People are constantly on the lookout for the next great exercise or new piece of equipment to help develop a firm and toned posterior, but the truth is you probably already have everything you need to design a great butt workout. Many of the best exercises can be done with just your bodyweight although more advanced individuals will benefit from additional dumbbells or ankle weights. One excellent resource that I highly recommend is the popular Firm Butt Workout.
However, before getting to specific exercises, let's cover some basic information about the area you are looking to improve.
The butt is essentially made up of one large muscle, the gluteus maximus, which people often refer to as your glutes. Technically there are 3 different gluteus muscles (maximus, medius, and minumus), and the gluteus medius and minimus are actually hip muscles and not butt muscles. To keep things simple, when I use the term glutes in this article I will only be referring to the gluteus maximus, since the term glutes is familiar to most people. Now that you know the muscle that you will be focusing on, we can move on to discuss the best way to train your glutes.
The Relationship Between Your Glutes and Low Back Muscles
You may be wondering why I am discussing the low back in an article about glute exercises, but proper low back function is integral to the correct performance of butt exercises. Many people are never able to maximize the effectiveness of butt exercises because their low back muscles interfere and prevent the optimal contraction of the glutes. The low back and butt muscles often work together in a beneficial way, but over time the low back muscles can end up doing more than their fair share of the work while the glutes relax or contract at a lower intensity. Eventually this leads to a decreased ability to contract the glutes along with increased chances for developing an overuse injury in the low back muscles. If you do not have the ability to create a strong contraction in your glutes, butt exercises will not be very effective no matter how good the exercises are supposed to be. Therefore, let's take a look at some tips for enhancing glute contraction and performance in all butt exercises.
Tips for Maximizing the Results of Any Butt Exercise
People often focus too much on what exercises they are doing and not enough on how well the exercises are performed. In many cases the difference between a productive workout and an ineffective one is the concentration and mental focus given to each individual set and rep during the workout. These tips will help to increase the effectiveness of each butt exercise and improve the overall quality and results of your workout.
- Contract your glutes throughout the exercise - Since your goal is to work your glutes (butt) you should consciously try to contract the glutes throughout the exercise. Normally you will feel your glutes working most towards the end of the range of motion, but you should still try to contract the glutes throughout the entire motion. This will help strengthen your brain's connection to your muscles and allow you to develop even stronger and more focused contractions over time.
- Stop the set if you feel any other muscle more than the glutes during the exercise - This may seem like common sense, but many people continue performing extra reps even after they stop feeling the muscles they are trying to work. As a muscle fatigues during an exercise, other muscles will try to help out the fatiguing muscle, thus allowing you to perform more reps. Unfortunately these extra reps will not be high quality reps and may actually impair your overall results. Since your goal is to work your glutes, the fact that other muscles are being called on to help perform more reps is a good sign that you have accomplished your goal, which is to fatigue the butt muscles. Instead of performing extra reps that don't focus on the glutes, take a break and focus on making the next set just as high quality as the first one.
Note: This tip only applies to exercises designed to isolate the glutes and not to exercises that work many different muscles at the same time, such as squats or lunges.
- Be aware of your hip position during butt exercises - It is important to keep your hips as level and still as possible during the exercises, because many hip movements are unwanted cheats that will actually disengage your glutes and prevent you from maintaining a consistent contraction throughout the exercise. If you draw a line between your hip bones, the line should be as close to horizontal as possible. The most common cheats involve raising the hip of the leg you are working or externally rotating your hip (turning it away from your body). Both of these movements will decrease glute involvement and may also increase strain in your low back.
- Maintain a neutral back position - When your back is in a neutral position (maintaining the natural curve in the spine) the abdominals and back muscles work together to provide support for your spine. During butt exercises these muscles should maintain spinal stabilization, but they should not actively help the glutes perform the exercise. During glute exercises it is common for the pelvis to tilt forward, which will cause an increase in the curve of your low back. This is problematic because this position greatly increases the stress on the lumbar spine, causes the low back muscles to excessively tighten, and makes it more difficult for the glutes to contract effectively. In short, maintaining a neutral back position will improve the effectiveness of butt exercises and greatly reduce your chance of experiencing back pain or injury during your workouts.
