Maxing Out Your Glutes
The Scientific Approach to Glute Training
By Paula Harvey
We women are obsessed with our rear views, and we’ll try anything to tighten and trim our troublesome tushies. Gadgets and gimmicks abound to prey on our fanny fixation, but more often than not, those “guaranteed” items will do little to buff your buns, and more to drain your wallet. So what’s a girl to do? How can we divine the best way target and tone our tail ends? To find the best exercises for your buns, we turned to the infallible forecast of scientific research.
The muscles that shape our rear view include the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. Gluteus medius and minimus are deep-seated muscles that work in conjunction with one another to move the leg out and away from the body, as well as to rotate the thigh bone inward. These muscles also stabilize our posture, and are hard at work when we walk or jog at an easy pace. The gluteus maximus is the largest of this group, and is the muscle most visible and vexing, as it constitutes the bulk of our behinds. It allows us to bring our leg behind us, and to move it from a bent angle to a straight position, like when we climb stairs. This posterior powerhouse works hardest when performing activities such as cycling, jumping rope and sprinting.
Rounding out the rear view roster are the hamstrings and lower back. These two muscle groups not only help shape the backside, they also assist in posture stabilization, hip extension and leg rotation.
Because of the limited range of motion we humans have to the rear of our bodies, these muscle groups are notoriously difficult to train. They prove especially galling for women who genetically tend to carry more fatty tissue in these areas than men. But, even though the shape and size of our caboose is partially genetic, we can effectively target and train this area with a little intensified focus and attention.
The Science of the Seat
To help us solve our derriere dilemma, Dr. Peter Francis, director of the biomechanics lab at San Diego State University, used electromyography to test the effectiveness of several gluteal exercises.
First, Dr. Francis and his team gathered an extensive list of exercises reputed to train the glutes, and from that list chose 10 that made sense in a functional way. They then recruited 31 women of all levels and abilities, and placed electrodes on the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, the hamstrings and the low back. (Note: Since the gluteus minimus is set too deeply in the leg tissue for electrode attachment, its activity was excluded from the study). The electrodes transmitted signals to an elecromyography machine, which read and recorded the muscular output from each of these areas and stored them for later evaluation.
The hotwired women then performed 14 repetitions of each of the 10 exercises in a random order. “Each exercise was done to the beat of a metronome— two seconds up and two seconds down,” says Francis. “This ensured they all elicited a similar contraction in the same amount of time.” For the exercises that involved weights, the amount used was equal to 33 percent of the body weight for each participant. “We then took the average of the 14 repetitions to discern which exercises were the most effective for training the buns,” says Francis. “And some of the results were surprising.”
Best for the Bootie
Among the most remarkable results was the success of the unweighted exercises, all of which topped the tush-training chart. “Unweighted movements effectively train the glutes and hamstrings without placing undue stress on the lower back,” says Francis. Surprisingly, the more traditional standbys (i.e., deep squats and half squats) fared poorly in the bigger picture. “Anything that involved placing a bar or a weight across the shoulders elicited a lot of work from the lower back, since the weight of the bar gets transferred down along your spine,” says Francis. ““This is not to say that the lower back isn’t an important area to strengthen and train. But when performing an exercise for the glutes, one should be careful not to compromise such delicate areas, especially if you’re prone to back problems.”
So, when all was said and done, the exercise that proved tops for your bottom according to Francis, was the one-legged squat. “Not only does this exercise directly engage the gluteus maximus and the hamstrings, it also elicits a good deal of gluteus medius activity,” says Francis. “If you have to forcibly balance— like when you take one foot off the ground— you start firing the gluteus medius, which is a remarkably difficult muscle to target and train.” In addition, this exercise, performed only with your body weight, showed the least stress on the erector spinae muscles, i.e., your lower back, making it both the safest and the most effective exercise all around.
Next on the list came the unweighted plie, or sumo squat. “The body positioning for this squat immediately engages the gluteus maximus in order to hold your feet and knees in a turned-out position,” says Francis. “Add to it an isometric contraction on the way back up, and it’s even more challenging.”
Remarkably, step training found itself third on the rump roster. “Again, this is a body weight exercise where you go briefly from one leg to another, so the gluteus medius gets involved along with the gluteus maximus and the hamstrings,” says Francis. But stepper beware: “We found that as the step gets higher, people stop using their lead leg to perform the motion, but rather push more with the back leg,” he says. “This switches the emphasis of the exercises from front leg to back leg, and from the glutes onto the quads and calves.” So to maximize your gluteal gains, keep your step height to eight inches or less.
Finally, the heel kick on all fours ranked fourth, followed closely by lunges, which rated notably high on hamstring recruitment.
So there you have it– the science to slim your seat. Now get to the gym and kick some ass!
Examine your current training schedule and formulate a glute program using these five exercises. You can train your glutes up to twice a week, although one day of concentrated focus is recommended. Perform three sets of each exercise using a rep range of 10-15, and focus on using perfect form and moving through a complete range of motion. If you train legs on a separate day, allow at least two days rest between your glute training and your leg training to ensure recovery, avoid injury and prevent over training.
And remember: There’s no such thing as spot reduction, so no matter how many squats, lunges or leg lifts you do, your rear view will still be a wide load if you don’t watch what you’re eating. Diet is key if you want to display your hard-earned heinie, so fuel your body with several small, well-balanced meals spread evenly throughout the day to help get rid of that pesky posterior poundage.
Concentrated cardio will also help uncover the fruits of your labor, and activities that mimic the exercises below are great ways to train your glutes while simultaneously whittling away that body fat. Stair climbers and elliptical trainers are great indoor options, and when using them, press through your heels to further shift the emphasis of the exercise toward your tush. Also, try group classes such as kickboxing, power yoga, spinning and good old step aerobics to bring up your behind. And if you’re an outdoor enthusiast, find a good flight of stairs or a nice long hill to give yourself a good tail-kicking. Sports such as basketball, football, in-line skating and cycling are also great glute training activities, so go outside and play! Perform some sort of cardiovascular activity three to five days a week for a duration of 30-60 minutes to maximize your fat-burning potential.
Stand with your knees slightly bent, your shoulders down and back and your focus forward. Lift your left foot off the ground and bring it to the front of your body, holding it in this aerial position throughout the exercise. “If you’re having trouble with balance, stand next to a wall or a machine and lightly touch it with your hand to keep yourself steady,” suggests Francis. Balancing yourself on your right foot, squat down as far as your individual flexibility will allow, keeping your heel in contact with the floor at all times and maintaining an erect posture. Slowly come back to a standing position without locking your knee and go right into the next repetition. Complete all repetitions on one side before moving to the other.
Plie (Sumo) Squats
Stand with your feet about a foot wider than your shoulders, and turn your toes out in a diagonal direction, much like a ballet dancer in second position. Slowly squat downward keeping your entire foot flat on the ground, and making sure your knees track directly over your toes. When your thighs come parallel to the floor, slowly begin to ascend, squeezing isometrically through the glutes as your rise. “Imagine you’re squeezing a nickel between the cheeks of your buns,” suggests Francis. Come to a standing position without locking your knees and go right into the next repetition.
A dusty, nearly defunct activity, step training may now experience a revival. Stand in front of a step or stair that is no more than eight inches in height. Using a slow and even pace, step up with the right foot, up with the left, down with the right and down with the left. For each step taken, place your entire foot solidly on the step and squeeze through the glutes of the lead leg to come to a standing position on top of the step. Avoid bouncing and pushing off with your back leg to assist you with the motion. Complete all repetitions on one leg before switching to the other side.
Get on your hands and knees on a padded mat, keeping your back flat and your head in a neutral position. From here, un-weight your right leg and readjust your balance so your weight is distributed evenly between your two hands and left knee. Keeping your leg bent at a 90-degree angle, slowly raise it up behind you, keeping your back flat and your balance even, until your thigh comes parallel to the floor. “Only go up as high as you can without hyper-extending the back,” warns Francis. At your topmost point, pause a moment and squeeze the glutes before slowly lowering the leg back to the start. Complete all repetitions on one side before moving to the other.
Stand with your knees slightly bent, your focus forward and your abs tight. With your hands on your hips, take a giant step forward with your right leg and lower yourself toward the ground slowly. Be sure the knee of your front leg does not pass the toe of your front foot as you descend. When your left knee almost touches the ground, push through the heel of your right foot to bring your feet back together at the start. Repeat on the opposite side.
Exercises Tested (in order of effectiveness)
1) One-Legged Squats
2) Plie (Sumo) Squats
3) Step Training
4) Heel Kickbacks
6) Front Half Squats (bar on clavicle)
7) Back Half Squats (bar on shoulders)
8) Deep Squats (bar on shoulders)
10) Rubber Band Prone Hip Extension