In addition to the obvious aesthetic benefits of having a shapely backside, strong glutes are the key to unlocking your full-body power potential. Want to hit a PR in your deadlift? Strengthen your glutes. You get the added benefit of protecting your spine.
Physical therapy starts and ends with “the butt and the gut.” Most people understand that having a strong core is imperative to keeping their spine stable and strong so they can lift heavy things without breaking form and risking injury. But in order to actually lift those heavy things and safely transfer that force across your body, you need to be able to generate enough power. Most of that power comes from your hips, more specifically your glutes.
Before we get into the exercises, let’s look at the muscles that comprise your glutes.
What Are Your Glute Muscles?
The main powerhouse of your hips is the gluteus maximus.
The primary action of glute max is hip extension (pushing your leg backwards, like in a running stride), which is where the majority of your power comes from.
Located just underneath glute max is the second largest muscle, similarly named gluteus medius. It primarily helps stabilize the hip by preventing the opposite hip from dropping or the knees from collapsing inwards.
Glute med is assisted by many other smaller muscles underneath that help to stabilize and rotate the hip. Most people will be able train these muscles automatically through a varied exercise routine, but in the cases of early recovery after injury or surgery, you may benefit from targeting these muscles individually.
Key Benefits of Strong Glutes
Any time you bend over at your hips, your glute muscles need to engage to control that movement. Maybe you’ve heard a trainer or health practitioner say, “You need to turn your glutes on.” What they mean is that your glutes are being underutilized and you’re actually using your trunk or knee muscles to move instead, which is not ideal because it can lead to a breakdown in those respective body regions and cause injury.
Having strong glutes will enable you to generate more power in just about every movement, including running, jumping, and squatting. It also helps you with sport specific movements like swinging a golf club or baseball bat. In addition to generating power, the hip muscles work to stabilize your pelvis and trunk, especially when you’re standing on one leg. And having strong glutes will also help prevent excessive movement in your low back and knees, thus reducing injury to those regions.
Basic Glute Activation Exercises
Complete one, or all of these exercises as part of your warm up routine. While basic, these exercises are very effective in activating your glutes so they will be working hard for the rest of your workout.
1. Quadruped Hip Extension
This is a great exercise to help you feel your glutes, so consider adding it to your warm-up routine. Perform this exercise with your knee bent, which shortens the hamstrings and further isolates your glutes. To prevent “cheating” by overarching your back, use your opposite hand to touch your abs. This will cue you to keep your core tight and your spine stable.
Instructions: Start in a table-top position on hands and knees. Your shoulders should be directly over your wrists, hips over your knees. Keeping your knee bent and your core tight, raise your right foot up to the ceiling and squeeze your right glute. Then bring your leg back down to the start position before completing another repetition. Exhale as you raise your leg, inhale as you bring your leg back down. Complete 15 reps on one side, then repeat on the other side. Repeat for two sets.
2. Glute Bridge
The two-legged bridge is one of the easier exercises that most people can start with. I call this exercise “the walnut cracker” because your focus is on squeezing and engaging your glutes as you raise your hips off the ground. Make sure to keep your spine completely straight as you extend your hips, lifting your pelvis off the floor. When you do this, you should feel the bottom of your shoulder blades raise off the floor as well.
Once you master the two-legged version, try this exercise with one leg, extending the other in the air or holding your knee into your chest with your arms. In each variation, focus on keeping your hips square and your core tight as you squeeze your glutes. Don’t let your pelvis rotate!
Instructions: Lay down on your back with your knees bent and feet on the ground about hip-width apart. Extend your arms by your sides. Press your feet into the ground as you drive your arms down, raising your hips off the ground. Squeeze your glutes at the top. Then lower your hips all the way back to the ground. Keep your spine long and core tight as you lift and lower your hips. Exhale as you bridge up, inhale as you lower your hips down. Complete 2 sets of 15 reps.
Progressions: Single Leg Bridge, Bridge with Weight
If you’ve ever done physical therapy, there’s a good chance you’ve done this exercise. Clamshells target your hip rotators as well as gluteus medius. To further emphasize the hip muscles, slightly roll your hip forward so that your belly button is pointed diagonally toward the ground. Keep your trunk and pelvis at this orientation for the entire exercise. In this exercise, you should feel the back and side of your hip working, and sometimes this feeling radiates down the side of your thigh (which is completely normal).
Once the clamshell gets easier, perform the same movement while holding a side plank. This progression will work both of your hips at the same time.
Instructions: Start laying down on your side, resting your head on one arm or a pillow. Bend your knees slightly in front of you, heels behind you. Slightly tilt your pelvis and torso forward so your belly button angles diagonally towards the floor. Maintaining this position and keeping your heels touching, raise your top knee away from your bottom one, contracting your core and squeezing your glute. Your body should remain completely stable as you lift and lower your knee. Complete 2 sets of 15 reps on each side.
Progression: Clamshells in a side plank
Intermediate – Glute Strengthening Exercises
These early exercises are great for the initial activation of your glutes. After you activate a muscle, the next step is to strengthen it. Now that you know what your glute contraction is supposed to feel like, use that new feeling to help “rewire” your movement pattern by engaging the glutes through the following strengthening exercises.
