Upper Glute Workout: the 9 Best Exercises to Target Those Butt Muscles

Photo: Stocksy/Dragonfly Production
If you've been working on your backside lately, there’s a good chance that you’ve zeroed in on what are thought to be the best exercises to grow glutes—moves like squats and lunges. When you're doing your favorite booty workouts, though, are you performing key upper glute exercises?

"This area is often ignored," says Holly Roser, certified personal trainer and owner of Holly Roser Fitness. And that's a shame. "Your gluteus medius—aka the upper glutes area—is responsible for internal and external rotation of the hip joint, abduction, and stabilizing the hip while working out." Ignoring it could lead to a glute imbalance. So you don’t want to skip out on upper glute exercises. Keep reading to find out why—and to learn how to strengthen them from here on out.

Experts In This Article

What are the benefits of an upper glute workout?

When you do upper glute exercises, whether they're standing or seated, Roser says you'll experience numerous benefits—not just in the way you feel, but also when it comes to your athletic abilities. "You'll reduce lower back pain, knee pain, and the risk of ankle sprains, as this important muscle is a strong stabilizer," she says. "You'll also notice you'll have a faster running speed and be able to increase the resistance used in your workouts."

The reason? Stronger upper glutes lead to more overall bodily stability.

“Besides keeping our hips level and stable, our upper glutes have a very important job in our overall biomechanics, stability and balance,” says Nashville-based certified personal trainer Bianca Vesco. “When we walk and or run, our upper glutes aid in stabilizing our pelvis. They also play a critical role in maintaining an efficient and safe lower body.”

There's also another benefit: You'll notice a more lifted and pronounced booty, says Roser. So if you've ever wondered why your bum is flat at the top, it's because you need to incorporate upper glute exercises into your routine.

Upper glute anatomy

When exploring any glute-focused exercises and charting out glute goals, it helps to understand our glute anatomy. According to ACE certified health coach and personal trainer Araceli De Leon, MS, the glutes are comprised of the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, the gluteus minimus, and the piriformis. Where the gluteus maximus is the largest and most superficial of the glute muscles (meaning that it’s the outermost layer), De Leon says that the gluteus minimus is the deepest glute muscle, located underneath the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius. Meanwhile, the gluteus medius is what we know to be the upper glutes. “The gluteus medius is responsible for abduction or lateral raise and rotation of the hip joint,” De Leon says. “However, the gluteus maximus is so large relative to the others that it is also part of the upper glutes.” 

From an appearance perspective, trainer and BowFlex Fitness advisor Amy Schemper, CPT adds that the gluteus medius is “responsible for the ‘glute shelf’ look” that many desire.

The ideal reps and sets to build upper glutes

Before diving in, take a moment to consider your upper glute goals. Do you want to strengthen, stabilize, or maintain or build a shelf? According to Vesco, you’ll want to tailor your routine to fit your fitness dreams. “Are you trying to build muscle mass and strength by lifting heavy weights?” she asks. “Are you correcting an imbalance or rehabbing an injury with a resistance band?” In either scenario, you can expect upper glute benefits. The way you go about them just differs.

Here's what we mean: The number of reps and sets you perform is dependent on your glute goals, as is the amount of time you take to rest between each.

“If you are aiming for muscle hypertrophy and added mass, aim for heavier weights for lower rep ranges (four to eight repetitions) for three to five sets during your larger compound movements such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, and hip thrusts,” says Schemper. “If muscular endurance is your goal, find a weight you can maintain for 12 to 20 repetitions for three to four sets for larger movements and an elastic mini band around knees or ankles for 15 to 20 repetitions on smaller movements.” 

Meanwhile, if you’re exploring upper glute exercises to correct a muscle imbalance or rehab an injury, Schemper says to start slowly with low weights, resistance, and reps, and gradually increase as you feel stronger.

No matter which approach you take, you want to feel challenged. “At the end of the day, you want to be progressively overloading the glute muscles to see change,” Schemper says. “If something feels too easy, it’s probably time to increase your weights, resistance, reps, or sets (or all of the above). If you’re fatiguing quickly or not able to finish sets or reps, it’s time to take it down a bit.”

How do you work the top of your glutes?

According to Schemper, the key to building upper glutes is to focus on hip abduction (moving away from the center of the body). “However, remember no muscle works in isolation, so while smaller isolated movements help target the upper glutes, it’s important to work the lower body with larger compound moves like squats, deadlifts, and lunges,” she reminds us.

Although you can work your glutes by walking, running, and other everyday functional movements, there are some exercises that can really boost booty gains. Here are nine upper glute exercises that are sure to make your buns burn.

1. Clam shell

1. Start on your right side with your knees bent, leaning your head on your right arm to support your neck.
2. Keep your heels together—they should be touching each other the entire time. Place your left hand on your pelvis throughout the exercise.
3. Without allowing your back to arch, lift your left knee apart from your right knee and lower.
4. Do 2 sets of 25 reps, then switch sides.

2. Curtsy squat

1. Start standing with your shoulders back and core engaged, feet hip-width apart.
2. Drop your right foot diagonally behind your left foot, keeping your front foot pointed straight ahead. Make sure your knee is dropping down far enough so your front thigh is parallel to the floor and your knees are forming 90-degree angles.
3. Return to standing and repeat for 3 sets of 15 reps on each side.

3. Sumo squat

1. Start standing with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and a slight turn out in your toes.
2. Sit down like you would in a regular squat.
3. Let your knees track diagonally out toward the direction of your toes as you lower.
4. Return back to stand.
5. Do 3 sets of 12-15 reps.

4. Lateral lunge

1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
2. Take a big step to the side with your left leg, bending the left knee over the toes, slight hinge in the spine.
3. Press off the left foot to move back to center where you started.
4. Do 12 to 15 reps, then repeat on the right side—or go back and forth between sides.

5. Banded walk

1. Start with a resistance band around your thighs with a tension that's comfortably challenging.
2. Set your feet hip-width apart and drop your booty down into a squat position as if you were sitting in a chair.
3. Step your right foot to the side in line with your other foot. Step together and repeat.
4. Do 3 sets of 15 reps in each direction.

6. Dumbbell front squat

1. Hold one dumbbell in each hand, up towards shoulder height.
2. With your feet approximately hip-width apart, descend into your squat position.
3. Return to standing.
4. Do 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.

7. Sumo deadlift

1. Start with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and a slight turn out in your toes, with your knees slightly bent and turned out on the same angle as your toes. Your torso should be a bit more upright than it is in a traditional deadlift.
2. With the weight between your legs, bend down to grasp it and slowly come up to stand, activating your glutes in the process.
3. Slowly lower yourself back down.
4. Do 3 sets of 15 reps.

8. Side leg lifts

1. Lie on your right side with your feet stacked on top of each other.
2. Keeping your legs straight, lift your left leg off the ground without letting your pelvis tilt. Bring it back down. (If you're having a hard time keeping your legs from coming forward, you can lean against a wall and have your top leg slide to correct any slanting of your body that might occur.)
4. Do 2 sets of 25 reps on each leg.

9. Single leg hip thrust

1. Set up a flat bench, soft box, (or couch if you’re at home), and put yourself on the bench so that the bottom of your shoulder blades are on the bench, your feet are on the floor. Your butt should not be able to touch the floor here.
2. Lift one leg off the ground, and push through the heel of the foot that is on the ground, while you push your hips up to the ceiling by squeezing your glutes.
3. Lower your hips back towards the floor.
4. Do two sets of 25 reps per side.

What not to do: Habits that could weaken your glutes

If you regularly do many of these exercises but don't seem to be noticing any change in the look or feel of your upper glutes, you may be engaging in other behaviors that's voiding out your hard work.

“You may not be lifting heavy enough, eating enough for your energy expenditure, or you may need more variety in your glute workouts,” Schemper says. “The key to engaging your glute muscles for growth and strength is to make sure you’re actually utilizing the right muscles. In traditional movements like squats or lunges, our quadricep muscles are our primary movers and tend to do most of the work. To turn on the glute muscles, be sure to get low into the movement and push through the heels as you contract.”

She says that it’s important to also be mindful of your pelvis during all upper glute exercises. “Many of us experience an anterior pelvic tilt (where our pelvis is tilted forward) which can affect our ability to activate our glute muscles during exercise,” she reveals. “Banded glute bridges and deep core exercises can help correct anterior pelvic tilt, as evidenced by this 2014 study. With a stronger core and more neutral pelvic alignment, our glutes can better engage in lower body movements.”

Frequently asked questions

How do I give my upper butt a natural curve?

Be consistent—and patient. “If you’re looking to build a stronger, more muscular butt, it’s going to take some time,” Vesco admits. “You have to lift heavy with a plan, you have to eat more to fuel those lifts, you have to stay consistent in the gym, and you have to show yourself grace. Rome wasn’t built overnight and neither is a bigger booty!”

How do I know if my upper glute workout is working?

Remember: Upper glute gains take time. You may feel like your hard work isn’t accounting for much, but Vesco reminds us that there are studies that suggest optimal glute growth can take between 18 months and two years to really witness. “The work is never over and consistency always gives you the possibility to expedite that process,” she adds. “However, training for life is a lifelong journey and taking care of your glutes and overall leg strength is a surefire way to make sure you’re still strong and able-bodied at 80 years old. Strong glutes, strong legs, strong life.”

Can you work out your glutes two days in a row?

TL;DR: It depends on your skill level and overall fitness.

“There are many aspects to consider when discussing exercise recovery, including training or exercise volume and frequency, adequate sleep, proper nutrition, training periodization, rest days, and more,” Rachelle Reed, PhD, an exercise physiologist, explains. “Recovery is an important part of a training program and aims to restore the body to homeostasis (balanced) and occurs during the time outside of an exercise training session.”

With that in mind, Dr. Reed says that if you’re new to resistance training—and especially if you’re performing large muscle, multi-joint exercises like squats, lunges, deadlifts, and hip thrusts—a 24- to 48-hour rest period is ideal. “Basically, monitor your perceived soreness levels,” she says. “DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) can start and last anywhere from 24 to 72 hours or more depending on a variety of factors. So, your best bet is to start slow and monitor how you feel. After a few sessions, you will understand how your body is reacting.”

Once you become more experienced with upper glute workouts, Dr. Reed says it’s totally fine to train back-to-back—though, she still recommends switching it up for the most noticeable gains. “The most effective programs will mix different movement patterns, loading, and other techniques to progress efficiently and safely,” she says. “The main point to note while going for booty gain will be you are aiming for hypertrophy (increasing muscle size/volume) and adequate, but appropriate for your fitness level, loading will be highly important.”

How many times a week should I work out to grow a butt?

There’s no one set answer. “How often you should perform these exercises depends on how heavy you’re lifting for them,” Vesco says. “Heavy lifts for muscle growth and strength should only be done one to two times per week.”

Can you change the shape of your glutes through exercise?

Yes, but it will take time. “Anyone can change the shape of their butt, but it depends on how drastic you want that change to be,” Vesco says. “We all have our own goals and standards but if your goal is to grow a bigger booty, you need to focus on the entire backside, not just the upper glutes. Building strength in the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus will get you there much faster.”

Additionally, it’s important not to overwork your glutes in hopes of faster results. “You definitely need to stimulate the muscles to help them grow, but training them too much can be counterproductive if you don’t give them time to rest, repair, and rebuild,” Vesco says.

What are the most useless exercises for building your glutes?

“Bicep curls!” Vesco laughs, jokingly. “‘Building’ can mean a lot of things for a lot of people but if you want to actually increase the size of your backside, you have to lift heavy weights consistently.”

Why are my upper glutes not growing?

As hard as you may be working to grow your booty, you may simply be focusing on the wrong areas and glute exercises. “If you aren’t seeing glute growth, you may be training mostly in the sagittal plane (think squats and lunges)—train in the horizontal plane with banded side steps and side lunges, as well as the transverse plane with curtsy lunges, for better glute gains,” Schemper says.

It's also possible to plateau while working out. In fact, it's common. According to De Leon, your body can adapt to movements, weights, and workouts. So if you’re doing all of these exercises but aren’t reaping any new rewards, she says it’s time to mix it up with more weight, reps, or new exercises altogether. “Another example, if you’re using bands, try using cable machines; or if you’re using machines, try free weights such as barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells,” she adds.

Now, work the rest of your booty with this full glute resistance band workout:

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Choi, Sil-Ah et al. “Isometric hip abduction using a Thera-Band alters gluteus maximus muscle activity and the anterior pelvic tilt angle during bridging exercise.” Journal of electromyography and kinesiology : official journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology vol. 25,2 (2015): 310-5. doi:10.1016/j.jelekin.2014.09.005

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