By Fleur van Griensven & Jasper Remmerswaal
Today we’ll be doing a co-written article by me (Jasper) and Fleur van Griensven!
This article will go into the best way to train the gluteal muscles. This will be done from two perspectives: Firstly, the glutes will be looked upon from an anatomical perspective; from which muscles are the glutes made up of? What functions do the glutes have in the human body? Secondly, Fleur will share with you the knowledge she acquired while doing a workshop glute training at Perfect Performance. If you don’t care about the science one bit, I suggest you skip immediately to the practical part Fleur has written out for you. If you want to know why Fleur’s tips make sense, then read both pieces. In the end I will shortly add to the discussion by sharing some studies which have investigated gluteal activation.
The anatomy of the gluteal muscles
The gluteal muscles are made up of three different muscles, which are quite similar in function, but not entirely the same. The muscles are called:
The gluteus maximus
The gluteus medius
The gluteus minimus
As the names suggest, this list goes from big to small, the gluteus maximus being the biggest of the three. Fun fact: The gluteus medius is called medius because it lies the most medial of the three muscles, not because it is the medium-sized muscle. The following pictures will illustrate the gluteal anatomy:
A thorough explanation of the origos and insertions of the muscles are beyond the scope of this article (if you are interested in this, send me a message and we will do a more in-depth article on the anatomy). For now, it is important to understand that there are 3 gluteal muscles and that you take a quick look at how these muscles attach (the white pieces) to the femur (thigh bone).
The gluteus medius & minimus
The gluteus medius & minimus are very similar in function and therefore, with respect to training, they will be reviewed simultaneously (slightly hardcore explanation: both the medius’ and the minimus’ origo can be found on the outside of the os ilium and both insertions can be found on the trochanter major of the femur. Because the two attachments lie at very similar spots, their functions are very similar. For the sake of simplicity, I will not go into this any further. In other words: I am way too stupid and Wikipedia stops explaining at this point.) (That was a joke. I am very intelligent) (or not, who knows). The anatomical functions of the gluteus medius and minimus are the following:
Main function: Abduction; Moving the leg from the centreline of the body. Think pilates movement such as the one in the picture to the right. This is the most important function, so if you are lazy, try to remember this one.
Hip flexion (in Dutch: anteflexie): Hip flexion in this case means raising the leg in front of you. Pretty much kicking straight up.
Hip extension (in Dutch retroflexie): The exact opposite of hip flexion: Bringing the leg to the back of the body. Explained more thorough in the next paragraph.
External rotation of the hip. When you have straight legs, squeeze your glutes. Look at your knees: they will turn outwards. This is external rotation of the hip/leg. When this function is inhibited, it can result in knee valgus (knees caving inward) and flat feet (collapsed ankle).
A kickback: bringing the leg to the back of the body is a function of all the gluteal muscle The maximus is the prime mover here.
The gluteus maximus
The biggest gluteal muscle, the maximus (Origo: Os ilium & os Sacrum, insertions: tuberositas glutae & tractus iliotibialis) has two important functions in the human body:
Main function: Hip extension (in Dutch: retroflexie): Same as the gluteus medius and minimus.
The kickback (ass shown in the picture) is the classical example of this function. However, the medius and minimus act as synergists, meaning they work together with the maximus, in this movement, with the maximus really being the prime mover. Hip extension is therefore ‘more’ a function of the maximus than of the other two gluteal muscles.
Remember that hip extension can also mean that the hips are moved forward while the legs are fixed (I think this is where the confusion with the Dutch retroflexion term starts). This applies more to the barbell lifts.
What does hip extension in the lifts look like? Think about the end of a squat, a deadlift, a kettlebell swing and the explosion in a clean or snatch, when you move the hips forward. These are all hip extension moves. Moves that specifically target this movement are movements like the glute bridge and the hip thrust. These movements are very suited for glute training because they isolate the hip extension part. The barbell hip thrust activates the gluteus maximus and the biceps femoris, which is a hamstring muscle, (not to be confused with the biceps brachialis, the famous arm muscle),to a greater degree than the back squat when using estimated 10RM loads (Contreras et al., 2015) . Point to take home: Squatting alone won’t cut it if the goal is to really grow the glute muscles. Except if you low-bar squat like 200kgs. Powerlifters have a huge rear. Bro science all the way there, but it has a truth to it.
Second function: Posterior tilting of the pelvis (in Dutch: het naar achteren kantelen van het bekken): This function of the glutes is very important. Look at the picture below. When the glutes are relatively weak, this function is inhibited and may result in an anterior pelvic tilt, as seen on the left in the picture below. Next to looking like Donald Duck, this excessive lordosis (the curve in the lower spine) can cause lower back pain and further problems down the chain. There will definitely be a separate article on this, but for now: if you suffer from anterior pelvic tilt, glute training is something worth considering, because when performed correct, basically all hip extension moves end with a slight posterior tilt of the pelvis
Now that the functions of the gluteal muscles have been defined, Fleur has outlined an example of a good approach to glute training.
So? How do I train the booty?
