** This is a guest blog by my good friend and fellow coach Polly Thng **.
Whether you are an athlete, you play sports, compete in something, recreationally train at a gym, or just want to be healthy and pain-free, having a strong set of glutes is important. Then, of course it’s critical for those you who want a rounded derriere purely for aesthetic reasons (and let’s face it – this is most of us!).
With social media bombarding us with constant booty shots, transformations, best exercises for butt-building, I thought it was about time we addressed the ins and outs of glute training.
Let’s start with some anatomy-
The gluteal muscle group is made up of 3 gluteus muscles: maximus (one of the strongest muscles in the body) minimus & medius & then the piriformus.
They are responsible for the following movements:
- hip extension- moving your leg backwards & extending your trunk
- hip abduction- moving your leg laterally/ to the side
- hip external rotation-rotating your leg or your trunk
- posterior pelvic tilt- rotating your pelvis rearwards
Why do we need to have strong Glutes?
Well if you’re athletic it’s because they are a key component to pretty much ALL movements that involve any sort of running/ sprinting, throwing, jumping, twisting, side to side movements just to name a few- so if you are playing any sports a strong set of glutes are exceedingly important. For example a rugby player will be sprinting, pushing other team members, kicking, throwing & jumping all in one session.
Any type of physique competitor will also always want a good set of glutes & the bikini division is pretty much judged on the best glutes alone.
However even if you’re not any of the above, having strong glutes is also highly important for general health & well-being. So many people suffer from lower back pain or knee pain.
Strong glutes generally mean you use your quads less & your hips more. When you are particularly quad dominant you will be using these more in every day movements which can put excess load on/around your patella (knee) joint. Strong glutes will also help with abduction & external rotation which helps to keep your knees from caving in.
With lower back pain- a lot of the time this can be the result of too much spinal movement and this is not only due to weak erectors. Having strong glutes means having the ability to use more range of movement from the hip instead of the spine, as well as strengthening your erectors in the various glute specific exercises.
Case study: James-
James came to me with a recurring knee issue- he suffered badly from patellofemoral pain & his knee joint was permanently inflamed resulting in an inability to do any sports- in particular skiing but also preventing him from doing his daily commute to work on bicycle. After several visits to various specialists he was told that is was simply a case of ‘aging’ & should he want it fixed the solution would likely be an operation.
After an initial postural & movement study I was able to ascertain that James had hugely over dominant quads & barely any glute strength. He walked mainly on his toes & kept most of his weight on the balls & toes of his feet, sometimes not even putting his heels on the floor. The result being that his glutes never did any work!
After several sessions where we concentrated firstly on glute activation, then strength work, then increasing this- he slowly started to transfer strength over to his posterior chain & specifically his glutes. We re-trained him to push his foot position forward on his bike pedals so he was then pushing through the heel of his foot & using his glutes & hamstrings more to cycle with.
James knee pain gradually disappeared after many years, no operation was needed & he now cycles 2 hours every day skis pain free. He continues to do his glutes specific exercises every week.
So moving onto how to actually strength & grow a decent pair….
I have to say that personally have real experience in this area. During my entire career as a professional ballerina for 10 years I don’t think I ever really used my glutes at all. My butt was a flat as pancake- no joke. I always thought this was genetically how I was built which isn’t unfortunately isn’t like someone of African-American descent & while genetics do play a role in muscular development to a certain degree- by no means should it be used as an excuse!
A few years of weight training in a regular way still didn’t bring about much change & even when I competed in my first bikini competition I wouldn’t say they were much to boast about. It wasn’t until I started doing some specific research, training them with specific exercises & really lifting heavy with intensity that I saw any progress.
On the other hand you could be genetically blessed with nice full rounded pair without having to do any work but remember that a big butt doesn’t necessarily mean strong glutes.
Now if you play sports then you will have a programme designed around your specific needs for that – what I will be discussing here is more for strength improvements in weight training & for aesthetics although there is no reason why everyone can’t benefit from this!
