5 Exercises for Enviable Glutes

by Ryan Wagner

When it comes to glute training, most people center their focus solely on the back squat. And while the squat is indeed a proven mass builder – including your caboose – there are other exercises that will help you to shape a pair of glutes that you’ll be proud to show off at the pool this summer.

Here are 5 of my favorites – give them a try and let me know what you think.

1. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

You probably know by now that I’m a big fan of single leg training. I think that all too often we overlook the exercises where we load one leg at a time in favor of the traditional bilateral movements like the squat.

There are plenty of variations you can do unilaterally, but the one that really stands out to me is the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat. You may know it better as the Bulgarian Split Squat, although the origin of that name is often debated.

If you’ve never devoted much of your programming to this exercise, then your glutes are probably going to be screaming in the days after your first introduction. Unlike most bilateral lower body movements, your hips are now split. Although it’s still a squat pattern, there are a whole lot of different things going on down there. Including the lengthening of your quad on your rear leg.

In fact, if this exercise is new to you, I recommend beginning with light weight – something that you can do for more than 10 reps, but you only aim for maybe 7 or 8. Furthermore, only elevate your rear foot maybe 6 or 8 inches to start. Then start raising the height and increasing the weight as your body adapts. If you’re a seasoned lifter, then after maybe 3 or 4 workouts, I think you will begin to adapt and then it’s just a matter of adding weight, as you would with any other exercise.

Now a lot of people tend to look at the RFESS (specifically strong guys) and say something like “OK, I get it Ryan, thanks, but no thanks.” Because some people are going to look at any lower body exercise that involves dumbbells and think that the relatively low weight isn’t going to help them get stronger.

Well, it depends.

If you typically back squat with 2 plates, then yes, there is an argument that holding a pair of dumbbells isn’t going to be heavy enough to produce a solid stimulus on your body. And if you start to get real heavy with the bells – think: 80 pounds – then your grip will probably go before your legs do.

However, here’s an alternative: Use the barbell in the power rack. Mike Boyle wrote an interesting article for T Nation a while back where he described his casual strength study on a men’s hockey team that he was training. He largely trained them all with the RFESS and these guys were already pretty darn strong, so they ended up split squatting at near bodyweight levels. That’s a lot of weight on one leg. But the great thing about training unilaterally is that there is evidence that shows you can achieve a similar result with less weight.

Similar reward, less risk.

What I mean by this is that the alternative to the RFESS is often the back squat – an exercise where you are putting a whole lot of weight right above your spine. If you could achieve similar results by using approximately 50 – 60% of that weight, wouldn’t you want to? This isn’t to say that you should stop back squatting or front squatting altogether, but try introducing a RFESS into your routine and see how it works for you.

And from a glutes perspective, what I really like about this exercise is that you really, really feel those glutes pushing hard! Personally, it’s a huge motivator when I’m trying to complete my set because I just know I’m hitting the right area.

2. Hip Thrusts

The barbell hip thrust is an amazing posterior chain building exercise. It’ll hit your hamstrings, back and especially your glutes. In fact, you may need to go shopping for a new pair of jeans after working this movement into your program!

The hip thrust can really be interpreted in a number of ways so long as it’s a hip dominant movement. For instance, when I started playing with it I always had my back flat on the ground. But to really get a great ROM, progress by using a bench such that your torso angle is around 45 degrees or so. Any more and you’ll likely have difficulties keeping your spine neutral.

The movement is relatively simple. Remember the hip hinge discussion in my deadlifting post? Same principle because the hip thrust is just that, a hip dominant movement. If you’re using a bench, position yourself such that your torso is roughly 45 degrees off the ground with your spine neutral. Then roll a loaded barbell over your hips.

And here’s a tip that you’ll soon discover on your own – use the padded wrap that is popular with novice back squatters. It’ll feel a lot better across your body, trust me.

