The Ultimate Guide to Building Better Glutes

The Ultimate Guide to Building Better Glutes

I’ve had many female fat loss clients make it very clear that although they want to drop body fat, they must not lose their bum, or ‘glutes’.

On the competitive figure stage, a great set of glutes is often what can separate the winner from the rest of the competition.

Even for those not competing, it’s an area many want to improve. To make them ‘firmer’ or more ‘curved’.

And if you’re a guy reading this, don’t think this guide won’t apply to you. Just this morning while writing this I’ve had emails from two separate male clients who’d like their next programme to be glute focused.

Besides their aesthetic appeal, glutes are important for injury prevention. Especially back, hip and knee health.

So, how do we go about it? What are the most effective exercises for maximal glute development?

In this second part of our women’s physique and bikini training series (if you haven’t read the first part on achieving a winning V-taper, read this first), we’re going to cover:

  • Basic Anatomy and Function
  • Problems With Sitting
  • How to Activate Your Glutes
  • Beginner Glute Exercises
  • Intermediate Glute Exercises
  • Advanced Glute Exercises
  • Essential Glute Cues
  • FREE Glute Training Program

Basic Anatomy and Function of the Glutes

Anatomy

The glutes are quite a bit more complicated than the image I put together above – but for the scope of this article we’ll focus on the basics.

Out of the two muscles you can see on the diagram above, the gluteus maximus is the larger one and is what gives the glutes their ‘rounded’ shape. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s the biggest muscle in the body.

The gluteus maximus’ point of origin (where the muscle begins) is on the posterior side of the upper ilium – basically, at the back of the body, toward the top of the pelvis. It then inserts down onto the greater trochanter and femur (hip joint and thigh bone).

The gluteus medius is considerably smaller when compared to the glute max. The easiest way to describe its location is the ‘upper, outer’ portion of the bum. It originates on the outer surface of the ilium (pelvis) and attaches onto the lateral side of the greater trochanter (side of the hip joint).

This all probably seems very boring, but learning where muscles start and stop allows you to better understand that particular muscle’s functions.

When you start to get your head around anatomy and function, you can:

  • Better plan your exercise selection
  • Make little tweaks to exercises that may make them more effective
  • Adapt exercises around injuries

Function

With the very basic anatomy of these two muscles out of the way, let’s move onto the function of them.

The glute max is the larger muscle. It’s also the more powerful of the two. This is no coincidence when we take into account the jobs that each muscle has.

The glute max’ primary function is hip extension.

Hip extension is where the glutes contract and pull the femur (thigh bone) backward.

The easiest way to demonstrate is the picture below. Perhaps try it yourself, push a finger gently into the center of your right glute whilst standing. Now extend that leg behind you – without bending the knee – notice it suddenly tense and get firmer? That’s the muscle contracting in order to bring the insertion point (femur) closer to the origin (top of the pelvis).

Carrying over this movement into the gym, they also work when you’re flexed at the hips (as in a squat) and have to stand back up into hip extension:

Now let’s take a look at the function of the glute medius.

Due to its position and the size of the muscle, the functions of this muscle require less power when compared with the larger glute max.

When the leg is straight, the glute medius is one of the main muscles involved in hip abduction (taking the thigh out toward the side of the body):

The glute medius also plays a part in both internal and external rotation of the femur (turning the thigh bone toward or away from the body).

The Problem with Sitting – Reciprocal Inhibition

One last area I think would be beneficial to cover before delving into exercise selection would be reciprocal inhibition.

Although it may sound complicated, it’s actually a very simple process that most of us have going on without even realising. Essentially, if one muscle is over-working, it’s opposing muscle will likely be ‘inhibited’ – not work properly.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because this typically affects the glutes in the majority of people.

What do we all do too much of nowadays? Sitting!

Think about it:

We get up & eat breakfast = we’re sat down

We drive/commute to work = we’re sat down

We get to work = we’re (mostly) sat down

We get home to relax for the evening = we’re sat down (in front of the TV)

I know I’m generalising here, but I’d hazard a guess 80% of you reading this will agree with at least 3 of those statements above.

The downside to this?

