You can't ignore your butt. Not only does it follow you everywhere, it also represents one of the major muscle groups that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you strength-train at least twice a week.
But if you have knee problems, you might struggle to perform some of the best-known exercises for your backside, such as squats and deadlifts. Still, with a little creativity, there are plenty of effective butt exercises for bad knees.
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Glute Exercises for Bad Knees
Your gluteus maximus — the largest of your three "butt muscles" — is the prime mover for hip extension, as noted by ExRx.net. Or, to put it another way, this muscle acts powerfully to straighten your leg at the hip. The following exercises focus on that movement while requiring a minimum of motion or pressure at the knee.
Not sure how many sets and repetitions to do? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans are a great place to start. They recommend doing one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each major muscle group.
Move 1: Straight-Leg Glute Bridges
In an analysis published in the February 2019 issue of the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, a bent-legged variation of this exercise produced the most muscle activity in your glutes. Keeping your legs straight provokes slightly less glute involvement, but may be easier on your knees.
- Lie faceup on the floor, legs straight and feet resting on a weight bench. If you're working out at home, you can rest your feet on the seat of a sturdy chair.
- Squeeze your core to stabilize your torso; then squeeze your glutes to lift your hips off the floor. Aim to create a straight line from shoulders to heels.
- Hold this position for a moment and then lower back to your starting position in a smooth, controlled motion.
You can make straight-legged variations of this exercise more challenging by putting your feet on an unstable surface — such as a stability ball or bosu trainer — or lifting one leg slightly off the bench
Move 2: Back Extensions
Although this is typically labeled a back exercise, it also placed prominently in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy study. This exercise must be done on a specialized piece of gym equipment that's sometimes called a back bench or hyperextension bench — essentially, a hip pad that sits atop an angled column.
- Adjust the back bench's hip pad so that when you're using it, the pad rests against your hip bones.
- Step into the back bench, placing your hips against the hip pad and placing your feet on the angled foot platform, which has a backstop to keep you from falling forward. At this point, your body should be straight from head to feet and angled at about 45 degrees.
- Hinge forward at the hips, squeezing your core muscles to keep your back flat; focus on that hip hinge and only go as low down as you can comfortably manage.
- Squeeze your glutes to reverse the hip hinge, swinging your torso back into line with your body.
Some back benches hold you in a horizontal, facedown position instead of a 45-degree angle. But the motion you're performing remains the same: Hinge forward at the hips; then use your glutes to reverse that motion.
Move 3: Prone Hip Extensions
This move mimics the motion of a back extension — but instead of anchoring your lower body and moving your upper body, you anchor your upper body and move your lower body, one leg at a time. This is a true standout in any leg and glute workout for bad knees, because it places no pressure on your knees or legs at all.
- Rest your upper body, from the waist up, on a padded weight bench or table that is no higher than hip-height on you. You should be in the prone (facedown) position.
- Grip the sides of the bench to stabilize your body as you lift one leg straight up behind you — the movement known as a hip extension. Keep the motion smooth and controlled and keep your hips square to the table; don't let them tilt.
- Lower that leg back to the starting position, but don't rest it on the floor. Instead, go straight into another repetition.
- Once you've completed a full set of prone hip extensions on one side, repeat on the other side.
Move 4: Standing Hip Extensions
If you don't have access to a table or bench that lets you do prone hip extensions comfortably, you can do standing hip extensions instead. For this exercise, you'll need a low cable pulley with an ankle cuff or an elastic resistance band (plus ankle cuff) that's attached to a low anchor point.
- Fasten the ankle cuff around your right ankle and stand facing the anchor point.
- Step carefully back until there's tension in the cable or resistance band.
- Shift your weight onto your left leg, holding onto a wall or sturdy piece of furniture/equipment for balance if necessary.
- Squeeze your core muscles to stabilize your torso as you swing your right leg behind you in a smooth, controlled motion. Keep your leg straight throughout.
- Return your right leg to its starting position, maintaining the smooth, controlled motion.
- Once you've completed a full set on your right leg, switch the cuff to your left leg and work that side.
Move 5: Four-Way Hip Extensions
This exercise places minimal stress on your knees and was named as one of the best hip extension machines in the gym in a small EMG study published in the January/February 2006 issue of the American Council on Exercise's Fitness Matters magazine. Although that study is somewhat aged, it remains relevant, thanks to its comparison of common gym exercises.
- Step into the four-way hip extension machine, rest your hips against the hip pad and hold on to the handles or stabilizing bar.
- Adjust the resistance pad so it rests behind the knee of the working leg.
- Stand on your free leg and squeeze your core to stabilize your torso as you straighten your working leg at the hip, against the machine's resistance.
- Return to the starting position with a smooth, controlled motion.
- Once you've completed a full set, switch to the other leg and repeat.
Read more: 17 Exercises to Shape and Tone Your Booty
Move 6: Barbell Hip Thrusts
In a small EMG study published in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of Applied Biomechanics, researchers found that this exercise produced significantly more glute activity than doing back squats.
- Position yourself on the floor next to a sturdy, stable weight bench, with your back resting against the long side of the bench. Plant your feet on the floor about shoulder-width apart, knees bent, and hold the barbell against your hips.
- Squeeze your core muscles to stabilize your torso as you thrust your hips skyward, lifting the barbell straight up against gravity.
- At the same time, allow your upper body to tilt back onto the bench, as demonstrated at ExRx.net, so that your shoulders rest on the bench and your body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees.
- Allow your hips to sink back to the starting position in a smooth, controlled motion.
Due to the nature of this exercise, it's important that you use a bench that is either anchored to the floor or is very stable. Make sure your body pivots onto the top of the bench instead of levering the bench away from you.
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: "Examination of Gluteus Maximus Electromyographic Excitation Associated With Dynamic Hip Extension During Body Weight Exercise"
- American Council on Exercise: "Glutes to the Max"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need?"
- ExRx.net: "Gluteus Maximus"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Hip Thrust"
- Journal of Applied Biomechanics: "A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises"