In recent years the glutes have gotten a bad rap, mostly because we seldom see fit derrieres on either men or women. For every fit butt I see, there are 50 bubble butts. Yet strong glutes are essential to any strength athlete because they are the source of power for a very wide range of physical activities, especially those involving running and jumping.
Some 3.2 million years ago the human pelvis underwent a major change in order to adapt to walking upright. The hip bones became broader and shorter to enlarge attachment areas for the gluteal muscles, which help stabilize the hip joints and enable one limb to be suspended in the air while the other moves forward. In other words, the glutes and motion go hand in hand. Strong glutes equal a faster motion, weak glutes just the opposite.
The glutes are made up of three muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. As a group they are responsible for extension and outward rotation of the hip joints and for raising the trunk from a position of inclination forward and from a position in which the knees are bent deeply, but they cease to act before the erect position is achieved.
It’s important to note that the glutes aren’t called into action in hip extension until the hip is flexed in excess of 45 degrees—unless there’s strong resistance, when the angle of limitation is less. That explains why bicyclists stoop forward, the demonstrated advantage of the crouching start in sprint racing and the tendency of older people to incline forward when going up stairs. In all such instances the position gives the person stronger use of the glutes. People who have weak glutes can still walk normally but cannot go up stairs or a steep incline without extreme fatigue, and running jumping or any other quick foot movements exhaust them quickly.
Strong glutes are an asset to every athlete in every sport. Just look at the top performers in a wide range of sports, and you’ll find that they have well-developed glutes. The glutes are part of the power pack, along with the hips, legs and lower back. That’s where the power is generated for so many physical activities: blocking and tackling, throwing and hitting a baseball, taking a jump shot or rebounding, spiking or blocking a volleyball and all facets of a tennis game.
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when a great many athletes who trained with weights shunned any exercise that directly involved their glutes, especially those interested in bodybuilding. They felt that large glutes distracted from other bodyparts that were much more critical in terms of achieving success in their sport—mainly, legs, abs, chest and arms. Why that notion came about I’m not sure, but it’s really quite silly. All anyone has to do is look at photos of some of the greatest bodybuilders of all time to realize that their impressive glute development added to their overall physique and certainly did not distract from or diminish the other bodyparts. John Grimek, Steve Stanko, Bill Pearl, Vern Weaver, Val Vasilef, Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane, Franco and Arnold all had outstanding glutes. That’s because they did full squats and went very deep. Everyone has probably seen the photo of Arnold squatting in his bare feet and almost sitting on his heels with a heavy weight.
Then there was the phase when high school and collegiate strength coaches discouraged their athletes from going low in the back squat. For some odd reason they believed that going below parallel to the ground was harmful to the knees, and the athletes didn’t develop their glutes to any major extent. Result: They greatly reduced their effectiveness on the playing field. For the record, stopping a squat above or right at parallel is much more stressful to the knee joint than going low. Once athletes go down past parallel, their hips, glutes, hamstrings and adductors help stabilize the knee. Partial squats, however, force the knee itself to control the descending weight, thus placing it under a great deal of stress.
Of course, another reason so many prefer doing partial squats rather than low ones is that they’re easier to do. It’s much more fun to be able to say that you’re squatting 500 pounds than to confess that you can only do 350 when you try to go below parallel. Yet the benefits of doing half and quarter squats are not even close to those achieved from the full-range movement.
As you no doubt have figured out, I consider the full squat to be the very best exercise for strengthening and developing the glutes. You can handle much more weight than on any other exercise with the exception of deadlifts, but squats are better at improving glute strength than deadlifts are.
Whenever I started a female athlete on back squats and told her to try to go as low as possible, she would invariably say, “But I don’t want to get a big butt like those football players have.” My response: “The only way you’re going to get a big butt is if you start eating like a football player and pack on an extra 10 or 20 pounds. The idea is to make your glutes stronger to help you perform better in your sport. Strong glutes will enable you to run faster and jump higher, which is a plus in every sport that I know of. If you keep your bodyweight under control, what you’ll do is make your glutes more muscular—in other words, tighter and more shapely.” There was no further discussion because what female, or male for that matter, doesn’t want a well-shaped set of glutes.
I once read a survey in a women’s fitness magazine where readers were asked what bodypart they noticed the most in the opposite sex. It turns out that the first thing that the majority of the females checked out on a male was his glutes, closely followed by abs. One lady stated, “I can’t always tell about the abs because of clothing, but a nice butt can’t be hidden.”
A final comment about developing large glutes. Even when someone does add a considerable amount of bodyweight and is doing exercises that directly involve the glutes, the development will be in proportion to the rest of the body and give it a symmetrical appearance—as should be the case. Big legs need to be accompanied by glutes that are in balance with those legs. Otherwise, the physique will be out of balance.
Full squats should be what the name implies—full. That means you go just as low as you can, so long as your hips don’t curl forward at the bottom. If that occurs, you need to cut the squats off a bit because that can be stressful to your lower back. That rarely happens except in the case of young athletes. I need to explain that I’m not just talking about a legal squat in terms of getting a lift passed in a power meet but rather hitting rock bottom.
Some athletes have difficulty going low in the beginning because of tight hips or calves. I’ve found, however, that if they keep doing squats and concentrate on pushing lower and lower on every rep, they’ll eventually obtain the necessary flexibility to work through a fuller range of motion. Full squats, worked heavy at least twice a week. Five sets of five reps plus a back-off set of eight to 10 will get the job done.
When I’m training people who are especially interested in strengthening their glutes, I put them in a Smith machine—not instead of doing full squats but as an auxiliary movement. I’m not a big fan of the Smith machine, but it works well in this regard. The advantage is that you don’t have to be concerned about balance and can go much deeper and stay in that position longer.
I also use the Smith machine with people who are trying to firm up a flabby butt. I teach the movement in the Smith machine differently from the way I teach a full squat outside the rack. I have athletes set their feet out in front of the bar. Not much, but some, and I also have them experiment with foot placement until they find the one that enables them to go the lowest. For most that turns out to be a rather narrow stance, which means they’ll be pushing the weight slightly more backward than straight up and down.
Those athletes need to do higher reps in order for the movement to be effective. Two sets of 20 done correctly are sufficient because they’re killers. I have the athletes pause at the bottom on every rep, and while they’re sitting there, every muscle in their body has to remain absolutely taut. The first move out of the deep bottom is to squeeze the glutes together and push off with their feet.
The question begs itself. If Smith-machine squats hit the glutes better than full squats off a rack, why not do all the squats inside the machine? Because having to balance a heavy squat forces all of the attachments in the muscle groups involved to work a great deal harder and because those tendons and ligaments are the true sources of pure strength, after you build that strength, you can use it to shape and tone your glutes in the Smith machine.
Front squats are another excellent exercise for strengthening the glutes. The main reason they work so well is that you must go low in a front squat. Trying to cut them off only makes them harder or in some cases impossible to finish. Most strength athletes, other than those who are doing power cleans or full cleans, avoid front squats because they require a great deal of shoulder flexibility. A motivated person, however, can gain the needed flexibility. It means a lot of stretching of the wrists and elbows, but over time those joints, as well as the shoulders themselves, will loosen up.
Here’s a simple method for improving flexibility in your shoulders, elbows and wrists. Fix a bar in the power rack or load up a bar with more weight than you can budge on a staircase squat rack at shoulder level. Step up to the bar and grip it firmly with one hand as if you were going to press it. With your torso erect, elevate your elbow up as high as you can in front of the bar and hold it at that position for an eight to 10 count. Now do the other arm. Repeat that a couple of times, and then do both arms at the same time. Having someone assist with this stretch helps a great deal because a partner can elevate your elbows higher than you can do on your own.
Have your training mate slowly lift your elbows up while you’re making sure that your upper body remains erect. If you let your lower body lean forward to ease the discomfort, the exercise will be much less productive. In addition to those stretches, do more on your own when you think about it. Just push up against your elbow and hold it at the highest position you can manage for eight to 10 seconds. Then do the same for the other arm. The more you do that, the faster the needed flexibility for holding the bar correctly for front squats will come. One final point: If you’re going to front squat, tape your wrists even if they’re already flexible enough. It’s a preventive measure. The wrists are very small joints and can be dinged easily—say, by having a front squat slip out of the rack on your shoulders. It’s an ounce-of-prevention deal.
Front squats are best done for lower reps, triples or even doubles. That’s because after each rep the bar moves slightly no matter how tightly you grip it. Again, that places more pressure on the wrists. A couple of sets of five for warmups is fine; then go to triples. If the slippage is significant, do doubles. You can get in more work just by adding extra sets.
When you hit the bottom of a front squat, stay extremely tight, and sit in that position for a second or two. As I mentioned for the Smith-machine squats, think of squeezing your glutes first, and then follow through with your legs and back. Make sure you’re tight as you go to the bottom, and never let your knees relax.
Another exercise that really hits the glutes is the lunge. You can do lunges in several ways. There are walking lunges, which you can do without holding any weight or while holding dumbbells. You can also use dumbbells while lunging and staying in one place, and of course you can do lunges with a barbell. Whatever form you choose, the thing that you must do in order to improve strength in your glutes is to keep your trailing leg straight or as straight as possible. Most photos of models doing lunges show them bending their rear legs. When you look at the pictures, you can see that the lead leg isn’t going below parallel, which means that the glutes aren’t involved. It becomes a quad exercise. When you go really low, though, so that you’re fully stretched out at the bottom, the front leg is way below parallel. That brings the glutes into the equation.
It takes some practice to obtain the needed flexibility to go into a deep split, but most are able to do this in only a few weeks. If you’ve ever seen a photo of any Olympic lifter doing a deep split snatch, that’s what you want to look like at the bottom of the lunge. Not only does that make the glutes stronger, but it also works the leg biceps much better. Recovering from the deep split makes the quads expend more effort.
Start light on these with either dumbbells or a barbell so that you can master the form. Start with your feet at shoulder width with toes pointed straight forward. Step forward with the foot and plant it with purpose. That will help you establish a solid base. It takes a bit of experimentation to find just how far out to step and land in the ideal position. When you land, your knee should be out in front of your toe, not back behind. Your foot should land straight out from when it started. If the foot turns inward or outward, that will adversely affect your balance. The knee of your trailing foot should almost be touching the floor. Some of my athletes liked to tap the floor with their knee to let them know that they were low enough.
Your upper body must remain straight and upright throughout the movement. Any leaning will cause you to lose your balance. For stationary lunges, do just one rep per leg until you have the technique down pat. Then you can graduate to doing four reps with the same leg before switching to the other. Besides helping to improve glute and leg strength, lunges are great for revealing a relative weakness in one of your legs. One is nearly always weaker than the other but doesn’t show itself during the squat because the stronger leg compensates for its weaker counterpart. If the disparity is small, don’t worry about it. If you find there is a considerable difference between the two, however, do extra reps on the weaker leg.
Walking lunges done while holding dumbbells are different from the stationary version. You take a long step and go into a deep split, and then step out of the lunge and into another deep split with the opposite leg in the lead. Quickly you’ll find that there is a rhythm to the exercise. As you come out of the split, climb up on the toes of your lead foot and take the next step. That makes the movement more fluid than when you do it flat-footed. Go as far as you can while maintaining proper form, and then rest and do another set. The great thing about walking lunges is that you can do them almost anywhere, and you don’t need weight if you go far enough. I’ve done them around pools, in hotel hallways and on the beach when I’m on vacation. When I apply myself, I can exhaust my legs in a very short time.
If you’re having trouble going really low in the split, stretch out in that deep bottom position at home at night while watching TV. It’s worth the time spent developing the needed flexibility because it will make the exercise a whole lot more productive than if you bend your trailing leg while lunging.
The two Olympic lifts, the snatch and clean, are also excellent exercises for improving glute strength. In both of those movements, you have to go into a deep squat, which in turn strengthens the glutes. You can see just how developed glutes can become by observing the top Olympic lifters in this country and in the world. Strong glutes are an absolute necessity in that sport. Overhead squats, holding the bar with a wide grip, are another way to hit the glutes directly. You have to do them with a lighter weight than you use on other forms of squats, but they hit the glutes a bit differently—always a good thing.
If you’re trying to improve the strength of your glutes, you need to include at least one specific exercise for your lower back in the program. Keep in mind that anytime you work your lumbars or hamstrings, you’re also working your glutes. There are several lower-back exercises you can use. The very best is good mornings, followed by almost-straight-legged deadlifts, reverse hyperextensions and regular hypers.
Good mornings attack the lumbars better than any other movement. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they’re the hardest exercise in all of weight training. Lock the bar tightly on your traps. The tighter the bar is locked into the muscle, the less chance it has of moving during the execution of the movement. A moving bar is more irritating than the good morning itself. Bend your knees slightly, and with either a flat or rounded back, lower your upper body until it is nearly parallel with the floor. Then recover. The movement must be done smoothly and not herky-jerky. Whether you use a rounded or flat back depends on how the two versions feel. If rounded good mornings bring pain, and I’m not referring to the pain associated with the exercise, switch to a very flat back.
Do them for higher reps—eights and 10s. I like my athletes to alternate the two routines, one week doing four sets of 10 and the next five sets of eight. Eventually you should be handling 50 percent of what you’re using for your top back squat on the good mornings.
Almost-straight-legged deadlifts are a good alternative to good mornings, and when you work them diligently, they bring the desired results for lumbars, glutes and hamstrings. To get a longer range of motion, many athletes like to stand on a bench or a high block, but that often ends up causing damage to the bar or bench, and it brings balance into the exercise. It’s not necessary. Just use 25-pound plates and stand securely on the floor. Do the deadlifts in eights and 10s, and aim for using 75 percent of your best squat for 10 reps. For someone using 400 pounds on back squats, that translates to 300×10 on almost-straight-legged deadlifts. Use straps for them. While you may not need them for the lighter sets, once the weights get demanding, you will.
Why almost-straight-legged? You should never lock your knees when working your lumbars. It places far too much stress on your hamstrings, and because bending your knees doesn’t change the benefits at all, it just doesn’t make any sense to lock them. As with good mornings, you have to do this form of deadlifting in a controlled manner. The two key points are to make sure your knees are bent slightly, and move the bar up and down very, very close to your body. Don’t get into the habit of rebounding the plates off the floor. Make a dead stop on each rep. That forces the hams, glutes and lumbars to work harder, which produces greater results. For variety, alternate good mornings with almost-straight-legged deads.
Hyperextensions and reverse hypers are excellent exercises for strengthening the lumbars, glutes and hams, and you can insert them into your weekly routine as warmup and cooldown movements. Do one version, along with an ab exercise, before working out and the other with yet another ab exercise at the end of the session. If you have access to a hyperextension machine, you can easily increase the resistance, but if you don’t, merely run the reps up on both forms of the exercise. Start out with 20 reps and add a couple of reps a week. You’ll soon be able to do 100-plus reps on both. More is better when it comes to hypers. Keep in mind what I mentioned earlier about bending your knees while doing a lower-back exercise. I watch many people in fitness centers lock their knees while doing this exercise, and that is potentially risky. All you have to do is make sure there’s a bit of a bend in them, and you’ll be okay.
Conventional deadlifts are good for strengthening the glutes as well, especially if you set your hips very low at the start. What else? Leg curls done on a machine or freehand are useful if the reps are high. You can do either on nontraining days to get in a bit of extra work for your glutes.
Strong glutes are valuable to every athlete. Firm, fit glutes greatly enhance the physiques of both men and women. If you apply yourself and develop a firm, fit derriere, you’ll be noticed—it won’t matter whether you’re in a business suit or swimsuit. It sure beats having a bubble butt or a flat butt. The choice is yours. All it takes is time and effort and, of course, motivation.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com. IM