One of the Most important issues facing active individuals is activating the glute muscles. It does not matter if your are a recreational exercises or competitive athlete. Maximally activating your glutes should be one of your top priorities.
The reason for this is that the glutes should be the largest most powerful muscle in your body. When working properly, your glutes are a powerful driver of nearly every type of running jumping or other athletic movement.
From a physique enhancement perspective, not having your glutes firing on all cylinders means that you will not be able to develop the full body strength and power that is need for high levels of muscle mass and lower levels of body fat.
The worst part is that all the exercises that should allow you to strengthen your glutes, squats, deadlifts, lunges ect…. turn into a quadricep or hamstring exercise. This is a recipe for disaster as those muscles have other functions they need to be performing beyond hip extensions.
Calling the quads and hamstrings into play to complete the work the glutes should be performing is one of the best ways to pull one of the muscles of the quadriceps or hamstring or sustain a knee or hip injury.
Finally, if your glutes are not working properly you will develop strange looking legs and hips. The last thing anyone wants is to have massive sweeping quads with little or no glute development. The sum of most people’s fears is that they will have completely disproportionate legs that continue to become more and more out of balance as they are worked.
Without scaring anyone, that is exactly what will happen if you do not take care of this all too common imbalance. While it is important to keep in mind that there can be an imbalance between the quadriceps and the hamstrings, its more important to consider the imbalance of the glutes to the quads or hams.
If the glutes are not stronger or more active then either of the others, you chance for injury will be much higher. relatively speaking, it is much safer to have weak hamstrings or quads then it is to have weak glutes. As Kelly Bagget performance consultant notes:
“I don’t believe it’s possible for an athlete to have TOO much glute strength.”
While this may or may not be true, the important thing to keep in mind is that it certainly is possible for an athlete to have too much quad or hamstring strength relative to the glutes. By reversing this common problem you will easily be able to lift more weight on the squat and deadlift, easily prevent knee and back injuries.
Even more important to physique athletes is that additional glute size and strength will have a positive impact on the whole physique. Beyond impacting the appearance and posture, the glutes have an important impact on the neuroendocrine system. Due to their role as the primary hip extensor, the glutes determine how fast and how powerfully you can move.
By enhancing the glutes size and strength you will be able to amplify the neuroendocrine response to exercise. This is arguably the most important result of strengthening the glutes, and one that will move you closer toward you physical goals regardless of specifics.
In this article, I am going to first discuss my personal story of how I became interested in strengthening the glutes. I am then going to discuss the most common barriers to glute dominance starting with quad dominance. Next I will discuss the methods you can use to strengthen the glutes. Finally I am going to give my recommendations for what has worked for me.
How I Got Interested In Glute Dominance
For quite some time I have had a peripheral awareness of why glute strength might be important. I had read a bunch of articles by Bret Contreras “The Glute Guy” and understood that the glutes played a lage part in athletic and sporting performance.
I have always had a decent deadlift and a not horrible squat and have never been interested in advanced strategies to bring up either of those lifts. I had competed in olympic weightlifting while in college and since then have never felt that my glute, hamstring or quadricep strength was an issues.
Finally, I saw extreme glute strengthening as something that only women who were trying to “get a butt” would want to engage in. While strong glute are important, glute hypertrophy, glute isolation and a routine designed around the glutes all seemed a little extreme.
This all changed when I began training up for one of the second military selection processes I would participate in. In the past I have done a number of military tryouts and one selection for one of the military’s “special” units. One thing that all of these tryouts or selections have in common is that they feature high volume exercise.
Some of the most common injuries candidates experience are tendon and ligament injuries as well as muscle pulls in the legs. Specifically, achilles tendon injuries, IT Band injuries and quad strains are very common. For this reason, anyone going to one of these selections needs to make sure that their muscles are flexible and durable enough to withstand hours and hours and miles and miles of use.
This means that some seriously high volume training needs to be part of your train up to get the body ready for the rigors of these events. Whats more, the exercises you will perform at these selections tend to be moderately intense for sustained periods of time. Some of the things they do to week out candidates are high volume calisthenics like walking lunges as well as miles and miles of running and hiking.
Beyond being difficult, one thing that all these exercises have in common is that they require the use of the quadriceps more then any of the other leg muscles. For this reason, training plan for these types of events require participants to train these movements and therefore the quadriceps quite a bit. or anyone who is extremely quad dominant, this can be a big issues.
In my latest train up, this is exactly what happened to me. I was training with some of the guys and girls over at CompleteHumanPerformance. After the 1st week of training, my quadricep tightened up to the point that I was unable to start one of the programs squat workouts. I literally walked into the gym, stepped under the bar, and as soon as I went down on my first rep I knew something was wrong.
