Something like 60% of the clients I’ve trained over the years are women. One of the things pretty much all of these female clients have in common is that they want a lean and curvy physique, and they want to prioritize glute training. Also, while most of the male clients I’ve trained emphasise upper body training, I always make sure the glutes are trained adequately and correctly. After all, the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body. In other words, I’ve got some experience with glute training. Clearly not as much as the glute guy himself, Bret Contreras, but I think I can provide some valuable insights. In this post I’m going to give a broad overview of my take on glute training, explain the most common issues I see people struggle with, and show you how you can harvest all the benefits of the squat, box squat, deadlift, and hip thrust.
Athleticism and aesthetics
It’s believed that one of the primary reasons humans evolved such large and strong glutes is that it served as an adaptation to life in the wild, where we had to run long distances to chase down large prey.
Evidence for when the gluteus maximus became enlarged in human evolution is equivocal, but the muscle’s minimal functional role during walking supports the hypothesis that enlargement of the gluteus maximus was likely important in the evolution of hominid running capabilities (1).
A strong butt is essential for maintaining good back health, being able to sprint fast, and lift heavy weights. Also, besides the actual functions of the gluteals, the buttocks is often considered the primary sexual presentation site in primates. Here’s what Wikipedia notes:
Evolutionary psychologists suggest that rounded buttocks may have evolved to be desirable trait because they provide a visual indication of the woman’s youth and fertility. They signal the presence of estrogen and the presence of sufficient fat stores for pregnancy and lactation. Additionally, the buttocks give an indication of the shape and size of the pelvis, which impacts reproductive capability. Since development and pronunciation of the buttocks begins at menarche and declines with age, full buttocks are also a symbol of youth (2).
Weak glutes are everywhere
The gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus are in many ways some of the hardest muscles to train correctly. While most people have no problem blasting their pecs or getting a serious bicep pump, the majority of trainees don’t know how to optimally engage their glutes during training. Why? If you’ve taken a look around, you’ve probably seen what most trainers and coaches have to deal with on a daily basis; gluteal atrophy is literally an epidemic.
People all over the world are spending the majority of their time sitting, whether it’s in their cars, at work, at school, or in front of the TV or computer. In combination with imbalanced training and poor exercise technique in the gym, this type of prolonged sitting leads to strong/tight psoas and erector spinae, weak/lengthened gluteals and rectus abdominis, and other imbalances that characterize the lower crossed syndrome/excessive anterior pelvic tilt.
This comes back to one of the main themes on this site; the mismatch between our ancient physiology and the western lifestyle.
The vast majority of people don’t train their glutes effectively
What happens when people join a gym and start training in an attempt to improve their physique and regain control of their glutes? More often than not, they sign up for group training sessions that promise to “burn” the fat off the thighs and strengthen, tighten, and tone up the butt. They might hit the weights for 15 minutes after the Tabata session is done, but they never go heavy. Cardio and hundreds of repetitions of various “glute exercises” are performed, but the results don’t show. Why? Well, as anyone with some experience with training the glutes – or any other muscle group for that matter – knows, you have to train correctly, and you have to train heavy. Playing around with some pink dumbbells or stepping up and down on a box hundreds of times isn’t going to give you that perky booty you’re looking for.
So, what to do? Should you run like your prehistoric ancestors did? Well, no. Strength training is what really gives you the most bang for the buck; you have to hit the weights, and you have to hit it hard. Heavy resistance training is the way to go for both men and women who want to build a strong, good-looking backside. However, this brings us back to what I mentioned above. The glutes are tricky to train correctly. Even those people who’ve realised that heavy squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts are the way to go for building great glutes don’t always see their backside responding. Why? They are performing the exercises the wrong way.
During my first couple of years as a personal trainer I definitely knew that technique was essential for optimal results, but I hadn’t yet realised how important it is – especially if your goal is to build a better butt. It takes some time to really understand exactly how squats, deadlifts, and other compound lifts should be performed in order to maximize the recruitment of the posterior chain.
Pretty much every time I meet a new client and assess their exercise technique, I see a set of characteristic errors. In the squat and other similar exercises, a lot of people – regardless of whether they are men or women, or beginners or intermediates – will display quad dominant lifting, knee drift, faulty weight distribution, and poor recruitment of the gluteals. In the deadlift, trainees often drop their hips too low, let their knees drift forward, and fail to drive through their heels. In the hip thrust and other exercises that specifically target the glutes, many gym goers will anteriorly tilt their pelvis, thereby putting too much stress on the lower back and failing to really hammer the glutes. And the list goes on…
So, what is happening here? Well, it all comes back to what I talked about above, when people with poor glute strength and/or signs of muscle imbalance patterns such as LCS don’t get proper instructions and coaching, compensation patterns often occur during training. In other words, they drift into their normal movement pattern, strengthen muscles that are already strong, and fail to put the posterior chain in a position to lift heavy. It’s nothing wrong with the exercise, it’s their technique that’s the problem.