- Maintain a slow and controlled pace throughout the exercises - Quick and jerky motions are almost always indicative of cheating, especially during exercises designed to isolate or focus on a specific muscle group. The most common times for this type of cheating to occur are at the beginning and end of the range of motion. At the beginning, people often start with a quick jerky motion, which does 2 things to decrease the effectiveness of the exercise. First, it causes other muscles to become involved to help with the initial boost in contraction speed. Secondly, it builds momentum, which is often carried throughout the movement, further decreasing the amount of work actually performed by the glutes. Near the end of the range of motion, it is common for people to have another burst of speed to increase their range of motion. This is a case where greater range of motion is definitely not better, because the extra range of motion is almost always achieved using muscles other than the ones that should be working. Maintaining a slow and controlled speed will minimize the possibility of cheating and maximize your results.
- Take slow deep breaths during the exercises - As you may know, the vast majority of people should not hold their breath while exercising, because not breathing will increase blood pressure and the strain on your heart. Breathing is especially important when performing exercises where you need to contract specific muscles while relaxing other muscles. Deep breathing helps promote relaxation in muscles and can be very helpful when learning to relax the low back muscles, which is a common problem for people performing butt exercises. Maintaining a consistent breathing pattern (breathing out when contracting the glutes and breathing in when relaxing them) will also maintain a consistent glute contraction, while holding your breath will increase the chance of other muscles (especially low back and hip)
Now that you know how to get the most out of your butt exercises, let's move on to the exercises themselves. These exercises are broken down into two sections; the first contains exercises to isolate the glutes, while the second section contains exercises that work the glutes along with other muscles. Both types of exercises are useful and will provide dramatic results when performed correctly. Plus they can be used by people of all ability levels with little if any additional equipment requirements. Of course more advanced individuals may need to add extra weights (dumbbells, ankle weights, etc.) for some exercises.
Section 1: Gluteus Maximus Isolation Exercises
- The bridge - This is a basic exercise that has been popular for decades, but many people fail to receive the maximal benefit from performing this movement. Start by lying on the floor with your knees bent (about 90 degrees) and upper body relaxed. Then raise your hips and torso (not shoulders) off the ground as high as you can without unnecessary low back tension. For added benefit, contract or squeeze your glutes throughout the movement and hold at the top for 1-2 seconds. Then slowly lower your body towards the ground, but don't relax at the bottom and keep your hips and back from touching the ground until the set is completed.
The glutes are the main muscle you should feel, especially in the top half of the movement, but the hamstrings will help you lift your body as well. Also your abs and back will maintain some tension to provide spinal stability, but you should never feel your low back more than your glutes or hamstrings. As your legs fatigue, the chance for unnecessary back tension will increase and you should stop the set if you feel pain or excess tightness in your low back. Breathing correctly can also improve the effectiveness of this exercise and you should breathe out as your hips rise and breathe in as they lower towards the ground.
Exercise Note: Getting the most out of this and virtually all butt exercises depends on you consciously trying to contract your glutes throughout the movement. Simply moving your hips up and down will not provide much of a stimulus for most people, but if done correctly, your glutes will feel tight, fatigued, or even a light burn before reaching 15 reps.
- Prone 1-leg glute raise - This is technically an easier exercise than the bridge, but many people find it more difficult to perform correctly. Start face down on the floor and relax your entire body as much as possible. If this position is uncomfortable you can use a pillow, but your shoulders and neck muscles must stay relaxed. The actual movement involves lifting 1 leg straight up off the ground towards the ceiling. You can have a small bend at the knee, but your knee should not bend more as your leg raises off the floor.
While the motion is relatively simple, it can be difficult to make the glutes do the majority of the work, since other muscles (hamstrings, back, hips, etc.) will try to help too much. The range of motion is relatively small and you should feel the contraction in your glute increase throughout the lift. Most people try to increase the range of motion too much and end up tightening back muscles or curving the lumbar spine, which is counterproductive to the exercise. If you feel your low back getting tight, relax and try to shift the focus back to the working butt muscle. It is also common for people to tense their upper back, neck, or shoulders as well, which is another cheat that should be avoided during the exercise.
