1. The glutes are arguably the most important set of muscles in the human body for performance, injury prevention and having a powerful looking booty. And yes, they are great to gawk at as well.
2. The problem with traditional glute training can be complicated, but programming properly breaking glute movements down into four categories to target all unique movements can build a strong and powerful backside.
3. Use these exercises to generate deep activation of the glutes that are capable of improving your posture, increasing athletic performance, bulletproofing your lower back, knees and hips and will work to burn more fat over time.
Got Glutes? Probably Not!
It’s no secret that most people of all ages and genders desire strong, developed, and statuesque looking glutes. Unfortunately, most people have no idea how to go about achieving this. Most women waste valuable time performing hundreds of reps of ineffective ”toning” exercises and achieve little to nothing in the process. Most men neglect training their glutes altogether, and others believe the unfortunate myth that squats and deadlifts are enough to target the glutes.
While strong, hard, and shapely glutes are aesthetically pleasing and are a sign of athletic prowess, it is extremely important to note that strong and highly functioning glutes play an instrumental role in achieving and maintaining optimal posture/alignment, full body aesthetics including a lean and muscular body, joint and muscular health, athletic performance, and the ability to perform the most basic everyday tasks.
Because the glutes are such a large muscle group (the glute maximus is the largest and most powerful muscle in the human body), they have a tremendous influence on the body. The glutes are referred to as the ‘’master muscle group’’ as they are the pillar of strength and stability for the entire body. Underperforming glutes will wreak havoc on overall health, performance, and aesthetics. It doesn’t matter if you are an athlete, bodybuilder, or average person, having strong glutes is absolutely vital. Unfortunately, most people, including elite athletes, have pathetically weak and underperforming glutes.
Lets dispel some glute training myths, break down the unique anatomy and actions of this powerhouse muscle group and how to target them most effectively for aesthetics, performance and functionality including video and written tutorials.
Functional Anatomy of the Gluteal Complex
The gluteal complex is comprised of three muscles working individually but also synergistically in the posterior lateral hip compartment; glute maximus, glute medius, and glute minimus.
The glute maximus is the largest muscle in the human body, and is the most superficial of the muscles in the hip. It originates at the ilium, lumbar fascia, sacrum, and the sacrotuberous ligament, and inserts at the gluteal tuberosity of the femur, and the iliotibial tract. The glute maximus is an extremely influential muscle, and a very powerful hip extensor. It also assists in the abduction and external rotation of the femur, and the stabilization of the knee.
The glute medius is a much smaller muscle both in cross sectional area and thickness when compared to the gluteus maximus. It originates at the outer surface of the ilium between the posterior and middle gluteal lines, underneath the glute maximus, and inserts at the greater trochanter of the femur.
The glute minimus is the smallest muscle of the group and also the deepest. It originates at the outer surface of the ilium between the middle and inferior gluteal lines, and inserts at the greater trochanter of the femur.
While the glute medius and glute minimus muscles are not the largest muscles, they are incredibly influential, and their importance cannot be underestimated. Due to similar anatomical location, they both play similar roles, so I will describe their actions and functions together. The medius and minimus are the main stabilizers of the pelvis and femur, and externally rotate and abduct the femur. Both of these muscles are integral to the alignment of the hips, knees, and ankles, and feet, and are vital for injury prevention, overall performance, particularly in unilateral activities and exercises.
The Synergistic Functions of the Glutes
While the glutes are most well known for creating huge amounts of force, especially into hip extension in such things like sprinting and jumping, there are many benefits to training this muscle group both directly and indirectly to enhance fuction, posture, injury prevention and even some aesthetics gains.
The glute muscles play a vital role in maintaining proper posture. When it comes to movement and biomechanics, athletic performance, aesthetics, injury prevention, and even mood, the glutes are extremely important and influential. Poorly functioning glutes can lead to a cataclysmic effect of misalignment and dysfunction throughout the entire body.
One common postural issue that plagues a huge percentage of the population is an excessive anterior pelvic tilt. When there is an anterior tilt, the pelvis will be tilted forward, the lower back will have an excessive curve, and the abdomen will protrude. A huge amount of the population spends the bulk of their time in a seated position. This will cause the muscles in the anterior hip and leg to tighten and shorten, and the muscles in the posterior hip to be inhibited. Tight hip flexors will prevent people from being able to hyperextend their hips, and activate their glutes to their full potential, or anywhere near.
Common Pathology Associated with Dysfunctional Glutes
It doesn’t matter how strong, athletic, or ‘’fit looking’’ a person is. If they have weak or inhibited glutes, it will ultimately come back and bite them in the butt, pun intended. Some of the most common issues that stem from weak glutes include a number of different pathologies throughout the body.
