My Top 6 Best Glute Building Exercises
Want to learn how to build your glutes? Well, here are 6 of the best glute exercises I use for my clients. I coach women who range from absolute beginners, all the way up to world bikini champions. The one thing my clients have in common is, they want the best glute building exercises possible. There is an overwhelming amount of education out there today due to social media. Some good, some not so good. Sadly, this can lead to people often feeling very disillusioned about their ability to build the physique they want.
I recently received an email from a new follower asking me “do glute exercises really work?” She was feeling extremely lost after using various programs elsewhere, and after some research, I could tell why. A big problem with information being everywhere, is a lot of the quality facts that people need to help them with their goals, gets lost in the mediocre information. Let me help fix that! Less wasting time, more clarity on what really works in terms of the best glute exercises and the best glute strengthening exercises. Let’s start with the basics.
What is the Glute Muscle?
What are glutes? The “glutes” which is the common term for our gluteal muscles is actually in reference not to just one muscle, but three. The glutes have 3 muscles. The most commonly known glute muscle and biggest is the Glute Max. This will make up the majority of the shape and size of our butt. This is where we want to perform the majority of our glute focused exercises.
Then, we have our Glute Medius muscle. The glute medius is the second largest muscle of the glutes. It plays a vital role in hip stabilisation in our movements from training in the gym to performing at a high level in sport. The glute medius also adds size to the upper and outer portion of the glute region. The third and final glute muscle is the smallest: the glute minimus. It sits primarily under the other glute muscles.
There are a large range of exercises out there these days for the glutes, making it difficult to know what the best glute exercises are. Why? Because the Glutes have a number of functions. Primarily the glute max is used for hip extension which is a key movement for building muscle and also athletic performance. When you think of hip extension, think of a Romanian deadlift. The glutes also have an abduction and external rotation component. The large glute max can do all three movements, but majority of its hypertrophy work should be centred around hip extension. Abduction work is however, very beneficial for the glute medius.
Now that we’ve answered the question “what are glutes,” let’s look at how we can determine the best glute exercises.
The bulk of my exercise selection will be focused on hip extension work. The 3 most commonly performed movement patterns I want to target for a clients glutes will be:
- Hip hinge – think a 45° back extension or RDL
- Knee dominant movement – think squat, lunge, leg press. This is both knee extension and hip extension.
- Thrust / bridge. The extension of the hips through hip thrusts or glute bridges.
We target each of these movements with intelligent exercise selection. We are on our way to building great glutes by choosing glute strengthening exercises that target each of these movement patterns.
Benefits of Building Glute Muscles
The gluteal muscles are not just important if you want to fill out a pair of jeans. They play an important role in everyday movement. Your grandparents could benefit from glute strengthening exercises as they play an integral role in simple tasks such as walking and even standing up. Then, they also play a key role in stability which again, is important for the elderly all the way down to athletes aiming to be as explosive and powerful as possible. For athletes, the glutes are commonly seen as a vital muscle group for speed. Sprinters and explosive athletes across all sports use a lot of glute specific strength training to ensure they can reach their athletic potential. Athletes are commonly hip thrusting, not to build a big pair of glutes, but rather to build strong glutes to improve their performance.
On top of all of that, the big benefit from a personal perspective from clients is large glutes add a lot of shape to a physique. As a coach who trains bikini competitors, I can assure you that big and well shaped glute muscles are an absolute must if your goal is to compete in a bikini competition. Strong chance the person with the best proportioned glutes will tend to win on stage. Glutes matter!
Glute Focused Exercises and Workouts
What makes a great glute exercise? Especially when the glutes have a lot of functions. What would make an exercise superior over another? These are a few aspects I look for when selecting glute focused exercises:
- Trains the glutes hard in either a stretched position or a shortened position. When performing an exercise, the muscle will be most challenged in a specific portion of the movement. This will generally either be when the muscle is being stretched or shortened. What we want are exercises which will do either one well.
- An exercise which focuses primarily on the glutes and not just as much muscle as possible. A conventional deadlift will train the glutes, but it also trains a lot of other muscle tissue. This can be a good thing, but it can also mean the work is being taken away from the glutes. If the goal is glute specific, ideally the bulk of the work will be towards the glutes and other posterior chain muscles. The goal is not to just train as much muscle as possible, but to train the glutes hard.
- An exercise that can be easily loaded and easily progressed with load.
- The exercise can be easily performed with good technique.
Now, keep in mind that the glutes are not going to be best grown from just one exercise. The best thing about hypertrophy is that we have a variety of options, and can choose from the best glute exercises. When I choose exercises for the gluteus, I want to ensure they are targeting the 3 key movement patterns which will challenge the glute max:
- Hip hinge
- Knee dominant
- Thrust or bridge
Ideally, we will have at least one exercise for each movement. So let’s look at my top 6 best glute building exercises in detail.
1. Romanian Deadlift
Movement: Hip hinge
Targets: Lower glute max
Hardest in: Stretch position
Difficulty: Intermediate. When taught correctly, the movement becomes simple quickly. If struggling, film yourself from the side which can help a lot to understand your technique.
