The gluteus maximus aka the “Glutes” is one of the most important muscles in the body both for function and aesthetics, yet there are a lot of misconceptions about how to best target, shape, and strengthen this muscle.
The most popular go to exercises trainers and coaches use for glute training are squats, deadlifts and lunges. These are fantastic exercises, but contrary to popular opinion they are NOT the most effective for strengthening and toning the glutes. Now the word “tone” is really a colloquialism and frowned upon by trainers and coaches, but for most of us to “tone” means to bring out the definition which really comes down to reducing bodyfat levels which is another subject. However, changing the underlying size and shape of the glutes can really improve appearance for the better!
To understand why squats, lunges and deadlifts are not, by themselves, the best way to train the glutes we have to take a look at the main movement produced by the glutes which is hip extension. Different Hip extension movements and exercises will produce different levels of glute activation at different places in the range of motion associated with emphasis on different parts of the glutes based on differing load vectors.
Load vector refers to the direction of the line of resistance relative to the body during a movement. Changing load vectors during the same movement can completely change how muscles are loaded! For example, let’s take a look at what happens when we change the load vector during flexion and extension of the elbow while holding a dumbbell in the hand.
If we take the arm and elbow straight over head and flex and extend the arm the working muscle is the triceps which concentrically shortens to lift the hand with the dumbbell up and eccentrically lengthens to lower the dumbbell down while keeping the elbow above the head.
Now if we keep the arm down by our side and flex and extend our elbow the working muscle is biceps which concentrically shortens to lift the dumbbell up and eccentrically lengthens to lower it down! So understanding the load vector for any exercise is VERY important and especially relevant for glute training!
For glute training there are two main load vectors:
Axial – where the direction of resistance comes from top to bottom or vice versa. Examples of exercises using this load vector are squats, lunges, deadlifts and jumps. These exercises and movements are usually performed in the standing position. Vertical jumping is one of the key activities that require maximum strength and power in this load vector.
Anteroposterior – where the direction of resistance comes from front to back or vice versa. Examples of exercises using this load vector are supine (lying on back) hip lifts/extensions; quadruped (on hands and knees) hip lifts; and cable pull-throughs. These exercises and movements are usually performed in the supine (on back), prone (on stomach) or quadruped position with the exception of the cable pull-through. Sprinting is one of the key activities that requires maximum strength and power in this load vector.
Exercises in each load vector generate peak glute activation in a different position within the range of motion and thereby emphasize development of different parts of the overall glute muscle.
In squats and lunges peak glute activation happens in the bottom of the movement when the glutes are in their maximally extended/stretched position! So the bottom of the glute is the focus during these movements.
The greatest peak glute activity in a deadlift occurs in the mid-range position so emphasizes the middle of the glute. While the greatest peak glute activity in a hip thrust occurs at the end of movement in hyperextension or fully contracted position so emphasizes the top of the glute!
To maximize glute development, strength and power you need to train in all three load vectors and do exercises that target all three areas of the glutes. You can be strong in one load vector and area and NOT in others. For example, if you only squat and lunge you will be strong in the bottom glute where the glute is maximally stretched but not so strong at the mid-rage and end range positions!
The reason that squats and lunges create more soreness than hip thrusts and other anteroposterior vector exercises is that there is more eccentric loading in the movements with an emphasis on loading in the fully stretched position. For example, at the bottom of a heavy lunge there is an emphasis on eccentric deceleration followed by concentric shortening that leads to high levels of delayed-onset muscular soreness (DOMS).
This is why squats and lunges produce the most soreness out of all the hip extension exercises in addition to the fact that the hamstrings are shortened in the bottom position of both exercises which decreases hamstring involvement and forces the glutes to do the work.
Balanced Glute Workout to Optimize Glute Development
Use a mix of glute exercises to target all areas of the glutes and sprinkle in hip abduction exercises along with hip external rotation exercises to hit the glutes from all angles to get the best results!
Work on Hip Flexor lengthening to maximize glute activation. The hip flexors are the antagonistic muscle to the glutes which means that if they are tight you literally cannot get maximum glute activation! In addition, since we spend too much time sitting they are chronically shortened in most of us. So stretch them often and particularly BEFORE your glute workouts to allow for optimum glute activation.
Sample Glute Routine
Warm-up with bodyweight lunges, side lunges, hip hinges, etc followed by stretching the hip flexors.
Do Supine Hip Lifts/Glute Bridges 3 sets of 10 with a five second hold at the top of the movement focusing on squeezing the glutes maximally at the top!
Add load by holding a dumbbell or plate across the hips or using a thick loop band hooked around the bottom of the feet and your hips!
Also do single leg hip lifts/glute bridges
Or try putting your feet (heels) on one bench with shoulders across another bench facing up to maximize range of motion in the hip life! Obviously you can also add load to this variation to increase intensity – but do not do so by sacrificing form – keep back neutral and do NOT use momentum and really squeeze at the top of the movement while drawing in your navel to keep from stressing the low back and keep all the work on the glutes!
Do Quadruped Hip Extension Exercises
From hands and knees lift single leg (keep it straight) and opposite arm WITHOUT moving core and squeezing glute at the top for a count of 5. Do 3 sets of 10.
Add load by using an ankle weight
Do the same movement but with knee flexed – again do not move the low back and draw in navel to keep all the emphasis on the glutes.
Do Hip Abduction Exercises – 3 sets of 10.
Seated band abduction – sit on a bench with knees and hips at 90 degree angle with thick elastic band around the top of the shins. Lift feet slightly off floor and pull knees out to the side against the band pausing in the fully contracted position for 5 seconds. Do NOT arch the back and keep the navel drawn in to stabilize the core and keep all the work on the glute medius.
Or Standing abduction using band or cable – use band or cable attached to lower leg of the outside leg right above the ankle. Keep hips in alignment, do not arch back and hold on with inside hand to support. Do not allow either hip to rotate – tendency is to let the outside hip rotate out which places the load vector such that you are working the hip flexors and NOT the glutes! Pause in the fully contracted position for 5 seconds.
Continue to do squats, lunges and deadlifts but add in these exercises to build total glute strength, shape and power.
Glute Power Training
Once you have built a base using the glute routine above you are ready for glute power training which is all about Sprinting and Jumping to hit both axial and horizontal hip extension in power movements!
Do one sprint and one jump workout per week.
It is critical to be thoroughly warmed up prior to glute power movements! Once you complete the warm-up start with four 100 meter sprints done at 80%. Overtime progress to work your way up to two sprints at 90% of your max speed and then eventually do some true max sprints.
Vertical Jump Workout
As with the sprint workout warm-up thoroughly. Then do a series of vertical jumps having some vertical target to shoot for. Stand back from wall or other vertical target so you can take one – three steps then drop down quickly into the squat with arms by sides and explode upwards from the squat throwing arms over head to achieve maximum height. Do 3 – 5 reps per set for 3 sets.
To progress you can add load by wearing a weight vest (start with 5% of bodyweight and gradually build up to no more than 10% of bodyweight.