Donkey kicks are probably one of those old school butt exercises you know by heart and can do in your sleep. Because of that, we often don't give them the attention they deserve. But whenever you mindlessly go through the motions of a movement, you're bound to screw it up.
Unfortunately, improper form can reduce the donkey kick's effectiveness as a glute burner, tax the wrong muscles and cause pain (or, worst case scenario, even injury).
Here, pre- and postnatal corrective exercise specialist Brooke Cates, CEO and founder of The Bloom Method and Studio Bloom Online, shares the donkey kick mistakes that might be messing with your glute gains. Plus, she offers tips to help you dial in your form to get the best booty burn possible.
First, Master Proper Donkey Kick Form
- Start on all fours with your wrists below your shoulders and your knees below your hips.
- Keeping your hips square to the ground and your knees bent at 90-degree angles, squeeze your glutes to lift your right foot toward the sky as if you were stamping the bottom of your shoe on the ceiling. Maintain a tight core and don’t arch your back.
- Inhale as you lower the leg back down.
- Complete all your reps on one leg before switching to the other side.
“When doing a quadruped exercise like a donkey kick, it’s important that your joints are stacked and that all muscles groups needed for stability and balance are ‘on,’” Cates says. For donkey kicks, this means engaging your core and activating your glute muscles to purposely lift your leg.
Avoid These 9 Worst Donkey Kick Mistakes
1. Not Keeping Your Hips Square
Form is so important for proper muscle activation, but not keeping your hips square is one of the most common mistakes in donkey kicks. When your hips aren't level, you're likely lacking proper core engagement and aren't effectively accessing the working glute due to the tip in your pelvis, Cates says.
Stabilize your body by driving your weight through the palm on the side of the working glute and the opposite knee, says Cates. This will help you balance your weight from a diagonal point and ultimately assist in leveling your hips.
2. Rounding Your Lower Back
When you round your lower back, you won't be able to fully extend into the glute, making the move way less effective for your butt, Cates says.
"This [rounded] position also turns the core 'off' and potentially increases the chance of spinal injury, especially if you're performing the kicks with weight or heavier resistance," she says.
Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. “If this is a struggle, place a yoga block at your mid back to help provide you with the necessary bio-feedback in keeping the spine long and neutral,” Cates says.
“Making sure that you’re not working against too heavy a weight or resistance with each donkey kick can also help with balance and maintaining a neutral spine,” she says. So ditch the dumbbell or mini band until you get the body-weight version down first.
3. Not Flexing Your Feet
When it comes to donkey kicks, a limp foot means the movement lacks intention. "Flexing the feet and driving through the heel as you drive the leg up helps to increase the firing of the glutes and achieve the desired results," Cates says.
Use the cue: Drive your heel up toward the ceiling. “This will help in muscle activation and not allowing the foot to go limp as your muscles begin to become more exhausted,” Cates says.
4. Kicking Too High or Too Low
Whether you kick too high or too low, your glutes won't fire in the most effective way. Kicking too high leads to overextending, which takes the emphasis off the glutes and onto the lower back muscles, Cates says. Not only does this decrease the donkey kick's booty-burning benefits, but it can also result in lower back pain.
Conversely, kicking too low doesn't challenge the glute enough, she says.
“Move with intention and feel the glute doing the work,” Cates says. If after your set your butt isn’t on fire, there’s a chance you’re not kicking high enough.
Still, keeping your range of motion smaller is always better, she says. “When the leg is extended too high, the lower back will arch — coming back to that neutral spine will help keep you in the desired range of motion for your body.”
5. Letting Your Upper Body Go
While donkey kicks are primarily a glute exercise, you shouldn't let your upper body hang loose. "Not only will this transition into a lack of core connection but it foregoes the opportunity to fire up the shoulders for the duration of the exercise," Cates says.
“Keeping your shoulders down the back, chest open and neck long can help with upper-body posture in exercises like this one,” Cates says. “Driving the palms down into the mat or earth beneath you will also help to activate the shoulders and upper body.”
6. Not Engaging Your Core
"Think of a donkey kick as an easier version of a plank," Cates says. During a plank, you need to activate your core to keep your body aligned and stable.
Not activating your ab and core muscles during donkey kicks not only decreases the firing in your glutes but may also lead to pelvic and spinal instability (which can result in injury) and a weakened core, Cates says.
“Before lifting your leg for the kick, engage the deep core by wrapping your transverse abdominis muscle like a corset or band around your torso, and maintain this throughout, letting every exhale re-connect you to this core engagement,” Cates says.
7. Using Momentum Instead of Muscle
Swinging your leg with wild abandon won't help you grow stronger glutes. "Using intention over momentum will allow you to drive deeply with the glute in both the extension and lower phase of the movement," Cates says.
Slow and steady wins this race. “Keeping the movement slower both as you lift and lower will remove momentum, allowing you to drive deeper into the glute muscles,” Cates says.
8. Rounding Your Shoulders
You might notice your shoulder slumping as you fatigue. But rounding the upper body can inhibit shoulder stability and contribute to poor posture, which can affect daily living and cause pain, Cates says.
Keep a neutral spine. Again, you can place a yoga block on your back as a reminder to maintain a long, flat back, Cates says.
9. Holding Your Breath
During exertion, many people forget to breathe or hold their breath to keep their abs tight. "But holding the breath to engage the core can create an array of issues with the mid to low back and even cause the pelvic floor muscles to become over-active," Cates says.
Consequently, breathing during exercise, especially with core engagement, is vital to optimal core health and strength, Cates says.
Focus on the breath with every movement, using your exhale to take you deeper into core engagement, Cates says. Follow this pattern: Exhale as you lift the leg and inhale as you lower it.