Description: The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is my go to hip hinge glute movement. The RDL will work the glute max hardest in the stretched position. This means it will have its greatest hypertrophy benefits on the lower glute max, aka the “under butt.”
When performing an RDL for the glutes we want to focus on 2 key things.
Firstly, I want you to perform the RDL with a slight knee bend. This is important to increase glute bias of the hinge. Both the hamstrings and the glutes extend the hip. However, we can disadvantage the hamstrings’ role in hip extension when we bend our knees forward. This will decrease the hamstrings which in turn, increases the role of the glutes performing hip extension. A slight bend is all you need.
Secondly, how far should you lower the bar? I want you to focus on not imagining your torso hinging forward to the floor. Instead, focus your attention on the hips back. Imagine pushing your bum to the wall behind you. When you cannot push the hips back any further stop there! This is your bottom position. Any further, and the glutes will lose their tension as the hamstrings will take over.
The RDL can be loaded a number of ways: through the use of a barbell, dumbbells, trap bar, or even cables. There are plenty of options which makes it a great choice and one of the best glute exercises.
2. Hip Thrust
Targets: Upper glute max
Hardest in: Shortened position
Difficulty: Beginner. This is an exercise which is very easy to learn quickly. While it’s great for beginners, it’s also a staple of world advanced lifters.
Description: The hip thrust is probably the most well known glute exercise in the world. It’s simply a great glute exercise. It trains the glute max, but it trains the glutes a little differently to the Romanian Deadlift (RDL). Unlike the RDL which will be hardest at the bottom of the movement when the glutes are being stretched, the hip thrust will be hardest at the top when the hips are extended and the glutes are being shortened. This makes it a more upper glute max focused exercise. While the RDL has greater benefits towards the lower sub division of the glute max.
The hip thrust should be performed with your back set into a bench and feet on the floor. Place a barbell across your hips with a squat pad on the bar to make it more comfortable. You can use bumper plates on the barbell to allow you to roll it into position over your hips.
Foot position matters here. The big benefit of the hip thrust is the exercise is performed with the bent leg position. Remember, a bent knee will disadvantage the hamstrings and increase the work of the glutes.
How far away should your feet be from the body? The thrust should have your lower leg and upper leg resemble a 90° angle at the top of the thrust. Feet too far away from the body, will mean more hamstrings. Feet too close, will result in more quads. 90° is the sweet spot.
When performing the thrust, a big tip is to tuck your chin to your chest. This will help to eliminate hyper extending the lower back at the top of the thrust. We want to be loading the glutes, not the lower back.
3. Reverse Lunges
Movement: Knee dominant
Targets: Lower glute max and glute medius
Hardest in: Stretch position
Difficulty: Intermediate to Advanced. If you have balance issues, begin with a split squat. A split squat replicates the look of a lunge, however both feet stay grounded the entire rep. This decreases the stability demands of the lunge.
Description: The lunge is a fantastic exercise as it’s a unilateral focused exercise, so we are able to target each glute muscle individually each rep. This is a great thing when targeting weak points or imbalances. A knee dominant exercise will involve both the knee and hip. The knee dominant name just is in reference to the knee being an integral component of the movement. The squat, split squat and leg press all involve the knee joint, but they also involve the hip – aka gluteus!
Why the reverse lunge? When lunging, your direction and intent matters! The lunge will target both the quads and glutes, as both knee and hip involvement is required. This does not mean however, we can not increase the bias towards one or the other. Imagine standing up still. If you lunge forward and then drive the ground away back to your starting position, this will be more quads. Why? Because the knee is having to do the bulk of the work to extend the knee and drive yourself back up. Glutes are worked yes, but the knee will be the main player.
This is why the reverse lunge is so useful for the glutes. A reverse lunge we do the opposite of the forward step lunge, hence the name. After we lunge backwards, we then have to drive the ground hard backwards in order to come forwards, back to our starting position. By driving backwards, this allows you to then drive up, and forwards! This is glutes. Think of a sprinter starting the 100m. They are in blocks. When the gun goes off, they sprint forward, but they actually begin by driving backwards into the blocks to propel themselves forward, which is glutes!
A few important tips for more glutes in a reverse lunge:
Firstly, have a small forward lean to your torso – flex forward. You want to have your torso around a 45° angle from the floor. This will increase the stretch of the glutes throughout the lunge.
Secondly, use a weight plate or step to stand on. This is what we call a deficit reverse lunge. A small elevation can allow for more range of motion. That slight increase of range of motion can mean a greater stretch of the glutes.
The lunge not only works the glute max, it also trains the glute medius very effectively through its key role of stabilisation. To keep your balance in a lunge, the glute medius needs to work hard to keep the hips level. This is why a unilateral and dynamic movement like a lunge can be very effective for not just the glute max, but also the glute medius
4. 45° Back Extension
Movement: Hip hinge
Targets: Upper glute max
Hardest in: Mid to shortened position
Difficultly: Beginner. The best thing about the 45° back extension is it’s super easy to teach a client and also to learn. Focus on breaking at the hips. Think hips and not lower back rounding.