One of the most prominent dysfunctions associated with weak and deactivated glutes is lower back pain. When the glutes are weak or inhibited, the muscles in the anterior side of the hip, particularly the psoas muscles, tighten up to provide the pelvis and spine with the stability that it is lacking. It is important to note, the psoas originates at the thoracic 12 vertebrae and goes all the down the lumbar vertebrae from the L1 to L5 vertebrae, and it inserts on the femur. When the psoas becomes overactive to compensate for the weak glutes, compression of the spine can occur, or the vertebrae can be pulled out of alignment, both of which can lead to back pain.
Back issues can also arise during everyday activities, or during sports where people are required to rotate, hyperflex, hyperextend, and so forth. Unfortunately, when the glutes are weak or inhibited, and when the stability in the pelvis and spine is absent, they will compensate by over-rotating their lumbar spine, or by hyperflexing or hyperextending it. This can result in a muscle strain, or injury to an intervertebral disc.
One of the most common sites of injuries in it’s own, knee pain can also be attributed to low performing glutes. During all movements, the kneecap should remain in line with the femur, shin, ankle, and foot. However, when people have weak glutes, particularly the glute medius, it is very common for knee tracking issues to occur. For example, when the tensor fascia lata (TFL) becomes overactive, because it attaches to the iliotibial band (ITB), the kneecap will be pulled laterally, which can lead to knee tracking issues, subsequent inflammation, and long-term damage to the joint if it is not addressed. Patella-femoral syndrome, a condition that plagues an abundance of people, is one of many issues that can be caused by weak glutes.
Anterior cruciate ligament and other ligament/tendon tears can also be predisposed due to a dysfunctional gluteal complex. When one or many joints in the body are not stable, and the body is not in optimal alignment, people will be at a much higher risk, especially when they participate in activities where they have to run, jump, land, and change direction quickly.
Chronically ‘’tight’’ hamstrings that lack both mobility and strength often times are associated with gluteal dysfunction, and rightfully so. When the glutes are weak, an individual might present with an anteriorly tilted pelvis. As a result of this pelvic tilt, their hamstrings will be in a permanently lengthened state and will make them feel tight. Just like fixating on rolling the IT band, many people devote a lot of time stretching their hamstrings. In many instances, this can do more harm than good, especially if their hamstrings are not legitimately tight. And speaking of over stretching highly immobile structures like the hamstring, this act of self-maintenance can predispose muscular issues such as muscle strains and syndromes associated with ancillary muscles off the gluteal group.
Dysfunctional glutes can play a roll in many muscles becoming extremely overactive to provide the pelvis and femur with the stability that it is lacking. This can result in an extreme muscle tightness, and will make people more vulnerable to muscle strains. The hamstrings, quadriceps and adductors are particularly susceptible.
From long term immobility and dysfunction at the musculature of the hip complex, pathology like the generalized piriformis syndrome is found at increased rates. When the glute medius muscle is deactivated and the pelvis is unstable, the piriformis muscle along with the deep group of femoral rotators, muscles that is located deep in the buttock behind the glute maximus, will have to work overtime to stabilize the hip. This can lead to piriformis syndrome, which is literally a pain in the butt and can cause symptoms that are similar to sciatica.
Finally, problems in the lower leg and foot are commonly found when gluteal function is below par. When the glute medius and minimus muscles are weak, people will often experience poor alignment in their knees, ankles, and feet. As a result, they will not have proper gait and will often pronate. This can result in Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, ankle sprains, and other issues in the lower leg and foot.
Enhance Performance with Glute Specific Training
The glutes, the pillar of strength and stability that are required for athletic performance, work in conjunction with other muscles to provide the body with stability, power, and the ability to move in a lateral and vertical plane, and often at speed. Strong and highly functioning glutes will make or break athletic performance and longevity. Unfortunately, many athletes have pitifully weak glutes. Because the body is the master compensator, they might be able to get away with it for awhile. Eventually, it will catch up to them and they will suffer from a drop in performance, injury, or both.
When it comes to running, jumping, squatting, kicking, throwing, striding, changing direction, pivoting, striding, rotating, or twisting, having strong glutes is paramount. In order to generate the maximal amount of power and precision possible in the upper and lower body and to perform sports specific movements, the pelvis and spine need to be stable, as do the rest of the joints in the body.
In the weight room and on the field, having strong and highly functioning glutes will enable gym-goers to maximize their ability to perform upper body, lower body, and full body exercises that are both bilateral and unilateral in nature. Strong glutes will stabilize the pelvis and spine, and will help keep the rest of the body in proper alignment. This will allow them to generate more force with their entire body, and do so safely.
Because the glute maximus is the largest muscle in the human body, the gluteal muscles are extremely influential when it comes to fat loss and overall body composition. Exercises that utilize larger muscle groups boost the metabolism significantly more than exercises that only involve smaller muscles/muscle groups. In addition to this, having strong and highly functioning glutes will enhance overall athletic performance and the ability to perform more advanced exercises for the entire body, and with more resistance/intensity.
