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5 Ways to Build Bigger, Stronger Glutes That Have Nothing to Do with Squats

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Photo: IvanRiver / Shutterstock

Look, squats are great. But will squats alone get you the strong AF glutes of your dreams? Unless you're genetically blessed in the glute region, probably not.

And because having a well-developed posterior is an incredibly common fitness goal these days—not to mention the fact that having strong glutes has a whole host of fitness benefits—it makes sense that trainers and researchers have been working on pinpointing the most efficient ways to get bigger, stronger glutes. (And BTW, more women are trying to gain weight through diet and exercise.)

While squats can and should be part of your lower-body workout routine, they actually aren't the best move for glute-building goals. Here are five smart strategies for getting stronger (and peachier) glutes that go beyond the staple movement.

 

 

1. Incorporate exercises that really activate your glutes.

If squats aren't a glute goldmine, then which exercises are? Enter Bret Contreras, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., aka "The Glute Guy," who is considered the foremost expert on all things glutes. Contreras has researched which exercises actually light up the glutes, and for best results, you'll want to focus on those.

"My top three exercises for growing the glutes are the barbell hip thrust, B-stance hip thrust, and dumbbell frog pump because they are easy to learn, easy to progressively overload over time, and they elicit the highest levels of glute activity," says Contreras.

A quick anatomy lesson: "The glutes consist of three muscles: the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus," explains Jaime McFaden, a certified trainer with Aaptiv. "The gluteus maximus is the biggest of the three and considered the prime mover." Its main job is hip extension (pushing your hips forward), or the opposite of a hip hinge. Many common glute exercises—the hip thrust, for example—use this motion to target the glute max. But others, such as banded lateral walks and clamshells, will fire up your glute medius and minimus.

2. Focus on progressive overload.

"The most common missing element in the programs of women who are striving to grow their glutes is steady, progressive overload," explains Contreras.

Progressive overload is a strength-training concept that says: In order to get stronger (and see results), you need to continuously increase the amount of resistance you expose your muscles to. In other words, you keep upping the weight and/or reps in your workouts over time to consistently challenge your muscles.

This basically means that, in general, the women with the most developed glutes are also the strongest, says Contreras. "Unless you were born with amazing glute genetics, the only way to get your glutes considerably shapelier and rounder is to get very strong at the best glute exercises." (Here's more on the science of building muscle and burning fat.)

"At my Glute Lab in San Diego, we train hundreds of women, and the ones with the best glutes are typically the strongest at exercises like barbell hip thrusts, dumbbell back extensions, leg press, walking dumbbell lunges, goblet squats, and kettlebell deadlifts."

 

Unlike most muscles, the gluteus maximus achieves its highest EMG activation at the shortest possible muscle length. This means that you will necessarily see more activity at the top of a hip thrust compared to the bottom of a squat. This is also what makes the hip thrust so effective; the exercise places considerable tension on the hips at the top of the movement. If you’re seeking neuromuscular development in the glutes, you must consistently reach full hip extension (either hip hyperextension or posterior pelvic tilt, which are the same inside the hip capsule) during your repetitions. I see too many people either go too heavy or push out too many repetitions to the point where they’re performing partial reps. This is suboptimal for two reasons - 1) it prevents the glutes from receiving a maximum growth stimulus, and 2) it builds bad habits. If you’re always performing partials, that range of motion becomes your new norm and you forget what full hip extension feels like. Make sure you push the glutes as high as possible while keeping the torso level, thus preventing spinal hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt. I like partials for some exercises, just not hip thrusts. #gluteguy #glutelab #hipthrusts #thethrustisamust #glutetraining #biomechanics #sportsscience #glutescience

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3. Master the posterior pelvic tilt.

When doing glute exercises, you should be able to feel them working (read: burning.) If you can't, you'll want to get familiar with the concept of the posterior pelvic tilt and apply it to your glute exercises. "Posterior pelvic tilt is the end range glute contraction, kind of like locking out your glutes," explains physical therapist Lauren Lobert, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., owner of APEX Physical Therapy. (Think the opposite of sticking your butt out.) "This huge squeeze will put you in maximal hip extension and will ensure your glutes are working."

According to Lobert, you want to finish any gluteus maximus exercise (barbell hip thrusts, step-ups, and glute bridges) with a posterior pelvic tilt, which ensures you have gone through the entire range of motion in your hip and contracted your glutes. "This will maximize your glute gains, but also keep your back safe," she adds. (It's kind of like performing a proper barre tuck.)