Description: The 45° or 90° back extension is a fantastic hip hinge exercise. Unlike the Romanian deadlift which is also a hip hinge, this exercise is hardest at the other end of its range of motion. The RDL is hardest on the glutes in a stretch, the bottom of the rep. The 45° back extension will be hardest towards the mid to top of the rep when the glutes are shortening.
Again, why does this matter? Although both are hip hinge movements, they train slightly different divisions of the glute max. The lower division will be trained during the stretch of the RDL. The upper glute max division will be trained in the 45° back extension. This is important for complete glute development, as we want exercises which train the glutes in as many portions of the muscle as possible.
If your goal is glutes with the 45° back extension, I want you to focus on a few key things. Firstly, do not go too low where the lower back rounds at the bottom of the rep. This rounding at the bottom does not come from the glutes, instead it comes from the lower back erector muscles taking over. Lower as far as you can go without rounding your back. That’s your bottom range. Then, when extending up, go as high up as you can until your glutes are contracted. Once you have a good butt squeeze, that’s the top of the rep. Don’t keep driving up, as again this is not more glutes.
5. Leg Press – Feet High & Narrow
Movement: Knee dominant
Targets: Lower glute max
Hardest in: Stretch position
Difficulty: Beginner. As you can simply sit down and press with your legs, it’s a very easy exercise to learn. Again, simple does not mean ineffective. Simple is a good thing for hypertrophy.
Description: The leg press is not an exercise people commonly think of as a glute exercise. However, it is actually one of the best glute exercises. The leg press can very much involve the quads, however, if we want to increase the glute recruitment in the movement, we only have to raise our feet a little higher on the platform. Aim to have feet just inside shoulder width. What this position does is decrease the range of motion the quads can be taken through. A little less knee bend can then lead to increased stretch of the hip muscles, the glutes. In a leg press, your torso position is usually in a more flexed over position such as the 45° leg press. This is a great place for allowing the glutes to be trained well, combined with the higher foot positioning. This makes the leg press a great exercise to add to our arsenal of glute strengthening exercises.
Commonly, the leg press feet high and wide variation is prescribed for glutes. However, I prefer a narrow foot position on the platform. A wider stance is great for more adductors as it increases their stretch in the movement. Whereas the narrow stance will allow for more range of motion of the glute muscles. A good thing if you want to build your glutes!
Another benefit of the leg press is the back rest support. This increases stability and allows you to more easily focus the work on the muscles being trained, over having to stabilise your torso position like in a straddle lift. When you are more stable in a movement you can focus on training the intended muscle harder, which can lead to greater hypertrophy.
6. Cable Straight Leg Abductions – 45-90°
Targets: Upper glute max and glute medius
Hardest in: Shortened position
Difficulty: Beginner. This is a really easy to learn glute exercise, especially when utilising a band over a cable. It can be a great introduction to glute resistance training for a beginner.
Description: To complete our 6 best glute building exercises, we need an abduction movement. Remember, the glute max plays a role in abduction as does the glute medius. I prefer abduction work with a straight leg over a seated bent leg abduction. The straight leg abduction can be taken directly out to your side or at a more 45° angle back behind you. Both variations work well. You can alternate between each angle during each training phase as a simple way to incorporate both.
We can use bands here or we can use a cable attached to your leg with an ankle strap. I prefer cables due to the larger resistance they will have on a muscle compared to that of a band. However, bands still work fine if you’re limited with options.
I tend to utilise abduction work towards the end of a training session. I focus the initial bulk of the work on hip extension focused movements. Then the abduction work is a simple way to finish off a great glute or lower body session.
The goal of the abduction work is to primarily target the glute medius. Remember this muscle sits higher up and and runs almost at a 45° angle. Improving muscle mass here can certainly compliment the rest of your glute development.
Do glute exercises really work?
In answer to that question I received the other day, “do glute exercises really work?” Yes! They do. In fact, they work very well. If you choose the correct glute strengthening exercises you will see results in terms of strength improvements and muscle gains. You just need to train hard, be consistent, and practice good technique.
In summary, my 6 best glute building exercises include the following:
- They focus primarily around the largest glute muscle: the glute max.
- The exercises challenge both the stretch position and the shortened position.
- They target both lower and upper divisions of the glute max.
- The exercises cover the 3 key movements for the glute max: hip hinge, knee dominant and bridge/thrust.
- An abduction movement is included to compliment the other glute focused exercises.
Try My Glute Workout Guide
All these exercises are fantastic, but to get the best results possible we need to do more than just understand what the best glute exercises are. We also need to understand how to put the exercises together to form a complete training program. Utilising intelligent program design and structured programs is where the magic of my clients results are really found.
Learn my methods and implement them on yourself with the Your Glute Coach Series. The series is 36 weeks of my advanced glute building training programs. Each program in the series is a full body, 12 week training program with an emphasis on building glutes. These programs are based on methods used to create bikini world champions!
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Yours in health & fitness,
Coach Mark Carroll