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?
Basic Anatomy And Function Of The Glutes
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
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).
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) as well as stabilising the femur. .
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 a few minutes ensuring that you are getting good contractions in your glutes prior to executing the exercises involving them, is worth doing.
If you have no connection with your glutes at all, I think it’s worth performing this sequence on a daily basis, anywhere from one to three times a day. This will make a real difference when done consistently.
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 lie 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 our members 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.
Another effective exercise to improve hip flexion (how much you can close your hips) is Straight Leg Raises. Your hip flexors will shorten as your Hamstrings and Glutes lengthen, which helps to get them used to this position, this can enable you to access new ranges of motion.
Now we’re ready!
Once you get strong glute contractions, you can finally begin with some ‘proper’ exercises! Below I have put together 2 lower body sessions that have a glute focus. These sessions could each be used on a weekly basis. 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.
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 squats.
It depends on your structure, which is why when working with our members 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.
Below is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s just some of the exercises that we have found to be highly effective with ourselves and our members…
Standing Clam (With Band):
With GHR Bench:
Glute Emphasis Back Extension
Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
Essential Glute Training Cues
- 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 a neutral spine, which is essential for getting the most out of your glutes. Keeping a neutral spine on all exercises will ensure the lower back and hamstrings don’t get overworked, and you stay safe.
Here’s a quick recap:
- The glutes are involved in a number of functions, most notably hip extension
- Implement progressive training with exercises that train your glutes hard
- Pay attention to your feet and core when training your glutes.