I hear from clients ALL the time that they are frustrated that they can't work their glutes without back, hip, or knee pain.
Let's look into four crucial principles of training the glutes and my recommendations for which glute exercises might be best for YOUR body.
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In general, when you complete an exercise in a joint's full range of motion, the muscle is loaded more, and you receive more benefit.
The glute max extends your hip. It works when you are standing up from a seated position. In other words, it begins working when you are straightening the hip when it is fully bent.
To load the glute max optimally, choose an exercise that loads the glute in its full range of motion. Two important considerations here:
An example of a glute exercise that doesn't utilize the full range of motion of the hip is a glute bridge or a hip thrust. The floor will block your hip from bending fully, meaning you will receive less benefit from a glute bridge or hip thrust.
On the other hand, a lunge, deadlift, squat, or step-up DOES utilize a fuller range of motion for the hip. The hip can bend much more than it would in a bridge or hip thrust.
Keep reading because I'm not implying that you shouldn't do bridges or that you should do deadlifts and squats. This is just to illustrate the first point that range of motion matters.
A resistance curve is all about physics and gravity. A resistance curve is important to understand, as it will determine an exercise's efficiency and safety.
A resistance curve is the portion of an exercise where the resistance feels the "heaviest" and where it feels the "lightest."
For example, in a bicep curl, the resistance feels the heaviest (and is physically loading the bicep the most) in the middle range of motion. It seems to feel "lighter" as you approach the top of the motion, even though you are holding the same amount of weight. This is because the lever to your elbow is the longest when you are in the middle of the movement, and the lever gets shorter as you approach the top. The longer the lever, the more work your muscles have to produce to complete the movement, thus the "heavier" the weight will feel.
In general, when it comes to the glutes, we want an exercise to feel the hardest when the muscle is more elongated or in the middle range of motion. As we approach a fully extended hip (fully straightened hip), we want the exercise to "feel" easier. This is because your glutes are "weaker" when they are shorter. If we overload the glutes when they are fully shortened (like in a hip thrust with heavyweight) you can easily compensate in the lower back.
Even if you don't fully understand the physics of this concept, you can feel it for yourself during exercise.
Take a hip thrust. A hip thrust feels relatively easy at the bottom and gets harder and harder as you move your hips away from the floor. This is the opposite of the resistance curve of the glute. The glute is getting "weaker" as it approaches the top of the movement. Still, the resistance is getting "heavier" because of the weight's relationship to gravity at that point in the movement.
In contrast, take a step up or a lunge. A lunge or step up feels the hardest when your hip is flexed (at the bottom of the movement), and gets easier as you approach the top. This more accurately matches the strength curve of the muscle and will be a more effective exercise.
I'm not implying that you should never do bridges or hip thrusts. There may be a benefit to strengthening the glutes at their end range. But these exercises aren't as efficient as a step up or lunge because there is little to no challenge at the bottom of the movement when the glutes are the strongest. I also don't recommend loading them with heavy weight because the risk of compensation is high.
Many times your back will be the limiting factor for loading the glutes. Your glute max is very strong and capable of producing a significant amount of force. Your back muscles can't produce as much force, and therefore can be the bottleneck to effectively loading the glutes.
To get the most out of your glute training, choose exercises that limit spine loading. This is why I love a step-up with the weight on your thigh. A step up with a weight on your thigh places less compressive force through the spine, and the spine can be more upright, which means there will be less demand on the spine muscles. This leaves the glute with more work and the spine muscles with less work, which is ideal.
One reason I don't love barbell squats is because of the downward compression on the spine. Squats are a good exercise for loading the glutes, but the lower back risk might not be necessary if you choose other exercises for loading the glutes.
Deadlifts are another example of an exercise that loads the back muscles. If you have a strong back that isn't injured and can tolerate load, deadlifts can be excellent for targeting the glutes and lower back muscles.
The bilateral deficit theory indicates that a muscle can contract with more force when it's contracted unilaterally (on one side) than when muscles contracts on both sides at the same time. Doing an exercise with one limb at a time (i.e., a lunge) might be more effective than doing an exercise involving both limbs contracting simultaneously (i.e., a squat).
Every exercise should first be evaluated under a biomechanical lens to determine risk and reward and then selected based on the individual and their tolerance.
Not every exercise is created equal when it comes to a risk vs. reward profile. Some exercises (like a squat and deadlift) come with high rewards but also high risk.
I prefer to choose exercises that come with low risk but high reward. That will leave your body with the greatest strength but with less wear-and-tear.
Let's discuss a few popular glute exercises and evaluate when they might be appropriate.
Deadlifts work the glutes effectively, but the spine will be the bottleneck in fully loading the glutes. We use deadlifts sparingly (maybe 1-2x/month), and I only recommend deadlifts for my clients who have been training with me for a few months and have no back issues.
The bilateral deficit in a deadlift (see above about what this means) could also inhibit you from loading the glutes as effectively as possible.
Squats are good for the glutes but not the best because the glutes can't fully fold (in many people's anatomy. Body proportions will highly dictate someone's ability to squat deep and fold in the hip). In contrast, a deadlift will allow the hip to hinge more fully, allowing the glutes a greater range of motion.
Squats with heavy weight also place compression force through the spine.
Lastly, like a deadlift, you'll be slightly held back from a bilateral deficit.
However, squats can be great for targeting the glutes because they load the glute when it's in a more lengthened position.
If my clients have a healing spine, I usually recommend they wait to perform heavy squats until their spine is more stable. For my clients with a healthy spine, we do squats sparingly, maybe 1-2x/month.
3. Bridges/hip thrusts
Bridges and hip thrusts can be beneficial to sprinkle into your routine to strengthen at the end range. However, I don't recommend these exercises with heavy loads because of the muscle's late phase loading (see the section on resistance curves above). You could also receive a bilateral deficit with bridges and hip thrusts.
Lunges check more boxes than the prior three exercises.
However, lunges are a large movement and might not be appropriate for someone with a healing knee, hip, or back.
Step-ups are my favorite home glute exercise because they check all of the above considerations for glute training.
I also like this exercise because the pelvis is more likely to stay neutral because the non-working leg isn't as extended (more of your weight is shifted to the front leg rather than the back leg). I recommend this exercise to almost all of my clients, as it is effective for the glutes and more spine/knee-friendly.
If this all makes sense to you, and you want to start applying this philosophy to your workouts at home, it's time to join Levo! We have classes that range from lifting, Pilates, yoga, cardio, mobility, and more. If you're wondering why your body feels broken down after your workouts, it could be because of some of these things. Join Levo to see sustained fitness results without wearing down your body.