Strengthening your glutes is always a good idea. Among their many tasks: They stabilize your hips, propel you forward while walking or running, and help you balance when standing on one leg. But there’s a lot of incorrect (or at least less than optimal) info out there when it comes to effective glute exercises. For example, fitness influencers doing lateral walks with booty bands and alleging that they’re targeting the gluteus maximus. (They don’t.)
But before we go any further, let's define what the glutes are: The gluteal muscles are made up of three distinct muscles on the outer and back of your hips. The gluteus minimum (or “glute min”) is the smallest of the bunch, and you can’t feel it since it lies deep behind the gluteus medius (or “glute med”).
Both the glute min and glute med (which is often targeted through upper glute workouts) function to stabilize the hip when you’re on one leg. For example, when you're running there’s a significant demand on both of these two muscles, especially the gluteus medius, to stabilize the hip and not allow it to drop. Both muscles are also involved in moving the leg out to the side, away from your midline (hip abduction) and in rotating the leg in and out in the hip socket.
“These two smaller gluteal muscles are critical for everyday activities because of the role they play in hip stability. Weakness in them can lead to significant discomfort along the hip or changing mechanics all along the lower leg," says physical therapist Jacqueline O'Neill, DPT, NCS. “Strengthening these muscles can be low-hanging fruit when it comes to improving movement.”
The largest muscle of the group, the glute max, is what’s most often associated with the glutes as it’s the larger, visual muscle that helps create the shape of our butt. It functions to extend the leg behind you and help rotate the thigh at the hip.
Why you want to train the glute muscles
In combination, all three of these glute muscles optimize the day-to-day movements of anyone who stands or walks. “Functionally, we use glutes to support us when we carry heavy loads or run to catch the bus,” certified personal trainer Matthew Scarfo previously told Well+Good about how our glutes help us function. “Your glutes act as a base to your spine, keeping your pelvis neutral, so that you have proper curvature in your lumbar, which helps you carry good posture all the way up your back and to your shoulders.”
But if you don't use these muscles—say, you spend most of your days sitting stationary in front of a computer, in a car, and on the couch—they have a habit of "turning off" or growing weak, leading to what's known as dead butt syndrome.
“If you think of a battery, if your glutes are supposed to be 100 percent charged, maybe now they’re only at 40 percent charge,” explains physical therapist Dallas Reynolds, DPT, COMT. This typically happens when long stints of sitting stationary restrict blood flow, which keeps the muscles from firing properly. You might feel a tingling sensation, or like the muscles are "falling asleep."
And it can have real consequences: Dead butt syndrome can make it harder for the muscles to contract and activate correctly, even when you do exercise, according to celebrity trainer Donavan Green. Eventually, long-term weakness can lead to back pain and balance issues, and even something known as a Trendelenburg gait (where the hips drop from side to side with each step), says Reynolds.
Fortunately, squeezing some movement into your days whenever you can, and targeting your backside strategically with exercises at home can help make sure your glutes keep working the way you want them to.
What are the best glute exercises, according to science?
Even if you spend upward of eight hours a day on your tuchus, you aren't doomed to a dead butt. Research has shown that some exercises are particularly effective at activating those glutes.
For starters, electromyography (EMG) studies on gluteus medius and gluteus minimus activation show that, generally speaking, single-leg exercises for glutes elicit the highest level of activation in the muscles. This makes sense, considering the role of the two smaller muscles in stabilizing the hip and leg during the single-leg phase of activity.
Meanwhile, EMG studies on the gluteus maximus have shown that step-up exercises elicit the greatest demand on that muscle, followed by exercises like squats, deadlifts, and barbell hip thrusts. Interestingly, the barbell hip thrust had particularly high gluteus maximus activation, regardless of the specific form or weight used.
“In addition to overall activation, EMG studies also give key insight into how to progress the exercises—starting with lower activation and then moving into higher ranges as the individual is deemed ready for them,” Dr. O'Neal adds.
Which means, we can use this EMG research to develop a methodical approach and plan to strengthen the glute muscles.
Your best glute workout plan
Ready to strengthen that backside? This plan is a progression, so you’re going to start with the first glute exercise and then only move on to the next once you can hit three sets of 10 reps without any difficulty. That’s the signal you’re ready to make things tougher.
As a physical therapist, I also suggest you space out the two groups of glute exercises during the week because, although each is targeted to specific gluteal muscles, there’s going to be some overlap with each of the exercises. Ideally, you'd have at least 48 hours between each glute workout at home—for example, gluteus minimus and medius training on Tuesday and gluteus maximus training on Friday—so you aren’t overtraining or over-fatiguing those areas. (Remember: The glutes are also being worked during your daily activities like walking and climbing stairs.)
Finally, I’ve tried to include only bodyweight exercises up until the final level of each progression. The goal is to get up to that final stage, and then be able to go back to the beginning and progressively add weights.
Gluteus minimus and medius training
Level 1: Side-lying hip abduction
- Lay on your side with bottom knee bent and top leg straight (option to have both legs straight).
- Raise the top leg towards the ceiling and bring it back down without letting your hips rock forward and back.
Level 2: Single-leg bridge
- Lay on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the ground.
- Lift one leg into tabletop, knee over hip, shin parallel to the floor, and then, with the other leg (foot still flat on the ground), push down through the sole, squeeze your glutes, and lift your hips up until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to knee—if you’re feeling this in your back, you’re likely going too high on the lift.
- Come down slowly.
Level 3: Running man
- Stand tall on one leg with knee bent around 30 degrees. With the other leg (foot in the air), slowly swing the leg forward and backward like you’re running on that side. The key here is to keep the hips level and avoid leaning.
Level 4: Single-leg squat
- Stand tall on one leg with the knee slightly bent.
- Squat down and then back up. Make sure to control the descent—hold onto something if balance is an issue, and only go down as far as you’re comfortable then stand back up. The balance and depth will improve as you get better at the movement.
Once you’re able to get near 90 degrees on this exercise and complete the three sets of 10 repetitions, you can begin to add weights, whether dumbbells, a barbell, or kettlebells.
Gluteus maximus training
Level 1: Half squat
- Stand tall, feet under hips, and arms stretched out in front of you.
- Sit your butt back and lower down to roughly 45 degrees, then return to start. (Don’t allow your knees to buckle inward.)
Level 2: Full squat
- Stand tall, feet under hips, and arms stretched out in front of you.
- Sit your butt back and lower down to roughly 90 degrees, then return to start. (Don’t allow your knees to buckle inward.)
Level 3: Lateral step-up
- Standing next to a step (step is to the side of the leg you will be working), step sideways with nearest foot onto the step.
- Press down through that sole to stand tall on step, allowing the other foot to hover in the air.
- Then reverse the motion to return back to the starting position with both feet on the ground.
If you have access to multiple different heights of steps, I’d recommend going through at least two different heights as progressions prior to advancing to level four.
Level 4: Step-up
- Standing in front of a stable, elevated surface with both shoulders facing it, step upwards and push through the stance leg to get both feet on the step.
- Step back down to the starting position.
I recommend a medium step height, and once you’re able to complete the three sets of 10 repetitions, you can begin to add weights, whether dumbbells, a barbell, or kettlebells.
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