At this point I backed out, waited tried again and was faced with the same results. I completed anything else I could that was non leg related, left the gym and contracted my trainer with the great news. After reviewing some videos of my squatting, we determined I had an imbalance in strength with my quads being pretty dominance, specifically the muscles of the vastus lateralis.
This immediately made me think of the information I had seen on glute imbalances on Bret Contreras’s site and had me searching the web for more answers. Beyond Bret’s information, many trainers were trying to devise strategies to get their athletes to be glute dominance instead of quad or hamstring dominant.
What I found was that becoming a glute dominant athlete is possibly the easiest ways to improve the looks and performance of your physique. By taking the time to focus on making your body rely primarily on the glutes for lower body movements, you can shortcut years of movement training and strength development.
The glutes really are the answer to looks, performance and injury prevention in a large majority of cases. Beyond helping the lower body, the glutes will enhance nervous system and endocrine function. All the rumors floating around the internet about developing the lower body for full body enhancement might actually be true when it comes to the glutes.
One of the great things about developing the glutes is that it does not make your legs appear any wider. The same cannot be said for hamstring or quad work which inherently recruits the vastus lateralis (outer thigh sweep) as well as the adductors (inner thighs). This is important as the last thing most people want is to end up having legs with too much width.
The best way to prevent this from happening is to focus on developing your mind muscle connection with the glutes. This will allow you to use them more powerfully in compound exercises. Eventually you should be able to utilize your maximum effort loads in traditional barbell exercises such as the squat and deadlift while still primarily taxing the glutes.
The way to get there can be easy or complicated, its all about who’s advice you follow.
“Too many people have non-existent glutes. From a strength perspective, if you were to consciously go in the weight room and do nothing but attack your glutes like a bodybuilder attacks his biceps, or a bench press specialist attacks the strength his triceps, you wouldn’t be that far off the mark.” – Higher Faster Sports
What To Do If Your Other Muscle Take Over
Many trainers have written about what you can do if your other muscles are taking over when you perform lower body exercises. As I mentioned earlier, it is very common for the lower body to shift some of the effort to the quadriceps.
Only when you establish the correct length tension relationships between the muscles of the lower body will you be able to correctly engage the glutes. You will know when you are able to do this because your glutes will get sore when you workout.
If you are currently working out and feeling it primarily in your hamstring and quadriceps you know you have along way to go. According to glute expert Bret Contreras, this re-activation of the glute muscles involves using them in complex movements at sub maximal intensities.
“When you go too heavy, your body WILL find the path of least resistance in order to get the job done.”
In addition to activating the glutes you need to make sure they stay involved in the movement. A great example of this comes from a Q&A Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavalier went through with some of his clients. One of his clients points out that he was performing barbell glute bridges, a glute specific exercise, but was still feeling it in his hamstring. Jeff tells that man that he needs to use weights that allow him to consciously contract the glutes and feel them throughout the exercise.
This is similar to what Bret Contreras recommends though he does have a number of other exercises he recommends people engage in to strengthen the glutes.
One of the first things he discusses is that you need to figure out if you are able to establish a mind muscle connection with your glutes in the first place. For doing this he recommends the lying isometric contraction as well as a number of other low intensity exercises.
These lower intensity exercises allow you to built your mental connection with the glutes before attempting more demanding exercises. Bret recommends the following:
“You do not want to go to failure when performing sets of these exercises. Five to seven days per week, you want to perform a 5-10-minute motor-learning routine for the weaker glute consisting of:”
- 2 sets of 10-20 reps of side lying abductions with the weaker leg
- 2 sets of 10-20 reps of side lying clams with the weaker leg
- 2 sets of 10-20 reps of quadruped hip extensions with the weaker leg
- 2 sets of 10-20 reps of single leg glute bridges with the weaker leg
Once you are comfortable doing circuits of those exercises and are able to feel the glutes working throughout the exercises you should fee ready to tackle some of the strength building movements. Once you get to the point where you can go heavy while still feeling the movement in the glutes you can start adding weight onto your primary glute movement. Strenth benchmarks for the hip thrust according to Bret are as follows:
“Over time you want to aim for doing 10 hip thrusts with at least a 1.5 times bodyweight, with advanced lifters aiming for double bodyweight for 10 reps. However, you shouldn’t chase progressive overload to the point where you stop feeling the movement primarily in the glutes. When you hip thrust, you want to achieve a deep burn in the glutes and walk around with a glute pump in between sets. This requires a solid mind-muscle connection, which is just as important as the weight you use.” – Bigger Better Glutes
Finally, if you are unable to get to the point where you can add a lot of weight to the barbell hip thrust and still feel the glutes, it might be a good idea to focus on increasing your weight in the barbell glute bridge. This is important as it is one of the heavy barbell exercises that almost eliminates the hamstrings and quads. Unlike the barbell hip thrust you maintain a deep bend in the knees throughout the movement.
The glute bridge certainly falls into what many people would call a “hip dominant” leg exercise. I think it is almost in a category of it’s own as it is the closest thing you can get to a glute isolation exercise that still allows you to use heavy weights.
What I like about the glute bridge compared with most other hip dominant leg exercises is that it allows you to alomost completely remove the quadriceps and hamstrings from the movement. If you don’t want to look like you are laying on the ground trying to make love to the bar, that’s understandable. There are many other hip dominant movements you can use to try to feel the glutes working.
Finally, regardless of the types of exercise you decide to use, you are going to want to make sure you maintain your mind / muscle connection with the glutes when you go back to less naturally glute dominant movements.
For example, say you have been working with barbell glute bridges and hip thrusters and are able to feel your glutes working throughout both movements. You now want to get back into working traditional back squats. Is there a way that you can do them and ensure you are engaging the glutes?
Luckily, many people have thought long and hard about this question. Besides just trying to “feel” the glutes when you are squatting, there are a few techniques that nearly guarantee glute involvement. The below video explains the technique I found found to be the most useful by far.
In the video Xie discusses how you can use a special technique that involves engaging the arches on your foot. This technique immediately made sense to me when I tried it. After practicing it through out the day a few times for the least week I have noticed a dramatic improvement in my ability to engage my glutes when squatting.
I would watch the video to get an idea of how he sets up the squat and then give that technique a try next time you are squatting. Additionally you can give it a try around the house just for practice with the footwork and engaging the glutes.
Kelly Bagget, the performance consultant quoted at the top of this article, made a similar connection between the feet and the glutes when discussing the athletic prowess of his athletes.
“The main difference between average athletes and good athletes is found in the functionality of the feet, as well as the strength, development, and function of the glute musculature.” – Higher Faster Sports
Conclusion and Recommendations
While it’s hard to give one blanket recommendation for fixing muscle imbalances, adding glute strength is as close to a universal solution as you can get. One thing you will have to determine on your own is what muscles are tight or inhibiting your glutes.
You will need to pay special attention to lengthening any short muscles that are making it difficult for your glutes to do their job. The best resource I have seen that discusses how to lengthen specific muscles is another one of Jeff Cavalier’s videos on his Athlean-X channel.
In this video he discusses exactly how to use a foam roller to lengthen muscles and clear up muscular imbalances that result from having overly tight muscles inhibiting the other muscles opposite of adjacent to them. I actually learned a new foam rolling technique in this video as well as a common mistake I was making when I was rolling.
Once you identify if you have any muscle that are shortened and take the necessary steps to lengthen them I would focus on getting the glutes to fire as hard as possible in isolation. Look at the series of exercises listed above in the “what to do if your other muscles take over” section of this article.
I would do those exercises every day or every other day until you are confident that you can get your glutes to fire at any time and during any exercise. I would then start to incorporate glute specific exercises that use heavier loads. For this I would start with the barbell glute bridge and possibly do the barbell hip thrust.
The most important thing is that you feel your glutes being worked more then any other muscle. Whichever exercise you go with, barbell glute bridge or barbell hip thrust, try to work up to a heavier 5-10 rep max. Remember to only move up in weight when you can complete the number of reps you are shooting for without having to rely on other muscle to get the barbell up.
I would use bret’s guidelines and shoot for bodyweight x 10 reps, 1.5 times bodyweight x 10 reps and finally 2.0 times bodyweight x 10 reps in either the barbell glute bridge or barbell hip thrust. Once you can get to that level of strength while still feeling the glutes working you will be near your genetic potential for glute hypertrophy.
At this point I would shift my focus from gaining strength on the glute specific barbell exercises, to applying that strength to your other lifts. Specifically, I would be concerned with integrating my glute strength into my squat. The holy grail of re-tooling your movement patterns is to go from being a quad dominant squatter to being a glute dominant squatter.
To do this, first worry about actually getting your glutes stronger then your quads through a relatively high volume of glute work like the type mentioned above. While you are gaining strength on these exercises you might want to drop squats and other quad heavy work on your program, or just practice them with light weights trying to establish a mind muscle connection with the glutes through out the movement.
Once you feel confident trying to utilize your new strength in the movement use the hyperarch technique described in Xie’s video above. If you follow this simple sequence it will prove to be your fastest route to be comming a glute dominant squatter and athlete.