Yeah, she squats, is the text that often accompanies a photo of a beautiful female derrière on the internet and social media. But squats are certainly not the only exercise to get some firm buttocks. Ideally, you’ll do a series of different exercises. We selected the best for you.
It’s actually ironic that ‘we’, especially those of us with desk jobs, don’t use the largest and most powerful muscle in our body to the fullest. It can even cause problems with your posture. An inactive gluteal muscle can, by compensating, cause a hollow back, resulting in back problems.
A muscle that goes by the Latin name gluteus maximus deserves better. Time to wake up this sleeping giant!
For the record: there are also a gluteus minimus and medius. As the names suggest, these are much smaller muscles than the maximus, although in total they make up your gluteal muscle. It is possible to specifically train the gluteus medius, but normally this is not necessary: in most exercises for the glutes you target the entire buttocks, or for example the top of the gluteus maximus in combination with the medius.
THREE TYPES OF EXERCISES
For a complete development of your glutes you have to load it in three ways:
- Axial load (the weight comes from above), such as the squat, (Romanian) deadlift and lunge. These give the greatest eccentric growth stimulus, have the greatest Range Of Motion (ROM), cause the greatest muscle damage and require the most recovery capacity. These exercises emphasize stretching and are therefore also known as stretchers.
- Anteroposterior loads (the weight is pushed forward), such as the hip thrust, glute bridge, cable pull-through, hyperextension and kickback. These have a smaller eccentric growth stimulus, a smaller ROM, and the peak tension occurs at the highest point, where the gluteal muscle is contracted and thus is at its smallest. All this causes less muscle damage than with axial exercises, allowing you to recover more quickly from anteroposterior exercises. These types of exercises usually have the largest gluteal muscle activity and are therefore also called activators.
- Lateral/twisting load (weight comes from the side and/or makes a twisting motion), such as hip abduction, band side walk, band side lying clam, and standing cable external rotation. These exercises have only a small ROM and a relatively low gluteal muscle activity, so you can recover quickly from them. They are usually performed with a resistance band, which creates an alternating tension on the gluteal muscle, allowing for a higher number of repetitions. Thus, this type of exercise lends itself to, among other things, the creation of metabolic stress (more on that in a moment). This creates muscle pumps, which is why they are also called pumpers.
By doing each of these types of exercises, you ensure on the one hand that the gluteal muscle is fully trained from all sides. On the other hand, you can better dose the training load, because you are not only doing exercises with major muscle damage and a long recovery time. As you can imagine that 30 sets of just squats, deadlifts and lunges every week would do more harm than good.
|axial load: weight comes from above||anteroposterior load: weight is pushed forward
(greatest activation of the gluteal muscle)
|lateral/rotating load: weight comes from the side and/or makes a rotating movement|
|ao squat, deadlift, Romanian deadlift, lunge||ao hip thrust, glute bridge, frog pump, cable pull-through, back extension, kick-back, step-up||ao hip abduction, band side walk, band side lying clam and standing cable external rotation|
|mostly low rep ranges (5-8 reps)||various repranges suitable||mostly high rep ranges (12+ reps)|
|usually not leading to muscle failure (1-3 RIR)||sometimes to muscle failure, otherwise 1-3 RIR||until (near) muscle failure, or quite far from muscle failure (4+ RIR)|
|major muscle damage, long recovery time||average muscle damage, average recovery time||minor muscle damage, short recovery time|
CRITERIA FOR THE EFFECTIVENESS OF AN EXERCISE
To determine the effectiveness of an exercise for a particular muscle, one usually relies on EMG research. Not illogical, because the degree of muscle activation during an exercise is sometimes a good indicator of the growth of that muscle [ ii ] .
But the muscle length over which that activation takes place, or the range of motion (ROM), is also important. That is why we also look at studies that measured actual muscle growth (which is not the case with EMG studies).
Finally, we take some advice from coach Bret Contreras, who is internationally regarded as the expert in the field of glutes training. Not only has he initiated various studies, he can also draw on his many years of experience as a personal trainer specialized in buttocks [ iii ] [ iv ] [ v ] .
THE BEST EXERCISES
1. BARBELL BACK SQUAT (FULL ROM) (STRETCHER)
As a butt builder, the barbell squat has been somewhat discussed in recent years. In EMG studies, the activation of the gluteus maximus during squats turned out to be relatively limited, especially compared to, for example, the barbell hip thrust (see 2). In addition, the buttocks are certainly not the most sensitive muscle group during and after squatting.
But muscle activation and subjective perceptions don’t always tell you everything. This is evident from a study from 2020, in which deep barbell squats (ie performed far beyond parallel) were compared with the barbell hip thrust. This time not on muscle activation, but on actual muscle growth, after a training program of no less than twelve weeks. The somewhat surprising result: squats caused more than twice as much muscle growth in the buttocks as hip thrusts. In addition, squats turned out to be many times more effective for the quadriceps, but that was to be expected.
The explanation lies in the range of motion. While squats have a smaller peak contraction than hip thrusts, there is a much greater ROM and the glutes are active throughout that ROM. You may feel them less during the exercise than with the hip thrust, but on balance they may be trained just as effectively – if not more effectively. The condition is therefore that you squat a lot deeper than parallel.
Parallel squats are fine if you mainly want to train your quadriceps (the primary target muscle of the squat), but the ROM may be too small to beat the hip thrust as a glute exercise. Although parallel squats will still trigger the growth stimulus in your butt.
Deep squats (whether or not Ass To Grass, ATG ) are not for everyone anyway. Many people make their (lower) back round when they squat deeply, the so-called butt wink. This can cause back pain. Usually a butt wink is caused by limited ankle and hip flexibility and (ergo) limited mobility of that joint. That means you have to work on that or squat less deeply.
Of course you don’t have to squat. Especially women sometimes prefer to ignore the exercise, because they do not aspire to muscle growth in the legs. In that case, you are dependent on more isolating buttocks exercises, which we discuss in the rest of this article.
2. BARBELL HIP THRUST (ACTIVATOR)
If you think you’re strong, your first set of hip thrusts with just your body weight could give you a cold shower. Let alone when you have to push a barbell with quite a bit of weight on it.
The hip thrust is a tough, underrated exercise that can give you glutes of steel. What a shame that we see little practice of the exercise in our gym. And men who think it’s a woman’s thing: don’t you have glutes too?
Bret Contreras even thinks the hip thrust should be a basic exercise, as he argues in the video below. Just like the squat and the bench press for example. The hip thrust is also a safe exercise: Contreras has never experienced a hip thrust injury in his clients in his many years of training practice.
With the hip thrust you mainly train the gluteus maximus and medius. So it is an exercise in which the gluteal muscle is quite isolated and other muscles have a relatively small role. This is in contrast to, for example, the barbell squat, which has the quadriceps as a target muscle, although it also puts the glutes to work. In the hip thrust, in addition to the buttocks, there is some involvement of the hamstrings, core, lower back, abdomen, hip flexors and a very small amount of the quadriceps.
The debate whether the barbell squat or the hip thrust is the best butt exercise is actually not that relevant to us. If your glutes are your priority, the hip thrust simply should not be missing from your program. Other considerations also play a role in the squat, such as the extent to which you also want to train your legs and how deep you can squat.
We will discuss exactly how to perform the barbell hip thrust in a separate article.
Below our favorite version of the hip thrust, namely the one with the back against a decline (abdominal muscle) bench. We find this much more comfortable than with the back crosswise on a bench.
You can increase the ROM and thus the effectiveness of hip thrusts by raising your feet.
According to Bret Contreras, with the barbell hip thrust, you should aim to do 10 reps with a weight of at least 1.5 times your body weight [ vi ] . Keep one or two repetitions ‘in the tank’ (1-2 RIR). Training to muscle failure causes a disproportionate amount of fatigue, while it is not necessary to achieve a sufficient growth stimulus.
3. GLUTE BRIDGE (ACTIVATOR)
The glute bridge is very similar to the hip thrust, with the main difference that you lie on the floor and not with your back on a bench. This makes a significant difference: if your upper body is higher, as with the hip thrust, there is a greater ROM. And the greater the ROM, the more effective the exercise, we saw.