What we need to consider when training Glutes
The major keys points to take into consideration are:
- muscle hypertrophy (growth) & what causes it
- exercise selection
- training frequency
Being able to activate & also maintain activation during an exercise I put this at the top of the tree because if you can’t actually activate your glutes then everything else is pointless. The easiest way to do this is either with body weight or mini- resistance band exercises which you can do for 5-10 mins every day until your glutes fire up nicely.
(I have posted a link below to the mini resistance band I think is one of the best to use (A)). Glute activation for a couple of minutes before a session can help you feel movements to a greater degree, and this in turn can lead to a greater mind-muscle connection during your actual training.
There are 3 key components to eliciting muscular hypertrophy & while I’m not going to elaborate too much on them it’s important to know what is happening & why.
Muscle damage- the amount of damage we are doing to muscle tissue. While micro tears to tissue do indeed trigger hypertrophic growth, we are not solely aiming to make as much damage as possible. You only want to create enough damage that you can recover from. If you did ALL your Glute work in one session you would not only be aching for days but also about half of that would be less effective than if you split it up. To create muscle damage, you need to apply proper loading through a full ROM and keep control, especially during the eccentric portion of the lift.
Mechanical tension- the amount of tension created when a muscle is either contracted or stretched. Hypertrophy is achieved with this through several mechanisms such as activating satellite cells, the release of growth factor & cytokines & activating the mTOR pathway. In the gym mechanical tension can be applied by ensuring you use a load that is challenging.
Metabolic stress- the stress change that muscle cells undergo during in the metabolic environment during the exercise. So in layman’s terms this just means feeling the ‘burn & pump’ – don’t skimp on the volume.
Volume- the amount of overall sets per session
The best way to categorise Glute specific exercises is by doing it the Bret Contreras way & split them into 3 categories- Activators, Stretchers & Pumpers.
These exercises are when the tension occurs most in the muscle is contracted & shortened & when performed with a heavy load can take a few days to recover properly from (around 2-4 days- trainee dependant).
Exercise examples: Hip thrust, standing cable hip abduction, high step ups, cable kick backs, cable pull throughs, etc.
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Starting off the week strong with 120kg for 6 reps on the final set of hip thrusts. • Since hitting a training plateau for a few weeks I decided last week to switch things up. Our bodies adapt to doing the same kind of training & unless you’re an athlete performing a specific sport then it can be good to diversify your training from time to time. • Last week involved 2x training sessions a day where one was heavy lifting & the other a more metcon style with sprints , battle ropes etc thrown in amongst higher rep weight lifting with the aim to over reach. • The goal? To become fitter overall because while I’m decent with weights I felt I’d been ignoring the conditioning side. • I felt pretty shattered after 11x sessions last week so the weekend was pretty chilled. After an awesome massage it’s back to hitting the big weights this morning 👊🏼 • What are you doing to achieve your fitness goals? #fitnessgoals #fitnesslifestyle #positivevibes #girlswholift #gluteworkout #fitnessmotivation
These will generally use a larger range of movement & require more time to recover from if performed with intensity (around 2-4 days- trainee dependant).
They can be performed with both heavy & lighter weight ranges. When the muscle is at its maximal lengthened position is where the most tension occurs.
Exercise examples: Side lying hip abduction, Bulgarian split squats, lunges, squats, Romanian deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, etc.
These exercises are where you will mostly feel the burn & get a good pump since they elicit the highest amount of metabolic stress. Best done in a high rep range & because they use a lighter or no weight, you can easily recover from these within a day or 2.
Exercise examples: side lying clam, banded lateral walk, seated abduction, elevated Glute bridge, frog pumper, etc.
A good training session might include a light activator, followed by a heavy stretcher or activator, and a high-rep pumper. It’s really common to see people doing only pumpers and light activators – to be clear, you see these on Instagram because they show off your glutes, not because they build them. The glutes, like all muscles, contain both fast and slow twitch fibres, yet it’s the fast twitch ones that have the greatest capacity for growth. To hit those you need to do the heavy work, too!
