Among the largest and certainly the most powerful muscles of the body, the gluteal muscles are essential to athletes and average Joes alike. Strong glutes help athletes propel themselves forward, make sharp cuts from side to side, lift bigger weights, and prevent common overuse injuries. Possibly their most important function, the glutes support the lower back and prevent the nagging pain that haunts so much of the population.
Strength coaches and personal trainers have praised squats, lunges and leg-presses as the ultimate butt-building exercises for generations, though a lot of recent research shows otherwise. A 2006 American Council on Exercise study determined that bodyweight quadruped leg extensions activated both the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius muscles more than one-rep max squats.
Training the Glutes Effectively
Exercises like squats, vertical jumps, deadlifts, and static lunges apply vertical loads, and primarily deal with hip extension. Under normal conditions, muscles contract best when at resting length, meaning that the gluteal muscles contract most forcefully during hyperextension. This explains why unloaded hip bridges and back extensions, hyperextension-related movements, activate the glutes more than heavy squats.
Most athletes and bodybuilders, groups that generally have the best developed backsides in the population, still have embarrassingly weak glutes. Training the glutes to their full potential can produce incredible performance improvements. The first step in this process is learning proper firing patterns with simple bodyweight exercises like hip bridges, quadruped hip extensions, and hip flexor stretches.
Glute Activation Exercises
Try the following glute activation exercises to strengthen the glutes:
Hip Bridge: Lay face-up on the floor with your knees bent 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor. Rest your arms down by your sides, or move them farther out if you have difficulty balancing. Brace your stomach as if someone is about to punch it; this technique helps support your spine during this exercise. Lift your hips off the floor until your thighs and torso are in a straight line, initiating the movement by squeezing your glutes. Hold the top position for five seconds to complete one repetition. Do two or three sets of ten repetitions.
Quadruped Hip Extension: Begin with your hands and knees on the floor, keeping your stomach tight. Maintaining a 90-degree angle at the knee, raise one leg behind you until you reach a slight hip hyperextension. Try to initiate the movement with the active leg’s glute and contract the muscle strongly at the top of the range of motion. Lower the leg back to the starting position to complete a repetition. Perform ten repetitions with each leg.
Hip Flexor Stretch: Start with your feet together and step forward with your right leg into a lunge. Gently lower your left knee to the ground. Without bending forward at the waist, clench your left glute and shift your weight onto your front leg. You should feel a stretch near the top of your right thigh, just below your hipbone. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds and repeat the process for the other side. This type of stretch usually provides the most benefit after working out or after massaging the hip flexors to loosen them and increase blood flow. Most people in our society have chronically tight hip flexors, a direct result of unnaturally long hours sitting. Reducing hip flexor tightness is an immensely important factor in improving glute activation.
Benefits of Glute Training
In addition to the appealing visual by-product, a perfectly sculpted butt, improving gluteal muscle-recruitment patterns can dramatically enhance athletic ability. After several weeks of learning how to fire the muscles powerfully, you can incorporate weighted hyperextension movements to help the glutes reach their full potential.