Is your derrière feeling a little left out in the gym? Don’t abandon this powerful part of your body. Health and fitness expert Ben Hardman lets you in on the best glute exercises to strengthen and shape those glutes.
A good, firm, well-rounded bum looks great on anyone. We can all appreciate this.
For me, it’s a sign of someone who trains well and eats well. I think it’s an excellent marker for overall physical fitness.
The glutes are made up of three muscles – the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. These three muscles can get easily neglected in favour of the more traditional targeting of leg and back muscles.
Surely you don’t need to train your bum directly, do you? I’ve been guilty of this way of thinking in the past, but not anymore.
To achieve this wholesome look, yes, you do need to train your glutes in the right way. The glute muscles are well worth developing in their own right.
Training your glutes won’t just improve your bum aesthetics either. They’ll also help you step up your performance in most of the other major lifts, including deadlifts, squats and overhead pressing.
To hit the high points of glute development, you’ll want to make sure you’re selecting the very best glute exercises when you’re in the gym. Let’s get to it.
Best Glute Exercises
1. Barbell Hip Thrust
Recommended rep range: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
For me and many others (including ‘the Glute Guy’ Bret Contreras), the barbell hip thrust is the best overall exercise for glute development.
The hip thrust is an enhanced version of the simple glute bridge. It loads the glutes in their shortened position, giving fantastic glute tension at the top of the move without loading your spine.
Break it down though and the hip thrust is a hip extension exercise performed with a barbell and heavy weights.
The position of the body during the exercise means it will target both the upper and lower glute muscles. When moving any heavy weight, it’s important to warm the muscles up beforehand with some pre-activation movements, such as a glute bridge without weight and bodyweight squats.
To get into position for the barbell hip thrust, place your back against a bench, making contact just below the shoulder blades. The barbell will be resting in the hip crease (use a pad if this is painful), with your chin down, shins vertical, and toes pointed out slightly, which helps to increase glute activation.
Engage those glutes to thrust upwards. Imagine your hips are trying to push through the bar.
Pause and squeeze your glutes at the top. Here, your torso should be horizontal with your abs engaged – be mindful not to overextend and curve the spine.
Recommended rep range: 4 sets of 8 reps
The squat is known to be the king (or queen) of lower body exercises. And for excellent reason.
The compound move is also one of your best exercises for shaping and building big, strong glutes.
One of the main roles of the glutes is to move the whole body from a seated position to standing. It does this through extending the hips. This is precisely what the squat is.
When you squat down to the floor, your glutes are stretched out and under maximal tension. It’s this mechanical tension and microscopic muscle damage which causes muscles to grow.
To get the most out of your squats, focus on form. Keep your chest up, back straight, and your whole core engaged to protect your spine. When you’re at the bottom of the move, focus on your glutes and push up through your heels.
If you can, going even slightly below parallel will engage the glutes even more. This will depend on how long your femurs are and how flexible you are at the ankles. On a side note, increasing ankle flexibility is one of the main reasons why you see people wearing weightlifting shoes.
3. Walking Lunge
Recommended rep range: 3 sets of 20 reps (10 each leg)
The walking lunge is a fantastic exercise for building those glute muscles. It’s one of my favourite moves.
The lunge is a versatile move that can be performed with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, or even just bodyweight – although if you want to grow your glutes, adding a load to the move is necessary.
The hardest part of the walking lunge is right at the bottom of the move. This is where the gluteus maximus of your lead leg is really stretched out.
Stretching a muscle under load is great for hypertrophy. You can usually feel this as delayed muscle onset soreness (DOMS) a few days later. A weighted walking lunge always delivers for this in my experience!
This is the opposite of how the hip thrust works for example, which uses mechanical tension and metabolic stress as a way of providing muscle growth.
You’ll be working all three of the glute muscles here as there’s a lot of stabilising to be done on your hips and balance to strike for your body. This is doubled down by the unilateral aspect of the walking lunge, meaning each leg is working independently.
You’ll want to make sure you take a decent stride when performing the walking lunge with your body angle slightly forward. Too short and you’ll be focusing on your quads. Too long and your hamstring will come into play too.
When you reach the bottom of the move, your front knee should be in line with your toe. You’ll then focus on your glutes to raise the body back up.
4. Romanian Deadlift
Recommended rep range: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
Another one of my favourite exercises: the Romanian deadlift.
As the name suggests, this is a variant of the traditional deadlift. The Romanian (or straight leg) deadlift is a hip hinge move that focuses on hip extension for glute development.
Begin with the barbell close to your shins. As you pull up with slightly bent knees, focus on bringing your glutes forward and hinging at your hips to bring them back to flexion so they’re aligned with your torso and lower half in one line.
At the top of the movement, squeeze those glutes for a second or two for maximum muscle activation.
The heavier the weight, the more the emphasis will shift from your hamstrings to your glutes. This is because your glutes are bigger and stronger muscles and tend to take over in times of need to straighten you up at the pelvis.
5. Bulgarian Split Squat
Recommended rep range: 3 sets of 20 reps (10 each leg)
The Bulgarian Split Squat is a tough, unilateral exercise that targets your glutes and quads, as well as challenging your balance. It’s a great one to hit your gluteus medius.
Although this exercise is tough, it places less demand on the knee joint compared to the squat. Good to know for those who suffer with knee pain.
To start the Bulgarian split squat, lift one foot behind you onto a bench or elevated surface. This helps to increase the muscular stress on the front leg doing the work. The motion of the exercise is then like a lunge.
Engage your core and spine to lower your front leg down, then use your glutes and quads to power back up.
You can perform the Bulgarian split squat by holding a dumbbell in each hand. If this is too difficult, lower the weight, and do just bodyweight or switch to a reverse lunge or split squat using a lower platform, such as a weight plate rather than a bench.
6. Weighted Back Extension
Recommended rep range: 3 sets of 15 reps
You might be thinking, how is the back extension going to work my glutes? Hear me out!
With the weighted back extension, you’ll get excellent levels of glute and hamstring activation. Remember, your glutes and hamstrings often work in tandem, with your glute muscles taking over when the movement gets more strenuous.
For this exercise, position yourself on a hyperextension bench and hold a weight (dumbbell or plate) to your chest. You can also pick the weight up from the bottom of the move, which is what I do.
The back extension is a hip hinge movement, with your glutes working to bring your torso back up into the neutral position.
There are a couple of good tips to increase glute activation. First off, take a wider foot position and point your toes outward slightly.
You’ll notice that your spinae erector muscles are working overtime during this movement. You can take these out of it by rounding your back as you lower and raise back up. Usually it’s never wise to round your back when lifting weights, but this is a safe exercise to do this on as your spine isn’t under load.
A little rounding of the back will put the focus onto your glutes. It’s quite hard to get the hang of, so try it out first with no weight.
7. Angled Cable Kickback
Recommended rep range: 3 sets of 12 reps
The cable kickback is a tried and tested exercise for the glutes. The angled cable kickback adds a little extra hip abduction to proceedings, which really maximises your glute activation.
For this exercise you’ll need a cable station. Stand on one leg facing the cable machine with your other leg attached to an ankle strap in a low pulley position.
Tilt your pelvis forward and rotate your leg slightly at the hip. Pull your leg back by extending your hips, and hold for 1-2 seconds at the top. Control your leg back down to the start position and go again without using momentum.
Keep your spine in a straight, neutral position for the kickback. Also make sure there’s no one behind you before you perform this move. We don’t want any kicks to the jaw on the gym floor!
8. Seated Hip Abduction
Recommended rep range: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
Alongside hip extension, one of the main roles of the glutes is to abduct and adduct your hips. In layman’s terms, this is spreading your legs apart and bringing them back together again.
The seated hip abduction is a fine exercise to target the upper glutes around the hip area. Build up this area and it’ll create the illusion of a smaller waist too.
You can perform this exercise on a machine or with bands. I like the machine as you can load it up with weight, but the bands will provide constant tension, which is good.
You can change the muscle emphasis of the machine hip abduction by adjusting your torso position. Leaning back during the move targets the gluteus medius, whereas a more upright position will help to zero in on the maximus. Remember to control the motion and focus on the muscle contraction.
9. Cable Pull-Through
Recommended rep range: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
The cable pull-through is a bit of a hidden gem for glute development. It’s sometimes known as the glute pull-through and, like many other exercises on this list, it’s based on hip extension.
You can think of this exercise as similar to the kettlebell swing, but the pull-through will provide more controlled isolation to your glutes.
At a cable machine, set the pulley to the lowest level, attach a rope and stand facing away from the stack. Your feet should be around shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing out to open your hips.
