Chances are, your glutes, are not as strong as they can be. This is the case for 99.9% of people simply because most people spend so much time sitting and so little time and attention remediating all the problems this causes.
Sitting too much causes the glutes to become weaker and relatively inactive while causing the hip flexors to become tight. This tightness in the hip flexors combine with a weakening of the glutes can even cause the hip flexors to become overactive and dominant over time. You do not want this!
When this happens, nearly every lower body exercise you do becomes a quad based exercise with the hamstrings and lower back rounding out the force production needs of your movements.
Basically all the movements that should activate the glutes, squats, deadlift, lunges, (even hip thrusts), become low back, hamstring and quad exercises.
While there is nothing wrong with exercising these muscle groups, most people that sit for a large part of their day will benefit much more from glute strengthening then from working on any of these other muscle groups.
Beyond just the tightness caused by sitting, there is another huge reason that your glutes probably are not firing. That reason is your feet.
Under active feet, specifically feet with fallen arches and under active musculature will not allow for proper firing of the glutes. This makes sense as the body is trying to protect itself.
If the feet cannot withstand the high force output that the glutes are capable of producing, they will shut off the majority of nerve activity to the glutes (innervation).
While this may seem like it is pretty far removed from trying to increase the size and strength of your glutes, its not. The primary purpose of the glutes is to power hip extension. Hip extension is used primarily to power force transfer from your legs to your feet to the ground.
This force transfer is what allows to to powerfully run, jump and change direction. When your glutes are shut off, you can still do these things, but these movements will lack the power output that is possible with the glutes.
Why Your Feet Are The Key To Glute Activation
In his article “13 Ways to Fire Up The Glutes, Dr. Joel Seedman discusses the importance of the feet in strengthening the glutes. Specifically he discusses foot dysfunction as a warning sign for glute weakness.
“Do you pronate your feet (roll them inward), or are your feet and ankles weak in general? This is a warning sign that your glutes are weak and disengaged. Similarly, lack of balance and stability correlate strongly with poor glute and hip function. In addition, if the knees collapse inward during squats or if you display foot and ankle pronation, this also indicates weakness in the gluteus medius and minimus.” – Dr. Seedman
In order to properly fire our glutes you need to develop the muscles and connective tissue of the feet. They provide the link to the glutes that the body relies on to initiate firing of the glutes.
If our bodies nervous system does not have a strong connection from the feet to the glutes it will not allow you to fully engage thoe muscles. Therefore building up this link should be one of the first things your do on your quest for bigger stronger glutes.
After all, regardless of the number of hip thrusts or pull throughs you do, if you are not engaging your glutes during the activities you perform outside the gym, your work in the gym will be much less effective.
The goal of strengthening the muscles of your feet and your nervous system’s link between your feet and glutes is to allow you to apply the strength you build on glute exercises to the normal movements you perform while standing, running, jumping or walking.
Dr. Seedman can offer some help in the foot strengthening department as well. He recommends the “kettelbell swap”
What I like about this movement is that it allows you to build up your foot strength in a graded way. You can simply add reps or weight as your feet become stronger.
Another activity that can improve the strength and endurance of the feet is barefoot walking or running. In order to do this you will have to be on a soft surface like sand or grass. If you do not have access to these types of surfaces then minimalist shoes, specifically track flats can help you to rebuild your feet.
The type of shoes that I have found most useful for this purpose are “track flats”. These shoes, which are used for competitive middle to long distance running can help to get your foot into the right position to build the arches and engage the glutes.
The shoe pictured above is the Saucony Shay XC. This is one of the older versions of their “racing flats”. What these shoes do is offer the minimum amount of protection needed for someone to run medium to long distances (1500m – 10k) on a track or paved road.
While these shoes will be unforgiving, they will teach you to properly fire all the msucles needed to absob the shock of running correctly. If you have never used a shoe like this you will most likely be very sore the first time you go out for a run.
Unlike padded shoes that allow you to get away running with god awful form, these shoes will force you to use every muscle nature intended for you to use to absorb the massive shock of running across a hard surface. If you slowly build up the volume and intensity of your running in this type of shoe, you will notice something interesting.