Because the glute bridge is also technically easier to perform, the exercise is often seen as a stepping stone to the hip thrust. There’s nothing wrong with that, but can you ditch the glute bridge once you’ve incorporated the hip thrust into your workout? That’s not necessary. Because although the movement seems the same, the positioning makes an important difference in the muscle activation: with the glute bridge it is highest in the top position, with the hip thrust it is at the bottom of the movement [ vii ] . The gluteal muscle is therefore stimulated slightly differently in both exercises. That’s why you can safely include both in your schedule, provided you also create enough space for other types of buttock exercises.
With the glute bridge, make sure your feet are not too far forward. The farther your heels are from your butt, the less strain there is on your glutes.
Squeeze your buttocks hard at the top of the movement. If your lower back is bothering you, you’re stretching your spine too much instead of letting your butt do the work. Start the exercise with the lower back flat on the floor and not bent inwards. Practice without weight first to master proper movement and glute activation.
4. DUMBBELL WALKING DIAGONAL LUNGE (STRETCHER)
The lunge or walking lunge is perhaps – literally – the most versatile exercise for your frame. No other exercise works so many muscles in the lower body at the same time: glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves, as well as your inner and outer hips and thighs.
In fact, the ‘regular’ lunge – static or walking – is already a deadly effective exercise for the gluteus maximus; we feel our buttocks with this exercise like no other.
But with a small adjustment you can increase the role of the glutes even further, namely by stepping out diagonally, at an angle of about 30 degrees. Thus, you stride forward in a zigzag pattern. Use a longer stride than normal, so that your shins are as vertical as possible in relation to the floor.
At the bottom of the movement, your torso will lean forward slightly. Maintain that as you stand up: your hips should not come in front of your shoulders when you stand up.
5. STEP UP (ACTIVATOR)
One of the most effective glute exercises is also one of the simplest to perform: the step-up. So there’s nothing else than stepping on a little platform and back again. With dumbbells in your hands or possibly with a barbell on your back.
With the step-up you train your entire lower body (plus possibly your forearms), including the buttocks. According to a meta-analysis (overview of studies), this exercise causes perhaps the greatest activation of the gluteus maximus, even more than hip thrusts, squats and lunges [ viii ] . Although we have seen that that does not say everything about the actual muscle growth potential. The effectiveness of the exercise is mainly due to the high degree of stabilization.
Step-ups are usually done at elevations of about 20 to 40 centimeters, depending on the training level. It is important that you keep your back straight, with your chest up, shoulder blades contracted down and your abs slightly tightened. More explanation and directions in the video below.
To activate your glutes to the max, you’ll need to do step-ups a lot higher than usual so that your hips in the starting position are at least slightly lower than your knees. However, never go higher than the point where you start to round your lower back and start moving your hips to one side, Bret Contreras says. Furthermore, with this variant you bend slightly forward, so that you involve even more hip in the exercise.
6. FROG PUMP (ACTIVATOR)
The frog pump may cause some strange looks in your gym, but it is a perfect exercise to activate your glutes. It is a variant of the glute bridge, where you place the backs of your feet together instead of side by side on the floor. This frog-like position of your legs will disable the hamstrings, quadriceps and back stretchers. Of all activators, the buttocks are insulated the most with the frog pump. And you feel it! There are few exercises where you can make such a good mind-muscle connection with your buttocks as frog pumps.
Frog pumps can be used in three ways:
- as a ‘glute activation drill’ during the warm-up of a butt workout. Frog pumps will help you to tighten your buttocks during the main exercises. Do 3 sets of 10 reps using only your body weight;
- as a ‘finisher’, at the end of your training, to let your glutes burn to the maximum. In that case, do 2 or 3 sets of 20 to 30 reps with body weight only or with a light dumbbell;
- as a main exercise, using a dumbbell that allows you to do 10 to 20 reps.
7. CABLE PULL THROUGH (ACTIVATOR)
We also rarely or never see cable pull-throughs performed in our gym. Nevertheless, they are an extremely effective glute activator, as demonstrated by a personal EMG study by Bret Contreras [ v ] . Much more than with the hip thrust, you also target the hamstrings with the cable pull-through. An excellent exercise for a combined legs and buttocks training.
Cable pull-throughs are performed in a pulley station with the pulley in the third lowest possible position (not the lowest; see video) and with the same rope you use for triceps pushdowns.
You really don’t have to use the entire weight stack to benefit from the pull-through. Rather use a relatively light weight and aim for 8-15 reps.
8. CURVED BACK HYPEREXTENSION (ACTIVATOR)
The hyperextension (or back extension, or back raise) is a fairly popular exercise. However, we usually see them performed in such a way that mainly the lower back is trained. But that is something only powerlifters have to do to strengthen the extensors of the spine. For bodybuilding purposes, lower back hyperextensions are normally not necessary.
What many don’t know is that hyperextensions can also be an extremely efficient exercise for the buttocks. Or people know that, but use the wrong version, that is for the lower back. If you want to tackle your butt with hyperextensions, you have to do the exercise differently.
The standard version, for the lower back, is done with the back straight (the shoulders are aligned with the hips), while the head and neck are in a neutral position. To put the focus on the glutes, round your back just right . Yep, this is one of the few exercises that ‘allows’ you to bend your spine. And instead of a neutral position, keep your head down, with your chin to your chest. Use a small range of motion; it’s about squeezing your buttocks together as hard as possible.
Another important tip: have your feet pointing out 45 degrees. As a result, your hamstrings are less able to assist and you isolate your glutes almost completely.
Because of this set-up, the exercise was named 45-degree hyperextension by Bret Contreras.
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9. 4-3-1 DUMBBELL SUMO SQUAT (STRETCHER)
If you prefer not to do a conventional barbell squat (see 1), try this variation – also a real butt killer.
Again, the position of the feet and legs is important: quite far apart (hence the ‘sumo’) and pointing slightly outwards, at an angle of about 30 degrees. With both hands you have a dumbbell, at the height of your waist. Furthermore, you lean slightly forward throughout the exercise.
To activate the glutes to the maximum, Bret Contreras advises to use a 4-3-1 pace: you do the eccentric phase (lowering) in four seconds, then hold the down position for three seconds, after which you stand up again in one second.
10. EXTENDED RANGE SIDE LYING HIP ABDUCTION (PUMPER)
With this exercise you mainly train the gluteus maximus and the upper part of the gluteus maximus. This creates volume and roundness at the top of your buttocks, preventing them from sagging.
Hip abductions (or leg raises) are usually done lying on the floor. However, if you do them on a bench, you increase the range of motion, giving your hips a greater stretch at the bottom of the movement. This way you achieve a greater training stimulus and therefore more muscle growth.
Point the toes of the leg you’re training down. That leaves the hips, not the thighs, doing most of the work.
We recently wrote an extensive article about how to put together a good butt workout. We briefly explain the most important things there.
- The optimal training volume for the buttocks varies greatly from person to person and depends on various factors, including genetics. Typically, during a training career, that volume evolves from 10 to 30 sets per week for men and even more for women.
- However, most men train just about all their muscle groups, so that maximum recoverable volume per muscle group is a lot smaller. For average natural bodybuilders, the ceiling is around 20 sets per week, including sets of indirect butt training from squats, deadlifts and/or leg presses. Men often find that their buttocks are sufficiently trained with these exercises.
- Women often train almost exclusively the buttocks. They can therefore even do up to 30 sets per week or more, provided that the training load is more or less evenly distributed over different types of exercises (activators, stretchers and pumpers), intensity levels (the number of Reps In Reserve) and repranges (both light and heavy).
- Do a maximum of 5-12 sets of glutes per workout (including indirect sets).
- [ i ] https://www.strongerbyscience.com/squats-adductors/
- [ ii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23657165
- [ iii ] https://theathleticbuild.com/the-best-glute-exercises-for-an-exceptional-butt/
- [ iv ] https://bretcontreras.com/mens-health-glute-project-top-ten-glute-building-exercises/
- [ v ] https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-leg-glute-and-calf-exercises/
- [ vi ] https://www.t-nation.com/training/bigger-better-glutes/
- [ vii ] https://youtu.be/Zia7LSSK6fk?t=294
- [ viii ] https://www.jssm.org/hfabst.php?id=jssm-19-195.xml