The group of muscles at the front of the hip (hip flexors) tends to become both short and weak. It’s logical really; when we’re standing they’re at normal length. When we sit all day, everyday they’re in a shortened position, as they’re doing anything, they’re also weak.

This then pulls the front of the pelvis forward, into ‘anterior pelvic tilt’. When this happens, the reciprocal inhibition we spoke about earlier occurs – namely the glutes and lower abdominals don’t work properly.

Over time this results in a ‘pot-belly’ look to the stomach (inhibited abdominals), even when the person isn’t fat. On top of this, some (including myself) get lower backaches and pains (from inhibited glutes).

Of course, it’s not always as simple as this, as posture and injury can be an in-depth article in itself.

The takeaway point is that if you’re identifying with some of the above chances are your glutes are inhibited to some degree.

In English, this means that doing the typical exercises we’re told to do for a better bum (squats, lunges, deadlifts etc) probably won’t be very effective as other muscles will come into play due to the glutes not working efficiently.

Before targeting the glutes with those ‘big’ exercises we must first attempt to remedy the situation at hand in order to get them contracting properly.

How to Activate Your Glutes – Correcting the Imbalance

Many trainers fall into the mistake of thinking they’re therapists, and spend almost half their client’s session on ‘mobility’ drills. I don’t agree with this. A training session is for… Training!

With that said, I do think quickly spending 5 minutes releasing the hip flexors and activating the glutes prior to the exercises involving them is worth doing.

If you have no connection with your glutes at all, I think it’s worth performing this stretch / activation sequence on a daily basis, anywhere from one to three times a day. This will make a real difference when done consistently.

The first thing we must do is release the hip flexors. There are various ways of doing this, however I’m just going to show two simple stretches. If wanting to learn a little more and have some direct soft tissue release done, then I’d suggest seeking out a qualified therapist.

Like the glutes, I’m going to focus on two muscles (rectus femoris and iliopsoas – or just ‘psoas’) but there are five hip flexors in total.

The psoas is known as a single joint hip flexor, and the rectus femoris is a double joint hip flexor. This is because the rectus femoris’ primary job is actually to extend the knee (as it’s a quadriceps muscle – but doubles as a hip flexor). These are the two muscles highlighted in red below:

In some cases, both muscles will be shortened. But for the most part it usually appears to be one or the other. For this reason I’d suggest seeing a professional that can perform a simple Thomas Test on you – which gives an indication of which of the two is causing the problem, and how severe the shortness is.

Until you find out which is causing the problem, you’d likely still benefit from doing both of the following stretches.

Psoas: 

Rectus Femoris: 

I would do these prior to training. Instead of the typical ‘hold for 30 seconds’ I’d recommend getting into position, and then ‘pulsing’ forward into the stretch for a count of two. Then ease out of it for a second, before pulsing back in for a count of two. Repeat 8-10 times each side.

Now that we’ve ‘opened up’ the hips we can start to activate – or ‘wake up’ – the glutes, so that they start firing properly.

For beginners, my favourite two exercises are the Glute Bridge (for the glute max. via hip extension) and the Clam (for the glute med. via external rotation).

To perform the Glute Bridge, just lay on your back with a bend in the knee’s so that the soles of the feet are on the floor and around shoulder-width. Now squeeze your bum to push your hips up toward the ceiling, being careful not to over-extend at the lower back. Contract and squeeze your bum at the top of the movement hard for a count of two before returning back down. Perform 2-3 sets of 12 reps.

For the clam, you want to lay on your side. While keeping your spine straight, pull your knee’s in toward your chest slightly – so that the hips are flexed. From here, squeeze the bum cheek of the top leg in order to bring the knee toward the ceiling, pause briefly and then return. As you get stronger on this – try performing it with a light resistance band. Again, try 2-3 sets of 12 reps.

To kill two birds with one stone, a popular strategy I give to my clients is to perform the glute bridge with a mini band around the knees. As you lift the hips up, the aim is to keep tension on the band at all times so the knees track in line.

What you’ll find with this is you’ll be able to activate both the glute max. and med. simultaneously.

Now we’re ready!

With the hip flexors released and the glutes now working properly, we can finally begin with some ‘proper’ exercises! I’ve broken them down into beginner, intermediate and advanced. Naturally, some of these exercises will have a carry-over whereby other muscles are also used – but I still think it’s worth including these. Please note, I’ve left ‘standard exercises’ like squats and deadlifts out of this, as I’m pretty sure you’re already aware of those.

As an important note: everyone’s body is individual, which means you’ll always feel some exercises more or less than others. The key is to pay attention to what feels good for you and gravitate towards those exercises.

For example, I personally feel walking lunges and Romanian deadlifts work my glutes more than anything. For someone else, this could be hip thrusts and pull throughs.

It depends on your structure, which is why when working with clients we use their feedback to learn which exercises are best suited to their bodies.

Once we know which exercises feel best, we then focus all our efforts on progressive overload to grow the muscle.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s just some of the exercises we use most often with both clients and in our own training programs

Beginner Glute Exercises

By ‘beginner’, this doesn’t mean easy. What we mean by this is that they’re the easiest to learn, and that mastery on these is critical before utilising more difficult exercises.

Glute Bridge:

Please see description in the paragraphs above for the activation work.

Hip Thrust:

Rest the bottom of your shoulder blades on the side of a bench, drop the hips and now drive them back up whilst squeezing the glutes. Make sure the neck remains neutral with the spine. This is slightly harder than the glute bridge as there is a greater ROM (Range of Motion).

The Clam:

Please see description in the paragraphs above for the activation work.

Front Foot Elevated Split Squat:

This is one of our favourite ‘beginner’ exercises for almost everyone. To get into position, elevate your front leg onto a small step, and stand on the ball of the back foot (remain on this throughout). Drive the front knee forwards and ‘pull’ yourself down using your front hamstring and glute.. When you reach the bottom position, push back up through the heel of the front foot. Be sure not to ‘fall forwards’ at the torso. If you struggle with flexibility on these, remove the step.

Step-Up:

An exercise many overlook and assume to be an ‘aerobics class’ movement. In actuality, if the platform is high enough (without the pelvis ‘tucking’) it’s quite tough and makes for a great overall glute builder. Make sure you push through your heel and at the top position, contract your glutes hard.

 

Incline Back Extension:

With all my PT clients, I use this exercise to initially assess how well someone can use hip extension, as well as to see how much awareness they have in maintaining a neutral spine. The key is to keep your back straight, push hips back and then use the glutes and hamstrings to pull yourself up.

Intermediate Glute Exercises 

Barbell Glute Bridge:

A progression from the standard glute bridge. Position a barbell on the front of the hips and now perform the same exercise. (You may want to use a pad for comfort).

Single Leg Hip Thrust:

A progression from the hip thrust. This is one of my personal favourites. Same position, except you’re now using one leg. The contraction you can get in the glutes on this one is very intense, make sure your form doesn’t get sloppy. Don’t allow the knee to ‘fall in’ – keep it tracking in line with the 1st & 2nd toe. You can also do something very similar by lying on the floor, and elevating your feet on a platform.

The Clam (With Band):

A progression from The Clam; now wrapping a resistance band just above the knees. For these ‘abduction’ type movements, the typical hip abduction glute machine you’ll see in most gyms works really well too.

Reverse Lunges:

This is a great exercise for the glutes that removes much of the knee / quad stress typically associated with normal lunges. Instead of lunging forward as normal, you simply step back and lunge.

Cable Pull-Through:

Another one of my favourites, attach a triceps rope to a cable pulley at the bottom position. Step over the rope so that it’s in between your legs. Grab hold of the rope and take a few steps forward. From here, essentially you’re going to perform a Romanian Deadlift – hips pushed back, stretch in the hamstrings before driving the hips forward again.

Advanced Glute Exercises

Barbell Hip Thrust:

A progression from the normal bodyweight hip thrust; exactly the same position and movement – just place a barbell on the front of the hips (use a pad for comfort).

Standing Clam (With Band):

A progression from the last 2 Clam exercises. This one you perform standing, flexing at both the knee’s and hips slightly (almost like a ½ squat position). From here, you may either push one knee out at a time – or both at the same time!

