With all the fitness hype out there touting exercises for getting a firm and lifted butt and toned outer thighs, it can be challenging to sort fact from fiction. Good thing there are people who actually study this stuff.
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Electromyography is a mouthful, but it's also one of the best methods researchers have for examining how effectively muscles are activated by certain exercises. When you want to find the most effective exercises for strengthening and toning the glutes and outer thighs, activation is key.
The gluteal muscle group comprises three muscles -- the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. The gluteus maximus is actually the largest muscle in the body. Together, these three muscles make up the butt and outer thighs. They are in charge of extending the leg from the hip, aiding in internal and external rotation of the leg, and abduction -- which is a fancy name for moving a limb (the leg, in this case) away from the midline of the body.
All anatomy aside, the glutes are a powerful force in the activities you like to do -- running, jumping, cycling, skiing and more. You need strength in your glutes to perform well. In addition, building strength in the glutes makes them bigger and perkier and tones your outer thighs.
For decades, the squat has been the gold standard of squat exercises. It still is. According to trainer and author Michael Matthews, squats are "the single most effective movement for building total lower body strength and muscularity." In a study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise, researchers used the squat as the benchmark by which they measured other glute exercises.
Learning to squat effectively and safely takes time and practice. It's important to master the basic technique before you start to squat deep or with a lot of weight. Here's what you should know:
- Start with a stance about hip-distance apart. When you're more experienced, a wider stance will elicit more glute activation.
- Keep your torso erect and chest slightly puffed out. Pull your shoulders back and down.
- Contract your core muscles -- your abs, obliques and low back.
- Inhale as you bend at the knees and hips, pushing your hips back and down as if sitting back in a chair.
- Keep your knees tracking over your toes. Shift the weight back into your heels so your knees don't move in front of your toes. This will protect your knees.
- Lower the thighs down so they're parallel with the floor. Pause, then exhale as you push through your feet to rise back up to standing.
Once you've mastered the basic form, science says there a certain ways to tweak the squat to raise the level of glute activation.
According to one study, squatting below parallel increases glute activation. The deeper the squat, the more the glutes fired. However, deep squatting takes a lot of hip and knee mobility and hip flexor and hamstring flexibility. It's more suited to the intermediate or advanced exerciser.
According to another study, widening your foot stance while doing back squats brought about greater glute activation than narrower stances. According to Matthews, 125 to 150 percent of shoulder-width is most effective.
Read more: Butt Exercises With Fast Results
More from the ACE study
If you don't like squats, or you want some other good options to add to your butt and outer thigh workout, the ACE study found several other exercises to be just as effective as the squat for activating the glute muscles.
Quadruped Hip Extensions: Get on all fours and contract your core muscles with a neutral spine. Extend one leg out behind you and bend at the 90 to a 90-degree angle. Lift the leg until the sole if the foot faces the ceiling and the thigh is parallel with the floor. Lower the leg and repeat, then switch sides.
Step-ups: Place a weight bench, box or sturdy chair in front of you. Place one foot on the bench and transfer your weight into that foot as you step up. Stand up on the box, straightening your leg. Keep all your weight in the standing leg and keep the other leg passive. Step back down and repeat, then switch sides. Increase the challenge by holding dumbbells at your sides.
Lunges: Stand tall with your feet together. Take a big step forward with the right foot, keeping the torso erect. As you land, bend into the right knee, and drop your back knee toward the floor. Come down so each knee forms a 90-degree angle. Keep both feet flat on the floor and align your right knee directly over your right ankle. Push off the right foot to straighten the legs and come back to the starting position. Repeat, then switch sides. Hold a dumbbell in each hand to increase the difficulty.
Read more: 17 Exercises to Shape and Tone Your Booty