4. Training frequency-
While studies by Schoenfield & Contreras (1) have shown that training more than one a week will result in better growth, there are no studies yet that show training 3 or 4x per week are better than 2x for hypertrophy. With this being said, since total overall training volume is a key component to maximal results, as demonstrated in a 2014 paper by Schoenfield et al (2), it makes sense that if you want to grow your glutes you should ideally train them 2-4x weekly. It’s not the case that you should just go for the top end of this, however, since there is also a point of diminishing returns.
Frequency per week depends on a couple of other factors: how advanced a trainee you are, your exercise selection & total volume. Generally you will have faster recovery time the more advanced a lifter you are, though this also means you’ll be using more weight meaning greater training stress. This means that more advanced lifters tend to split their volume up a little more.
The type of lifts you perform- the heavier lifts such as back squats, sumo deadlifts and barbell plate loaded hip thrusts will usually require more time to recover than if you just did some band work of body weight training
It goes without saying that using a variety of these exercises within a programme is going to bring about the most amount of adaptation as is the case with most weight training systems- even power lifters use accessory lifts to aid the main ones. The main thing you need to consider is the amount of recovery time required given the exercises being performed on any one day is g to bring about change & growth effectively.
There are many ways to do this for instance in:
-2/3 days programme you could include 2-3 exercises, having some from each category then have 2 days recovery between sessions
-4 day programme involving a day of heavier lifting followed by a day of lighter weights with more pumper exercises, repeated twice throughout the week.
Of course this would then be placed into a generally balanced program, and as always it would be accompanied by an appropriate nutritional approach.
….But surely in order to get big & strong glutes all I need to do is squat? Well actually no.
The arse that squats built?
A study done by Contreras, Schoenfield & Beardsley in 2015 (3) showed that ‘The barbell hip thrust elicited significantly greater EMG activity’- meaning that the hip thrust is a far superior exercises when it comes to Glute activity than the squat, though this doesn’t mean you should abandon the basics. Doing both ensures more balanced development, useful for aesthetics, strength or performance.
So yes- while squats are a great compound exercise for strength, if you want to build a booty you won’t do it by squatting alone!
On that, a 2015 paper by Contreras, Beardsley et al (4) showed that Glute activation didn’t vary significantly in either front, full or parallel squats, so don’t be one of those people that squats high because you’re ‘targeting your glutes’.
So now you know the ins, outs & science behind Glute training there’s no reason for all of you not to post that infamous ‘Booty’ Instagram selfie! If you, do be sure to tag me in ==>@pollycwt
** Thanks to Polly for this great article. Please follow her on Instagram and if you are after an intermediate level training plan that incorporates some of these exercises look no further than my Beach Booty Program ==>CLICK HERE
- Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. Schoenfeld BJ1, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Sonmez GT, Alvar BA. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24714538
- INFLUENCE OF RESISTANCE TRAINING FREQUENCY ON MUSCULAR ADAPTATIONS IN WELL-TRAINED MEN. Contreras, Schoenfeld et al. https://bretcontreras.com/wp-content/uploads/Influence-of-Resistance-Training-Frequency-on-Muscular-Adaptations-in-Well-Trained-Men.pdf
- A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises. Bret Contreras et al. ,4Strength and Conditioning Research Limited; 5Edith Cowan University https://bretcontreras.com/wp-content/uploads/A-Comparison-of-Gluteus-Maximus-Biceps-Femoris-and-Vastus-Lateralis-Electromyographic-Activity-in-the-Back-Squat-and-Barbell-Hip-Thrust-Exercises-.pdf
- A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyography Amplitude in the Parallel, Full, and Front Squat Variations in Resistance-Trained Females. Bret Contreras et al. 4Strength and Conditioning Research Limited; 5Edith Cowan University https://bretcontreras.com/wp-content/uploads/A-Comparison-of-Gluteus-Maximus-Biceps-Femoris-and-Vastus-Lateralis-Electromyography-Amplitude-in-the-Parallel-Full-and-Front-Squat-Variations-in-Resistance-Trained-Females.pdf