This will help gym-goers add muscle and turn their body into a fat burning machine, and achieve their ideal body composition. Also, because strong glutes are so instrumental in preventing injuries and dysfunction, they will decrease the likelihood that missed workouts or a drop in performance will occur, which also has obvious aesthetic benefits. Consistency breeds success, and having strong glutes will make this possible.
The Problem with Traditional Glute Training
For being such a pivotal muscle group to train and train correctly in terms of performance enhancement, injury prevention along with filling out a pair of jeans, there are some major pitfalls when it comes to the average programming and execution of glute targeted work.
The most common mistake I see in glute training is undertraining and under emphasizing the importance of direct glute work. Unfortunately some people, largely the male population, do not train their glutes at all. Their neglected gluteal region will dramatically impact the shape of their lower body, will negatively impact their performance, and the overall health of their body. Others believe that squats and deadlifts are sufficient for glute strength and development. All of those ridiculous ”she squats bro” comments or pictures further perpetuate this myth. While squats and deadlifts are great exercises, they are not the best options for strengthening and developing the glutes, and that clearly shows in the physiques of many.
On the flip side, overtraining the glutes can do some gnarly things to ones performance and posture. Some people, largely the female population, make the mistake of training their glutes too frequently. In order to achieve maximal results, exercises need to be performed with heavy resistance, or with a lighter resistance and an extremely high level of activation. An overtrained body will not be fresh, will not be able to lift a maximal load, and will not be able to utilize the muscles to the same degree.
To expand on the lighter resistance plague in strength training, not using a resistance that is challenging can be a problem in itself. Unfortunately, females are the prime offenders. Many gym goers waste valuable time by performing hundreds of reps of ineffective 1980’s era toning exercises, for fear of getting bulky. This mindset prevents many females from achieving strong, developed, and highly functioning glutes. Glutes are strengthened and built by lifting, not by toning. While this is much more rare, using a resistance that is too challenging can cause problems as well. When people use a resistance that is too heavy, more often than not, it prevents them from using proper form and using the correct muscles, leading to lower levels of deep activation that not only leads to muscular growth, but also linking up segments of the kinetic chain.
Not locking out with the glutes in major compound movements can limit both tension development and training effect. While this is often the result of using a weight that is too heavy, it can also just be due to poor form and lack of awareness. During hip thrusts or deadlifts, many people make the mistake of locking out by hyperextending their lower back, instead of locking out by engaging the glutes. This common error will dramatically increase the likelihood of injury, particularly in the lower back, and will decrease their potential gains in strength, and overall development. Many people make the mistake of performing hip thrusts/glute bridges with the intention of targeting the glutes but feel their hamstrings. A knee position that is too angled will cause the hamstrings to take over, and at the expense of the glutes. Make sure that the shins are vertical.
For any movement, tension is king. Tension is something you need to feel to achieve fully. Not feeling the movement over time can become problematic. When it comes to the glutes, particularly the glute medius and minimus, they might be perhaps the best example of a muscle group where a mind muscle connection is crucial to engaging the right muscle and performing the exercise properly. Losing tension during band resisted glute exercises and virtually all glute exercises that are performed, it is crucial that tension is maintained the entire time. When the glutes lose tension, either due to lack of control, lack of focus, or laziness, the muscle will shut off, which defeats the purpose of the exercise.
Evaluating and Assessing Glute Function and Positions
There are a few ways to evaluate and assess the activation and functionality of the glutes that I use routinely.
First and most simply, a subjective evaluation needs to take place. While this might seem very basic, asking the person where they feel the exercise is very important and often shows whether or not they are using the right muscles. This will give you more feedback as a coach to improve the performance and experience of your client.
When in doubt after coaching up a movement, palpate. When I perform a glute exercise, or if I am with a client, with their permission, I will occasionally palpate their muscle and feel that it is working. We want a strongly contracted glute. Palpate yourself, then be sure to have your client palpate as well to learn what that type of tension is supposed to feel like.
The single leg stance test is a great tool to assess lateral hip integrity. In this test, an individual stands on one foot and you monitor their posture and deviation. If their pelvis on the opposite side collapses, and if the hip on the same side of the planted leg juts out, it indicates that the glute medius on the planted side is weak. While this is a bit oversimplified, for a majority of the population that is presenting with dysfunctional glutes, the interventions will remain the same. Ideally, the pelvis should remain perfectly level the entire time.
Targeting the Glutes Through Movement
I categorize my glute exercises into four groupings; hip extension movements, hip hyperextension movements, hip abduction movements and hip external rotation movements.
