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June 13, 2023
There are a ton of articles out there that go over the best glute exercises. In fact, even we have a few of them!
So why is this article different, you ask?
We're going to eliminate all the qualifiers, such as best dumbbell glute exercises or bodyweight glute exercises. Instead, we're going to lay out the absolute best exercises to build up the most powerful muscle group in your body.
We've built this list using EMG and the opinion of experts in the field. We'll also break down all the rhetoric and nuance so you know what you need to do to build big and strong glutes.
Simply put, if you're not including these exercises in your program, your booty is missing out.
Table of Contents:
As a group of lower body muscles, this group is collectively known as glute muscles. It's made up of three distinct muscles that sit (pun intended) on the posterior of the body just below the hips.
They are easily the strongest muscles in the entire human body and are known as the powerhouse due to their essential role in human motion and performance. Let's take a closer look at each.
The gluteus maximus, aka glute maximus, is the largest of the three muscles and the strongest. It's massive and has multiple attachments around the tailbone, pelvis, and erector spinae.
Some of its origins include the gluteal surface of ilium, lumbar fascia, sacrum, and sacrotuberous ligament. In addition, some insertions include the femur and iliotibial tract.
This is the second largest of your three muscles and sits on the outer portion of your pelvis. A large portion of the gluteus medius is covered by other muscles, including the gluteus maximus, which covers 1/3 of the posterior side, and the gluteal aponeurosis, which covers 2/3 on the anterior side.
Its origins include the ilium and gluteus maximus. Unlike the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius primarily has one insertion on the femur (upper leg).
The gluteus minimus is the smallest of the three muscles and sits just beneath the gluteus medius. Due to its size, its origins are only located on the ilium's anterior and inferior gluteal lines. It also has a single insertion on the femur.
As a whole, the gluteal muscles control the hips in just about every motion. Perhaps the only movement in which it's not the primary mover is hip flexion, yet it still plays a pivotal role in stability during this movement.
The function of the glutes include:
All three muscles will play an intricate role in all these movements. However, if we were to start looking at the specific movements, we would find that the three muscles play more of a primary mover or stabilizer role.
The glute max will be the primary hip extender, which you can see when looking at the best Gluteus Maximus Exercises. Alternatively, the glute medius and glute minimus work together as the primary hip abductors and external rotators, which you can see in these round-ups of the best Gluteus Medius Exercises and Gluteus Minimus Exercises.
Now let's dig through some of the studies to see what exercises you need to be doing. To do this, I'll primarily compare two variables, EMG readings and load lifted.
We can sometimes assume the EMG automatically means the best exercise, but this isn't necessarily true. Keep in mind that EMG simply measures muscle contraction, and in fact, you can generate high EMG readings by simply flexing your muscles!
In reality, the EMG shows to what degree a muscle is used in a movement. Although very important, it must be considered in conjunction with the load you can lift.
The first, best, and most obvious exercise is glute hip thrusts.
It's almost universally agreed upon as the best glute exercise because it's an isolation movement that allows a load to be placed directly on the hips. And by load, I mean loads heavier than you can lift with most other exercises. Because of this, you need strong glutes.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics compared muscle activation during the exercise to muscle activation during the back squat. Their measurements showed there's really no question as to which is better.
Compared to the back squat, this exercise had greater upper gluteus maximus mean (69.5% vs 29.4%) and peak (172% vs 84.9%); lower gluteus maximus mean (86.8% vs. 45.4%) and peak (216% vs. 130%); and biceps femoris (hamstrings) mean (40.8% vs. 14.9%) and peak (86.9% vs. 37.5%)1.
Another meta from 2020 found that out of all exercises, the hip thrust had the second highest EMG activation with a mean of 75.41% (but the highest was 94%)2. However, I put this move in first place due to its high muscle activation and heavy loads.
This exercise is also the favorite exercise of Dr. Bret Contreras for training the butt muscles. If you don't know Bret Contreras, he's known as the Glute Doctor, specializing in building powerful glutes.
How to do Glute Hip Thrusts:
Remember that exercise with the highest EMG from the study above? It's the step up, representing with an insane muscle activation of 120%. Activation is so high for two main reasons.
The first is hip extension, with the leg pulling down to propel the body up. During the step-up, lifting one leg high onto a box creates a huge range of motion. Therefore, pulling the body up and forward to get the other leg to the box becomes a big challenge.
Second, you need the step-up because it's done on one leg, AKA unilaterally. The obvious assumption is this creates more activation as one leg is responsible for lifting the entire body. That's one part of it, but all that does is increase the load, which could be accomplished by adding weight.
The real reason the unilateral aspect spikes activation is the stability component. When stepping up, your entire body rests on one leg, requiring much more stability to complete the movement without falling over.
Fun Fact: I love this exercise so much that I even included it in my comprehensive guide on How To Grow Glutes.
How to do the Step Up:
The conventional deadlift is another large compound movement that allows heavy loads with high muscle activation.
While individual biomechanics will differ on all exercises, the deadlift doesn't require a certain depth, such as getting parallel to the ground, to complete. As a result, different individuals will flex their hips and knees as needed, altering the amount of glute activation.
Studies show you will receive anywhere from 35-94% activation. Even those on the lower end place a huge load on the glutes, which is a primary factor in glute growth.
How to do the Conventional Deadlift:
I'm going to be honest. I'm a bit biased with the belt squat as I love it and feel like not nearly enough people do it. Therefore, I am thrilled to put the belt squat on this list as it elicits a crazy mean EMG reading of 71.34. According to the study I referenced above, the max end of the range is 100.76.