Here are a few ways to find your posterior pelvic tilt:

  • Lying on your back, you want to think about flattening your back into the ground," Lobert says. "You will have to contract your lower abdominals and glutes, tucking your butt under."
  • "Think about a glass of water being on your pelvic bone as you lie flat on your back with your feet on the ground," says Lobert. "To achieve a posterior pelvic tilt, you want to try to spill the water onto your belly."
  • Lastly, at the top of a glute bridge or hip thrust, you can think about keeping your ribs down, which will force you to tilt your pelvis, Lobert says. In the correct position, your hips and ribs will be angled toward each other.

 

 

When I entered the fitness industry, the only popular glute exercises were vertical (axial) in nature, and the advice was always to train heavy and go to failure. Ten years later, I’m very happy that the trends have changed and the training is much more balanced. Here is a simple system that will make sure your glute training efforts are productive and efficient. I call it the rule of thirds. The point of this guideline is not to become obsessive compulsive about your programming and make sure every week and session is in perfect balance, but rather to keep your overall plan in check. My programs don't always work out perfectly like this, but they're pretty well balanced. Approximately 1/3 of the glute exercises you perform should be horizontal in nature (involve horizontal force vectors), 1/3 should be vertical in nature, and 1/3 should be lateral/rotary in nature. I will make a post tomorrow detailing precisely which exercises are in each vector. Roughly 1/3 of loads you use should be heavy for lower reps, 1/3 should be medium for moderate reps, and 1/3 should be light for higher reps. Unless of course you loathe a particular rep range, in which case you can omit it and see great results as long as volume and effort are sufficient. In terms of effort, around 1/3 of your sets should be carried out to failure or 1 rep shy of failure, 1/3 of your sets should be performed to 2-3 reps shy of failure, and 1/3 of your sets should be taken nowhere close to failure. By programming your glute training this way, you will: 1) Fully develop the upper and lower subdivisions of the glutei maximi 2) Fully develop the fast and slow twitch muscle fibers 3) Hit the glutes from every angle/vector and joint action, thereby transferring optimally to sport performance and functional activities, and 4) Be able to tolerate higher workloads without accumulating excessive fatigue Basically, you’ll maximize the potential of the glutes! Stay tuned for an upcoming post on glute training frequency and also the force vector category post I mentioned above. I have much to teach you but rest assured, the Glute Guy has got you covered! #gluteguy #glutelab #glutetraining #glutescience

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4. Follow the rule of thirds.

"I recommend training the glutes three times per week with a variety of loads and exercises," says Contreras. "Approximately one-third of the glute exercises you perform should be horizontal in nature, one-third should be vertical in nature, and one-third should be lateral/rotary in nature." So for example, you'll want to do exercises like hip thrusts and cable pull-throughs for horizontal loading, deadlifts and step-ups for vertical loading, and lateral band walks and clamshells for lateral/rotary loading.

The rule also applies to weight, rep ranges, and effort. "Roughly one-third of loads you use should be heavy for lower reps, one-third should be medium for moderate reps, and one-third should be light for higher reps. In terms of effort, around one-third of your sets should be carried out to failure or one rep shy of failure, one-third of your sets should be performed to two to three reps shy of failure, and one-third of your sets should be taken nowhere close to failure."

This helps ensure you're working your glutes from all angles while keeping you from burning yourself out or getting too fatigued. (Related: How Often Should You Do Heavy Weight Lifting Workouts?)

5. Focus on nutrition and recovery.

What you do in the gym is crucial when it comes to getting stronger glutes, but so is your lifestyle. "To build any new lean mass is a very demanding process," says Travis Burkybile, C.S.C.S. "If you are undereating by a large amount, they definitely won't grow."

In other words, if you're going for bigger glutes specifically, you might want to consider pausing any fat-loss plans you have at the moment. "You can build muscle and burn fat at the same time, just not as well as prioritizing one over the other," Burkybile says. Basically, you'll see results faster if you're eating more (healthy) food.

It's also key to allow for recovery in between sessions: "Hitting your glutes six days a week, and having them ALWAYS feel tired/sore might trick you into thinking your glutes are growing, but this can be a recipe for knee and back pain, as well as frustration and disappointment," notes Menachem Brodie, C.S.C.S., founder of Human Vortex Training. Stick to Contreras' recommendation of three glute sessions per week, and enjoy your well-deserved rest days. (Here's how to plan a perfectly balanced week of workouts.)

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