These days the focus is on having firm, defined buttocks. Fortunately, there’s no lack of exercises that target the muscles of the glutes, but many of these exercises also target leg muscles, including the quadriceps and hamstrings. But what if you want to build larger, more defined gluteal muscles but don’t want your legs to grow in size? Is it possible to build your glutes without increasing the size of your thighs?
When you look at your “rear view,” the big muscle you see is your gluteus maximus, the largest muscle that makes up your backside. Two other muscles called the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus work together with the maximus to support your femur in your hip socket, extend your thighs, and rotate your thighs medially and laterally. Just as having a strong core improves your posture and lowers your risk for injury, so does having strong glutes. If you sit at a desk all day, it can weaken your glutes and create muscle imbalances that lead to injury. Plus, when your glutes are weak, muscles in your lower spine have to take up the slack, placing you at greater risk for back pain. So, strengthening your glutes is important for more than just looking good in a pair of jeans.
Can You Build Glutes without Growing Bigger Thighs?
If you think about it, many exercises that target glutes also activate your quads and hamstring muscles. One of the most popular exercises for glute development, the squat and its many variations, builds stronger glutes and hamstrings and increases the size of these muscles depending upon how much volume and resistance you use. Like squats, lunges, leg presses, leg extensions, and deadlifts target your glute muscles but they also work your quads and hamstrings.
What can you do to focus more on your glutes? When you squat, place your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and squat deeper. Still, you’re still hitting your quads and hamstrings fairly hard. If you’re like most women, you’re more concerned about quadriceps growth as opposed to hamstring development. Hamstring definition is flattering whereas excessive quadriceps development gives you the appearance of larger thighs.
The best approach to developing your glute muscles with the least amount of quadriceps development is to do exercises that focus mainly on the glute muscles with lesser degrees of quadriceps activation. Two of the best exercises for glute development that place less emphasis on the quads are glute bridges and quadruped hip extensions. You’re probably familiar with glute bridges but may be less acquainted with quadruped hip extensions. Here’s how to do them:
Get down on your hands and knees. While contracting your glutes, slowly raise one leg with your knee at a 90-degree angle until your thigh is parallel with the floor. Hold for a few seconds and slowly lower the leg to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite leg. Once you’ve mastered the movement, do the exercise wearing an ankle weight on the leg you’re working for added resistance.
Here’s another reason to love quadruped hip extensions. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse found this movement tops the list of exercises that activate the glutes, based on EMG studies. In terms of glute activation, their research showed quadruped hip extensions, lunges, and step-ups all activate the glutes more than squats, but the latter two activate thigh muscles more. You get some hamstring activation when you do quadruped hip extensions but not to the same degree as squats and lunges.
When doing either of these glute-focused exercises, gradually increase the resistance to build the size and strength of your glutes. For glute bridges, place a flat weight on your abdomen or a barbell across your middle so you’re lifting your glute muscles against resistance.
Hip Thrusts and Glute Squeezes
Hip thrusts are an exercise that effectively targets the glutes and to a lesser degree the hamstrings and quads. When first starting out, do bilateral hip thrusts on the floor with the goal of working up to single leg hip thrusts and then single leg hip thrusts with shoulders and feet elevated on a bench to maximize range-of-motion. Don’t attempt single leg hip thrusts, especially elevated ones, until you’ve mastered bilateral hip thrusts and glute bridges. Single leg hip thrusts also activate hamstring muscles, but quadriceps activation is greatly reduced.
Another exercise that focuses almost exclusively on the glutes is an isometric one – the glute squeeze. This is an exercise you can do almost any time, even when you’re standing in line at the grocery store. Simply stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and squeeze your buttock muscles together as tightly as you can. Hold for five seconds. Repeat as many times as you can. Don’t count on glute squeezes alone to give you a more defined butt. Alone, they’re not powerful enough to build glute size but are effective when you use them in conjunction with other glute-centric exercises. Use glute squeezes at the office to “wake up” your buttocks after too much sitting.
The Bottom Line
By focusing more on glute exercises that don’t strongly activate your quads, such as quadruped hip extensions, glute bridges, glute squeezes, and hip thrusts, you can strengthen and build your glutes while minimizing the development of your quads. Squats aren’t the only exercise for glute development. In fact, they aren’t even the best exercise, based on the results of EMG analysis. You’ll define your buttocks best by working your glute muscles from different angles using a variety of exercises.
Brett Contreras. “Best Squat Depth for Glute Activation”
Brett Contreras. “Growing Glutes without Growing the Legs”
About.com Health. “Research Finds the Best Glute Exercises”
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