Who doesn’t want a strong and shapely bottom line? For that, you need to activate your glutes. Some compound exercises, like squats and lunges, work your gluteal muscles but your thighs get most of the emphasis when you do these exercises. However, you might want more glute definition without increasing the size of the thighs. The way to accomplish this goal is to activate your gluteal muscles more when you do compound exercises and also include some exercises that work your glutes in isolation. Otherwise, you’ll get stronger quads and hamstrings but less of a glute boost.
You also need strong glutes for hip stability and to lower the risk of back pain. In addition, building strong glutes will improve your functional strength and your performance in sports and athletic activities while reducing your risk of injury when you work out, Too much emphasis on the quads without a compensatory focus on the hamstrings and glutes can create a muscle imbalance that increases the risk of injury.
So, get your glutes in on the action! Here are six ways to wake up your glutes.
Stretch Your Hip Flexors
If your hip flexors are tight, it reduces the activation of your glute muscles. That’s why hip flexor stretches should be part of your training routine. It’s even more important that you do these exercises if you have a job that forces you to sit much of the day. Sitting causes the hip flexors to shorten and the opposing muscles to weaken and your body adapts to being in that position. It’s a bad combination that can affect your posture and your performance when you train. Fortunately, you can counter the effects of too much sitting by strengthening the muscles in your posterior chain, including your glutes, and by stretching tight hip flexors.
Add a Squeeze
Don’t let your glutes be lazy! When you do lower body exercises, contract your glutes, and keep them engaged throughout the full range of motion of the exercise. And don’t just squeeze them when you’re doing squats or lunges, contract and hold when you’re perched in front of the sink washing dishes or when you’re standing in line at the grocery store. Maintain the squeeze for 8 to 10 seconds and then repeat. Wake up those muscles whenever you can! Don’t just go through the movements, concentrate on the muscles you’re working, and feel them tighten. Research shows that visualizing your glutes when you do an exercise can recruit more muscle fibers when you do exercises like squats and lunges. See those glutes growing and becoming stronger!
Pause at the Bottom
When you do squats, stop and hold at the bottom of the movement for one to three seconds. The isometric hold will increase the time your muscles, including your glutes, stay under tension and that can stimulate greater growth. During the pause, focus on the burn in your buttocks and imagine them becoming stronger. Adding a pause at the bottom also reduces momentum and helps strengthen the weakest portion of your squat.
Increase Your Range-of-Motion
You limit glute activation when you don’t go through the full range-of-motion of exercises like squats. Many people “cheat” and do partial squats rather than full squats. Even fewer people go below parallel and perform a deep squat. Although the difference in glute activation between half squats and full squats isn’t huge, you do activate your glutes more when you do a full squat. Using a full range-of-motion will also improve your flexibility.
Do Unilateral Exercises
Unilateral exercises force you to focus on one glute at a time and that can lead to bigger strength and hypertrophy gains. Studies that use EMG to measure muscle activation show that single-leg squats and single-leg deadlifts are powerful exercises for activating the glutes, and most people don’t do enough of them. Doing unilateral exercises are also a way to identify and correct strength imbalances between the two sides. If you’re weaker on one side than the other, it will become obvious when you work one side at a time.
Do Focused Glute Exercises
You can strengthen your glutes, to some degree, with compound exercises for the lower body such as squats and lunges, but these exercises don’t isolate the glute like isolation exercises do. Two other exercises to include in your glute routine are glute bridges and hip thrusts.
Start by doing glute bridges, an isolation movement, until you build up enough strength and stability to do hip thrusts. Hip thrusts are one of the most effective exercises for strengthening the gluteus maximus, the muscle that gives your booty its shape.
Once you can do several sets of 10 to 12 hip thrusts, challenge yourself more by laying a barbell or dumbbell across your pelvis to add more resistance. Doing focused glute exercises will teach you to activate your glutes more when you do compound exercises, like squats. As mentioned, you can even squeeze your glutes when you’re not weight training. Add a series of squeezes whenever you have chance! It all counts.
Other exercises that focus on the glutes are quadruped hip extensions, four-way hip extensions, and step-ups. Include these in your routine too, to challenge your glutes in a different way.
The Bottom Line
Lazy glutes won’t help your bottom line. Neither do tight hip flexors from sitting. That’s why it’s so important to wake up your glutes when you train. Don’t let your glutes be a passive bystander when you do compound exercises, like squats and deadlifts. Shift your focus toward your glutes and make sure you can feel a burn when you approach the end of the exercise. Think “focus, pause, and squeeze” when you squat rather than passively going through the motions. Also, include isolation exercises to hammer your glutes in a focused manner. It takes good nutrition and training to build strong, well-defined glutes, but with dedication and consistency, you can boost your bottom line.
- Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy “Gluteal Muscle Activation During Common Therapeutic Exercises”
- Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011 Sep; 6(3): 206–223.
- Strength Cond Res. 2002 Aug;16(3):428-32.
- Fitness RX. February 2015. “Optimizing Gluteal Development”
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