Research says these are the most effective glute exercises

comeStrengthening your glutes is always a good idea. Among their many functions: they stabilize your hips, propel you forward when walking or running, and help you balance when standing on one leg. But there is a lot of inaccurate or suboptimal information when it comes to effective glute exercises. For example, fitness influencers tout lateral walks with “booty bands” and claim they target the gluteus maximus. (They don’t.)

Before we go any further, let’s define what “glutes” are: The gluteal muscles are made up of three distinct muscles on the outside and back of your hips. The gluteus minim (or “glute min”) is the smallest of the bunch, and you can’t feel it because it’s behind the gluteus medius (or “glute med”).

Both the glute med and glute med function to stabilize the hip when you stand on one leg. For example, during running there is a significant demand on both muscles, especially the gluteus medius, to stabilize the hip and prevent it from dropping (called “contralateral hip drop”). Additionally, both muscles are involved in moving the leg away from your midline (hip abduction) and hip rotation.

“These two small gluteal muscles are important for everyday activities because they play a role in stabilizing the hip, and their weakness can cause significant discomfort in the hip or mechanical changes along the lower leg,” says physical therapist Jackie Shivrup. “Strengthening these muscles can be the low-hanging fruit when it comes to improving movement. Of course, that program needs to be properly designed in terms of starting point and progression.”

The largest muscle of the group, the glute max, is often associated with the glutes because it is the larger, visual muscle of the group. This helps extend the hips behind you and externally rotate the hips.

In combination, all three muscles serve a very important purpose in optimizing function and movement, so you want to make sure they are strong and working properly.

What is the best way to train gluteal muscles?

We can look to the original research on gluteal muscle activation (studied by electromyography or EMG) for answers to those questions.

Electromyography (EMG) studies on gluteus medius and gluteus minimus activation show that, generally speaking, single-leg exercises elicit the highest level of activation in the muscle. This makes sense given the role of two small muscles in stabilizing the hip and leg during the single-leg phase of the activity, as discussed earlier.

EMG studies on the gluteus maximus have shown that step-up exercises and variations place the greatest demand on the muscle, followed by exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and barbell hip thrusts. Interestingly, the barbell hip thrust had higher gluteus maximus activation regardless of the specific form or weight used.

“In addition to overall activation, EMG studies also provide key insights into how to progress exercises—starting with low activation and then moving to higher ranges as a person feels ready for them,” adds Dr. Shivrupar.

Accordingly, we can use this EMG research to develop a systematic approach and plan to strengthen the glutes.

Gluteal strengthening plan

Some key notes before we get into the details. The plan is a progression so you’re going to start with the first exercise and then only move on to the next when you can hit three sets of 10 reps without difficulty. This is the signal that you are ready to make things harder

Also, I also recommend that you space out the two groups of exercises during the week because although each targets a specific gluteal muscle, there is going to be some overlap with each exercise. Ideal intervals would have at least 48 hours between each—for example, training gluteus minimus and medius on Tuesday and training gluteus maximus on Friday—so you don’t overtrain or overfatigue those areas. (Remember: The glutes are also being worked during your daily activities.)

Finally, I tried to include only body weight exercises until the final level of each progression. The goal is to reach that peak and then be able to go back to the start and gradually add weight.

Gluteus minimus and medius training

Level 1: Side-lying hip abduction

Lie on your side with lower knees bent and upper legs straight (option to keep both legs straight). Without letting your hips rock back and forth, lift the upper leg toward the ceiling and step back. That’s 1 rep. Set both legs and complete for the allotted amount of reps.

Level 2: Single leg bridge

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Lift one leg off the tabletop, knee over hip, shin parallel to the floor, and then, with the other leg (feet still flat on the ground), push down through the sole, squeeze your glutes, and lift your hip up toward your body. Makes a straight line from your shoulders to your knees – if you feel this in your back, you’re probably going too high on the lift. Go down slowly. That’s 1 rep. Set both legs and complete for the allotted amount of reps.

Level 3: Running Man

Stand tall on one leg with knees bent about 30 degrees. With the other leg (leg in the air), slowly rock the leg forward and back as you run in that direction. That’s 1 rep. The key here is to keep the hips level and avoid slouching.

Level 4: Single-Leg Squat

Stand tall on one leg with knees slightly bent. Squat down and then back up. Remember to control the descent part (aka the eccentric), hold something if balance is an issue and only go down as far as you feel comfortable then stand up. That’s 1 rep. Balance and depth will improve as you get better at movement.

Once you’re able to get close to 90 degrees and complete 3 sets of 10 reps, you can start adding weight, whether it’s dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells.

Gluteus Maximus Training

Level 1: Half squat

Stand tall, legs under hips and arms extended in front of you. Sit back and lower your hips to roughly 45 degrees, then return to start. (Don’t let your knees bend inward.) This is 1 rep.

Level 2: Full Squat

Stand tall, legs under hips and arms extended in front of you. Sit your butt back and lower to roughly 90 degrees, then return to the start. (Don’t let your knees bend inward.) This is 1 rep.

Level 3: Lateral step-up

Standing next to a step (the step next to the leg you’ll be working on), step forward with the opposite leg. Press down through that sole to stand tall on the step, letting the other leg fly into the air. Then reverse the motion to return to the starting position with both feet on the ground.

If you have access to steps of multiple different heights, I would recommend crossing at least two different heights as a progression before advancing to level four.

Level 4: Step Up

Standing in front of a stable, elevated surface with both shoulders facing in, push off with the stance leg to step both feet upward. Then reverse the sequence to return to the starting position.

I recommend a medium step height, and once you are able to complete 3 sets of 10 reps, you can start adding weight whether it’s dumbbells, barbells or kettlebells.

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