What’s the best way to build strong glutes that also make every jaw in the gym drop? We ask the experts.
What’s your best tip for building strong, great-looking glutes?
Building great glutes requires two paths: the progressive overload path and the mind-muscle connection path. Start off your lower body workout with an exercise that allows you to move big weights, such as a back squat, hip thrust, sumo deadlift, or leg press. Try to set personal records on a regular basis on these big lifts, for example a new 5 RM PR or a new 3 x 8 PR. Take ample rest between sets.
Then finish off with smaller movements such as dumbbell frog pumps (see pic below), knee-banded dumbbell glute bridges, or bodyweight back extensions and go for feel.
Don’t necessarily count reps but squeeze the glutes and focus on quality. Use higher reps on these with shorter rest periods. Combining these two methods will absolutely develop your glutes to their maximum potential.
When’s the last time you saw a high level powerlifter with a small ass? You can’t build a house without a foundation, so start building it.
I see a lot of bikini and figure competitors messing around in the gym with isolation exercises to target their glutes and completely neglecting compound movements in their programs. You’re not going to build a big bubble butt by sitting on machines and pumping out light reps all day. Concentrate on building the foundation first and then all of your accessory exercises will be more beneficial to your overall physique.
My top three picks for building glutes would be low-bar squats, sumo deadlifts (shown below with a pause), and Bulgarian split squats.
This doesn’t mean you need to go and train like a powerlifter, but you can add these exercises to any program for hypertrophy. Try adding some manipulations to the exercises to work on strength and target specific areas. For example, hold and squeeze your glutes at the top of a sumo pull for 3-5 seconds on each rep or add some 5 second negatives.
It’s been proven time and again that while the glutes are “activated” during these compound exercises, for most, squatting and deadlifting aren’t enough to actually build the glutes. The legs end up sharing (and often hogging) the tension.
Sure, for the select few, squats and deadlifts might be enough to get some well developed glutes. But the majority of people will need more to maximize glute development.
So let’s start with what the musculature of the glutes actually does. The glute medius is responsible for stabilizing the pelvis when it’s in a neutral position when we’re on one leg and when we’re abducting the hips. You really can’t beat the split squat and the hip abductor: the “bad girl” machine. Yes, it does actually have a purpose other than embarrassing everybody near it.
With the split squat, there are a few cues to remember. For one, if you’re doing these with the rear leg on a bench, think about the knee of that leg going down and back as you keep the weight on the heal of the planted foot. This will help you load the glutes instead of getting too much knee flexion on the planted foot, which loads the quads more. Also make sure and use iso-holds at the end of each set for about 10 seconds, only coming about three-fourths of the way back up. This will really torch the glute medius.
You may find the reverse lunge version makes your glutes scream even louder. And yes, you can do it in the Smith machine:
As for hip abduction, well, some say it’s not functional, but if you want to build a big cannon butt, then it works just fine. Just use it better.
For starters, hold each rep for 5 seconds then use a 5 second eccentric (negative) as well. When you hit failure, use your arms to push your legs out and do 5 forced reps like this. Do 3 sets of 15 this way with 5 forced reps on top of it and tell me if your glutes aren’t destroyed.
As for the glute max, focus mainly on hip extension. The hip thrust is great for this, however most people go way too heavy on these, which often keeps the glutes from really getting into a maximally contracted position. It’s better to go light and bust out sets of 20 reps with a 3-second hold at the top of every rep to build a stronger mind-muscle connection and time under tension than it is to slap on some world record poundage.
Make sure and get the toes pointed slightly outwards so that there’s some external hip rotation going on. You won’t get maximal glute contraction without it.
I keed, I keed. When it comes to developing a great set of glutes it’s important to not be too “absolutist” in the exercises you gravitate towards. Some people will say you should only perform hip thrust and barbell glute bridges to build an impressive derriere. Conversely, there are those people who feel the only thing you need is heavy squats and deadlifts.
It’s the strength and conditioning community’s version of West Side Story.
“Hip thrusts are better.”
“No! Squats are better.”
Cue dance-off knife fight.
The fact of the matter is, everyone is right. Hip extensor moment arms are going to vary depending on the change in joint angles (degrees) that are involved with any given exercise. We’re going to get more glute recruitment the closer we get to terminal or 0 degrees of hip extension. Think: hip thrusts.
However, we also get more “stretch” or eccentric stress with high(er) degrees of hip extension. Think: squat.
Moreover, we can’t forget that one major function of the glutes is hip abduction.
All are important components for glute development, so stop arguing over semantics and appreciate that different shit works different shit. Try to include all of it in your programming.
One protocol I like to use with my clients, especially my females who are obsessed with glute training, is called the “5-10-15-20 Method.” The idea is to perform four glute-centric exercises in succession with the reps increasing each exercise.
- Heavy Squat or Deadlift x 5
- Kettlebell Swing x 10
- 1-Legged Hip Thrust x 15 reps per leg
- Seated Band Hip Abductions x 20
- Heavy Hip Thrust x 5
- Constant Tension Goblet Squat x 10
- Bodyweight Reverse Lunge, Deficit x 15 reps per leg
- Lateral Band Walk x 20 reps per leg
- “Heavy” is subjective here. So I’d prefer you do these workouts at the tail-end of a workout as a finisher. You’re not going to be using near maximal weights on these.
- Perform in circuit fashion with as little rest between each exercise as possible.
- Rest 60 seconds at the end and do a total of 2-3 rounds.
- Do it two times a week.
- Every time your kettlebell swings become squatty, a baby seal dies.
My best tip for those struggling to build strong, great-looking glutes is prioritization. Start every leg workout with something which engages and pre-fatigues the glutes.
When quads and other leg muscles are pushed to the max, the glutes kick in to assist. If you prioritize glute work at the beginning of every workout then you’ll notice their recruitment much more throughout the rest of the training session. So here are a few of my best suggestions for glutes:
- Hip Thrust or Glute Bridge: Hold the contracted position for a 2-second count on each rep.
- Bulgarian Split Squat: Do a drop set with iso-holds.
- Prowler Push: Take long, slow, deliberate strides with a moderate amount of weight loaded on the sled.
Try beginning each leg workout with one of those exercises. Rotate between each because they all activate glutes differently.
Sprinting is one of the best ways to work the posterior chain. But just like any exercise, there’s a technique involved to optimize performance and avoid injury. Take some time to study and practice good form, and possibly even get some coaching on it. A small investment will go a long way in the grand scheme of things.
I like dumbbell walking lunges for their unilateral component and the fact that you can modify the distance of your stride to better attack the glutes. Taking large strides while leaning forward at the torso is a great way to tax the glutes in (what damn near feels like) isolation. Using dumbbells instead of a barbell is smart because it puts the load closer to the hip joint. That means a smaller lever arm and less stress on the low back.
Lastly, we can’t talk about glutes without talking hip thrusts. The problem is people treat it like a powerlift and go way too heavy. This defeats the purpose. Why? Because most people do hip thrusts to activate and build the glutes specifically. If you start going heavy, other muscles will help out and then it’ll no longer isolate the glutes.
Think about it like this: Do you feel your 1-3 rep max back squat or deadlift only in your glutes? How about just your quads? No and no, right? You probably feel a general exertion and output coming from everywhere since they’re such heavily loaded compound movements. A true near-max, even with good form, will allow plenty of other muscles to kick in to help the lift.
So if you want to zero-in on glute development and aesthetics, then decrease the weight, do more reps, and concentrate on a peak contraction in the glutes so that they dominate during each rep.
The first thing to do if you want to improve your glutes is learn to involve them in the big basics, specifically the squat variations, which can be the absolute best way to build the glutes if done properly.
The problem is that most people are anterior chain dominant and never learned to produce tension in the glutes when squatting. It’s actually fairly simple, but when you focus on lifting big weights the body tends to go back to its default setting. If you’re anterior chain dominant, that means the quads will take over and the glutes will receive little, if any, stimulation.
Establishing proper tension is fairly easy: try to externally rotate your legs (imagine trying to screw your feet into the floor). This will increase a spiral tension that will activate the glutes. It’s not about pushing the knees out, although it might appear that way by opening up the hips.
Now here’s the thing: throughout the whole movement – eccentric, concentric and transition phases – you must maintain that spiral tension. If you lose it, your body will go back to its default and shift the stress to the quads.
At first it might require you to use less weight and a slower tempo just to practice maintaining that tension. But once it becomes automatic your squat will go up significantly because you’re now using two big muscles instead of one and you’ll also be more stable.
To really focus on the glutes, but also to work on establishing and maintaining that tension, I like to use paused squats: pausing for 2-3 seconds in the bottom position of each rep. But the key is not the pause itself, the secret is what you do during the pause.
- Pause about one inch above the ATG (ass to grass) position.
- During the pause maintain the spiral tension. In fact, exaggerate it. If you lose it, you defeat the purpose of the pause.
- Stand up directly from the paused position. Do not go down to take the bounce.
This is my favorite technique to maximize glute involvement in the squat. Of course it can only be used once you know how to create spiral tension.
People overload the barbell hip thrust and glute bridge exercises to the point of diminishing returns, especially when chasing the booty gains. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with loaded glute isolation exercises, people have no idea how to program these movements for glute growth while not tearing apart the lower back in the process.
If you’re hip thrusting with more weight than you use squatting, you’re doing something wrong. While the glutes should absolutely be trained directly under intensity and loading, make sure they’re the muscles doing the work. Due to the non-axial anterior to posterior loading that the bar on the hip provides, there’s a huge amount of executional error in thrust variations, some causing lower back flare-ups.
There are too many Instagram “models” hip thrusting damn near 1,000 pounds and athletes doing herky-jerky hip thrusts with eight wagon wheels per side. But is any of this beneficial?
People take it to the point of harm. Think about it. Is this dynamic movement, when uncontrolled and overloaded, actually originating from the glutes? Or is it just one hell of an impressive compensation that jacks up likes, shares, and your spinal health?
EMG research done by Dr. Stu McGill a few years back found that for isolated hip extension movements, like the hip thrust, around 300 pounds is the optimal load for the average individual to peak contractile force in the glutes. While 300 pounds is of course relative to the individual and the strength and stability in which they display, this number is a far cry from the type of bastardized glute work we see across the internet.
While you may be able to hip thrust over 300 pounds with pristine reps like the glute guy, Bret Contreras, chances are if you load them much heavier than that they’ll get sloppy quick.
So if you’ve got 500 pounds sitting across your lap, where is that movement coming from? Most likely compensatory spinal flexion and extension coupled with a loss of stability and pelvic control. That means it’s not going to make your glutes grow. If it’s not controlled, it’s not ideal for building muscle, getting strong, or staying healthy.
So, how should you train hip thrusts? Like so:
Use control, isometric flexes, and increased rep ranges of 8 and up. Get in the upper strength schemes; chase some higher rep hypertrophy and metabolic stress work. This will make your glutes the prime movers of the exercise, not the intervertebral discs (I’m only slightly joking here).
The glutes are primary stabilizers of the hip and spine and are capable of protecting you for a lifetime of impressive physicality, so train them as such.
To build strong, great looking glutes you need to combine two training factors: mechanical tension and metabolic stress.
Build a foundation around high tension exercises like squats, deadlifts, and of course hip thrusts. Pick 3-5 sets of 3-8 reps and progressively add weight to the bar. High-tension exercises focused on building strength will help you maximize muscle fiber recruitment, giving you stronger glutes while recruiting muscle fibers.
Once you increase muscle fiber recruitment, then fatigue those stubborn booty fibers so they grow. How? With the second factor, metabolic stress – the pump. When you combine resistance training with incomplete recovery, the build up of metabolites from your glutes workin’ double time triggers the muscle growth.
Here’s a sample workout:
- A. Back Squat (wide stance, feet externally rotated) – 4 x 5
- B1. Barbell Hip Thrust: 3 x 8-10, 6-8, 12-15 – rest 45 seconds
- B2. Dumbbell Step-Back Lunge: 3x8 per leg – rest 45 seconds
- The second set is the heaviest. Drop the weight and chase the pump on your last set.
- C. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 3 x 12 – rest 60-90 seconds
- D1. Kettlebell Swing: x 5
- D2. Kettlebell Squat: x 5
- D3. Kettlebell Goblet Step-Back Lunge: x 5
- Repeat the circuit as many times as you can in eight minutes.
- E. Lateral Band Walk Countdown: 1 x 10-1
- Do 10 lateral band walks down and back, then 9, then 8, and continue down to one.
The low-bar squat is my first choice as a base. Go as heavy as possible and work in the 6-12 rep range. Then do a circuit of as many isolation movements as you can think of. The more time under tension the better. The glutes are a big muscle group and need a lot of stimulation from this and actual heavy weight.
Do hip thrusts, glute bridges, GHRs, etc. in the rep ranges of 8-15. The trick here is to get a lot of static contraction for at least half of the set and really focusing on the glutes. With the GHR (glute-ham raise) for example, do 15 reps per set. The first half of the set, do a 5 second pause and squeeze hard at the top. If you’re doing a circuit of 4, at least 2 exercises need to be performed in this manner.
After you’ve exhausted your glutes completely, then finish with long-step lunges for 20-plus reps per leg. Good luck sitting after all that!