For a long time leg day for me was about squats, squats and more squats. Squats are a great quad exercise but they aren't necessarily the best choice for building stronger glutes. After about a year of progressing my squat weight I found I was reaching a point where I just couldn't squat any heavier.
Completing my Poliquin Strength Level 2 course in Sydney earlier this year taught me the importance of glute activation and glute strength. So following that I did a fair bit of research and came across some great sources to devise an action plan for myself. I learned that glute muscles have tons of potential but they are most often underused in a lot of common lower body exercises. One article by Bret Contreras (aka 'The Glute Guy') states that "most individual's glutes contract harder during body weight activation exercises than from one-rep max squats and deadlifts," which made me realise I needed to start doing more targeted exercises for my backside.
I started writing this article over the Christmas holidays and on Christmas Eve went to see a performance of The Nutcracker by the Hong Kong Ballet. Let me tell you - there's nothing quite like men in leggings with chiseled buns to give you #glutegoals!
Read on to find out why most of us suffer from 'sleepy' glutes and how to get them firing.
If you don't use it, you lose it
When your glute muscles aren't being used they essentially 'switch off.' The reason why most people suffer from inactive glutes is largely due to lifestyle. If you think about what kind of movements you do on a daily basis - walking, sitting, climbing stairs, carrying groceries, opening doors and so on, the glutes just don't get a look in. Inactive glutes are caused by a variety of factors. They can be caused by tight or shortened hip flexors, or even excessive amounts of sitting which hinders nerve function. Poor glute strength impacts your posture. When your glutes are weak the muscles in your lower spine have to take up the slack, leaving you at greater risk of back pain. And remember: inactive glutes don't just impact sitting-down-all-day office workers, even athletes who train 6 days a week can suffer from sleepy glutes. So you see - having strong glutes is not just about looking good in skinny jeans! It's super important for better posture, low back, hip and knee health.
Poor glute strength affects your training performance
Good glute strength also means better athletic performance. Take the squat or deadlift for example. Having strong quads is great but you'll perform better on these exercises if your glutes are firing too. When your glutes don't fire you compensate with other muscles - compensating with incorrect muscles causes injury and decreases performance. When the glutes are weak, more often than not, the lower back gets involved in helping you lift. Now think about the size of the glute muscle in comparison with the lower back. The lower back muscle is much, much smaller and if it's taking all the weight it's likely to cause you pain. This is exactly what I was experiencing a few months ago before I started a dedicated glute training plan.
Your action plan to great glutes
The three muscles that make up your backside are the gluteus maximus (the largest muscle) and the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus which work together to support the femur (thigh bone) in your hip socket and extend and rotate your thighs laterally and medially.
You can strengthen these muscles by following these 3 principles:
Stretching to build better glutes is often overlooked but good hip flexor flexibility is important for maximal use of the glutes. Some of the best stretches include:
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch - lunge forward with the knee on a mat or folded towel to cushion the knee. Place your hands on your bent knee and push the hips forward until you can feel a stretch in the hip flexor of the opposite leg. Repeat on the other side.
Pigeon Stretch - start on all fours and slide one leg towards the hand on the same side. Slide the other leg back as far as your hips will allow. To increase the stretch lean onto your elbows.
Foam Rolling - lying face down, position the foam roller at the crease of your hip. Apply pressure as needed and roll the roller back and forth to break up the tissue. When you find a tender spot, lean your weight into the roller for a few seconds to release tightness.
Do these before and after a strength training session.
First rule of thumb - don't just walk into leg day and start squatting from the get go. You must activate your glutes by doing suitable warm up exercises. Why is this? Because if you warm up your glutes first you'll end up using them more in the subsequent exercises during your workout routine. These are bodyweight (ie, non weight-bearing) exercises. You don't need long - just 2-3 minutes of the following exercises will get your glutes raring to go. I suggest picking a few of the exercises and doing 15-20 reps each leg.
Modified Clamshell - lie on one side with your head resting on your arm. Keep the bottom leg straight and bend the top leg to 90 degrees. Make sure your hips are stacked and facing forward. Now squeeze your glutes and lift the knee off the ground, keeping your top foot rested on your bottom leg. Repeat on both sides.
Fire Hydrant - start on all fours. Keeping the knee in a bent position, raise the leg up until you feel your glutes contracting. Keep your hips square throughout the exercises. Repeat on both sides.
Donkey Kicks - start on all fours. Keeping one knee bent at 90 degrees, flex the foot and raise it to hip level. Pause for an isometric hold then lower the leg without touching the floor. Repeat on both sides.
Glute Bridge - lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor in front of you. Squeeze your glutes as you raise your pelvis high enough off the floor to create a straight line between your hips, knees and shoulders. Lower back down and repeat.
Once you've warmed up your glutes, incorporate these exercises into your weekly workout routine.
Aim for twice a week at a minimum.
Glute Bridge - follow the exercise instructions as per the activation section. Once you progress you can do this with your upper back against a bench and holding a weighted barbell across your thighs.
Back Extensions - set a back extension bench to 45 degrees. Lie face down on the bench with your feet secure under the footpads. Adjust the upper pad so that your upper thighs lie flat across it. Cross your arms in front of you and bend at the waist as far as you can while keeping your back flat. Squeezing your glutes, slowly raise your torso back to the starting position.
Cable Pull-Throughs - using a cable machine set the pulley to a low position and use the rope attachment. Facing away from the machine straddle the cable with your feet wide apart. Reach through your legs as far as possible by bending at the hips. Keep your arms straight and extend through the hip to stand straight up. Do this move explosively and squeeze the glutes.
Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts - stand on one leg while holding two dumbbells in front of the body with an overhand grip and your arms fully extended. Slightly bend one leg and raise it behind you as you hinge at the hips. Lower your torso towards the floor while lifting the back leg higher behind you. Continue until you feel a good stretch in the hamstrings then slowly raise back up to the starting position. Repeat on both legs.
As a side note, single-leg exercises are great options to strengthen your glutes. Because single-leg work puts your body in an unbalanced position you will recruit often-unused muscle fibres to maintain that balance.
No ifs no butts! Get your glutes going!
By no means do you have to stop doing squats or deadlifts on leg day. These should still make up part of your regular workout routine if you enjoy them. If you are worried about how to build bigger glutes without building bigger thighs don't stress! Try going wide in exercises like squats which will take the emphasis away from your quads and allow more focus on the glutes. I've been following a glute strengthening routine for about 2 months now and have noticed a massive difference in how much more I can feel my glutes activating in various lower body exercises. My low back pain has also completely disappeared as well.
So say goodbye to sleepy glutes and remember the three principles - stretch, activation and strength. Besides, who doesn't want a great looking backside anyway? ;)