Think beyond the conventional glute exercises everyone’s been doing. If you’re serious about building a strong backside, add these to your training.
I wrote an article called Glutes Gone Wild in which I shared a bunch of exercises to help you build a butt you can be proud of without beating up your lower back and knees in the process.
This article picks up right where that one left off, giving you eight more variations to bolster your booty-building arsenal. Think of it as one article for each cheek.
Properly performed Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are one of my all-time favorite exercises for developing the glutes and hamstrings. Trouble is, far too often they’re butchered worse than a Christmas ham.
As a small tangent, let me first make it clear that a RDL is not a “stiff-legged deadlift.”
In a stiff-legged deadlift, you keep the knees locked out and bend forward like you’re trying to touch your toes. However, if you do the exercise in this fashion – especially under heavy load – you’re asking for trouble.
Maybe it’s because I’ve gone through so many serious back problems, but I cringe every time I see someone doing stiff-legged deadlifts and wish they’d be ditched in favor of the RDL – which is far safer for the lower back, not to mention a superior glute exercise.
The RDL is a hip hinge where you maintain a slight bend in your knees while pushing your butt back as far as you can.
Lower down only as far as you can go and still maintain a flat back. Go too low and you risk hurting your lower back. By the same token, it’s easy to let your ego get the best of you as the weight gets heavier and you start cutting more and more reps, which you also don’t want.
With that in mind, I’ve found it can be extremely helpful to do your RDLs in the power rack with the pins set at the proper depth. This way you know just how low to go and don’t have to worry about it throughout your set. Think of it like using a box for a depth gauge with squats.
Set the pins at a level that allows you to keep good spinal positioning. When in doubt, or if you’re in between pins, err on the side of the higher setting. You can always lower it as your flexibility improves.
Another thing I like about doing them in the rack is that it forces you to control the eccentric portion of the rep to avoid bouncing the bar off the pins. Place it down gently, pause for a second, and come back up.
With regular RDLs, it’s easy to let your form deteriorate as the set goes on and start relying on momentum to help move the weight, but starting each rep from a dead stop reflexively teaches you to stay tight throughout, which protects the lower back.
You should initially reduce the weight as you adjust to the new technique, but it shouldn’t take long before you’re back up to using just as much weight as you could with regular RDLs – only now you’ll be feeling them in all the right places, keeping yourself healthy, and using a full range of motion on every rep.
I’ve been a bit slow to come around to single-leg RDLs, which is odd because it seems like an exercise that’d be right up my alley given that I love RDLs, single-leg work, and virtually anything geared towards building up the caboose.
For some reason though, I’ve always struggled with the balancing aspect to the point that I don’t feel like I’m working my glutes and hamstrings to their full capacity. It’s gotten significantly better with practice, but I’m still not entirely comfortable with them.
If you find yourself in a similar boat, landmine single-leg RDLs may be the answer. Stand on your left leg facing the landmine unit with the bar in your right hand about an inch in front of your right thigh. Keeping a flat back, hinge at the hips as you reach your right leg straight back behind you while lowering your right arm towards the floor.
It should look like this:
When loading with dumbbells or a barbell, there’s a strong tendency to reach your arms too far out in front of you as you lower down, which pitches you forward and makes it tricky to keep your weight back on the heel of the working leg where you want it, thereby putting more strain on the lower back.
You don’t have to worry about that issue with the landmine because the bar travels on a fixed arc, so it automatically puts you in the correct position every rep and lets you get in a good rhythm.
It also allows you to reap the benefits of offset contralateral loading with far greater loading potential than holding a single heavy dumbbell. I do like holding a dumbbell in the opposite hand of the leg being worked, but I find that once I get over 50-60 pounds, it becomes very awkward to stabilize. With the landmine, I’m able to load it up as heavy as I can handle without any issues.
You can also set up perpendicular to the landmine that – due to the arc of the barbell – creates a “cross-body” reaching effect. Set up with the bar directly in front of “the goods,” just to the side of the working leg so that when you reach the floor, it’s directly in front of the foot.
Confused? This video should help clarify.
In the first version, the motion occurs almost entirely in the sagittal plane (although admittedly it requires stabilization in the frontal and transverse planes), but here you’re adding in a transverse plane component, which increases glute recruitment by forcing the hip external rotators to fire harder.
I find this version even easier to balance than the one where you’re facing the landmine, but I don’t like the idea of loading it up heavy once you introduce the rotational component. I’d probably recommend using this variation with lighter loads to familiarize yourself with the movement and then transition to the other way when you’re ready to start crushing some weight.
Play around with both ways and see what feels best to you.
Another bonus to using the landmine is that since you’re holding onto the fat end of the barbell, it’s great for building grip strength. The downside to that though is that as you start get stronger, you may find that your grip becomes the limiting factor. If that’s the case, just use straps.
Lastly, if you don’t have a specific landmine unit to secure the barbell, place it in a corner with a towel over the tip (so you don’t scuff up the walls and draw the ire of the gym staff) and place a heavy dumbbell on top to keep it from shifting around. Problem solved.
I like single-leg barbell glute bridges more than bilateral barbell glute bridges because despite the load being significantly lighter, I feel an even bigger contraction in my glutes when I do them.
Moreover, because the load is a lot lighter, it’s also much more comfortable on the neck and hips, and there’s a lot less of a tendency to slide back on the floor like there is with heavy bilateral glute bridges. Plus, you don’t have to bother with loading and unloading a heavy-ass barbell at the end of your workout.
To make the single leg version even more intense, try offsetting the load by adding slightly more weight on the ipsilateral side (i.e. the side of the working leg) like so:
It won’t take much weight at all to notice a huge difference. As a point of reference, if you’re doing anywhere under 135 pounds of total load, a 10 pound differential will be about all you can handle. Anything over that and a 20-25 pound differential will be more than enough. Trust me, the contraction from these is insane.
To counteract the additional loading, you’ll need to position yourself a few inches closer to the more heavily weighted side to stabilize the bar on your hips. It might seem that the bar shifting and offset loading would counteract each other, but give it a try. It just feels different and the glutes fire harder.
Start the set by bridging up on both legs and getting yourself situated before removing the other foot from the picture, as that seems to help the set go more smoothly than just starting the set on one leg.
The downside to this one is after you finish one side, you have to physically get out from underneath the bar and face the other direction before doing the other side. Boo hoo. As mildly annoying as that might seem (suck it up), I think you’ll find that after a hard set your glutes will need the break anyway.
I also experimented with offsetting the load on the contralateral side and played around with offset loading for bilateral glute bridges as well as bilateral and unilateral hip thrusts, but I didn’t have as much luck with any of those. They sounded good in theory but didn’t pan out in reality.
Single-leg hip thrusts are quickly becoming one of my favorite glute exercises. I actually like the bodyweight version and for many people, that’ll be sufficient for quite a while. Eventually though, bodyweight will no longer be challenging and you’ll need to add some load.
At first, the best way to add weight seems to be draping chains or weighted vests on your lap, but this can become cumbersome after about 40-50 pounds, so you’ll probably find that you’ll need to use a barbell.
It’s tough to balance the barbell at first though, so start by bridging up on two legs and lowering down on one. Keep the eccentrics on the slow side, and make sure you’re really controlling the weight.
Once you feel stable with that, you can then try the full single-leg version. Again, it’s useful to use slow eccentrics in the beginning to make sure you’re controlling the weight, and it also helps with learning how to stabilize the hips and pelvis so the bar doesn’t tip. Remember, using slower eccentrics will require you to use substantially less weight than you think you might be ready for, so plan accordingly.
The last step would be to do the exercise normally – still under control, but just not so slowly.
As with any bridging or thrusting variation, a good rule is that you should always be able to squeeze and hold the contraction at the top for a one-second pause. If you can’t, the weight is too heavy. Pausing the reps at the top also helps to ensure that you’re using your glutes and not just hyperextending from the lumbar spine.
That’s an important point to note. If you’re feeling this exercise in your back, you’re not doing it right and you probably need to lighten the load or slow down the movement (or both) and focus on doing it correctly. I find that for me, the unilateral version is more back-friendly than the bilateral version (probably just because of the lighter loads), but the point still applies.
Happy thrusting my friends.
I got the idea for this one from one of my readers, Matt, after writing Leg Curls 2.0. Matt wrote to me suggesting that I try a hip thrust combined with a Valslide leg curl.
So basically, it’d be a hip thrust where you start with your legs extended and slide them in as you thrust up. It seemed like a great idea, so I dropped what I was doing, got out my Valslides, and tried them leaning against my couch. While it’s a cool idea, I found it very awkward to perform a simultaneous hip thrust and leg curl without dipping the hips, and it just didn’t quite feel right.
Of course, maybe it was just too hard for me.
That being said, it got my wheels turning and I kept playing around with it and found that combining a single-leg hip thrust with an eccentric leg curl works really well. As in, it absolutely smokes the glutes and hamstrings.
Perform a single-leg hip thrust until your torso is parallel to the floor and you have a straight line going from your knee to your shoulder (the tibia will be about perpendicular to the floor). From there, maintain that line (which means you have to keep the glutes contracted) while you slide your leg out to full extension. Tap your butt down, return your foot to the starting position, and repeat. The key is to control the eccentric.
Here’s what it looks like in action.
I also tried it bilaterally, and while it’s okay, I like the unilateral version much better. You can also put a light chain across your waist to increase the difficulty if need be.
Beyond just the exercise though, this is a great example of respectful dialogue leading to something good. I appreciate that Matt sent me a message, and I ended up learning something useful from it, and now you will, too. I appreciate all your comments (well, most of them anyway) and please never hesitate to give me feedback as I’m always down to learn something new.
That’s probably a good place to end. By now you’ve got more than enough artillery to build a praiseworthy posterior, but before you can build up your butt, you’ve got to get off your butt and get into the gym. I can’t do that part for you.