While the arms, chest, and shoulders are often the focal point of men who lift weights, for women it’s the glutes. Glute training is also of interest to athletes to improve performance and to those who are trying to resolve or prevent back pain. Proof of this increasing interest is the growing number of glute machines available at large commercial gyms, machines that were extremely rare a decade ago. Glute training has certainly gotten our attention, but there is still considerable confusion as to how to train these beefy muscles.
The first step to designing a glute training workout is to have a working knowledge of anatomy. The glutes consist of three muscles. The gluteus maximus is the largest of the three (and in fact is the largest muscle in the body), followed by the gluteus medius, and then the much smaller gluteus minimus.
Although the gluteus maximus often gets the most attention in glute-training programs, consider that the gluteus medius is about half the size of the gluteus maximus. The gluteus minimus is often referred to as the “upper glutes” because it is located near the hip joint, and as such contributes to filling out the upper portion of the glutes. Hip adduction exercises such as side-lying clams and sideways shuffles – both of which can be made more challenging with bands – are among the most popular exercises that focus on the gluteus medius.
Among the major functions of the glutes are hip extension (pulling leg back), hip abduction (lifting leg to side), hip external rotation (rotating foot outward), and posterior pelvic tilt (tucking pelvis under). As such, there can be no single, perfect glute exercise -- a variety of exercises are needed for complete development.
The optimal number of repetitions to perform for an exercise is influenced by muscle fiber type. Whereas fast-twitch muscle fibers (powerful, but less endurance) respond best to lower repetitions, slow twitch muscle fibers (less powerful, but more endurance) respond best to higher repetitions. The gluteus maximus has a 50/50 split in terms of fast twitch vs. slow twitch muscle fibers, and the gluteus medius contains a higher percentage of slow twitch fibers. The practical application of this brief anatomy lesson is that a variety of repetitions protocols should be used in glute training programs, especially those that focus on increasing muscle mass in this area.
One way to categorize exercises is looking at which portion of the strength curve of the muscles they focus on: low-range, mid-range, or upper-range. The low-range is the start of the movement when the muscle is fully stretched, the mid-range is the middle portion of the movement, and the upper-range is the finish of the movement when the muscle is fully contracted. For the biceps, this is how the resistance curve of an exercise would affect the strength curve:
Low-Range: Scott Curl, 45 Degrees – maximal resistance at the start of the movement
Mid-Range: Standing Barbell Curl – maximal resistance at the middle of the movement
Upper Range: Incline Dumbbell Curl – maximal resistance at the end of the movement
For the glutes, here are some examples of these three resistance curves:
Low-Range: Back Squat, Front Squat, Lunge
Mid-Range: Romanian Deadlift, Straight-Bar Deadlift, 45-Degree Hyperextension
Upper Range: Reverse Hyper, Back Extension, Pelvic Bridge
It’s also important to note that the use of bands and chains can affect the resistance curve of an exercise. For example, using bands or chains will increase the muscle activation at the end range of many glute exercises.
When using glute exercises for lower back rehabilitation, it’s important to understand that the way additional resistance is applied to the spine during pelvic bridges (also known as hip thrusts) might aggravate some lower back conditions. Also, performing these exercises when you have a large anterior pelvic tilt may be unwise as this may cause lower back pain and high levels of stress on the abdominals. For these individuals, back extension or reverse hypers may be a better alternative; later, as the condition improves, single-leg pelvic bridges with resistance may be better as the resistance is relatively lighter.
To fine-tune your glute-building workout, consider that there are ways to modify exercises to target specific glute muscles. To get more glute activation during squats, use a wider stance, turn the toes outward, and lean forward more. For an isolation exercise such as a leg abduction performed with a low cable, turning the feet outward works the glute maximus more and turning them inward works the gluteus medius more.
There is the mistaken idea that one reason we have trouble developing the glutes is because the glutes “don’t fire.” The fact is, the glutes help us maintain an upright posture. These muscles help support us when we stand, walk, jog, and sprint -- apes have relatively small glutes, which is why they tire quickly when they try to stand. If your glutes did not fire, every time you take a step you would fall flat on your face. In fact, if someone truly has glutes that don’t fire, they could be suffering from a spinal cord injury. Rather than saying that the glutes are not firing, a more appropriate explanation is to say that contraction of the glutes is inhibited. This condition is commonly referred to as gluteal amnesia.
One cause of gluteal amnesia is tightness in the muscles that flex the hip (illiopsoas and rectus femoris) and adduct the hip (adductors, which pull the leg inward). This interference is called Sherrington’s law of reciprocal inhibition. One cause of gluteal amnesia is an excessive amount of sitting, which is one reason why stand-up desks are a good investment.
John Gibbons is author of The Vital Glutes: Connecting the Gait Cycle to Pain and Dysfunction, and in it Gibbons discusses the issue of inhibited glute muscles in considerable detail. According to Gibbons, the first course of treatment for gluteal amnesia is stretching. He says if you stretch the muscles that adduct and flex the hip for two weeks but that does not resolve the problem, then look into performing “glute activation exercises” such as pelvic bridges or reverse hypers, especially at the start of a workout.
Finally, to develop a complete glute-shaping program you have to address the issue of bodyfat. For most individuals, simply reducing their bodyfat will make a tremendous difference in the appearance of their glutes. Just as you can’t see six-pack abs if they are covered by a layer of fat, you can’t notice the true shape of the glutes if the percentage of body fat is too high. Many women will be surprised just how shapely their glutes look when they reduce their bodyfat.
There is considerable research being published showing us the optimal way to train the glutes to improve physical fitness, athletic performance, and our quality of life. Use the information in this article to get a good start in determining the best glute training program for you!