Building strong, shapely glutes has always been a priority for weight lifters and fitness buffs but even more so now when all eyes are on the glutes. One exercise that almost everyone does to shape and strengthen the gluteus muscles is the squat. This compound movement effectively targets all the muscles in the lower body, especially the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Because it’s a compound movement that works multiple muscle groups at once, it elicits a greater hormonal response than isolation exercises. That’s a positive when you’re trying to shed fat and improve your body composition. Squats rule!
The Problem with Weak Glutes
The muscles that make up your glutes are the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. If you’re trying to build stronger, shapelier glutes, all squat variations target these muscles to some degree. The biggest muscle in this group is the gluteus maximus. In fact, the gluteus maximus is one of the strongest muscles in your body. Unfortunately, sitting too much and not regularly working the three main muscles that make up the buttocks causes this area to atrophy. Atrophied glute muscles are a problem aesthetically but they also increase the risk for lower back problems. This trio of muscles impact movement of your hips and knees, so glute muscles that lack strength increase the risk for injury too.
Which Squat Variations Best Target the Glutes?
Squats activate the glute muscles, but do some squat variations activate them more? One study looked at stance width, how far you place your legs apart when squatting, and the effect it has on glute activation. To do this study, researchers measured muscle activation in thigh and glute muscles using a technique called EMG. EMG is a technique that measures the degree of muscle activation during an exercise. It’s a popular research tool to see which exercises are most effective for targeting different muscle groups.
In this study, researchers measured EMG activity during squatting when participants used three difference stances – narrow width stance (feet at 75% of shoulder width), moderate stance (feet shoulder width apart) and wide stance (feet 140% of shoulder width). The results? Using a wide stance maximized activation of the gluteus maximus. Interestingly, stance width didn’t affect the degree of hamstring and quadriceps activation, although quadriceps activation was higher than hamstring and gluteus maximum activation.
Does Squat Depth Matter?
Most people squat to 90 degrees and then stop. When you descend past 90 degrees, you’re doing a deep squat. Is deep squatting better for building glute strength? One small study looking at squat depth on glute activation showed activation of the gluteus maximus is higher when you descend below 90 degrees. So, going deeper may activate your glutes more. If you choose to squat below 90 degrees, make sure your knees are healthy. Deep squats are harder on the knees, especially if you don’t use good form. Begin with no added resistance initially until you feel comfortable with the movement and are doing it correctly.
A least one study should put to rest fears that deep squatting is risky for healthy knees. Research published in Clinical Biomechanics showed squatting to 110 degrees was no more stressful to the knee joint than squatting to 70 degrees. When you do squats with good form it can actually strengthen your knees and lower your risk for injury.
Yet another squat variation that targets your glute muscles are one-legged squats, especially if you do them on an unstable surface like a Bosu ball. One-legged squats are particularly effective for targeting the gluteus medius. Strong gluteus medius muscles help stabilize your hip and pelvis and assist with lateral movements. They also help hold your knees in proper alignment. Needless to say, you want them to be strong. Firm gluteus maximus muscles are more aesthetically pleasing but gluteus medius strength is important for injury prevention. In addition, one-legged squats, especially on an unstable surface, are great for improving balance. Again, start with no weight, especially if you’re on an unstable surface.
The form you use when squatting also impacts glute activation. When you push back and place weight on your heels when squatting, you’ll get more gluteus maximus engagement. Sit back, weight in heels, as if you’re sitting down in a chair. By placing weight in your heels, you’ll protect your knees too.
For Firm, Rounded Buttocks, Make Sure Your Exercise Routine is Well Rounded
Squats and their variations are only one group of exercises to strengthen and shape your buttocks. The American Council on Exercise used EMG to look at glute activation when participants did some of the most common buttock exercises. Several of these exercises were as effective as the squat. The most effective were lunges, four-way hip extensions, quadruped hip extension, and step-ups onto a box holding dumbbells. Incorporating all of these exercises into your workouts, in addition to squats, will help you target your glute muscles in different ways.
Don’t forget – if you’re carrying too much fat on your buttocks, you’ll also need high-intensity cardio and attention to diet to reduce the fat that’s covering the muscles you’re working hard to shape. Building strong, shapely buttocks requires a three-pronged approach – resistance training, cardio, and good nutrition.
Strength and Conditioning Research. “How Does Stance Width Affect Muscle Activity in Squats?”
Stance Width and Bar Load Effects on Leg Muscle Activity During the Parallel Squat. Medicine and Science in sports and Exercise. (1998)
Bret Contreras. “Best Squat Depth for Glute Activation”
Clin Biomech. 2001 Jun;16(5):424-30.
American Council on Fitness. “ACE Lists Best Butt Exercises – Exclusive ACE Research Announces Most Effective Gluteus Maximus Training” February 2006.
J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Dec;23(9):2689-94. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181bbe861.
Related Articles By Cathe:
Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs: