Strong, well-developed gluteal muscles help to stabilize the spine and prevent lower back pain. Plus, you generate power from your core, including your glute muscles. Weak glutes are a growing problem due to the problem of sitting too much, and it’s no wonder lower back pain is so common. Sitting tightens the hip flexors and causes the gluteal muscles to lengthen and weaken. We need exercises that strengthen the glutes for a pleasing physique and for protection against lower back pain. Plus, well-developed glutes show you’re physically fit! The gluteal muscles tend to flatten and atrophy with age. Exercise helps to counter this trend.
We know that compound and isolation exercises that target the glutes can boost the growth of the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in the body. But what impact does cardiovascular exercise have on the all-important glute muscles? You need exercise that raises your heart rate for heart health but if you’re trying to define your glutes, is one type better than another?
The Best and Worst Types of Cardio for the Glutes
You might enjoy the prospect of a long, slow cardio session, but it isn’t ideal for the shape of your glutes. The muscle fibers in your glutes are about 50% slow-twitch and 50% fast-twitch. Slow-twitch fibers are optimized for endurance exercise, like sustained cardio, and these are the muscle fibers that slow and moderate-intensity cardio targets. In contrast, fast-twitch muscle fibers are designed to generate strength and power. While long, slow cardio burns calories, it will likely do little to change the shape of your buttocks, although it can help you lose excess fat. That’s important if you have too much fat covering your glute muscles. But if you overdo the long-distance cardio, you might even lose some of the shape of your buttocks due to muscle loss.
Long, slow cardio isn’t the best choice for shaping your buttocks, but you can get some benefits if you run uphill or on an upward incline. Even climbing up a steep hill or mountain, as during a hike, can help build your glutes if you take long strides. Climbing up a hill targets your glutes since you’re extending your hips and that requires glute action. But even if you run up hills, you’ll eventually reach a point where the benefits will plateau for your glutes and you’ll need to stimulate the muscles differently.
Another way to work your glutes hard and encourage them to grow is by sprinting. You can do this by engaging in short interval sprints. In fact, you’ll likely get more benefits overall from sprinting than you will long periods of sustained cardio. It’s better for fat loss too due to the additional metabolic effects that come from more intense exercise. Plus, sprinting activates type 2 muscle fibers, the fibers that have the greatest capacity to grow. You’ll become stronger, leaner, and more powerful.
Other Exercises that Raise Your Heart Rate and Work the Glutes
Another exercise that will raise your heart rate and hypertrophy your glutes, although it’s not a traditional form of cardio, is stepping on to a high bench. Start with a lower platform and gradually increase the height of the bench or risers you step on to. Alternate legs as you step up and down. Aim for 8 to 10 reps and 3 sets total. Once you’ve increased the height a few times, and the exercise is less challenging, hold a pair of light dumbbells when you step up. Gradually increase the weight of the dumbbells.
Walking lunges is another dynamic exercise that works the glutes. You’re probably already familiar with this exercise. Hold a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand, as you lunge while alternating legs as you move forward across the floor.
Kettlebell swings are another dynamic exercise that boosts the heart rate enough, in most cases, to qualify as a cardio workout. However, you need a fairly heavy kettlebell to work the glutes hard enough to hypertrophy them. Start out with a lighter one until you master the hip hinge movement that’s so important for doing kettlebell swings correctly. Then, gradually increase the weight of the kettlebell.
Even Cardio Isn’t Enough
Although the movements above can strengthen and improve the shape of your glutes, you still need strength exercises that specifically target the glutes. Being a large muscle, the gluteus maximus is a difficult one to grow. Include a variety of squats and lunges in your routine, along with deadlifts. EMG studies suggest that wide-stance squats (140 to 150% of shoulder width) and deeper squats activate the gluteus maximus the most, and be sure to add one-legged squats in your routine. When you do lunges, including walking lunges, take a long stride to target your glutes more.
Finally, make sure to include hip extension exercises that work the glutes in a focused manner. Some to include are donkey kicks, prone hip extensions on a stability ball, and donkey kicks. Don’t forget about hip thrusts either! EMG studies show that this exercise activates the gluteus maximus quite effectively. Start with glute bridges. This more static movement helps you develop the stability you need to perform hip thrusts with good form. Do hip thrusts initially using only your own body weight. Once it becomes easier, lay a weight plate or barbell across your hips when you thrust for added resistance.
The Bottom Line
You need more than cardio to strengthen and build your glutes but some types of cardio are better than others. If you do moderate-intensity exercise for cardio, add some incline. Walk or run uphill rather than on flat ground for a portion of your workout or pick up the intensity by sprinting. Try kettlebell swings as a substitute for cardio during some sessions. But also include compound exercises, like deadlifts, squats, and lunges, and exercises that isolate the glutes more, like glute bridges, donkey kicks, and hip thrusts. Add a little variety and work those glutes in different ways for maximal gains.
· J Phys Ther Sci. 2015 Dec; 27(12): 3813–3816.
· On Fitness magazine. March/April 2019. “Toning Your Glutes: Buttock Exercises”
· Strength and Conditioning Research. “How Does Stance Width Affect Muscle Activity in Squats?”
· The Glute Guy. “What Are the Best Glute Exercises?”
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