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The Best Glute Activation and Strength Exercises—and Why You Probably Need Them

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Photo: Martin Novak / Getty Images

Doing butt exercises—working your glutes—isn't all about building a backside like a Kardashian. Strengthening these powerful rear muscles means your body will work more efficiently, whether you're logging miles or doing squats. (See: Why It's Important to Have a Strong Butt—Besides Looking Good) However, despite their sheer size and power, glutes have been getting a bad rap: Phrases like "dead butt syndrome," "office ass," and "lazy glutes" have been circulating, sending people to the gym, squat workout in-hand, ready to build some booty strength.

The thing is, there's a chance your glutes aren't actually weak—they're just not firing the way they should. Yes, you need to strengthen your glutes to get them to work properly. But you also need to teach your body to activate them. And that takes a solid mind-body connection. Here's what that means.

The Difference Between Glute Strength and Activation

Colleen Brough, D.P.T., assistant professor of physical therapy at Columbia University and director of the Columbia RunLab, has tons of experience helping runners excel at their sport and avoid injuries in the process. Often, both outcomes depend on what's happening in the glutes. And, while glute activation is a common problem in runners, there's a good chance you need glute activation or strengthening if you're a non-runner too. (For the record, that's not why your butt gets cold during a run.)

"There are two common presentations: The first, a runner has strong glutes but they're not using those strong glutes during a run. Their motor pattern involves using their hamstrings or low back instead," Brough explains. "Then there's the other group whose glutes just aren't firing at all." That means they need a little booty wake-up call with both strength and activation exercises.

The first step in bettering your butt work is recognizing which category you fall into. Brough says to think about your past injuries or aches. If you've frequently had hamstring or calf issues (or currently have them), you can probably blame your glutes for being weak or not firing and letting these other muscles take over. (Weak glutes could also cause lower-back pain in runners.)

If you're all good on the injury front, try one drill to test your glute strength: Lie facedown with your hips on the edge of a bed, toes touching the floor, and knees bent and relaxed. See if you can contract (squeeze) your butt, without recruiting any other muscles in your lower half or trunk. "If you struggle through it, then your glutes are likely inhibited," Brough explains, meaning you likely need to focus on strengthening your backside. "Let's say you do feel the contraction—where else are you feeling fire? Are you getting a strong sense of muscle tension in the low back or hamstring or calf?" If you answer "yes" to the last Q, then it's likely time you need to work a little more glute activation into your workouts.

How to Start Strengthening Your Glutes

So, if you fall into the category of not being able to contract your glute without recruiting other muscles, then it's time to kick off a little strength work. The first step is mastering an isometric hold.

Isometric hold: Get into that same position that tested your glutes—lying on your stomach, on a bed, with toes touching the ground, knees bent. Now, just focus on squeezing your butt. "The idea behind this is teaching your body how to fire your glutes," explains Brough. "You need to put your mind in the muscle, which is necessary for neuromuscular re-education." (Fancy speak for using your brain to teach your body which muscles should be working and when.) Try doing that hold every day, three times a day for even just two or three days. Aim for three sets of five reps, but the key is to work to fatigue—so you might need more or less depending on your strength, says Brough.

Hip extension: When the hold becomes easy, add a little movement: From that lying-facedown-on-a-bed position, start with your knees bent at 90 degrees with toes on the floor. Then, slowly slide one foot back to fully extend your leg behind you, keeping your toes on the ground and engaging through the glute as you go. (The other leg should stay bent). This is a hip extension that mimics the movement of running, says Brough.

Bird-dog: After that, move on to a bird-dog. From an all-fours (or tabletop) position, extend one leg and the opposite arm straight out, keeping your core engaged and back flat. 

Lateral step-down: Next, move on to a lateral step down. Standing on a step or box facing parallel to the edge, step down with the outside foot, slowly lowering to the floor, squeezing the opposite glute as you go.

"Work through each of these exercises for about a week before moving on to the next one," says Brough, who explains these exercises will work for anyone who wants to strengthen their glutes—not just runners. At the same time, you should work on glute activation exercises, she says. Read on for details.

Glute Activation Exercises to Try

If you realize your glutes are indeed strong (or you've been working on the above exercises for a few weeks), how do you actually get them to turn on when you need 'em to? The answer is surprisingly simple: You literally just have to put your mind to it. "Real-time running cues or thinking about using the glutes does an excellent job of getting them to work," says Brough. (That's partially why these two glute bridge variations have totally different benefits.)

Brough gives two glute activation exercises to start connecting your mind to your movement:

Glute push-off: Every time your foot hits the ground when you run, think about squeezing the glutes on that side. "Glutes are primarily responsible for driving your run forward. So as soon as your foot hits the ground, you want to think about squeezing the buttocks," explains Brough. "You have to teach your body to use this muscle that should be firing but isn't. It's all about creating a new motor pattern."

Forward lean: Think about lifting your chest and leaning forward at the ankles, instead of hunching forward at the back, says Brough. "This puts the glute max muscle at a great activation angle."

Again, the same mental tactics work even if you're not a runner—you'll just apply them to different exercises. Take the squat, for example. To get your glutes to fire properly, use those same mindfulness cues. Think about engaging your glute as you push off your feet to stand up from the bottom of the squat and relax through the low back and hamstring.

Brough believes you can easily get your glutes working properly after just a few days of these exercises and drills. The key: Put your mental game into play more often, especially as you stride. (Okay, and maybe these killer glute exercises that have nothing to do with squats.)

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