself!
Bulgarian split squats
Our final choice in our top 5 best exercises for glutes is the Bulgarian split squat.
Single leg exercises are often considered second class exercises. Not in my view! I have found them essential for working on the disparity in strength in my lower body.
With Bulgarians, as with most exercises, getting into a good position is key. Your legs should be positioned to place emphasis on working the glutes: the further you place your front leg in front of you, the more emphasis you place on your glutes. The closer together your legs are, the more you target your quads. Height positioning of the box or bench is also important for comfort in the non-working foot. I always start with the leg I consider to be the weaker.
Here’s what to do:
- Adopt a split stance position with the back leg resting on a box or bench and the front leg far enough in front of you to target the glutes.
- Lower the back knee towards the floor while avoiding dropping heavily onto the knee cap. Aim for a parallel thigh or preferably lower.
- Most of your weight should be on the front leg with the back leg stabilising you.
- Push through the heel as you straighten the working leg.
- If your hip flexors are a little tight you may find yourself leaning forward slightly. This is fine as long as your hips do not come up before your knee straightens: your hips and knee should come up at the same time.
Like the walking lunge, the Bulgarian split squat really stretches the glutes and places maximum force on them in that position. Expect soreness the next day if you’ve never done them.
Although it may not look like it, the Bulgarian split squat, like the walking lunge, is also a very functional exercise and transfers well into sports. The difference with this exercise is that balance is more of a challenge. That means the adductors and stabilising muscles in the hip and lower leg are much more engaged. If you need both strength and balance on one leg, this is a great exercise.
The wrap up
So, there you have it, our top 5 best exercises for glutes. You’ll note that most of these are good old school heavy basic compound exercises. There’s a reason for that – they work! But they are also hard work, so if you want to build your glutes you’re going to need to be prepared to give maximum effort. So, what are you waiting for, go out there, grit your teeth, get down to business and build those glutes!