Exercise Note: This is probably the best exercise to help you learn to activate your glutes without simultaneously tightening your low back muscles. Developing this skill will help you maximize the effectiveness of every butt exercise in your repertoire.
- Kneeling 1-leg glute raise - This is similar to the prone glute raise, except it will be done in a kneeling position instead of lying on the floor. This exercise allows a larger range of motion, but there is also a much greater potential for cheating during the movement. As with the above exercise, the moving leg should stay straight behind you, but it is common to bend the knee, which is a cheat that decreases the stress on the glutes. Another common cheat is actively pushing the foot towards the ceiling. While this may cause an increased tightness in the glutes, the push is almost always accompanied by an unwanted increase in hip and/or low back tension. The final and most common cheat in this position is increasing the curve in the lumbar spine (low back). This change in back position alters the angle of the leg, allowing a greater range of motion without an increase in glute activation. In addition, this can put a significant strain on the lumbar spine and the low back muscles. On the bright side however, performing the exercise correctly will help train the body to keep a neutral spine position, which is one of the most important skills for maintaining a healthy back.
Exercise Note: With these exercises, maximizing the glute contraction is more important than having a larger range of motion. Initially performing butt exercises with good form and a full range of motion may not be possible due to a lack of glute strength. However, by focusing on the glute contraction, the muscles will get stronger and your range of motion will naturally increase while maintaining correct exercise technique.
- Standing 1-leg glute raise - This exercise is similar to the previous two, except the standing position creates different challenges than the floor positions. The main focus is still to contract the glute muscle while minimizing the contraction of other muscles, but the standing position adds an additional balance and stability component. Begin by standing with good posture (head up, shoulders back, stomach tight, and back flat). It is also a good idea to hold onto a stationary object with 1 hand for balance. Then support your full weight on one leg and tighten the glute of your other leg while slowly raising it straight behind you. This exercise will have a small range of motion and it may be very tempting to lean forward, arch your lumbar spine, or tense your low back muscles to increase the range of motion, but try to stand straight with a neutral spine throughout the exercise.
If maintaining that position is too difficult or you don't feel a good glute contraction during the exercise, you can perform an easier variation where you will stay in a bent-over position, placing both hands on a stable object about waist high, so you can use your arms to support your bodyweight while you raise and lower your leg. This position will allow a greater range of motion and it will be easier to avoid unwanted back stress, but you must still maintain a neutral spine position and prevent additional upper body movement during the exercise. You should also, work to maintain the same level hip position used in the previous exercises, which will improve the stability of your hips as well as maximize
the glute stimulus.
Section 2: Multi-Joint Exercises That Work the Butt Musculature
This section covers exercises that will help tone and strengthen your butt, even though you may feel other muscles more during the exercise. Many exercises that work the lower body muscles rely mainly on the quads (top front thigh), hamstrings (top back thigh), or both. These exercises are no exception, although when performed correctly they will significantly stimulate the glutes too. Plus, as with the isolation exercises, there are some things you can do to further increase the role of the glutes in these exercises.
- Split squats - Many people consider the squat to be the best overall lower body exercise, but most people will experience as good or better results with split squats as they will with traditional squats. To begin a split squat, start with one foot in front and one foot behind you. Both feet should be equal distances from your hips and your toes should point straight ahead. In addition, your feet should not line up directly in front of each other, but should maintain a normal hip width distance. To perform the exercise, lower your body towards the ground by bending your legs. During the movement your front foot should stay planted firmly on the ground while the heel of your back foot will rise during the decent. At the bottom position the knee of the front leg should be near a 90 degree angle and the knee of the back leg should be similar, although the back knee does not have to have as much bend as the front leg. The key to performing this exercise correctly is maintaining an upright posture (no leaning forward, back, or to either side) during the movement. Also maintaining constant tension in your legs and not resting between reps will increase the difficulty. As for breathing, you should breathe in during the decent and breathe out as you rise back up.