Most of the “dysfunctional” running patterns you have will be corrected. Similarly, if you have fallen arches, they will shoot back up to the point that you footprint transforms from looking like the picture on the right to looking like the picture on the left!
This is exactly what happened to me the first time I switched from bulky shoes with orthotics and padding to a racing flat. Despite the best intensions of those in the industry, my relatively “flat feet” were never cured until I began running in the above shoes.
Whenever I increased the distance of my runs I noticed serious soreness in the bottoms of my feet. Something I had never noticed before. After using this type of shoe for about 3 months I went into a local running store to get a gait analysis on one of their machines.
When they looked at my foot fall pattern on their specialized gait analysis treadmill what they saw blew the attendants away. The arches on my feet were the highest they had ever seen in their store. They joked that my foot pressure imprint reading looked like the foot print of a “Kenyan runner”
Regardless of whether or not they were joking or serious, the arches of my feet were definitely more pronounced then they had been just months before.
Every time I have worked with someone who has switched to track flats, they have noticed a similar occurrence. In fact, I believe running in track flats is even better then running barefoot. I believe the small amount of material coverage track flats provide allows your body to go far beyond the limits it would reach if you were running barefoot while minimally compromising the biomechanics of barefoot running.
Running in track flats along with the “kettelbell swap” shown above are two of the most easily implemented and effective drills for building up the strength in your feet so that you can effectively fire your glutes.
Why Bodybuilding Your Glutes Is Not The Answer
Now that you have an idea on how to build up the foundation for building your glutes, we need to talk about what you should avoid. Probably the most common mistake people make is simply layering a ton of exercises that are supposed to hit the glutes on top of one and other.
The reason this is a problem is that many glute isolation exercise can end up working msucle groups besides the glutes if not executed properly. What’s worse is that even if they are executed properly, if you have not strengthened your feet to the point that they can support high powered movements, your body will not integrate any of the strength you gain from isolation exercises into your normal day to day movement patterns.
So theoretically, you could bet super strong on all your glute isolation exercises you perform in the gym, but as soon as you go to run, jump, sprint or change direction, your body will fail to fire your glutes.
To reiterate, this happens because your body is designed to protect itself from injury. If one part of it’s kinetic chain is weak (the feet) the body will limit the amount of power generated by the whole chain.
The other reason that doing endless amounts of glutes exercises will not automatically work is that you need to progressively increase the functional abilities of the glutes just like any other muscle. This is especially important for something like glute training where most people are going from never having trained glutes to training glutes.
This causes many people to believe that now that they are training their glutes will automatically grow. The truth is that if they are training incorrectly their glutes will not grow. In the worst case scenario they can actually cause their glute muscles to atrophy due to using an incorrect training frequency! While this is highly unlikely, it is possible.
In his excellent article Stijn Van Willigen uses the above graph to show what happens when you train with improper frequency. He wrote about this in order to highlight the importance of balancing frequency with intensity and types of movements.
The basic gist was that different movements tax the bodies recover capacities in different ways. Specifically, movements that have a large eccentric component, or muscle stretching under load cause a delay in recovery.
If the movements that heavily tax the body are performed too often, you will not only inhibit recovery, you might break down some of the muscle you already have.
In order to avoid this you need to test different frequencies for the glute isolation movements you are performing as well as the compound movements you are using to build up the glutes.
You need to trak your progress on the exercises you have chosen for the glutes and ensure that you are training with a frequency and intensity that allows you to continue to progress.
-Building mass and patterning movement on top of dysfunction will not improve movement patterns
-Without working on movement patterns, groved method of movement will be further solidified
-Solidifying movement patterns that are faulty will set you back
When Bodybuilding The Glutes Is The Answer (re-patterning)
Training the muscles of the Glutes to the point of fatigue is fine once you have re-patterned the movements you plan on using. What this means is that you must be able to consciously engage the glutes through out the movements you are trying to do while you are doing them.
Fr example, if you are doing a hip thrust, you want to feel your glutes working through out the entire range of motion. Similarly, if you are deadlifting or squatting, you want to feel your glutes working through out those movement, ideally feeling them more then the quads or the hamstring.
The way you accomplish this is with a technique called greasing the groove. This technique can be be simply described as getting a large amount o practice with a movement without going to fatigue. In the case of learning to contract the glutes, this will give you a ton of practice contracting a muscle through a range of motion without worrying about systematic or localized fatigue getting in the way of proper technique.
This system of training was first popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline in his Power to The People book. he discusses how high level athletes such as weight lifters and gymnasts use this technique to build up to extremely high volumes of training without wrecking their bodies. In his words:
“Muscle failure is more than unnecessary – it is counterproductive! Neuroscientists have known for half a century that if you stimulate a neural pathway, say the bench press groove, and the outcome is positive, future benching will be easier, thanks to the so-called Hebbian rule. The groove has been ‘greased’. Next time the same amount of mental effort will result in a heavier bench. This is training to success! The opposite is also true. If your body fails to perform your brain’s command, the groove will get ‘rusty’. You are pushing as hard as usual, but the muscles contract weaker then before! To paraphrase powerlifting champ Dr. Terry Todd, if you are training to failure, you are training to fail.” – Pavel Tsatsouline.
This type of training also helps avoid the fatigue and muscle breakdown associated with high training frequencies. Using this grease the grove method, you can get practice contracting the glutes through a full range of motion without the risk of overtraining or causing excessive muscle break down.
Once you have had enough practice with each of the movements you will be using, you will be ready to add in some heavy, high volume training similar to what you would see on a bodybuilding program. You can still train the glutes using the grease the grove method, but you will add in the more structurally fatiguing set and rep schemes in place of some of the grease the grove work you were doing.
An example of greasing the grove would be practicing the hip thrust 4-7 days a week. For example, if you are currently able to hip thrust 200 pound for 1 rep but are not really feeling the exercise in your glutes, you could drop the weight and practice the movement.
4-7 days a week you could do sets of just 2-4 reps with 100 lbs. or half of your one rep max. During each rep you would focus on contracting the glutes as hard as possible through the range of motion. By using lower reps and weight then you are capable of, you can focus all of your effort on the glutes in every rep. Since the volume and intensity is so low, you could easily practice this every day along with whatever else you are doing in the gym.
After doing this for several weeks, you would without a doubt be able to feel your glutes working throughout the hip thrust movement much more then before engaging in this type of training. Even after returning to heavier weights you will continue to feel your glutes working more then before.
Once you get to this point, you can then experiment with bodybuilding techniques such as doing multiple exercises for the glutes in one workout, training the glutes to the point of fatigue, or using drop sets and super sets to further fatigue those muscles.
Who You Should Not Listen to In Your Quest for Glutes
Another problem most people have on their quest for greater Glute size and strength is listening to the advice of people who have great Glute genetics. This is important as many different factors can come into play.
First, if someone has great neural activation patterns (mind muscle connection), they are going to be able to feel the glutes working during exercises that absolutely will not work for you.
Someone who naturally feels their glutes working most of the time can do squats, lunges and deadlifts and get a great glute workout. This is because they do not have any of the challenges in activating their glutes that I have been discussing in this article.
One of the other problems is that their is a huge variance in glute size. Some people naturally will have glutes that are much larger then others. This has to do with the amount of muscle and fat people carry in that section of their body. As you probably already know, there is a huge variance in the size of people’s glutes.
If you listen to someone that has always had decent glute development, you are going to be getting advice that is essentially useless. You want to find people that have gone from your starting point and reached the level of development you are looking for.
Who You Should Listen To On Your Quest For Glutes
You should be listening to anyone that has gone from having poor glute development to having pretty good glute development. Alternatively you should follow trainers who have improved many people’s glute development. This is one of the reasons so many people follow Bret Contreras’ work. He has one of the most impressive glute transformation testimonials pages I have ever seen.
There are some other great resource around the net for getting your glutes working. One of my recent favorites is Secrets of Athleticism. The author, Chong Xie, discusses various ways to get the glutes engaged during sports, workouts and every day activities.
The author is someone who grew up with very little glute development and says that he always had trouble using his glutes during sporting activities. He went to great lengths to figure out why some athletes have no problem using their glutes and other cannot use them, regardless of what they try.
While this site is geared toward people interested in getting their glutes to work for sports activities, it is still a fantastic resource for anyone trying to learn to get their glutes working during training.
What Is Needed In A Program For Building Up The Glutes
One of the first things you should be doing if you are trying to get your glutes to work better is some type of hip flexor stretch. You don’t want to overdo this, you just want to make sure some type of hip flexor stretch is a regular part of your program. For this to work you can simply throw the below stretch into the begging of your workouts if you are training glutes or the end of your workouts if you are not.
Photo Credit: Stack
This is just one example of a hip flexor stretch. You can pick any one you want by googleing “hip flexor stretch”, the point is just to do one consistently.
Next up is the glute activation exercise. Again there are tons of different types that you can use. My favorite is the Bird Dog. This simple exercise (shown below) never fails to get my glutes working. Even when your hips are tight, this exercise will allow you to establish a better mind muscle connection with the glutes.
Photo Credit: Stack
In addition to this exercise, you should be doing something for pure hip abduction. This is simply to get the muscles on the outside of the glute firing. In this case a simple lying hip abduction exercise (shown below) is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this.
Photo Credit: All Fitness Athlete
After you have your activation exercises in place you need to chose your main movement. Ideally, it should be a movement that allows your to feel your glutes working, provides a large range of motion and is easy to overload over time. For this reason I like to choose the glut bridge or the hip thrust. These are both contracted position movements, or movements that focus on the contracted range of motion.
You can can also choose a stretch position movement or a movement that focuses on stretching the glutes through eccentric loading. Good examples of this type of movement would be a Romanian deadlift, sumo deadlift or conventional deadlift done with an emphasis on the glutes.
Regardless of whether you choose a stretched position movement or a contracted position movement, make sure to decide which movement is going to be your main one. This is important as you are going to religiously track your main movement to gauge progress while using your secondary movement to simply add variety.
Another exercise you need to have in your program is some type of pump or high rep movement. This can be a lighter or higher rep glute bridge or hip thrust or even a weighted version of the bird dog shown above.
The point of this movement it to add some metabolic stress to your exercises to target the glutes. These exercises add variety to your program and allow you to hit your glutes with much higher frequency.
Finally you will want to have a contracted or stretched position movement to balance out whatever movement you have for your main effort glute training exercise. For example, if you are using the glute bridge for your main movement, you are going to want to include another movement that works the glutes through a range of motion the emphasizes the stretched position.
One of your best options for stretched position movements is the cable pull through. As Joel Seedman PhD notes in his articles on glute training, the pull through is one of the best movements for teaching hip extension. He mentions that other good options are the Romanian Deadlift and deadlift. Simply focus on the eccentric portion of the movement, taking at least 3 seconds to lower the weight and focusing on holding the movement in the fully stretched position.
Another consideration you need to keep in mind is your individual need for movement re-training and optimization. You always want to keep in mind your current ability to activate the glutes during your normal day to day activities.
If you feel your ability to activate your glutes during your workouts or your day to day activities is diminishing, consider adding in some glute movement re-training exercises such as the Windmill Plank (shown below). Exercises like these are ideal for teaching the glutes to interact with other muscle groups during complex movement patterns.
Hopefully this article has given you a more complete picture of what you can do to speed up your efforts to grow larger stringer glutes. As the largest muscle group in the body, it makes sense that the glutes should be given at least some priority in training.
The glutes are one of those muscles that are difficult to work too hard. Few people have any performance or aesthetics problems from having glutes that are too large or too strong.
Probably the most important thing about having strong glutes is that they will greatly increase your resistance to injuries to the lower body that are so common in athletes with weakened glutes and their attendant muscle compensation issues.
Alright, enough for one article, thanks for reading and I hope this helps!