There’s no doubt that poor form is the major reason so many people have trouble getting their glutes to fire properly during training, and taking control of your technique in the multi-joint compound lifts should therefore be on the top of your list of priorities if your goal is to stay injury free and build a great backside.
A step-by-step plan for building glutes
Although every client is different, there are some common issues that explain why so many people aren’t able to effectively train their glutes:
- Poor glute strength/glute athropy
- Lack of kinesthetic awareness
- Tight hip flexors
- Quad dominance
- Inability to hip hinge correctly
- Excessive anterior pelvic tilt
- Compensation patterns
So, what to do? Can we simply move right on to heavy deadlifts, squats, and hip thrusts? No. Although, sadly, this is what most gym goers do when they haven’t gotten any instructions. Unless they stick with group training and cardio of course.
When you look at the list above, all of this might seem like a hopeless mess. However, it really isn’t, as long as you are familiar with the causes of these issues and have a strategy to deal with them. Also, most of these problems are connected; meaning that if you take care of one of them, the others usually improve as well.
What I’ve discovered is that the traditional approach to many of these issues, such as hip flexor stretches, ab training, and other drills that focus specifically on strengthening the weak muscle groups and stretching the stiff ones, usually isn’t the best way to go. Rather, I like to put a lot of emphasis on learning good movement patterns, and I prioritize the glutes. Why? Because when you strengthen the glutes and learn how to move correctly, you understand how to lift with good technique.
I’ve developed a plan that I’ve used successfully for a long time. This plan is somewhat similar to the approach I use when dealing with anterior pelvic tilt (APT), as the type of muscle imbalance pattern present in APT is often at the root of poor glute training. Clearly, there is no one size fits all, but this plan is effective for the vast majority of people, as the exercises and drills described are something everyone should master.
- Do you master all the fundamentals? Start directly at step 4.
- Are you overweight? Besides performing heavy glute training, you also have to get your body fat levels down if your goals are primarily aesthetic.
- Are you only interested in glutes and want to avoid building your hamstrings and quadriceps? Prioritize hip thrusts, pull throughs, and other “isolated” glute exercises.
Step 1: Learn to fire the glutes and posteriorly tilt the pelvis
Lying and standing pelvic tilt (with glute squeeze) are excellent exercises for this purpose. From this point on, squeeze your glutes/tilt the pelvis when performing exercises such as the plank (RKC plank), press, pushdown, and bicep curl.
Step 2: Learn and ingrain the hip hinge pattern
Mastering the hip hinge pattern is absolutely essential if you want to build your glutes, as many of the major hip dominant exercises, such as the box squat, deadlift, and swing, are based on this movement pattern. I’ve found that the pull through (with a band) is a great exercise for learning the hip hinge. I’ll have the client finish the concentric part of the lift by tilting the pelvis and squeezing the glutes.
Step 3. Strengthen the glutes with cable pull throughs
Before moving on to weighed hip thrusts, squats, and deadlifts, I like to begin with weighed pull throughs. Why? Since the cable is attached begin the lifter, he/she is forced into a posterior weight shift. When you understand how to tilt the pelvis and hip hinge correctly, there should be no problem performing the weighed pull through. Perform multiple sets (4+) for high-reps (10-15). Keep your chest high, but don’t overarch your back. At this point, adding in some glute activation exercises, such as bodyweight hip thrusts and glute bridges, is also a good idea. Hip flexor stretches and ab training can also speed up the progress.
Step 4: Learn good technique in the compound lifts, and perform heavy glute training
Move on to deadlifts, box squats, squats, and hip thrusts. When learning the compound lifts, I’ve found that the box squat is often a better choice than the regular back squat, as it forces you to sit back, thereby maximally recruiting the posterior chain. Start with light weights.
In the deadlift and squat, make sure you set up correctly, drive through your heels, and finish by squeezing the glutes (especially in the beginning). In the hip thrust, make sure you’re not overarching your lower back. Lock out with your glutes!
For someone who wants to prioritize glute training, I would do both squats and deadlifts, but I also recommend incorporating “isolated” glute exercises, such as the hip thrust, glute bridge, and pull through. For those who are really committed, hitting the gluteus medius and minimus with specific exercises can also provide additional benefits. If your goal is to primarily build a better butt, you should hit the glutes multiple times per week. The glutes can take it.
I tend to prefer 8-12 reps in the hip thrust and 5-10 reps in the squat, box squat, and deadlift. However, there’s no reason you can’t mix things up with some occasional low-rep hip thrusting and high-rep training of the compound lifts. Remember, when you master the technique, you have to stack on the weight and focus on progressive overload.
Here are a couple of pictures showing you how to engage the glutes during these lifts.
Bottom line: Glute training isn’t as straight forward as it may seem. The squat and deadlift are effective glute exercises, but many lifters (I would actually say the majority) perform them incorrectly and therefore fail to harvest many of the beneficial effects of these multi-joint movements. In other words, make sure your exercise technique is in order, and then hammer the glutes with heavy back squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, pull throughs, and box squats.