How To Activate, Strengthen & Grow Your Glutes
You’ve probably heard people talking about their glutes, whether it’s in reference to muscle pain and tightness, a glute workout, glute activation or a stretching routine. So, what are glutes and how do you strengthen and grow them? And are glutes just another word for buttcheeks? Spoiler alert, nope.
The glutes are the largest muscle group in your body and play an important role in moving and stabilising your body throughout your everyday movements, workouts, and even just holding your body upright.
They provide shape to your buttocks just like your biceps do for your arms, and you can train your glute muscles to become larger and stronger.
As the largest muscle group in your body, effective glute activation and training should be part of any strength training program, as strong glutes can provide power to other movements while helping to reduce your risk of muscle imbalances, tightness, pain or injury.
If strengthening your glutes is one of your fitness goals, then bookmark this article to refer to during your journey!
What are the different glute muscles?
The glutes are a group of muscles made up of three primary muscles (your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) and six supporting muscles (known as the “deep six” or “lateral rotator group”) that lie underneath the gluteus muscles to help move your hip.
How the three main glute muscles work
Gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in your body and plays an important role in stabilising your pelvis, rotating your hips, and hip extension - pulling your leg backwards.
Your gluteus medius is the medium-sized muscle that helps with side-stepping and hip abduction (moving your leg away from the midline of your body), externally rotating the leg when it’s extended behind you, or internally rotating the leg when it is flexed in front of you.
Gluteus minimus is the smallest of the three and assists with abducting the hip for side-stepping or any outwards movement of the hip. This muscle is also engaged when you make circular movements with your thigh.
How the deep glute muscles work
Underneath these three main gluteal muscles, there are six smaller muscles often referred to as the “lateral rotator group”. They work to externally rotate the femur (thigh bone) in the hip joint.
The muscles are: the obturator internus, quadratus femoris, obturator externus, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior and the piriformis.
The glute muscles located underneath the gluteus maximus connect the hip bone to the femur (thigh bone) and to the base of the spine at the coccyx and sacrum, which is why tight or weak glutes can be the cause of lower back pain.
How to strengthen your glutes
Before we dive into which exercises to focus on, it helps to understand the three boxes you should be ticking if strengthening your glutes is one of your goals - activation, resistance and stretching.
Glute activation is where you perform a few glute and hip-focused exercises during your warm-up to prime your body (and mind) for the workout to come and how it should feel when those muscles are engaged. This can reduce your chance of using the wrong muscles (for example using your quads as the main source of power during squats), injuring yourself or having an ineffective workout. If your glutes or hips are tight, glute activation exercises and foam rolling during your warm-up routine can also help to improve your range of motion.
Resistance training is essential for building muscle size and strength, whether you’re doing bodyweight workouts, using resistance bands and free weights, or in the gym using machines. To strengthen your glutes, this could mean regular lower-body focussed workouts or incorporating a few glute exercises into a full-body routine. As your confidence and strength builds, you can continue to progress by trying more difficult exercise variations or lifting heavier weights.
Stretching goes hand-in-hand with building strength, as having tight or sore muscles can reduce your range of motion and the amount of power you can generate during an exercise. Including glute stretches and foam rolling in your cool-down and recovery days can go a long way!
When it comes to your workout routine, your goal might be to increase muscular strength, size or both! Increasing muscular strength involves following a strength training program that includes lower-body exercises and follows the principles of progressive overload - meaning you gradually increase the difficulty of your workouts over time to allow you to lift heavier weights.
Increasing muscle size means focusing on hypertrophy training, where you use higher repetitions to stimulate an increase in muscle endurance and volume. You can focus more on one or use a mixture of training techniques to get the best of both worlds.
Exercises to warm up and activate your glutes
Start your workout with 5-10 minutes of cardio to increase your blood flow and heart rate, then move on to these glute activation exercises.
Stepping outwards against the resistance of the band engages the gluteus medius. You can work this muscle by keeping your knees externally rotated.
To keep the tension in your muscles the entire time, make sure you keep your feet enough distance apart that the band remains taut. If the band goes slack, increase the distance between your feet and focus on small side steps.
The lateral band walk is a very similar exercise that activates the gluteus medius in preparation for your workout. These exercises can also promote stability in the knee, foot and ankle, which all directly affect the hips.
