Glutes: How To Build, Stretch & Activate Your Glute Muscles
The glutes are the largest muscle group in the body and play an important role in moving and stabilising your body during exercise, holding your body upright and helping you to move powerfully throughout the day.
They provide shape to your buttocks — just like the biceps, you can train your glute muscles to become larger. When people talk about “booty gains” they’re really referring to building their glutes.
As the largest muscle group of the body, effective glute activation and training your glutes well can burn serious calories in a short space of time and boost your capacity to become physically stronger.
If strengthening your glutes is one of your fitness goals, then bookmark this article to refer to during your journey!
- What are your glutes?
- Where are the glutes?
- How to strengthen your glutes
- Principles of building your glutes
- Warm up and activate the glutes
- Gym equipment to strengthen glutes
- Other muscles that work with the glutes
What are your glutes?
The glutes are a group of muscles that can be divided into the three primary muscles — gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus — and six supporting muscles that lie underneath the gluteus muscles, known as the “deep six” or “lateral rotator group”.
The glutes help to stabilise your body when you stand, push off to walk or run, and balance when twisting your body.
The size and position of the glutes mean that they play an integral role in many functional movements — movements your body can do everyday, outside of the gym.
How the upper glute muscles work
Gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in your body that works against gravity, helping to keep your torso upright. The lower section of the gluteus maximus helps drive hip extension (moving the leg backwards) and transverse abduction (rotating the leg out to the side in the horizontal plane).
The upper gluteus maximus helps to drive hip extension, hip abduction and external rotation.
Gluteus medius is the muscle that helps with side-stepping, 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 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.
Where are the glutes?
The glute muscles are located in your buttocks, with the gluteus maximus giving shape to this area of the body.
The eight other glute muscles are located underneath the gluteus maximus, connecting the hip bone to the femur (thigh bone) and to the base of the spine at the coccyx and sacrum.
How to strengthen your glutes 101
Activate the muscles:
Before exercising, you need to warm up and activate the glute muscles.
Foam rolling before you exercise is a great way to wake up the glute muscles and other muscles that connect to the hip. It can also help break up muscle fascia so that the glutes can move freely.
Most leg exercises will engage the glutes. The specific resistance exercises and number of reps you choose to do will depend on your fitness goals.
You can add ankle weights to bodyweight exercises that target the glutes, like glute- kickbacks or donkey kicks, for extra resistance when training at home.
When training in the gym, there are many ways to use the free weights and exercise machines to specifically target your glute muscles through different ranges of motion.
An effective way to train glutes at the gym is to begin with heavy lifts, followed by lower weight, higher repetition exercises.
Tight muscles are unable to work through their full range of motion, which reduces the amount of force they can generate (weight they can lift) during a given exercise. Doing glute stretches and certain yoga flows can help lengthen the muscle and allow it to be strengthened throughout its full range during exercise.
Learn how to build your glutes
To build your glutes, you can combine low repetition, heavier lifting exercises with high repetition exercises that use bodyweight, resistance bands or light weights.
Here’s why you need both types of exercise to build strong glutes:
The glutes are made up of both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibres.
Fast-twitch muscle fibres react and adapt better to heavier, intense load — these muscles are recruited when you sprint.
Slow-twitch muscle fibres adapt best to volume and overload. They are used in long distance running and other endurance exercises.
By combining both types of exercise, you target all the muscle fibres within the glute muscles to maximise your results.
Warm-up and activate your glutes
Before starting any glute-focused workout, it’s important to warm-up properly and activate the muscles you intend to train.
When your glutes don’t fire properly during exercise, other muscles can compensate and this can lead to pain in your lower back, quads or hamstrings. An activation session done before your workout can help to prevent injury and help you to maximise your training results.
Warming up the eight glute muscles promotes blood flow and increases your range of motion. It also helps to switch on these muscles so that the target muscles are recruited correctly during the key exercises.
Glute activation is important before you sprint, jump, squat or do other lower body exercises.
Start your workout with a few minutes of cardio to get your blood flowing, then move on to these exercises to activate the glutes.
Stepping outwards against the resistance of the band engages the gluteus medius. You can work the gluteus maximus by keeping the knees externally rotated.
When you keep the resistance band under tension during this exercise, the glutes on both legs with work the whole time.
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 with your hips rather than down into your heels. This exercise is particularly beneficial to anyone who sits at a desk all day. You’ll feel it in your glutes and hamstrings.
This exercise engages both the gluteus medius and the gluteus maximus. When doing this exercise, make sure you are engaging your glutes and not arching your back.
The fire hydrant, demonstrated by PWR trainer Kelsey Wells, helps to activate the glutes and core, targeting the gluteus medius.
This exercise activates your core as well as your glutes, warming up your abs and shoulders. It’s ideal before squats or a full body workout.
This exercise activates the glutes. Just remember to keep your knees aligned with your toes when you squat.
Gym equipment to build your glutes
With a combination of free weights and gym machines you can build strong glutes by exercising against resistance.