Now brace your core, tuck your chin and plant your heels. Drive the barbell upward using your glutes and squeeze at the top. But be careful to not hyperextend your back. Lower back down in a controlled fashion and finish your set.

And who better to provide a demonstration than the Glute Guy himself, Bret Contreras:

3. Banded Walks (and Variations)

I was first subjected to the brutality of banded workouts at a Perform Better conference. Alywn Cosgrove had us attendees place the band just above our knees, get into a quarter squat, and then take small steps. Sounds easy, right? Well, if you’re a strong guy/gal, then yes, it probably is easy. But if you start cranking up the duration your whole world will begin to change in a hurry.

Cosgrove coached us to walk forward, backward, and side to side. All the while in a quarter squat. And because we were all uber-fit trainers, he didn’t give us a break. That meant no standing up between the different directions. Ultimately, I probably spent 4 or more minutes in that position. My glutes were screaming the next day.

And more recently, I stumbled across a great video that Bret Contrreas uploaded to his YouTube channel, reproduced below:

Very cool stuff.

The takeaway is that although banded workouts may be less intense than say, barbell training, when you view banded programming through the filter of volume and high repetition, you begin to see that there can be a real benefit to training in this way.

It is worth noting that all of the exercises in this article are movements I rarely see athletes performing. But using bands, and specifically using bands in the manner outlined in the video above, are probably the rarest of them all.

I encourage you to give bands a try.

4. Glute-Ham Raise

The powerlifting community has always been fond of the glute-ham raise. And before them, the bodybuilders of the 70s knew full well the benefit of curling much of your bodyweight using only your hamstrings and glutes. But then as training methodologies changed and the focus began to shift more towards machines, the venerable glute-ham raise was dusted under the rug, except at the “old-school” gyms and strength training centers.

Today, when people give it a try for the first time, there are usually 2 reactions that take place, one mental and one physical.

Mental: “Whoa, this is really freaking hard!”

Physical: Your hamstrings and or calves are probably going to feel like they are about to tear, or at the very least, they will be cramping on you.

The former means that you are doing something you probably need to be doing because you are weak in that area, but the latter is something to be cognizant of. Because it is a very real possibility that you are going to hurt yourself if you let your ego run away from you.

The reason I say this is that many people have really tight hamstrings. The topic almost demands its own blog post, but suffice it to say, it’s largely a consequence of our sedentary lives and our inability to make time for stretching our posterior chains. What this means in the weight room is that once you begin eccentrically loading these already tight muscles, you can easily get yourself into trouble.

But you have an important variable that you can play with – Range of Motion.

Since there is no need to ever use weight with the glute-ham raise, the only thing you can really adjust is the ROM. And you can do this effectively and safety by hinging at the hips. So it almost looks like a bow. Then as you grow stronger (this will take some time), you can begin to extend at the knee just a few more degrees so that you are having to support a greater percentage of your bodyweight throughout the motion.

Odds are, this will be a tough exercise for you. I think you’ll be blown away by just how challenging a bodyweight exercise like this can be. And remember, when you encounter a new exercise that is more challenging than you thought it would be – that usually means that it’s an exercise you need to be doing!

5. Single leg Romanian deadlift

This one is a crowd favorite because you can do it with little to no weight. It will also teach you the very important hip hinge motion. Again, you’re going to really feel this because of the stretch on your posterior chain.

It’s another unilateral exercise and one that I personally like to include as a finisher after my squat movements. Focus on form and keeps the reps under 10. You can use a sandbag, as in the image above, or kettlebell, dumbbell, whatever you have available.

Go easy, and ramp up the intensity as you progress.

Wrap up

The go-to exercise for most people to build a strong rear-end is the back squat. But there is so much more than just that, isn’t there?

And so my aim with this article is to get you thinking a little differently. That you can really begin to shape your glutes and achieve some impressive results when you begin to train them in the way that they truly function.

By Ryan Wagner

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