Exercise Note: Full range of motion split squats can be very challenging, especially for people just starting an exercise program. They may also make your legs very sore at first, so don't push your muscles too hard before you know how your body will react. You don't have to complete the full range of motion to receive benefits from this exercise and you should stay in the range where you feel comfortable, but challenged and can maintain good form. Also there is a significant balance component to this exercise, so if you are having trouble maintaining good posture, hold on to something during the movement. It is best to hold onto something by one side and not in front, because holding on in front tends to promote a forward lean. You should still work up to performing the movement without holding on, because you will receive even greater benefits from the exercise.
- Lunges - Lunges share a number of similarities with split squats, but they are more difficult to perform correctly because they have an additional movement component plus greater balance and stability demands. There are many types of lunges (forward, backward, walking, lateral, etc.) and performing them all correctly could be an article by itself, so I will focus on the most common ones: forward and backward lunges. Both of these lunge variations have one major thing in common with split squats: the bottom position is essentially the same in all 3 exercises. The difference is in how you get to that position. With the lunges you will start in a normal standing position with your feet side by side and hip-width apart. From this position, a forward lunge involves taking a fairly large step forward, maintaining the same width between your feet. You must step far enough that when your body lowers towards the ground, your front knee stays above your ankle and does move past your toes. From the bottom position, push off with your front foot and return to the starting position. The backwards lunge is similar, except you will be stepping behind you to reach the split squat position. When returning to the starting position, focus on pulling yourself up with your front leg, although the back leg can push a little if you need an extra boost to stand back up.
Exercise Note: Lunges are an advanced progression from split squats and you should be able to perform split squats with good form and a decent range of motion before moving on to any type of lunge. Initially you can also hold on with one hand while performing lunges, but as with split squats you will eventually want to do them without assistance.
- Squats - Split squats and lunges should probably be the main multi-joint exercises used if you want to work your glutes, but squats should have a place in your routine as well, especially if you can perform them correctly. Many people do not have adequate flexibility, coordination, or balance to perform full range of motion squats, but chances are you will still benefit from including partial range of motion squats in your routine. Start in a normal standing position, feet facing forward and hip-width apart. The actual motion involves lowering your body towards the ground, which is more complicated than it sounds. Instinctually people often squat by letting the knees go forward and keeping the hips over the ankles. This is not correct squatting technique, because it puts a lot of unnecessary stress on the knees and minimizes the glute stimulus as well. To perform a correct squat, the first movement should involve your hips moving backwards instead of the knees moving forwards. The knees will still move forward as you get lower, but the knees should only be slightly in front or even behind the toes and the hips should be well behind the ankles. In addition your upper body should lean forward, although your back should still be flat and you must maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine, especially if you are using additional weights. The goal is to get your hips (not shoulders) as close to the ground as possible, while maintaining correct posture and exercise technique. From the bottom position, push your legs into the ground and return to the standing position.
Exercise Note: It is possible to perform a correct looking squat with minimal glute involvement by relying on the quads and pushing through the toes on the ascent, but this is not desirable. To maximize overall exercise and glute effectiveness, be sure to actively contract your glutes while you return to the standing position. You should feel a continually increasing contraction in your glutes as your legs return to the starting position. When rising from the bottom position correctly, you will actually contract your glutes just before your quads and press through your heels or your entire foot while you are standing. Also, your entire foot should stay flat on the ground during the entire set. If your heels come off the ground, it means your muscles need to be more flexible, you are going too low, or your technique is incorrect.
Putting It All Together
After looking at these different exercises, it becomes clear that the two most important exercise factors for toning the butt are
consciously contracting the glutes during the exercises and preventing other muscles (especially low back muscles) from working too much. Of course maintaining good posture and correct form throughout the exercises is also important and it is always better to stop when your form starts to deteriorate instead of trying to push through extra reps by cheating.
Many people have experienced great results in toning and strengthening their butt by using these exercises and I know you can too. However it is always important to remember that these exercises by themselves are just a starting point. Proper nutrition and exercising the rest of your body (resistance training and cardio) will also be required if you are going to
achieve the overall results you desire.