Bulgarian Split Squat:

A progression from the step-up & FF elevated split squat. This time, put a low platform behind you, or elevate your foot on a bench (flexibility dependent) and put the ball of the back foot on it. From this position, control yourself down as low as you can go whilst maintaining a neutral spine and vertical shin. Push through the heel at the bottom.

Walking Lunges:

A progression from the reverse lunge. With this version, you need a length of space in front of you. From here do a standard forward lunge, but rather than return to the start position, you go straight into a lunge on the opposite leg – so you’re moving forward with each rep. Be careful not to allow the knee’s to fall in or out – or for the torso to drop forward.

Glute-Ham Raise

This exercise is great for the whole of the posterior chain (everything along the rear of the body, lower back, glutes, hamstrings, calves). There’s a few ways you can do this, and it depends on the equipment you’ve got.

With GHR Bench:

If you’ve got a GHR bench, hook your heels under the ankle pads and put your knees on the pads in front of you. Your position of your hands will depend on your strength levels; in order of easy to hard: hands by side > hands on chest > hands by ear > hands above . Lower yourself down and out under control, making your body long and straight, and keeping glutes squeezed. Once you extend out fully, contract both the hamstrings/glutes together to bring you back to the start position.

With Pulldown Machine:

Tuck your heels under the thigh-pad. Now pad yourself out on a Swiss ball or a long pole until your body is parallel to the ground. From here, contract your hamstrings/glutes and pull yourself back into an upright position.

Glute Emphasis Back Extension

The set up is similar to a normal back extension, except this time you’re going to rotate your feet outwards, and round your upper back. From this position your focus will be to thrust your hips into the pad on each rep.

Notable Squat and Deadlift Variations for Glute Development

The extent to which you feel each variation of a squat or deadlift will depend largely on your biomechanics or structure.

There are a few variations I really like for glute development though, providing you can perform them safely.

Box Squat

Take a wider than shoulder width stance. Push hips back and drive your knees out as you sit back onto the box. Aim for a vertical shin on the box and maintain tension during a brief pause on the box. As you squat up, think about spreading the floor and pushing out. Squeeze your glutes at the top.

Sumo Deadlift

Take a wide stance and keep your back straight. Spread the floor and push out as you deadlift the weight up, squeezing your glutes at the top.

Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

Using either dumbbells or a barbell, keep a very slight bend in your knees and push your hips back behind you while maintaining the knee angle. Sit onto your heels and feel your hamstrings stretch as you go down. Once you can’t sit back anymore without rounding your back, return to starting position and squeeze your glutes at the top.

Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

A progression from the normal RDL. This time you’ll be using one leg for the bulk of the movement. However, I’d still keep the other leg in contact with the floor (for balance) by gently placing it behind you and resting on the toes. For this one, I do prefer using dumbbells. Alternatively, you can use one dumbbell and place your free hand for balance on a post, therefore allowing your back leg to travel back.

Essential Glute Training Cues 

Any exercise can be adapted to target the muscle you want to most stimulate. An important part of this is to know which cues to apply, and when.

For glute development, I’ve found thinking about the following helps most when training:

  • For squatting and deadlifting motions: Think about ‘screwing’ your entire feet into the floor. What I mean here is the whole foot should be gripping on the floor, and as you descend (into the squat in particular) you should be actively trying to spread the floor. This will engage the glutes throughout the range of motion.
  • For bridging and thrusting motions: Think about driving through your heels as you lift your hips up. For some people, keeping the toes curled up can really help keep the focus on the glutes, instead of the legs.
  • All movements in general: Keeping the core engaged will help maintain neutral spine, which is essential for glute activation, as we learnt earlier. Keeping neutral spine on all exercises will ensure the lower back and hamstrings don’t get overworked, and you stay safe.

Glute Training Template

There are so many ways to skin a cat. I can’t give you a program that’ll work for everyone, as it depends on how many days a week you can train, your training age, injuries etc.

