Written by: Amy Pickering – Personal Trainer and Online Coach – Sustain-Ability.
The glutes are some of the overemphasised, yet misunderstood, muscles of the body. You can scroll down your social media page and instantly see various influencers and pages promoting different ‘booty workouts’, yet many of them are misguided, ineffective and, to be honest, completely ridiculous and purely for social media fame. Let’s be honest, which is more attractive on the ‘gram; being sat down on the abductor machine (where the glutes are out of sight) or hoisted up in the middle of the air with the gluteus maximus on full display?
The glutes are the largest muscle mass of the body, making them pretty damn important for pelvic (hip) stability and support, locomotion (walking) and most movements in everyday life such as standing, raising the upper body while standing and climbing stairs. Although they are usually treated differently, the glutes are a muscle, so we will treat it in the exact same way as any other muscle to get the most out of our training.
To train a muscle effectively, we must understand its functions. Training according to the functions will ensure you are contracting the muscle efficiently. Put simply, greater muscular contraction = greater opportunity for muscle growth.
The gluteal muscles;
The glutes are divided into three main muscles;
- Gluteus maximus
- Gluteus medius
- Gluteus minimus
The gluteus maximus is the one that everyone thinks of when you talk about the glutes (which hopefully isn’t an everyday occurrence) as it is the largest of the three muscles and is superficial to the other, smaller muscles, meaning it is closer to the surface.
Its functions are;
- Hip extension (see A on figure 1 below)
- Note: Hip extension is a shorter range of motion than most people think.
- External rotation of the femur (see figure 2 below)
- Raise the trunk from a flexed position
When walking, activation of the gluteus maximus is minimal. However, in movements that require powerful hip extension from a flexed starting position of the hip – such as running or climbing stairs – activation increases. This leads to the question, why do people perform cable kickbacks? As, when standing, activation of the glute max is minimal… I will leave that one with you 😉.
Figure 1. Hip extension, flexion, abduction, adduction and abduction on a fixed femur.
Figure 2. Neutral, hip internal rotation and external rotation.
Gluteus medius & minimus
The gluteus minimus is the deepest gluteal muscle and sits under the gluteus medius, which lies underneath the gluteus maximus. They are smaller in size; thus, their functions are more refined and focusing on smaller movements. Due to their size, their ability to produce force and power is reduced, so the amount of load or weight they require is smaller compared to the glute max. This is important to remember when it comes to training, if you can perform cable side kicks with a tonne of weight, it is highly unlikely that you are using just your glutes. Instead, your lower back and momentum are probably doing the majority of the work.
Their functions are;
- Stop the pelvis tipping to the opposite side during walking (their main function)
- Hip stabilisation/support pelvis when stood on one leg (see C on figure 1 above)
- Hip abduction (see B and C on figure 1 above)
- Internal rotation of the femur (see figure 2 above)
Notice how the smaller gluteal muscles do not perform external rotation of the hip? Yet many people do ‘clam’ exercises to try to target the ‘side glutes’. These work the lateral rotator muscle such as the piriformis, the gemelli muscles, obturator internu and quadratus femoris, which are still important, but not the gluteus medius and minimus.
Putting it all together;
So, now that we know the functions of each of the 3 gluteal muscles, what does this mean? It means that we can structure a training session based on these functions to maximise the development and growth of the glutes.
As the gluteus maximus is the largest and most powerful of the gluteal muscles, it would seem logical to have the heaviest, compound movement target the glute max, and thus the heaviest exercise would focus on hip extension.
Exercises involving hip extension (from a flexed starting position of the hip);
- Lunges/split squats;
- Smith machine
- Rear foot elevated (Bulgarian)
- Front foot elevated
- Hip thrusts and glute bridges
- Leg press (with the feet placed higher on the platform)
- 45° hip extension (commonly referred to as back extension)
- Step ups
With regards to hip abduction and external rotation, there are few exercises that target these functions. The hip abductor machine is the primary exercise, but these functions of the glutes are mainly targeted by correct execution of exercises whereby the femur (top of the leg) is fixed on the floor. Examples of these would be in a squat or leg press, during which the common cue is two drive the ‘knees out’. While this cue is well-intended, external rotation of the femur starts at the feet. Making sure to ground yourself with the floor, with the main points of contact being the heel, first metatarsophalangeal joint and fifth metatarsophalangeal joint (see figure 3 below), then think of ‘screwing’ or ‘grabbing’ the floor to create tension with your feet, you should notice that the arch of your foot becomes more pronounced and your knees naturally turn slightly and align over your mid-foot, leading to external rotation at the hip joint and thus engagement of the glutes.
Figure 3. Points of contact for the foot during weightlifting
Develop strength of these functions of the glutes by learning how to contract the glutes through engaging with the floor, using a band around your knees to reinforce ‘pushing out’ against it should not be your focus for optimising growth of the glutes.
Now that you understand the functions, you are equipped to select exercises to best target the glutes! Of course, to create an effective training programme, there are more factors to consider alongside the functions of a muscle, but we will save that for another article 😊. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me via my social media handles or e-mail below.
Amy Pickering is a final-year student of BSc Sport and Exercise Sciences, personal trainer, online coach and owner of Sustain-Ability. Having faced eating disorders, difficulty losing weight and lack of knowledge, her mission is to educate her clients and others about training, nutrition, health and fitness to provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills to achieve and sustain their optimal health and physique long-term. You can find and contact Amy through her social media handles and e-mail below: