You do plenty of squats, lunges, hip thrusts, and deadlifts, but when you look at your backside, your glutes still aren’t as firm and defined as you’d like. What gives? It’s frustrating when you’re training hard and not getting the results you’d like. Glutes are a sticking point for some people. Some women have an easier time building glute definition than others, based on genetics, but a number of factors that have nothing to do with the genes your parents handed you may be making it harder to change the shape of your glutes. Here are some possible reasons why, despite training, your gluteal muscles aren’t where you want them to be.
You’re Not Tapping Into the Mind-Body Connection
Doing squats and lunges in the standard manner may not be enough to get your glutes to grow and become stronger. You need a little mind power! One study showed weight trainers greatly increased glute activation during squats by simply focusing in on the gluteal muscles during squats. When participants didn’t concentrate on their glutes when squatting, their glute activation was only 11% of maximum, but when they focused with laser-like precision on their glute muscles with each repetition, glute activation increased by 25%. The same lab demonstrated similar results with other glute-focused exercises, including back extensions and Romanian deadlifts. Focus matters!
When you do exercises that work your glutes, do you consciously try to activate them or is your mind focused on how many more reps you have to do? You’ll get more glute activation if you “train your brain” to fire your glutes during lower body exercises. One way to strengthen the neural connections between your brain and your glutes is to do isometric glute holds several times a day. Squeeze your buttocks together and hold for 10 or 15 seconds and then release. You can even do holds discretely when you’re standing in line at a store, cooking or doing dishes. When doing exercises that target your glutes, squeeze your buttocks together consciously with each repetition and feel your gluteal muscles firing. Strengthen the mind-muscle connection and you’ll get more glute mileage out of lower body exercises.
You’re a Perpetual Sitter
It’s not just what you do during a formal workout that counts but what you do in your daily life that determines how you look and feel. For example, a 30-60 minute workout won’t compensate for sitting 8 hours a day. The same is true of your glutes. When you sit in a chair for hours each day, your glutes become lazy and forget to activate. Trainers refer to this as “gluteal amnesia” and it’s a growing problem, thanks to the prevalence of desk jobs. Many people who sit too much have tight hip flexors and anterior pelvic tilt where their pelvis tips too far forward. Tight hip flexors and pelvic tilt pulls on and stretch the gluteal muscles so they aren’t as easily activated.
One sign that you have “lazy” glutes is hamstring tightness when you do exercises like deadlifts. When your glutes don’t activate properly, your hamstrings are forced to work harder. To correct glute amnesia and tight hip flexors, focus on lengthening your hip flexors with hip flexor stretches and on activating your glutes more throughout the day. If you have a desk job, stand up and walk around every 30 minutes and do isometric glute squeezes to fire up your gluteal muscles. Keep challenging those lazy backside muscles throughout the day so they aren’t idle for too long.
Not Doing Enough Targeted Glute Work
Squats and lunges are standard lower body exercises that work your glutes, especially when you establish the “mind-glute” connection through focused concentration – but they’re not the only ones. If you’re a hard glute builder, you need exercises that directly target the gluteal muscles. Keeping doing squats, lunges and deadlifts, but throw in hip thrusts, single leg hip thrusts, back extensions, glute bridges, kettlebell swings, Bulgarian split squats and single-leg Romanian deadlifts for more focused glute work and to add more variety to your routine. In other words, don’t rely on the standard three lower body exercises – squats, lunges, and deadlifts – to build glutes.
Your glutes may need more stimulation and to be worked from a number of angles to grow. Remember, you have three glute muscles – gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. Make sure you’re firing them all up. Curious as to which glute exercises are most effective? A study published by the American Council on Exercise showed five exercise rank highest in terms of glute activation (as measured by EMG):
. Quadruped Hip Extensions
. Step Ups
. Four-Way Hip Extensions
Other Reasons Why Glute Activation is Important
Don’t activate your glutes and strengthen them just for aesthetic reasons – do it to protect the rest of your body from injury. Weak glutes, glutes that won’t fire, and tight hip flexors throw off your body alignment and place stress on your knees and back. As a result, you’ll be more at risk for strains and other injuries. The gluteus medius muscle helps keep your knee and ankle in alignment so you don’t over-pronate your feet when you run. With weak gluteus medius muscles, you’re at greater risk for Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis as your feet roll inwards when they touch the ground. Weak glutes are also a set-up for back pain and groin strains. Plus, when the three main muscles that make up your glutes are strong, it helps with postural alignment. Who doesn’t want good posture?
The Bottom Line
If you’re trying to build stronger, more defined glutes, squats, lunges, and deadlifts are a good start but may not be enough to maximize glute development. Make sure you’re doing standard lower body exercises, direct glute work and incorporating a variety of glute-focused exercises into your routine. You may want to designate one day a week as “glute day,” so you can really target the three muscles that make up your backside. On glute day, do a variety of bilateral and unilateral glute exercises to force all three glute muscles to work hard. Take advantage of the time between workouts to do isometric buttock squeezes. Just as importantly, don’t keep your backside glued to a chair all the time – get up, move around and stretch. Be consistent with your training and your nutrition – and you should see results in four to six weeks.
Brett Contreras, CSCS. “What Are the Best Glute Exercises?”
Fitness RX. February 2015. “Optimizing Gluteal Development”
Sports Injury Clinic. “”How can my butt be weak? It’s big enough!”
“Glutes to the Max” ACE FitnessMatters. January/February 2006.
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