I chose the hip thrust as #1 due to its mean EMG being higher, its ability to use higher loads, and the promotion of the literal "Glute Doctor," Dr. Bret Contreras.
However, the belt squat is definitely up there, so it's not worth missing out on. The one benefit the belt squat has over the hip thrust is the ability to use a broader range of various foot placements.
How to do the Belt Squat:
Want to avoid the hassle of belt squat set-up and be able to just get right to it? Here are our 3 Best Belt Squat Machine Options.
I'm going to alter our course of only using EMG a little here. All of the above movements are significantly better glute exercises than the squat when looking at EMG readings. On the analysis I've been using, the back squat only has a mean activation of 53.10%
Every huge squatter I know has a massive set of glutes. They also swear that the squat gave them their powerhouse. With that in mind, I'm putting this on the list due to the anecdotal evidence of testimony from people much stronger than us.
How to do the Back Squat:
Remember, the best glute exercises will also be the best gluteus maximus exercises, as the gluteus maximus is the largest and strongest muscle of the three.
However, the gluteus medius and minimus could use a little extra attention as they have a unique and vital role; hip abduction and stability. Therefore, I want to add these as you'll need them to have the best glutes possible.
To stay on theme, however, we want to train the glutes as a whole rather than in isolation, so I'll also list unilateral exercises. As mentioned above with step-ups, a unilateral exercise demands more activation in the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius due to the required extra stabilization.
Single-leg (unilateral) exercises are significantly better at hitting the gluteus medius as it's required for stabilization. Studies have verified this, so you should always have some unilateral training in your system. A review of the best gluteus medius exercises found the Romanian deadlift to be in the top tier for the exercises3.
Therefore, combined with its high gluteus maximus activation, this is one of the best glute exercises you can do that targets massive muscle gain while giving medius and minimus some extra love.
Single-leg Romanian deadlifts seem easier for most people than the one-legged squat, so it's our first pick.
This one is a bit harder to do than the single-leg Romanian deadlift, but it's a fantastic glute exercise. If you're struggling, you can use single-leg squat modifications, which've also been tested for gluteus medius and maximus activation.
In fact, the single-leg wall squat may be the best choice for maximal medius and minimus activation due to its ease. Both modified and wall squats produce similar 65-70% EMG readings4.
The split squat would be the last unilateral exercise to train the glutes while working the medius and minimus a bit harder. Studies show they reach 70-75% EMG. Hold two dumbbells instead of a barbell for a loading apparatus, or use a belt squat setup if available.
The Bulgarian split squat is another option, especially for more advanced athletes. This version is significantly more challenging as you keep your back leg on an elevated surface, increasing both the stability and load on your working leg.
Apart from knowing the best glute exercises, there are a few other factors to consider with your glute training.
Glute isolation exercises help to really get that mind-muscle connection with your butt muscles. Some of the best isolation exercises to use as a glute finisher are:
I like to perform 2-3 sets with high reps (12-15+). You could also run these in a circuit after a lower body routine ends.
Your gluteal muscles are unique and consistently activated under low and high loads. For example, your glutes are responsible for walking or simply maintaining correct posture, so they're working when you're not even thinking about it.
At the same time, they see periods of high intensity, even on a typical day, during activities like walking up the stairs swiftly or jumping forward to catch the door. Compared with all other muscles, no other group of muscles consistently sees this much activation in varying ways.
For this reason, you should use a wide range of loads with all your exercises. To be clear, I don't mean to use heavy loads with your big compound exercises and smaller loads with accessory work. I mean use heavy and light loads with your squats, heavy and light loads with your hip thrusts, heavy and light loads with your step-ups, etc.
In addition to consistently being under different loads, the glutes are also consistently worked with different motions and from different angles. For this reason, I like using a variety of exercises.
Your programs should always feature some of the biggest and best butt exercises, such as squats and hip thrusts. After your prime movement, swap around the accessory exercises within your program to hit the glutes from all angles. For example, you might stick with the main articles featured here, but then after 12 weeks, consider adding in Bulgarian split squats to keep your leg growth going.
Consistency in the main lifts gives you a base for the progression, so I like to use those the same. Then, I'll vary the other exercises, training to a specific RPE or failure within a given rep range.
Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about training those glute muscles.
If I had to pick one, the research and anecdotal evidence says yes. But the best glute workout doesn't feature just one exercise, so your best bet is to hit the glutes often and from a variety of angles. Check out our list of best glute and hamstring exercises for more ideas!
If it's a lower body day, aim to hit one main glute exercise (squat variation, deadlift variation, hip thrust, step up) plus 3-5 accessory exercises, depending on your training experience and total training time.
Skip the ankle weights. Just like any other muscle, your glutes will grow quickest by training with moderate loads for at least 10 sets per muscle group each week.
Glute growth isn't gender-specific. That said, the best glute exercises are the ones you will do consistently, so pick a squat, deadlift, hip thrust, or step-up variation and get to work!
Same as above: Pick from our top 5 (belt and back squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, and step ups), vary your unilateral options, and train them 10+ times/week, regardless of gender.
If you've been following any of the SET FOR SET programs, you probably already have great buns as we program all of these exercises into our workout routines.
As you head to the gym ready to tackle your glutes, we want you to remember that the best glute exercises are generally your big, lower-body compound movements, as you can lift a large load that demands muscle growth.
At the same time, the best exercises train hip extension, which is the glutes' primary movement pattern. If you haven't been doing these, it's time to start. And if you have, keep up the good work.
Here's to glute growth!
Looking for a complete glute workout to build some serious backside muscles? Check out this Best Glutes Workout At Home! Or, for a full lower body routine, you'll love this Ultimate Leg Workout to build strength and mass.
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