Lunges are fantastic for strengthening your legs. In any lunge variation, make sure that your knee points right over your 2nd toe, and keep your pelvis neutral throughout the exercise. To emphasize the hips and glutes more, keep a forward lean while maintaining a straight spine. My favorite lunge variation is the reverse lunge, where you step one leg back into a lunge and then step back up. This exercise naturally encourages a forward bend at the pelvis, which engages the hip extensors more.
If you want to target gluteus medius, hold a weight in the opposite hand of your front leg. By placing the weight on the opposite hand, you should instantly feel the lateral hip muscles work harder. For example, if you’re doing a reverse lunge by stepping the right leg back, hold the weight in your right hand.
Instructions: (Reverse Lunge) Standing tall with or without weights in your hands, step your right leg back and bend both knees down to 90 degrees. Then drive off your left leg by pushing strongly into your left foot and engaging your left glute to return to standing. Keep your shoulders packed, your chest high, and your core tight throughout the exercise. Complete 2 sets of 10 reps on both legs.
Progressions: Lunge with forward trunk lean, lunge with weights.
5. Skater Hops
Skater hops are a great exercise if you want to add some speed and power to your workout. By jumping sideways, you target the gluteus medius and the lateral hip muscles. Stay in an athletic stance with your hips drawn back to emphasize the hips and help with shock absorption. Keeping the hips back when you land will train your body to protect your knees.
Instructions: Start in an athletic stance with your knees bent, hips back, and chest high. Cross your right leg behind you as you load the left leg. Then drive off the left leg, jumping sideways to land on your right and naturally letting the left leg cross behind you. Immediately drive off the right leg to jump sideways, returning to the left. Your arms will swing as if you were ice skating, helping you drive off your legs and also maintain balance. Start with small lateral jumps, and increase your jump-distance as you get stronger and more comfortable with the exercise.
Advanced – Glute Activation Exercises
Once you’ve activated your glutes and built up some strength, now it’s time to take your strength and power to the next level. The following exercises can help a weekend warrior or elite athlete reach new heights of athletic performance.
This is a foundational strength move that builds total body strength and power. Remember to push your hips back as you keep your chest high, maintaining a long spine and tracking your knees towards your toes. Once you master the two-legged deadlift, switch to one-legged to target the hip stabilizers and rotators.
Instructions: Use a kettlebell, dumbbells, or a barbell. Stand tall with feet hip-width apart. Pull your hips back as you keep your chest high, keeping your shoulders packed as you reach the weight towards the ground. Then press strongly into your feet to bring yourself back up to standing. At the bottom of the movement, the weight will hover above the ground. Your abs should remain tight and your spine long throughout the movement. Inhale as you reach the weight towards the ground and exhale as you powerfully bring yourself back to standing.
Progressions: Single-leg deadlift.
7. Kettlebell Swing
The Hardstyle kettlebell swing will train you to generate power in the sagittal plane (forwards and backwards) by loading and then powerfully contracting your hamstrings and glutes. When the swing is performed with just one hand instead of two, studies have shown a significant increase in activation of the opposite hip muscle. As the weight pulls one side of your body, your opposite hip engages to stabilize your trunk. The hip external rotators are forced to fire significantly more than in two-legged exercises.
Instructions: With your kettlebell two feet in front of you, start in an athletic stance – feet hip-width apart, knees bent and tracking over your toes, hips pulled back, chest high, and shoulders packed. Grab the bell with both hands. From the ground, swing the bell back behind you without changing your form. Then powerfully press through your feet and drive through your hips to bring yourself up to standing, swinging the bell up to chest-height. Squeeze your glutes and abs strongly at the top. Let the bell begin to fall, then follow it with your torso, hinging your hips back to catch the bell before swinging it back up again. The swinging of the bell should come from your hips, not your shoulders.
If you’re unfamiliar with this exercise, I highly recommend that you learn proper form and technique from a certified kettlebell instructor.
Progressions: Single-Arm Kettlebell Swing
Glute Activation Form Tips
There are a ton of exercises that people recommend for glute activation and strength. As you complete the preceding exercises, or any others, keep the following tips in mind so that you choose the best exercises to target your goals. Remember, an exercise is only as good as your form. If you do a great exercise poorly, it can actually become detrimental.
Tip #1: Always Move From Your Hips.
This might seem like a “no-brainer” but it’s imperative, and many people either forget or do it wrong. For instance, when you squat, don’t let the weight pull you down. Instead, actively push your hips back while keeping your chest high, which helps emphasize hip flexion and makes you use your glutes more. Visualize the hip joint moving as this may help you isolate it from spinal movement. Generally, the further back your hip goes and the further forward your trunk goes, the more you will use your hip muscles. Try a regular lunge and a lunge where your hip is behind your trunk, and feel the difference. You can make the same adjustment to almost any standing exercise to target your hips more than you otherwise would.
Tip #2: Perform 1-Legged or Asymmetrical Exercises.
Single-leg or asymmetrical exercises challenge your stability and develop strength in the entire leg, while also training all of the smaller stabilizers that might otherwise be neglected by two-legged strengthening exercises. These exercises target all of your hip muscles as they not only have to generate movement and power like the two-legged versions, but also help with stability and balance. Some examples include exercises like lunges, Bulgarian split squats, and single leg deadlifts.
The exercises in this article are a few of my favorite exercises that build glute stability, strength, and power. When you master the basics, progress to more advanced variations. By incorporating a variety of these exercises, you’ll strengthen both glute max and glute med and build a solid backside.
Try out these exercises and let me know how it goes!