Hip extension exercises are typically performed in a standing position, and replicate jumping. The glute maximus is the most powerful hip extensor. Some examples of hip extension exercises include: squats, deadlifts, split squats, step-ups, lunges, skater squats.
This is an extremely underrated exercise as it really targets the glutes and quads. This exercise is much tougher than it looks as it requires stability, strength and mobility.
To Perform: Start with just bodyweight, as you will be shocked at how challenging this exercise is. Once you are comfortable with your form, add weight. Stand on one foot, take a deep breath into your belly and surround your spine with air (360 degrees of air), brace your core, and extend the other leg back as if you were to do a reverse lunge, but take three full seconds to lower yourself down. You can stride back with your rear leg (hence the name skater squat) or keep it bent at about 90 degrees. Keep all of your weight over the back of the front foot, but keep your toes down and spread (will give you more stability). The key is to lower yourself down in a controlled manner and remain stable. Your knee should never deviate medially or laterally. This will likely take some practice, but once you are able to achieve this, your glutes and quads of the front leg will be working big time. Now repeat with the opposite leg.
Hip hyperextension exercises are typically performed in a prone, supine, or quadruped position, and can be done with both bent and straight knees. They replicate sprinting. Some examples of hip hyperextension exercises include: hip thrusts, glute bridges, pull-throughs, glute hamstring raises, back extensions, reverse hyperextensions, and bird dogs.
Weighted Band Pull-Throughs
To Perform This Exercise: Fasten a relatively thick resistance band around a secure pole. The band should be between shin to knee height. Before you go, take a deep breath into your belly and surround your spine with air (360 degrees of air), brace your core, screw your arms into your armpits, and hinge your hips back. Return to the top by driving through the back of your feet and squeezing your glutes/hamstrings. Lock out by squeezing your glutes, screwing your arms into your sides (pretend that you are crushing something in your armpits) and bracing your core, not by hyperextending your back. When this exercise feels comfortable, you can increase the intensity by using a band with more resistance, and also holding onto an additional weight.
Hip abduction exercises can be done in a standing, seated, or side lying position, or supine position, and involve moving the femur away from the midline of the body. The glute medius and minimus are the prime hip abductors, but the glute maximus also assists in this movement. Some examples of hip abduction exercises include: seated abduction, standing abduction, side lying abduction (wall slides), static single leg glute bridge with abduction.
Seated Band Abduction
To Perform: This exercise can be done in a seated position, or in a supine position. In both, make sure that your shins are in a vertical position. Place a resistance band just above your knees. Use your glutes to abduct your legs, and use them to control your legs as they close. There should be tension in the band the entire time, and the knees should always remain in line with the feet. Keep your core braced, and legs relaxed or else they will overpower the glutes. You should feel your glute medius and minimus. I like to keep a finger on my glute medius and occasionally palpate it as this increases the level of activation.
Hip external rotation exercises can be done in a standing, seated, side lying, or supine position, and involve moving the femur away from the midline of the body. The glute medius and minimus are the prime hip external rotators, but the glute maximus also assists in this movement.
Side Lying Clamshell
I know, I know! This movement has gotten a bad rep in half assed physical therapy programming, but this is my favourite external rotation exercise for the glutes, and is the perfect example of an exercises that is significantly tougher than it looks. It can be done with or without band resistance and is extremely effective.
To Perform: Place a resistance band just above your knees and lie on your side. Bend both knees and stack one foot on top of the other. Use your glutes to externally rotate your leg, and use them to control your leg as they come together. Keep tension in the band the entire time and do not allow your knees to come together. Keep your core braced, and legs relaxed or else they will overpower the glutes. You should feel your glute medius and minimus. I like to keep a finger on my glute medius and occasionally palpate it as this increases the level of activation.
Putting It All Together
Now that I have provided you with an extensive background on the gluteus muscles and their functions, in a future article (Part II), I will go into great depth about the three phases of glute training, will detail many more of my favourite glute exercises, and will discuss how to include them as part of an effective workout program. I will also talk about sprinting. Until then, evaluate your own glute function and programming methods and start implementing a few targeted movements for the glutes that will address some of your weakest points.
About The Author
Meghan Callaway is a prominent personal trainer in Western Canada with over 12 years of training experience coaching in the trenches. Growing up as a multi-sport athlete competing in soccer, ice hockey and baseball, Meghan took her athletic prowess to the University of British Columbia and completed her degree in Human Kinetics.
Meghan currently works with an impressively wide array of clients, ranging from the elite athlete to post-physical therapy rehabilitation and strength training and many average fitness client looking to feel and function better everywhere between. She teaches and coaches every one of her clients with the goal of helping them perform, feel and look their very best by laying down a properly aligned foundation for every client.
With a unquenchable thirst for learning about the human body and movement, Meghan spends her time broadening her knowledge base as a trainer and coach, and truly practices what she preaches in her own fitness and life.