The Smith machine can provide more stability than a freestanding barbell. During Smith machine squats, the weight is held in a stable position so you can focus more on training your glutes with less concern for upper body stability and balance.
Smith machine deadlifts can target the glutes and hamstrings.
Negative exercises help you add more intensity to your workouts by overloading the target muscles eccentrically— in this case, the glutes and quads. This means more time under tension during the strongest part of the exercise. Use the Smith machine to safely control the tempo of negative squats
This squat variation may allow you to lift heavier weight than a traditional squat. You can also loop a resistance band around both legs, above the knee, to effectively engage the gluteus medius during this exercise.
A barbell hip thrust or barbell glute bridge is a very effective way to engage and strengthen the glutes.
If you want to correct an imbalance and improve your stability, one-leg barbell squats can help you to achieve this in the gym.
A narrow stance squat or high-bar squat will target the glutes and quads. Make sure to use correct form before increasing the weight.
Deadlifts are a key powerbuilding exercise in Stephanie Sanzo’s BUILD program. When done correctly, deadlifts will fire up the glutes and hamstrings.
This exercise, demonstrated by FIERCE trainer Chontel Duncan, is an easy, safe and effective exercise for building the glutes and quads.
Leg extension machine
The leg extension machine, when used in the conventional manner, isolates and targets the quadriceps.
However, it can be adapted to provide resistance for a glute bridge or a glute kickback by changing your position in relation to the machine. This is particularly useful if the gym is busy and you can’t access one of the other machines.
The conventional leg extension isolates and loads the quadriceps. During leg extension, your gluteus maximus contract isometrically to stabilise your hips.
“Isometric contraction” is where the glutes are activated but remain at a constant length. In many other exercises that target the glute muscles, the muscles will either lengthen or contract. Isometric contractions can help to improve strength and awareness of the glute muscles.
Cable machines provide constant tension to train your muscles through the full range of motion.
The diverse ranges of motion, heights and resistance make the cable machine an effective tool to strengthen the glutes through a variety of exercises.
Donkey kicks can target the glute muscles in a highly specific way that compound exercises like a squat can’t. You can add resistance to donkey kicks with the cable machine to increase the intensity.
Cable lunges work the gluteus maximus and quadriceps. When using the cable machine, focus on keeping your core engaged and avoid jerky movements. Each repetition should be one controlled movement.
Kettlebells are great for a variety of exercises. They are such a versatile piece of equipment that can be used to build strength, speed and endurance with exercises that can flow together.
This exercise is amazing for activating 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.
Goblet Bulgarian split squat
This unilateral exercise can help to build stability in your glutes and even out any imbalances between the right and left sides.
Other muscles you use when building your glutes
Most leg exercises that target the glutes also engage other muscles in your legs, abs and lower back.
Doing exercises that target these functional muscle groups can help to create balance and allow the glutes to be effectively targeted when other lower body muscles are active.
Here are the main lower body muscle groups that work together with the glutes:
The hamstrings have three dominant muscles that attach near the glutes. Working these hamstring muscles can also help to shape and tone your buttocks.
Good mornings and back extensions target both the hamstrings and glutes.
Many people are “quad dominant” — this can mean that your glutes might not engage effectively in exercises that also target the quads. If you continue to train without activating your glutes, the quads may take over more of the load.
However, with proper glute activation you can engage the correct muscle groups to get the results you are after.
Once you’ve activated your glutes with a proper warmup, train quads and glutes with the hack squat, single-leg box squat or barbell back squat. The single-leg press is another unilateral exercise you can use to target any imbalances.
You can use the walking lunge as a functional movement to ensure both quads and glutes engage as you walk. Most of the weight should be on the front leg, and your knee should not come over your toes when you lunge. If the knee collapses inwards, this is a sign that the glutes aren’t activating properly.
Before beginning the exercise, do a few reps without weight to ensure that your knee tracks over the toes to engage the glutes, rather than collapsing inwards, before adding weight.
Glute exercises using free weights will target your core and challenge your balance.
Once you’ve warmed up, build strength through the glutes and core with sets of the Bulgarian split squat, barbell back squat and dumbbell squat to shoulder press.
Hip flexors 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.
When the glutes are tight, the 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.
This glute stretch can help release tight glutes so the muscles around the hip can work together to stabilise the hip during movement.
This pose stretches the hip flexors, gluteus maximus and gluteus minimus and relaxes the piriformis (one of the deep glute muscles) and psoas (an important hip flexor).
Anyone who sits during the day may develop tight hips. A kneeling hip flexor stretch can help to lengthen tight hip flexors.
Now you have all the information that you need to train your glutes to be stronger! If you’re looking for more, check out the questions the SWEAT Community have asked about this topic.
A balanced workout program will lead to strong glutes
Using a workout program designed to strengthen your whole body that includes exercises to target your glutes and lower body will help you to create sustainable results.
As with any training program, muscle recovery is important when strengthening your glutes. When you train consistently and allow enough time for rest, you’ll be well on the way to achieving your fitness goals.
If you need more workout tips to maximise your training and achieve your fitness goals, subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest info!
* 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.