When it comes to building your posterior chain and getting your glutes popping, there are exercises exercises that maximize your efforts... and then there are those that simply squander your precious workout time. Obviously, you want more of the former and none of the latter.
But a quick anatomy refresher first: Your glutes are actually three muscles — the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. Strengthening these muscles brings aesthetic value, (hello, booty gains!), but the more crucial reason to focus on them is for better mobility and function, says Holly Perkins, CSCS, creator of The GLUTES Project.
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"Strong, powerful glutes create the anchor for your entire pelvis, and that has profound implications in terms of your alignment and how you move," she says. "The difficulty can be that people need to really focus their attention on their glutes when they're doing exercises to build them, because if you're just checking out, you'll probably be relying on your quads or, worse, your lower back for the movement."
Take the four exercises below, for example. Though the moves themselves have value in various parts of your fitness routine, if you're doing them in hopes of growing your glutes or doing them incorrectly, you're going to end up disappointed. Instead, opt for the four alternative moves.
1. HIIT-Style Body-Weight Glute Bridges
If you're doing glute bridges on the floor and want to power through them, it can feel like it makes sense to go fast, and maybe doing some quick pulses at the top. But speed kills your results. Perkins says you'll likely be using momentum instead, and that's coming from your legs, not your glutes.
Instead: Do your glute bridges slowly and spend your intensity on effort and form instead of speed, Perkins says.
- Lie on your back on a mat or gym floor, with feet hip-width apart and toes turned out slightly. Think of your shoulders being glued to the floor, which helps your spine stay neutral. Keep arms relaxed and straight alongside the body.
- Press your heels down to lift your hips slowly and squeeze your glutes. Hold for a few seconds at the top with glutes engaged.
- Lower hips as you relax your glutes and reset for a second before lifting back up.
Rather than focusing on number of reps, keep your count low — like under 10 — and concentrate on the glutes engagement throughout.
And if the body-weight version is too easy for you, add a resistance band around your thighs or hold a weight over your hips.
2. Forward Lunges
There's no doubt that lunges are a foundational exercise for good reason, says trainer Amanda Katz, CPT, a group fitness instructor for Equinox. But she often sees people doing lunges as a way to build strength in the glutes, and they're simply ineffective for that, she believes.
"We have to spend time isolate the muscles of the glutes for growth," she says. "For that, you'll get better results by adding one-sided exercises to your lower-body conditioning."
Instead: Try single-leg deadlifts, Katz suggests. Because this puts more emphasis on one side, it causes your glutes to fire up in order to keep you stable.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and parallel.
- Lean forward from your hips, shifting your weight onto one leg with the other leg straight and engaged behind you.
- Your body will form a T shape with your arms hanging down.
Focus on form by doing these with just your body weight first, then you can progress by holding a dumbbell in each hand.
3. Donkey Kicks
This is very common move for glutes, but they can also be worthless when done poorly — and unfortunately that's also common, according to physical therapist Jasmine Marcus, CSCS.
"I'm not a big proponent of being super strict about form, but that exercise is really easy to do in such a way that you're just moving your back and not using your glutes at all," she says. "If the motion is coming from arching your back, rather than your hip, you're wasting your time."
Instead: Marcus recommends the glute-building power of step-ups, which can be done with or without holding onto weights. Just like the single-leg deadlift, this puts all the focus on one side and creates a temporary imbalance, which causes your glutes to fire in order to keep you centered.
- Stand in front of a plyo box or step, feet either together or shoulder-width apart.
- Bring one foot solidly onto the box or step and lift off with the other foot while loading up the front foot.
- Pause at the top, then step back with one foot slowly, then bring both feet together.
4. Standing Kickbacks
Similar to donkey kicks, these are utilized often for glutes, but they have the same issue when it comes to improper form, says Luke Jones, CPT, movement and mobility coach at Hero Movement.
Especially if you're not holding on to a wall or other stabilizer, the tendency is to arch the back as the leg moves. You might feel some burn in your glutes, but you're more likely to be stressing your back muscles instead.
Instead: Try a goblet squat, Jones suggests. Traditional body-weight squats are also helpful, but he's found more glutes engagement and core work benefits when the goblet option is part of the mix.
- Stand with feet wider than hip-width apart and feet turned out slightly.
- Holding a kettlebell or dumbbell with both hands at the center of your chest (like a goblet), hinge your hips back and sink into a squat, keeping the tailbone pointed toward the ground and chest elevated.
- Press through all four corners of the feet and return to standing.