Glute Stocks Are Soaring
The glutes may have overtaken the abs at this point as the most desired of fitness assets, but I still think they’re underrated. They look great, sure, but the potential for power doesn’t get played up enough. The glutes are capable of explosive movements across multiple planes, lending them to all manners of activities. They support posture, sparing the lower back from buckling under the responsibility. It’s the muscle of athletes, but also a force for wellbeing.
Whereas a tight set of abs just suggests a good level of dietary restraint. You can train them as much as you like, they’re not getting any better. There’s no implication of power.
But glutes on the other hand? As Arnie once said, a well-built physique is a status symbol, a reflection of the effort you had to go through. Defined, muscular glutes are a calling card.
As for how to go about creating the coveted look, the science is out there. Plenty of it, more than you’ll ever need. But it hasn’t stopped people from failing terribly at getting some sort of firmness in the backside. The pants still sag, or get blown into a misshapen mess.
Most of us have a decent idea of how to train the glutes. But when it comes to nailing the technique and optimising the routine, the majority still find ways to trip up. So this guide isn’t going to reinvent any wheels. It’s more of a reminder to stick with the golden rules of muscle building.
In short, the mechanism of muscle building is shifted into action by an increase in tension. Which itself can be conjured up by increasing the intensity of a number of strategies.
This is exactly why everyone has a different programme for gaining muscle. And many of them work to some degree, despite sitting on contrasting ends of the training spectrum. As long as you can tap into a combination of these levers, the muscle gets bigger.
A Quick Primer On Glute Mechanics
People who keep bumping in plateaus are often just not making use of enough of these strategies. If you constantly go to one of the wells, often weight or reps, it’s going to run dry. But more often it’s because they’re struggling with the last one, isolation. The ability to activate the target muscle during an exercise. Moving it through contraction, and stretch, at will.
With the glutes, that’s a giant problem. Because it’s surrounded by incredibly powerful muscles that closely match its motion.
- Hip flexors
- Lower back
Without being able to isolate the glutes, there’s going to be a lot of wasted effort. You can nail the squats as much as you like, but the gains are going to be siphoned off to the intruding players.
For example, your squat could gain 40kg, and the thighs grow an inch, while the glutes hang tight.
Or in that same scenario, your lower back tightness goes from bad to worse.
It doesn’t matter if you’re putting in the work. The energy is getting lost, and the glutes are missing out on the gravy train.
If you’re looking to get the best possible shape out of a muscle, you have to be able to isolate it. That means you need to be able to feel it during exercises. It’s fine to feel the stretch in the quads while you squat, but the majority of the stretch should be squarely on the glutes.
Being able to isolate the glutes pretty much takes care of the strategies. If you’re feeling it during the movement, then the tension is landing in the right place, and the body is going to have to adapt. As long as you’re putting as much emphasis on recovery, progress is smooth and inevitable.
Find the exercises that light up the glutes, and you’re set. There’s no definitive list that applies to everyone, with all the scope for individual biomechanics, but we have a few that tend to kick plenty of ass.
The gluteus maximus, the largest and most prominent of the three gluteal muscles, works across the three planes of movement.
Hip abduction – Leg moves away to the side
Hip extension – Straightening the hip, or moving the leg back
Hip external rotation – Leg swivels out to the side
The other two muscles, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, aren’t too important. They aid in abduction and rotation, so by testing the gluteus maximus across its full range, the whole set comes along for the ride.
Getting to grips with mechanics can be incredibly useful for figuring out why classic ‘glute exercises’ aren’t terribly effective at stimulating the glutes. To dart back to one of our levers, they fail to test the full active range of the muscle.
Squats, for instance, work by extending the hip. But they also extend the knees, bring the quads into the movement. More importantly, the glutes contract at the top of the movement, which happens to lack any tension whatsoever. The joints are locked out. You could hang out there as long as you like.
Romanian deadlifts don’t use as much quad, since you can execute them with minimal knee extension. Unfortunately, the hamstrings, lower back, lats and traps are all major players in leveraging the weight. And once again, the glutes don’t get worked in their strongest position.
You can’t expect a muscle to shape up when you’re not testing it through the full active range. There’s nothing wrong with emphasising the stretch, in fact it creates more hypertrophy through muscle damage. But it’s not really the glutes getting stretched, it’s the rest of the pack. Even if some of the tension finds its way to your backside, there’s a ton of lost energy.
The same goes for lunges, and split squats. They’re great for hitting all of the leg musculature in one swoop, but they suck at any specificity. If you want to beef up one special muscle, then you need to be able to hone in on it. Otherwise, you’ve got the standard template for inefficient gains. Everything either takes twice as long, or you don’t get to the destination.
The Exercises That Actually Work
There’s one obvious candidate that does test the glutes across its full active range. The hip thrust. In this case, the hardest part of the movement syncs up perfectly with your strongest position. You can do this with any exercise by visualising the gravity line cutting across the joint during the movement. With the hip thrust, it’s an ideal 90°. Mechanically, it looks like the best match, and the results of thrusting advocates seem to support it.
If you were to add a band to the exercise, then you’re pretty much nailing the glutes on all three fronts. So for people who still struggle to feel the glutes during thrusts, throwing a band into the mix normally solves the problem.
Meanwhile, there’s the glute bridge, where the shoulders are now on the floor. It’s still great for glute activation, as it takes place on a similar vector. But the range is limited, as you never get to test out the stretch. Think of it as a partial rep exercise, like a bench press done on the floor. Great for adding extra tension on one section of the range, just not something you can rely on to be your daily breadwinner.
A back extension done properly, with hunched shoulders, hits the glute during the contracted phase, while also managing a decent stretch. You’ll be limited by weight, however, so you don’t really get to tick off all the boxes.
Abduction and rotation exercises, typically done with band work, are great for isolating the glutes. Even for working it across its full range. But you can’t exactly pile on the weight here. They shouldn’t be the major focus of a session. Think of them as extremely potent ‘filler work’. There’s not much systemic fatigue going on, meaning you can hammer them out no matter the state you’re in. By putting them around the main batch of exercises, you’ve got yourself a workout that can last the hour without requiring you to ease off the gas.
That leaves you with a pretty generous array of exercises to choose from for glute-focused exercises. And then, you’ll be free to back them up with the more general exercises, like squats and deadlifts. Because now that you’re actually putting some feeling in the glutes, you shouldn’t struggle to stimulate them during more general exercises. Besides, deadlifts are brilliant at targeting the stretch. In order to maximise growth, you need to be able to work both phases of movement. That’s the principle of angles, another player in the hypertrophy crew.
With a set of exercises that effectively work the glutes, you’re free to pull on the other levels. Increase the weight, the reps, add in another glute workout in the week (frequency), or start pushing closer to failure (fatigue).
Any of these routes will allow you to push from strength to strength, as long as you remain specific in your workouts. The real goal here is efficiency. You’re burning up calories, and you’re making sure your efforts are being channelled to the glutes, with minimal lost force.
But these levers don’t exactly complete the picture, because there’s still the small matter recovery, a beast in itself. Putting it simply, if you don’t shift the body into recovery mode in between workouts, you’ll be moving along at a stunted rate. I’ve got plenty of guides that walk you through each of the recovery triggers, and I’ll lay out the main ones here.
The aesthetic physique isn’t so much about getting bigger, or smaller, it’s symmetry that plays the largest role. This won’t be the first and last of my targeted hypertrophy guides, so keep an eye out for the next one.