However, what I can tell you is that any good glute training program worth doing will include the following:

  1. Variety in reps – anywhere from 5 to 50 reps!
  2. Variety in angles – deadlifts, squats, bridges, hip extensions etc… The glutes have multiple actions so to train them optimally, they need variety in exercise selection and angles.
  3. Frequency – for clients who want to glute specialization, I like 3 stimulations in the week. For weaker clients, this could be higher. For stronger, twice may be enough.

Here’s my favourite template for intermediate/advanced-level females who can train 5 days a week.

Day 1: Lower Body Low-Mod Reps

Day 2: Upper Body Low-Mod Reps

Day 3: Glute Specific Mixed Reps

Day 4: Off

Day 5: Upper Body Mod-High Reps

Day 6: Lower Body Mod-High Reps

Day 7: Off

As you’ll see, this is a real onslaught on the glutes. High volume, lots of variety and with a mix of heavy, medium and light work. The glutes can handle this workload though.

To get the most out of these workouts, make sure you release your hips, activate your glutes and establish a strong mind-muscle connection before starting.

If you’ve got any questions on the program, please don’t hesitate to ask. I look forward to hearing your feedback of all the sore glutes!

Day 1: Lower Body Low-Mod Reps 

Order Exercise Sets Reps
1 Glute Ham Raises 3 8
2 Wide Stance Back Squats 4 6
3 Barbell Hip Thrust 3 8
4 DB RDL 3 10
5 Wide and High Leg Press 3 12
6 Swiss Ball Crunch 3 12

Day 2: Upper Body Low-Mod Reps

Order Exercise Sets Reps
1 Chin-Ups (or Negatives) As many 20 total
2 Standing Military Press 4 8
3 One Arm DB Rows 4 8
4 Incline DB Press 3 10
5 Wide Grip Pulldown 3 10
6A DB Triceps Extensions 2 10
6B Incline DB Curl 2 10

Day 3: Glute Specific Mixed Reps

Order Exercise Sets Reps
1 Sumo Deadlift 4 6
2 3 sec Paused Glute Bridge (band around knees) 3 6
3 Glute Emphasis Back Extension 3 20
4 Seated Hip Abduction Machine or Lateral Band Walk 3 20
5 DB Hip Thrust 1 50
7 Decline Garhammer Raises 3 12

Day 4: Off

Day 5: Upper Body Mod-High Reps

Order Exercise Sets Reps
1 Underhand Pulldown 4 10
2 Chest Supported DB Rows 3 12
3 Seated DB Shoulder Press 4 10
4 Rear Delt Raises 3 15
5 Flat DB Press 3 10
6A Seated DB Curl 2 12
6B Overhead Rope Extensions 2 12

Day 6: Lower Body Mod-High Reps

Order Exercise Sets Reps
1 Lying Leg Curl w/ Hip Extension 3 12
2 Bulgarian Split Squats 3 12
3 Rope Pull Through 3 15
4 Walking Lunges 3 15each
5 Single Leg Hip Thrusts 2 15each
6 RKC Planks 3 30s

Day 7: Off

Conclusion

And there you have it, RNT’s ultimate guide to glute training!

Here’s a quick recap:

  • The glutes are involved in a number of functions, most notably hip extension and external rotation.
  • Gluteal ‘amnesia’ is common in today’s society as a result of too much sitting – make sure you stretch your hips and activate your glutes throughout the day and before training.
  • Pick exercises that allow you to feel your glutes the most. Don’t use advanced exercises if you can’t feel them working. This might be the number one takeaway if you want to improve your glutes. Everyone is different, so you need to be in tune to which exercises feel best, and then stick with them.
  • Pay attention to your feet and core when training your glutes.

 

If you’ve read this guide and decided it’s time you own a J-Lo butt, here’s what you need to do next:

  • First reduce bodyfat enough to be able to monitor the progress of your glute development. If you need help on how to set your diet up for this, read the article series on getting your protein, fats and carbs right.
  • Spend time getting strong and hitting each exercise with intensity. You need progressive overload with good form to grow your glutes. Aim to progress during each session you do (whether that’s progressing the exercise, sets, reps, weight used, rest periods etc), and track your workouts. For complete guide on how to progress and overcome plateaus, read this.

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