Grab the ends of a rope between your legs, with a slight bend in the knees, and thrust your hips forward to pull the cable up. Focus on squeezing the glutes at the top of the movement.
As you lower back down, stop when your body is parallel to the floor to maintain maximum glute activation. If you go lower than this you will start to shift emphasis onto your hamstrings.
10. Bodyweight Side Hip Raise
Recommended rep range: 3 sets of 10-15 reps each side
A bodyweight exercise to finish off our best glute exercises.
The bodyweight side hip raise will hit both the upper and lower segments of your glutes.
To get into the right position, start the move like you’re getting into a side plank. Lean on one elbow with one hip and one knee touching the ground. Your knees will be in a bent position.
From here, push through the grounded knee and drive your hips up and then forward at the top of the move where your hips should be fully open.
During the lower half of this exercise, you’ll hit the lower glutes, but during the lockout phases you’ll be engaging your upper glutes and gluteus medius. You should get a nice burn from this one.
Understanding Glute Anatomy To Build Muscle
To understand a whole muscle group and its proper functioning, I always like to take it back to human evolution. And the gluteal muscles are somewhat of a defining human characteristic.
This is all because modern humans evolved to be completely independent on two legs.
To do this successfully, you need big, powerful muscles centrally located on your rear side.
It’s this structural adaptation that led to the significant development of the gluteus maximus to become the largest and most powerful muscle in the human body. In our closest relative the chimpanzee, for example, the gluteus maximus is much less well developed.
For everyday walking around, the glutes don’t do too much. It’s the hamstrings that do most of the work here. But as soon as something gets a little strenuous – going uphill, fast walking, jumping and running – the glutes kick in to extend the hips and keep the torso upright.
Let’s take a closer look at the three muscles that make up your glutes:
The biggest muscle in the human body. The main job of this muscle is to help you stand up from a seated position, hold yourself straight whilst standing and extend hips (i.e., move your legs backwards). This is what helps push our bodies forward and is essential for running. The gluteus maximus keeps us balanced and our hips stabilised.
The muscle fibres of the gluteus maximus are about a 50:50 split in terms of slow twitch vs fast twitch. Knowing this helps us understand the kind of training we need to do to help grow the muscle fibres.
The gluteus medius is about half the weight of maximus. Smaller, but still significant in terms of muscle size.
The medius also helps to stabilise the hips when we’re squatting, running and walking. An important job as these would have been key positions for early humans. They still are today, although the advancement of technology has created a much more sedentary lifestyle.
The gluteus medius also helps to extend the hips more laterally to create rotation in the leg.
The smallest of the glute muscles. Like the other glute muscles, the minimus adds a stabilisation factor to the hips and pelvis but from a different angle than the others. It also helps to rotate the thigh.
The fan-shaped gluteus minimus is located deeper than the maximus and isn’t as visible, but it still contributes to the bulk of the upper bum.
Structuring a Glute Workout
To really build and develop your glutes, you’ll want to make sure you hit exercises to engage all three gluteal muscles.
But as you’ve read, the gluteus maximus is way bigger than the minimus, so it wouldn’t make sense to do the same amount of work on these muscles.
So, the best way to train to ensure you’re building full glute development is to look at four main areas. On a weekly basis, you’ll want to include four types of movements to hit each and every fibre of your glute muscles. Here are the four main types of exercises:
- Thrust or bridge movement – This targets the upper glutes. Example exercises include barbell hip thrust, other thrust variations and the cable pull-through.
- Squat or lunge – This mainly targets the lower glutes. Example exercises include the squat, walking lunge, and the Bulgarian split squat.
- Hip hinge or pull movement – This targets the lower glutes. Example exercises include the Romanian deadlift, and weighted back extension.
- Abduction – This predominantly targets the gluteus medius and upper bum. Example exercises include seated machine hip abduction, side hip raise, and the angled kickback.
Like with most sessions, you should start with the hardest and heaviest compound exercises. It’s best to hit these at your freshest.
For that well-rounded, wholesome bum, I’d aim for 12-16 sets of specific glute exercises each week, just like the ones above.
To break this down further, it looks like 3-4 sets of 4 different exercises. To keep it simple, choose one exercise from each of the four critical areas above and hit 3 to 4 sets across the week. Job done. From here, you can then decide whether you want to – or need to – add more exercises.
Remember, consistency is key. Stay committed to your glute development and you’ll see big results over time.