If your goal is to get more defined glutes, squats and lunges should both be part of your routine. These exercises are compound movements that work the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glute muscles to varying degrees. What strength-training routine would be complete without them? But what if you could only choose one of these exercises? Which one is better for activating and shaping your glutes?
Glutes: The Power Muscles
The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in your body and one that can generate considerable force and power. It’s also the muscle group that gives you a shapely backside. Two other smaller muscles come together to form your glutes – the gluteus medius and the smaller, deeper gluteus minimus muscles. You might be training these muscles to look better in a pair of jeans, but these muscles also generate the power you need to lift more weight when you do lower body exercises, to sprint faster, and jump higher when you do plyometric moves. So, showing these muscles some love will pay off in a variety of ways.
Lunges and squats are two of the most common exercises people do to strengthen and shape the glutes – but how do they compare in terms of muscle activation? Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse used EMG to measure glute activation during a variety of exercises that work the glutes. What they found was squats activated the superficial glute muscles, the gluteus maximus, and medius. However, they weren’t the BEST exercise, in terms of muscle activation, for these muscles. In fact, lunges target these muscles better than squats. Other exercises, including hip extensions and step-ups, were better glute activators as well.
So, despite the popularity of squats, they don’t activate the glutes as much as lunges. Keep in mind that EMG measures muscle activation and tension and doesn’t take into account other promoters of muscle hypertrophy, including metabolic stress and muscle damage. Therefore, EMG measurements don’t tell the full story. Although you can’t necessarily say that EMG is the best measure of hypertrophy potential, it does measure muscle activation and tension, an important stimulus for muscle development.
Lunges for Glute Development
You might think of lunges as a quadricep-oriented exercise but, depending on the variation you do, your glutes and hamstrings get a workout too. Even small variations in how you approach a standard lunge can more effectively target your glutes. For example, when you take a large step forward during a forward lunge, you place more emphasis on your glutes and hamstrings and less on the quadriceps. The opposite is true when you take a small step – you make the exercise quad dominant. Walking lunges also place more emphasis on the glutes and add a bit more calorie burn as well. A simple variation – the reverse lunge – also places more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings.
Don’t forget about the importance of resistance when you lunge. Once you’re past the beginner stage where you’re mastering your form, you need resistance to continue to develop strength and definition. So grab a pair of dumbbells and make sure you’re increasing the weight of the dumbbells over time.
So, to focus more on your glutes when you lunge:
- Take a large step forward when doing a forward lunge.
- Do walking lunges.
- Do reverse lunges.
- Use progressive overload by holding dumbbells while you lunge.
Of course, you shouldn’t abandon squats. Here are some ways to place more emphasis on the glutes when you squat:
- Do more wide stance squats
- Do deep squats (Descend below 90 degrees)
- Do single-leg squats to really isolate the glutes on one side.
- Use progressive overload by increasing the resistance using dumbbells or barbells
Beyond Squats and Lunges
For getting defined glutes, the buck doesn’t stop with lunges and squats. You’ll get the best results if you do a variety of glute-focused moves, including isolation exercises where you hold constant tension on the gluteal muscles. In a study carried out by the American Council on Exercise, researchers used EMG to look at a variety of glute targeted exercises. Based on the results, add these to your glute workout:
- Four-way hip extensions
- Quadruped hip extensions
- Step-ups onto a platform holding dumbbells
Don’t forget to include isometric exercises where you hold tension. Some of the most effective are glute bridges and supermans. A more dynamic version of the glute bridge is hip thrusts, another effective way to target the glutes. Think unilateral too. Single-leg hip thrusts and single-leg deadlifts will isolate the glute muscles on one side even more.
The Bottom Line
Lunges have an advantage over squats in terms of glute activation, but glute muscles grow best when you give them variety. Hit the glutes from different angles! Do your compound exercises, squats, lunges, and deadlifts, but throw in isolation exercises as well, including isometric ones. If you sit most of the day at work, engaging your glutes during a workout is a must since sitting leads to tight hip flexors and weak glutes. Make sure you’re firing them up and giving them the workout they need.
The Glute Guy. “Do More Than Just Squat”
ACE Fitness. “Glutes to the Max: Exclusive ACE Research Gets to the Bottom of the Most Effective Glutes Exercises”
The Glute Guy. “What Are the Best Glute Exercises?”
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