There’s a muscle in your body that doesn’t really get as much press as it should. It’s involved in holding you upright, in supporting your lower back so you don’t get injured and it fires up every time you run, walk uphill, pick something up off the floor, throw something... In fact, it’s safe to say:
It’s also safe to say you never train it directly, and equally safe to say that the exercises you do that are supposed to target it aren’t hitting it anything like as well as you think they are.
I’m talking about your glutes.
The gluteal muscles form your butt, and they’re some of the most important functional muscles in the body. In fact, some would say they’re the most important muscle group in terms of function. The glutes extend your hips and help flex your knees, and they play an important role in spinal and pelvic stabilization.
There are four gluteal muscles. The two smaller ones are the gluteus minima, which attach the tops of your thigh bones to the back of your pelvis, the gluteus media, which attach the tips of the thighbones to the hips further up. The gluteus maxima, the visible portion of the glutes attaches the coccyx, the sacrum, the spinal erectors and the pelvis to the iliotibial tract. Finally the smaller tensor fascia latae muscle is in front of and outside the rest and plays a role in hip abduction (opening the legs).
Scientists think the glutes evolved to be proportionately large in humans to facilitate running and an upright posture, and they’re certainly larger in us than in our primate cousins. However, we got lost somewhere along the way and invented the chair.
After a lifetime of this it can be hard to activate the glutes well. Additionally, some people think that sitting down too much can result in a flat or sagging butt. While it’s hard to separate out what the effects are when you have to take into account the fatty deposits on the surface of the glutes that go a long way to giving your butt its shape, being leaner and stronger can’t hurt.
Focus on the Glutes
Considering the effect the glutes have on athletic performance, you’d think they’d be a major focus of our training efforts – but they’re not. Most strength programmes hardly take account of the glutes at all, and those that do assume that exercises like deadlifts and back squats will give you all the glute work you need. After all, they both involve resuming an upright posture, the job of the glutes, and they both involve lifting some seriously heavy weight, at least subjectively.
So they should be great glute exercises.
But they’re not. Studies show that most individuals show greater glute activation during body-weight glute exercises than when squatting or deadlifting their one-rep maxima. That means that, while stronger glutes will help you get a better deadlift, a better deadlift isn’t the best way to chase better glutes. Therefore, it’s a good idea to take advantage of that one-way crossover to get boosts in your bigger lifts by building stronger glutes.
While that ideally means exercises that focus on hip extension, hip hyperextension (pushing your hips out forwards), hip abduction and hip external rotation, this article will introduce hip extension and hyperextension exercises before moving on to tougher and more directly functional training movements. In the second half of this piece, I’ll show you how to activate your glutes and get real power out of them, making your lower back safer and your big lifts bigger.
Glute Exercises for Better Strength and Fitness Performance
These exercises will teach you how to turn on your glutes and how to build both size and strength. It’s not a complete guide, but it should offer you some starting points and a guide for strengthening and activating your glutes. If you do nothing for your glutes but these exercises, you’ll be a whole lot better off!
Exercise 1: The Glute Bridge
Some of us have met these movements as ‘the crab,’ but bridges are a great exercise group for the whole body. The glute bridge is a simple movement that’s deceptively difficult to do, so don’t feel bad if you have trouble doing it: almost everyone does! Start by lying on your back with your feet on the floor, shoulder-width apart and close to your glutes. Keep your neck neutral and your shoulders on the floor.
Next, drive downwards with your heels and push your hips up off the floor, relaxing your hip flexors and driving your hips as high as you can. It’s a simple enough movement, but doing it for even a few reps will defeat most people. Start off with two sets of 12-15 and move on to two sets of 20. When you can reliably do them, try adding weight. A barbell works well –especially since the discs are often so large that if you have to drop the bar it won’t fall on you. But a rucksack full of something heavy will also work. Just remember to push upward as hard and as far as you can.
Exercise 2: Hill Sprints
Hill sprints are significantly harder than the glute bridge. They’re also a very simple exercise, though – they’re exactly what they sound like, sprinting uphill.
I’d recommend sprinting only for the distance you can hold your breath, which for most people will be between ten and forty yards, and concentrating on ‘driving’ – pushing yourself to accelerate as fast as possible, and trying to make your feet move as fast as possible without shortening your stride or slowing down. I’d also recommend getting up to 2X20 with the glute bridge before you try hill sprints, or you could find your glutes when you pull them – and without the support of strong glutes hill sprints can be rough on the hamstrings too.
Exercise 3: Glute Ham Raise
Glute Ham Raises are among the hardest glute exercises there is. They're included here as a way to demonstrate what can be achieved – a kind of signpost. I’ll also go into their gentler cousin, the glute-ham curl.
To perform a glute ham raise, you’ll need something that anchors your heels in the same plane as your knees. A doorway bar a few inches off the floor will work if you can find something soft to go under your knees. Lie on the floor face down, and lift your body from the knees by contracting your glutes and hamstrings. When you’re kneeling erect, lower yourself to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Obviously, for most of us it’s going to be a journey to get there, so it’s best for a lot of us to train the glute ham curl instead. It’s the same exercise, but with an external load attached to an exercise machine instead of a being a body weight exercise. Think lat pull down, rather than pull-up. Many gyms have a glute ham curl (GHC) machine, and if you don’t use a gym you can use exercise bands attached to a low doorway bar. You don’t need very high resistance to get a good session with GHCs.
If you have a question to ask (or a tale to tell!) drop me a line in the comments below.