Everyone, both men and women, want nice, round, well-developed and lean, Glutes. However, most people do not train their Glutes “efficiently”—typically spending too much time on exercises that are mostly unproductive, and the also exposing themselves to injury risk. The reason for this is that there is simply too much misinformation being circulated about proper training of the Glutes.
Let’s start by asking ourselves the most fundamental question everyone should ask: “What constitutes a “good” exercise, for any muscle group?”. What are the factors — anatomical, mechanical, and neurological — that make an exercise optimally efficient, productive, and safe?
1. “Ideal direction of anatomical motion”
is one of the most important factors. We need to identify the precise motion that a target muscle produces, and then mimic that motion with our target exercise. When we’re dealing with a muscle that moves a hinge joint, like an elbow (i.e., biceps and triceps), the anatomical motion is obvious, because the joint only moves in one direction. But when we’re dealing with a muscle that moves a ball-and-socket joint, which moves in various directions—e.g., the shoulder joint and the hip joint—it’s not quite so obvious.
The goal of every exercise should be to move the insertion of the target muscle directly toward the origin(s) of that muscle. That produces optimal muscle contraction.
“Muscles always pull toward their origin”. This is basic physics. Assume you’re holding one end of a rope, and the other end is tied to a heavy object. When you pull the rope, the only direction you can move that object is directly toward you. If you are the muscle origin, the rope is the muscle fiber, and the “heavy object” is the limb to which the muscle is attached, that limb will move directly toward you when you “contract” (pull). So it is with actual muscle contraction. The ideal anatomical movement for any muscle is to move the limb directly toward the target muscle origin.
The origin of the Gluteus is on the upper-medial edge of the posterior pelvis. Therefore, the ideal direction of anatomical motion for the Gluteus is “hip extension”—bending (flexing) the hip, as much as possible, on the eccentric phase, and a then moving the femur down and back (extending the hip), as much as comfortably possible, during the concentric phase.
2. “Range of motion” is another important factor.
Studies have repeatedly shown that full range of motion is more productive than partial range of motion, and partial range of motion is better than “no range of motion” (i.e., isometric)—in terms of visible muscle development, and also in terms of strength increases through the muscle’s entire range of motion. Full range of motion is always best.
So, the first thing we need to identify—when selecting the best Gluteus exercise(s)—are the exercises that allow us to move the limb (i.e., Gluteus muscle insertion on the upper end of the femur) directly toward the Gluteus origin (on the upper posterior part of the pelvis), WITH the most range of motion—the degree of hip joint movement. “Hip extension” (increasing the angle of the hip joint) is precisely what the Gluteus maximus does. Doing that motion, with the most range, should be your primary focus.
In other words, favor the exercise that allows you to extend (open) your hip joint, and then flex (bend) the hip joint, the farthest.
3. The “Resistance Curve”
is important, and refers to the variations of resistance that occur through an exercise’s range of motion. As a limb travels through its range, it encounters different angles to the resistance being used, which causes the load to the muscle to change—sometimes increasing and sometimes decreasing.
Similarly, all muscles have a “strength curve”—varying capacities of strength through its range of motion. Generally speaking, all skeletal muscles are “stronger” (have the most strength capacity) when they’re elongated (i.e., stretched) and they are the weakest (have the least strength capacity) when they are contracted (shortened). As a muscle shortens, it’s “actin filaments” slide together, and ultimately overlap, causing them to lose contractile force.
Therefore, a “good” exercise is one that has a resistance curve that matches the strength curve of the target muscle. A “good” Gluteus exercise would provide more resistance at the beginning of the range of motion (where the muscle is strongest) and less resistance at the end of the range of motion (where it’s weakest). Far less beneficial is one that provides less resistance at the beginning, and more resistance at the end of the range of motion.
4. An exercise that produces the least amount of “Neurological Interference”.
This would allow the target muscle to work to its full capacity, without any “weakness” or reduction of its force capacity.
Neurological interference can occur in several ways, but when we’re dealing with the Gluteus, the primary culprit is “bilateral deficit”. This is a slight reduction of muscle strength caused when two limbs (i.e., left and right Gluteus) are working simultaneously. Studies have shown that when the muscle of one (side) limb is working unilaterally (alone), it is 5% to 10% stronger than that muscle would be if it were working “bilaterally”—simultaneously with the other side’s limb. Therefore, working one side of the Gluteus at a time is better than working the two sides simultaneously.
5. Amount of muscle load
matters quite a bit, and that is determined by the physics of a given exercise, in addition to the actual weight being used. There are two mechanical factors that influence the amount of resistance that is actually loaded onto a muscle—as a percentage of the weight being used. These two factors are: A) the angle of the limb relative to gravity, and B) the length of that limb. We all know that it is more difficult to lift a sledgehammer that has a very long handle, versus one that has a short handle. This is because the weight of the hammer’s head is magnified more by a longer handle, and less by a shorter handle. When our goal is maximum muscle loading, we are better off using a longer limb, rather than a shorter limb.
The problem with many Gluteus exercises is that they typically involve the lower leg. The Gluteus muscle does not connect to the lower leg—it only connects to the upper leg (the femur). The femur is, therefore, the “operating lever” of the Gluteus, and the lower leg is the “secondary lever” of the Gluteus.
The average femur length is about 19 inches. If the resistance of an exercise is applied directly to the end of the femur, the entire 19-inch length of the femur will produce maximum load magnification to the Gluteus. However, the resistance of an exercise is applied to the foot (instead of to the femur)—as we do when we Squat—the angle of the influences the “effective length” of the femur. When we Squat, the lower leg doubles under the femur, which effectively “shortens” the femur length, thereby reducing its magnification to the Gluteus.
This reduction of magnification then requires us to use more weight, to compensate for that reduction. But using more weight does not result in more loading, because the ability to use more weight is caused by the reduction of the magnification of the weight we’re using. Thus, a muscle can be loaded less, even though more weight is being used. In this manner, a muscle benefits less, but the bones (skeleton and joints) are strained more.
These 5 factors, described above, allow us to evaluate all the possible Gluteus exercises, and rate them on a scale of “bad”, “moderate”, “good”, “better” and “best”.
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The best Gluteus exercise is the one that allows each (side) Gluteus to work unilaterally (avoiding “bilateral deficit”). It applies the resistance directly to the end of the femur, rather than to the foot, which allows the full length of the femur to magnify the resistance. The exercise would also allow perfect hip extension (movement of the Gluteus insertion toward the Gluteus origin) with the greatest range of motion (most elongation of the Gluteus, and most contraction of the Gluteus). It would also allow the most amount of weight to be used without excessively loading the spine, or straining the hamstrings or knee joint.
The exercise that best meets all these criteria is the Hip Extension on the Multi-Hip machine.
“Back Lunges” (stepping back with each leg, rather than stepping forward) would fall into the 2nd place spot. It’s not as good as the former for several reasons. It involves the lower leg, so there is a degree of femur length reduction. It does not allow as many variations of resistance (i.e., bodyweight or more, but not less). There is some degree of imbalance, which translates to a slight reduction of power potential. The range of motion and the resistance curve are both fairly good, although not quite as good as the former. Still, in the absence of a Multi-Hip Machine, it’s a decent substitute.
Another option is the “Step-Up”. Its “pros” and “cons” are similar to that of the Back Lunge—decent range of motion and resistance curve, and good unilateral activation, but limited in resistance options, and is fairly unstable (which limits the ability to generate power).
Regular “Squats”—preferably with no additional weight, or only moderate weight—is also a decent option. The range of motion is good (provided the Squats are deep).
However, since both side’s Glute muscles are working simultaneously, there is a degree of bilateral deficit occurring. Also, since the lower leg is involved, there is some degree femur length reduction (also true of the Back Lunge and the Step-Up). The minimum “resistance” a person can use is their bodyweight, but adding resistance requires varying degrees of spinal loading and injury risk. That is not the case with the Multi-Hip machine, where no load is placed on the spine.
“Glute Bridges” (flat on the floor, or with the upper back on a bench) are commonly performed, but they’re not ideal. They have a significantly shorter range of motion than the previous choices. They also involve both Glutes simultaneously, which results in a bit of bilateral deficit. It also sometimes triggers some “reciprocal innervation”, which some people might feel a cramping sensation in their hamstrings. This is due to the quadriceps activation caused by the resistance being applied at the foot, rather than at the femur. Quadriceps activation causes the hamstrings to shut off, to a degree—while the hamstrings are trying to assist in hip extension. That’s another type of neurological “conflict of interest”.
Glute Bridges also tend to strain the back, to a degree. Pressure is applied on the shoulders—either on the floor or on a bench—and that creates a shearing force on the spine. In addition, “Bridging” tends to cause the lower back to overarch, which can be uncomfortable. Also, this exercise is more “late phase loaded”, rather than “early phase loaded”, so the resistance curve is not ideal.
Nevertheless, in the absence of a Multi-Hip machine, Glute Bridges are an option, although not as productive, nor as safe, as Back Lunges, Step-Ups, or Squats.
“Leg Kickbacks with a cable” are much farther down the list, in terms of productivity. This is due to the limited range of motion, the instability of the exercise, and the difficulty in using sufficient resistance—partly due to the resistance being applied at the ankle, and the strain that creates on the hamstring and knee joint.
People sometimes opt for a “Reverse Hyperextension”, but this also has several drawbacks, including bilateral deficit, instability, discomfort, limited resistance options and insufficient range of motion.
In short, any exercise that limits the range of motion (i.e., prevents or disallows maximum Gluteus elongation and contraction, which is approximately 100 degrees range of motion at the hip joint) will compromise the benefit.
Also, any exercise that limits the amount of load that can be applied to the Gluteus, will also compromise the benefit. In addition, any exercise that requires unnecessary spinal loading (like Deadlifts or heavy Barbell Squats) should be viewed as a comparison of risk, discomfort, and excessive energy cost, versus the potential Gluteus benefit. You can load the Gluteus maximally, without having to put any load on the spine at all, by using a unilateral Multi-hip machine. You’ll also experience less risk with one of the alternative exercises listed above, even if they’re not ideal.
Strong, well-developed Glutes are beautiful, and also help maintain the integrity of the lower back, because they are part of the “posterior chain” group of muscles. The key to maximizing Gluteal development, while simultaneously avoiding wasted effort, wasted time, and unnecessary risk of injury, is understanding the biomechanics of exercise, which includes knowing which anatomical motion is ideal, how the resistance you’re using is either magnified or diminished and which motions cause neurological interference of the muscles involved.
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