This exercise activates your gluteus medius. It also helps to balance the muscular effort between your inner and outer thighs.
This bridge exercise activates the three major glute muscles. Focus on pushing up by squeezing your glutes rather than using your quads or lower back. This exercise is particularly beneficial to anyone who sits at a desk all day. You should feel it most in your glutes and hamstrings.
This exercise engages both the gluteus medius and the gluteus maximus. When doing this exercise, make sure you’re feeling it in your glutes and not arching your back.
The fire hydrant exercise helps to activate the glutes and core, targeting the gluteus medius.
This movement activates your core as well as your glutes, warming up your abs and shoulders. It’s a great one to perform before squats or a full-body workout.
This added resistance of the band can help to engage your glute muscles even more, just remember to keep your knees aligned with your toes when you squat.
Best exercises for glutes
These are some of our favourite exercises for strengthening your glutes, many of which are compound exercises - meaning they engage multiple major muscle groups at once. Win-win! Each exercise can be performed with just your bodyweight or using weights like dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell.
No surprises here! Squats are one of the best exercises for working your glutes and building lower-body strength, and you can use a barbell or a Smith machine to challenge yourself with heavier weights. Want to spice things up with a few squat variations? Try sumo squats or goblet squats.
Glute bridges or barbell hip thrusts are a very effective way to engage and strengthen the glutes. Because they also use some of the biggest, strongest muscle groups in your body such as your hamstrings and glutes, along with your quads, lower back and core, they allow you to lift a lot of weight and make significant gains on your strength and overall athletic performance.
Deadlifts are a key powerbuilding exercise in the BUILD program and an incredible exercise for working your glutes. Similar to squats and hip thrusts, you can see your strength gains in action every time you feel comfortable enough to add more weight!
Although lunges can feel like a quad-focused exercise, your glutes provide so much power and stability for each movement! Once you’ve mastered bodyweight lunges, you can add weight in the form of dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell.
Donkey kicks or glute kickbacks can target the glute muscles in a highly specific way that compound exercises like squats can’t. Donkey kicks can be performed as a bodyweight exercise, with ankle weights, or using a cable machine to increase the intensity.
This exercise is amazing for working your glutes, and when done correctly, it places little to no stress on your back.
Keep your back flat, engage your core, and make the movement a fluid, explosive motion while keeping the glutes and core engaged. Make sure your glutes and hamstrings power the movement instead of lifting the kettlebell with your arms and shoulders, and focus on hinging at the hips rather than knees. This shouldn’t feel or look like a squat!
Bulgarian split squats
This unilateral exercise can help to build stability in your glutes, target one side at a time and even out any strength imbalances.
Other muscles you use when strengthening your glutes
Most leg exercises that target your glutes engage other muscles in your legs, core and lower back - especially if you’re adding extra weight!
When strengthening your glutes, chances are you’re also going to be strengthening these muscles at the same time:
The hamstrings or backs of your thighs have three dominant muscles that attach near the glutes. Hamstring exercises can also help to strengthen and tone your buttocks.
Your quads are key in many lower-body exercises like lunges and squats, but many people are “quad dominant” — meaning you tend to use power from your quads more than your glutes. Quad dominance can lead to a less effective workout, a lack of glute strength improvement, poor form and even injury. This is why glute activation and mastering your form is so important!
Before beginning your lower-body workout, it can help to do a few reps of each exercise without weight to ensure you’re feeling your glutes working.
Glute exercises will target your core, stability and balance. The heavier your weights, the more work your abs will have to do to keep the movement and your upper body stable.
These are another important muscle group that interacts with the glute muscles. The hip flexors are used in all hip extension and hip flexion exercises.
Most glute exercises require you to hinge at the hip, so the hip flexors relax as the glutes contract, and contract as the glutes release.
If your glutes are tight, your hip flexors may take a greater proportion of the load. This may lead to strain or injury. Doing hip flexor stretches can help to loosen your hips so your glutes can properly activate.
A balanced workout program will lead to strong glutes
Even if stronger glutes are your goal, following a workout program designed to strengthen your whole body is a good idea to avoid muscle imbalances and keep your upper body strong to support lifting heavier weights as you progress in your training.
* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.