Before jumping straight into how to set up a booty focused training, let’s first get clear on how to properly activate the glutes. People tend to live a sedentary lifestyle nowadays, allowing the glutes to ‘relax’, in a negative way. Waking them up prior training is crucial when maximal performance is desired (besides that, the glute pump is not that bad either).
There are two simple exercises to activate the glutes, both of which make use of an elastic mini band: sumo and monster walks. A lot of online fitness stores sell these bands and they come in different resistances to suit different levels of strength. The elastic mini band can be put around knees, ankles or feet depending on the amount of activation looking for. Start putting a mini band at the easiest position (the knees) before making a way down to the feet. Sumo walking is done sideway, whilst monster walks are just done walking straight forward. See the picture below: the upper one is showing a sumo walk, the lower one a monster walk. Bret Contreras also demonstrates the different placements in a video on Youtube. Check out this link for the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiD4eOaivqY. The key here is to keep constant tension on the mini band and push the knees outward throughout the whole movement. This will make your glutes beg for mercy.
After activation, it is time to put in the work. As the glutes are one of the biggest muscle groups, they can handle a lot of load. However, make sure an exercise is executed properly before thinking about adding more weight. I will go through a selection of glute exercises which are highly suitable for glute training and explain them shortly. There is no best exercise among these three for glute hypertrophy. In the end it comes down to progressive overload (whilst using correct form). So pick one and use more weights/reps/sets on a week to week basis.
Glute bridge: lay down with your butt and back on the ground, feet placed hip-width apart. From this starting position, tilt your pelvis so that the lower back touches the floor. Now squeeze your glutes and push the hips in the air in a controlled fashion whilst breathing out. Hold it for a second in the end position and focus on contracting the glutes just a bit extra. Then keep tension on the core whilst going back to the starting position.
Hip thrust: the hip thrust is basically the same movement as the glute bridge, except the hip thrust utilizes a step/bench and a barbell. The shoulder blades are put on the bench/step and a barbell is placed on the hip bones. Tip: use a barbell pad or exercise mat between barbell and hips, as it will prevent a lot of hip bruises! From this position, proceed the same as the glute bridge. Remember! First tilt the pelvis so that the lower back touches the floor, then squeeze the glutes hard as to lock the pelvis in a neutral position.
Single leg glute bridge/hip thrust: a variation which is a lot harder than the regular glute bridge or hip thrust, because you are placing one foot on the floor and the other one in a straight line with your torso (so horizontal). A great way to work on weaker points and work away imbalances.
If this is still not challenging enough, go ahead and do a feet elevated single leg glute bridge with a band around ankles and knees on a bosu ball, while doing a barbell fly. All at own risk though, cause this is something you should not really consider doing. It just shows how many variations can be made on a regular glute bridge or hip thrust in order to progress on these movements.
What does recent literature say about the booty?
There have been quite some studies on the subject of glute training and activation. Most of them investigate the squat and the exercises mentioned by Fleur in the previous paragraph. To make this section more practical, I will sum up some important findings:
‘’There seems to be no difference in glute activation between the full (high bar) back squat, the (high bar) parallel squat and the front squat’’ (Contreras et al., 2016) . In the study different weights were used for the different movements (which is a good thing) and still there were no significant findings. One thing that has not been taken into account is that people who full squat (So Ass-To-Grass) on a regular basis may have a higher parallel squat or quarter squat (or even front squat). My personal view on this: the glutes are more active in the top of the squat (because the hip extension really starts around parallel), but you always move them through a larger range of motion when doing a full squat as compared to a parallel squat. In this case, the extra ROM will probably not do that much for the glutes. Squatting to parallel is probably the best for the glutes.
A lot of coaches state that people have ‘inactive glutes’, because of the sedentary lifestyle that most of us have. While this is a very plausible case, there is actually little research on this phenomenon. Beware that activation does not necessarily mean strength! Both persons can have the same amount of glute activation, but that only means they ‘turn on’ the same amount of muscle fibers. They can move different loads with those same activated muscle fibers. One study used EMG (Electromyography, a measurement tool which uses the electric current from the nerves in your muscle as a parameter for muscle activation) to measure activity in the Gluteus Maximus in sedentary people and ‘normal’ people and actually found no statistical significant differences.’’This supports a null hypothesis- that there is no link between prolonged sitting and the muscle activity and timing of the gluteus maximus. However, this could be due to a small sample size, a narrow age range, and a prolonged sitting sample that exercised regularly and were educated on sitting posture, and thus did not accurately represent the typical sedentary individual.’’ (Campagnola et al., 2015).
Closely linked to the previous point, is the case of Post-Activation Potential (PAP), which basically means that when you ‘activate’ a muscle with a submaximal load first, performance will go up. PAP is still a new concept though, and ‘’There is clearly more research required in order to clarify the functional significance of PAP’’ (Hodgson et al., 2005). This article by Hodgson et al goes further into the physiological processes behind PAP. The point to take home is that is a possible positive effect if you activate the glutes first, but that this effect has not been thoroughly confirmed yet. Also, some studies are questionable due to flawed study designs. The lack of good studies makes that gut feeling and bro science are the best options.