Glute training: why we don't do squats & deadlifts (and what we do instead)

Today we are going to talk about why you won’t see us prioritizing heavy deadlifts and squats every week in Evlo for training the glutes. I know this is going to be a hot topic since deadlifts and squats have been seen as a couple of the “king” exercises for a long long time. But I feel like I have learned a few compelling reasons why to prioritize other exercises to build the glutes over squats and deadlifts. 

In our private FB group and messages that I get from the Evlo members, they talk about how their glutes have developed more than any other program they’ve tried. And it’s not because we are working them MORE, and many of them aren’t even lifting as heavy as they once were with lots of squatting and deadlifts. So how could that be? How could they be working their glutes less, lifting lighter weights, and yet be seeing more muscle development than before? It’s because we are working them SMARTER not HARDER. 

Your glutes, or your butt muscles, are important to be strong. Yes, aesthetically it’s nice to have a round behind, but the glutes are important for joint health since your hips are the axis point of your body. The glute max is also the largest muscle in your body, so developing this muscle can improve your metabolism since more muscle = more tissue to serve = your body has to work harder and expend more energy to make that happen.

I want to start by saying I don’t want to make anyone afraid of any movement of your body. A healthy, strong body should be able to move in all kinds of ways without joint stress or fear. However, I think when you are adding repetition and/or weight, we should be choosy about our exercise selection so we can have the best results with the least amount of joint risk. So let’s get right into it and talk about deadlifts and squats. 

Deadlifts and squats can for sure give you results - I’m not arguing that. They early phase load the glutes and you will probably see your body change with these exercises. However, the reason we don’t do these exercises with heavy weight in my classes is because I don’t think they are worth the risk. Because of the mechanics of the exercises, you have to hold a lot of weight to load the glutes sufficiently. Holding weight isn’t a bad thing - but it’s not as necessary as we think to load the glutes.

However, it is significant spinal compression when you start holding more and more weight. Spinal compression is a big issue for humans, especially the modern human that is spending a lot of time sitting. I’ve read different stats - but sitting causes about 30% more spinal compression than laying down or standing. Disc degeneration is extremely common as humans age, and we should do what we can in our workouts and daily life to avoid it to keep our spine as healthy as possible. But we don’t HAVE to compress our spines more in our workouts in order to gain strength - this is a fitness myth that is so popular that most fitness experts still believe and apply. You can still progressively overload your muscles, create more and more strength and muscle without holding hundreds of pounds on your back. 

In fact, BODY WEIGHT step-ups are more effective for the glutes and less risk to the spine. So if you can get better effects from the step-ups without compressing the spine, I say we choose that option more often. How can body weight step-ups be more effective than a deadlift with weight? First, let’s go over a lesson in physics. Every exercise can be broken down into a physics equation. You have your line of force, which in most exercises where you’re fighting against gravity, is a line straight down. Then you have what’s called the moment arm to the moving joint. This moment arm, or lever, will dictate how much resistance the targeted muscle will have to fight against. The longer that moment arm, the more work to the muscle. So I calculated the numbers for a bodyweight step up, a deadlift, and a squat. Let’s go over those. 

Step up:

Using my body proportions and weight, a step-up (doing them the way I recommend which is not letting your bottom foot touch the floor, which means you’re using all glute and not the non-working leg):

1,800 lb/in  

I’d have to deadlift 140lb to get the same amount of work to each glute. 

Could I deadlift 140? For sure. But what if I just did the body weight step up and got the same amount of work without the unnecessary compression through my spine? 

OR I can add more weight to the step-up - hold maybe a 20lb weight and get over 2,000 lb/in of work to my glutes. To get the same amount of work to my glutes in a deadlift, I’d have to hold 180 lb. 

Squats are even less effective than deadlifts at loading the glutes since your quads will also take some of the load. So in order to target the glutes with as much force as a body weight step-up, I’d have to hold 240lb. Again - could I do this? Yes! But is it necessary to build glute strength? No. But what about the argument that squats and deadlifts are functional, and that practicing them in our workouts can translate into daily life activities? I 100% agree with that statement. However, I don’t think we need to practice a movement with heavy weight in order for it to translate into your life. 

Coordination and muscle development are two different systems in your body. You can practice a hip hinge movement or a squatting movement, if you feel like you aren’t doing it correctly in your daily life, without having to hold a bunch of weight and risk the spine. Improving your muscular system so it’s strong with the least amount of joint stress will create a functional body. 

If your joints are stressed, your muscles will get tight to protect you, you will lose mobility, pain could inhibit you from doing daily activities comfortably, and you are LESS functional. So that’s not what we want - if exercise is your tool to improve functionality, we should choose exercises that elevate the function of your muscles with less inflammation and stress to your joints.

And - what is more functional - a healthy spine with less compressed discs and strong glutes, or a tight/sore/painful spine with less strong glutes? Who will be less likely to injure themselves when they pick up a heavy box - the person who has a strong body and healthy joints, or the person who has been practicing that particular movement but is on the verge of a disc herniation at any given moment because of the repetitive spinal compression? Again, this isn’t to scare you if you’re doing squats and deadlifts - it’s just something to consider and think about. 

You don’t have to do these stereotypical exercises if they don’t feel good, or if you want to mitigate your risk at the gym. And I’m not saying everyone should do step-ups every day - you don’t want to overdo them, go in a range of motion that’s too deep, or use too much weight. Here’s exactly how we do them in our class: we put a chair close to a wall, and slightly lean into the wall with the opposite hand. This takes off the sideways force through the knees. We dip our non-working leg down, with a hip hinge forward, without letting the foot touch the floor. It doesn’t have to dip super far down, especially if you are just getting started. Even a small range of motion can get you amazing results. 

And if you want to be guided through this whole process of building muscle without overdoing it, choosing risky exercises, or waste time doing exercises that aren’t good bang for your buck, we’d love to have you join Evlo! You can try 7 of my classes for free, take them for a full month and feel the difference for yourself before you ever join. 

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