What you’ll learn here
- Why can’t you only do the hip thrust?
- Organizing the best glute exercises into 4 categories
- Category #1: Thrust/Bridge
- Category #2: Squat/Lunge
- Category #3: Hinge/Pull
- Category #4: Abduction/Rotation
- Structuring your workouts with the best glute exercises
- Train with a variety of glute exercises for the best results
It’s impossible to discuss the best glute exercises without mentioning the hip thrust.
But let’s be honest. Imagine trying to hit the optimal weekly training volume for your glutes (6-10 sets if you’re a beginner; 16-20 sets if you’re an advanced lifter) solely through the hip thrust! It’s going to be:
- Challenging (recovery-wise)
- Boring (your training plan is going to feel as stale as week-old bread) AND
- A super inefficient way to grow your glutes
Wait. Super inefficient? Doesn’t the hip thrust elicit the highest glute activation levels?
What’s up with that? Also, if only doing the hip thrust isn’t feasible, which of the other ‘best glute exercises’ should you include in your training plan? Keep reading to get your answers!
Why can’t you only do the hip thrust?
So, why is only doing the hip thrust an inefficient way to grow your glutes despite its impressive glute activation levels?
It comes down to 2 things: muscle growth mechanism and activation pattern of gluteal muscles.
- Muscle growth mechanism: The hip thrust is great at driving hypertrophy through mechanical tension (maximum tension on the glutes when they’re fully contracted) and metabolic stress (there’s constant tension through a full range of motion). It doesn’t do all that well when it comes to the remaining key driver of muscle growth: muscle damage (1, 2).
- Activation of gluteal muscles: The hip thrust is a hip extension movement pattern. That primarily targets the gluteus maximus. While the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus are activated to some degree, they aren’t the ‘prime movers’ here. For that, you’d need hip abduction movement patterns (3).
If you want to learn about how the glutes work and why they’re so important, here’s a guide on getting a bigger butt you should check out.
Of course, ‘The Best Glute Exercise’ that ticks all boxes – by driving muscle growth through all 3 mechanisms and activating all 3 gluteal regions – doesn’t exist.
That’s why you’ll have to ‘mix-and-match’ a variety of glute exercises.
The hip thrust is undeniably one of the best glute exercises to exist. Even then, it can’t ensure optimal glute development on its own. You’ll need a variety of exercises to help target other muscle growth mechanisms and glute regions.
Organizing the best glute exercises into 4 categories
But wait. With so many glute exercises around, how would you know each exercise’s: 1) muscle growth mechanism(s) and 2) gluteal region activation patterns?
The answer to this: figuring out its movement pattern.
In general, there are 4 categories of glute exercises – differentiated based on their movement patterns.
Each movement pattern elicits specific gluteal muscles activation (as prime movers) and hypertrophy mechanisms:
- Thrust/bridge: Gluteus maximus (mechanical tension, metabolic stress)
- Squat/lunge: Gluteus maximus (muscle damage, metabolic stress)
- Hinge/pull: Gluteus maximus (muscle damage, metabolic stress)
- Abduction/rotation: Gluteus medius, gluteus minimus (mechanical tension, metabolic stress)
So, if you’re looking to maximize your glute development, one thing’s clear. At the very least, you need to be doing at least 1 exercise from each of the 4 categories.
To help you out with that, you’ll find a list of the best glute exercises you can do in each specific category.
There are 4 categories of glute exercises:
Category #1: Thrust/Bridge
This category focuses on building the upper and lower glutes – and provides the most tension on your glutes when they’re fully contracted.
Now, let’s explore what the best glute exercises from this category are.
#1: Hip thrust
Only doing the hip thrust is an inefficient way of growing your glutes, for sure.
But that doesn’t mean you need to eliminate it! After all, thanks to its biomechanics, the hip thrust elicits the most glute activation of all exercises (yes, that includes squats!)
Be sure to check out this detailed guide on how to do a hip thrust if you want to know all about the exercise – from getting the setup right to avoiding mistakes.
Hip thrust form tips
To get you started … here are a few pointers that’ll help you maximize glute activation and safety during the hip thrust (4, 5, 6):
- Push through heels: Generate force by pushing through your heels instead of through the balls of your feet. This prevents your quads from taking over the movement. If you find this challenging, raise your toes off the ground entirely (i.e. ankle dorsiflexion) as you complete the reps.
- Full hip extension: Regardless of which thrusting method you choose (‘scoop’ or ‘hinge’), make sure you go into full hip extension at the top of the movement. Take note that this doesn’t mean hyperextension. You should still brace hard to keep your core strong. And that should result in a horizontal torso at lockout, where you’re in a neutral or posterior pelvic tilt.
- Vertical shins at the top of movement: Figure out the ideal distance between your feet and your butt such that your shins are perpendicular to the ground at the top of the movement. This maximizes glute activation. Having your feet too far out shifts the load to your quads, while having your feet too far in shifts the load to your hamstrings.
If setting up the hip thrust in your gym with the barbell is too much trouble (it usually is), there are plenty of alternatives to the barbell hip thrust you can try.
Here’s how to do a hip thrust:
Here’s how to do a single-leg hip thrust:
The hip thrust elicits the most glute activation out of all exercises. That said, make sure you: 1) push through the heels, 2) achieve full hip extension, and 3) maintain vertical shins at the top of the movement. Keeping these form tips in mind will help you get the most out of the exercise.
#2: Glute bridge
The hip thrust is indeed one of the best glute exercises you can do in the thrust/bridge category. But mastering the necessary technique can be a little challenging.
That’s where the glute bridge comes in.
Since your shoulders will be flat on the ground through the exercise’s entire range of motion, you can think of it somewhat like a ‘partial-rep’ of the hip thrust (7, 8, 9). But only somewhat – since the angle of your torso would also make loading weight on this exercise tricky.
At this point, you might be thinking … “Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a list of the best glute exercises?”
Glute bridge benefits
Well, despite the limitations, the glute bridge is still an excellent exercise because it:
- Teaches you proper movement mechanics: It’s like an ‘introductory’ exercise that’ll get you familiar with fully contracting your glutes to get a full hip extension. Knowing how your glutes and abs are supposed to feel can translate into better form and technique when you eventually move on to the hip thrust.
- Activates your glute muscles: The glute bridge’s weaknesses can also be thought of as its strength. Its limited range of motion and capability for overload means that it’s one of the best glute activation exercises you can do. Glute bridges – unloaded ones, in particular – can be instrumental in priming your neural circuit to ‘wake up’ your glutes in preparation for exercises that require more range of motion and weight (e.g. hip thrusts, deadlifts, kettlebell swings).
Here’s how to do a glute bridge:
The glute bridge is a fantastic ‘glute activation’ exercise for when you have limited weights or warming up for exercises that require more range of motion and weight.
#3: Pendulum quadruped hip extension (donkey kick)
Oof. Pendulum quadruped hip extension – that sure sounds like a mouthful, doesn’t it? Thankfully, there’s a much simpler name for this exercise: donkey kick.
You see, the previous 2 thrust/bridge exercises – the hip thrust and glute bridge – are closed chain movements. Wait … what?
What’s a kinetic chain?
To understand that, you’ll first need to know of something called the ‘kinetic chain’.
Anatomically, the kinetic chain refers to how different body parts work together to perform everyday movements (e.g. walking, running, and lifting).
There are 2 types of movement here:
- Closed chain: The end of the chain (i.e. the limbs doing the movement) is fixed in place. That means your hands or feet remain stationary throughout the full range of motion. Examples include the squad, hip thrust, deadlift, push-up, and pull-up.
- Open chain: The ends of the chain (once again, the limbs doing the movement) are not stationary. Examples include the bench press, bicep curls, lateral raise, and leg extension.
Exercises from both types of kinetic chain have a place in a well-designed training plan.
Benefits of doing the donkey kick
And that’s where the donkey kick comes in.
It’s one of the best open chain glute exercises that’ll help place peak tension on your glutes when they’re fully contracted.
Better still, the benefit of doing the donkey kick doesn’t stop there. Here are a few more reasons why the donkey kick is worth doing:
- Unilateral exercise: Chances are, you have a side of your glutes that’s stronger than the other. The donkey kick allows you to identify – and address – this muscular imbalance (10). This, in turn, not only helps with quicker progress in the gym but also prevents injuries.
- Activates the glutes: Similar to the glute bridge, the donkey kick is an excellent glute activation exercise that’ll help ‘wake up’ your glutes in preparation for heavier loads.
- Versatile: You can perform the exercise with a variety of setups. You could use resistance bands, the smith machine, or the leg extension machine.
Donkey kick form tips
Keep the following pointers in mind as you execute the movement. They’ll help you get the most glute activation from the donkey kick:
- Don’t let your lower back arch: Arching your back at the top of the movement disengages your glutes – and shifts the load to your lower back instead. So, make sure you only lift your leg as high as you’re still able to maintain a flat back. Bracing your core will help with this.
- Maintain level hips: Rotating your hips – once again – disengages your glutes. Struggling to maintain level hips? Here’s a cue that might help. Imagine you have a cup of coffee on your lower back. When you’re lifting your leg, think of balancing that precious coffee. Make sure you don’t spill anything!
- Keep a 90-degree bend in your knees: Keeping the knees bent while you move through the full range of motion decreases hamstring contribution. It’s also interesting to note that straightening your knees at the end of the movement changes this exercise into a kneeling kickback motion, which places it in the squat/lunge category.
Here’s how to do a donkey kick:
The donkey kick is a fantastic open chain glute movement that provides you with many of the benefits you’d get from unilateral training. Just be sure to manage your range of motion – only lift your legs as high as you can without arching your lower back or tilting your hips. Also, maintain the 90-degree bend in your knees throughout.
Category #2: Squat/Lunge
The next category of best glute exercises we have is the squat/lunge.
Exercises in this category emphasize the lower glutes and the quads – and they provide the most tension on your glutes when they’re in a fully stretched position. Meaning?
They’re great for eliciting muscle damage (11, 12).
So, what are the best glute exercises you should go for here? There are 3: the reverse lunge, Bulgarian split squat, and step up.
Noticed something? Yep. I’ve omitted the squat (i.e. barbell squat).
Don’t be mistaken. The squats are still one of the best glute exercises you could do. But they’re also undoubtedly one of the most technically challenging lifts you could do – it requires a healthy range of mobility that most beginners are unlikely to have (13, 14).
On the other hand, the following exercises are easier to ‘get’ right from the beginning.
They’re perfect for targeting your glutes while you’re learning how to squat correctly and safely (yes, you should still squat).
#1: Deficit reverse lunge
The reverse lunge is wonderful. But how can you make it even better for training your glutes?
That’s where the deficit reverse lunge comes in.
This is where you elevate your front foot with a weight plate or some form of aerobic step, then perform your lunges as per usual. This elevation increases your range of motion.
Thus, ensuring a much deeper stretch in your glutes at the bottom position (hello, muscle damage).
Deficit lunge form tips
For the most glute activation (15):
- Stride length: Use a stride length that allows your shins to stay relatively vertical at the bottom position. Taking too short of a stride shifts the load onto your quads. On the other hand, taking too long a stride shifts the load onto your hamstrings.
- Torso angle: You’re going to want to maintain a forward lean throughout the movement. Hip flexion (decrease in angle between torso and upper leg) is what you want in this exercise.
- Force production: Make sure you push yourself off with your glutes. That means your hips shouldn’t be rising faster than your torso. If it does, you’re essentially turning this into a ‘good morning’ exercise, which tends to hit your lower back a little more.
Here’s how to do the deficit reverse lunge:
Another variant of the reverse lunge you could try is the curtsy lunge. It’s a reverse lunge with added lateral movement. Since you’d be moving sideways instead of straight back, the curtsy lunge is associated with a greater involvement of your gluteus medius.
That said, lateral movement can put extra strain on the knees (16).
So, if you do have any pre-existing knee injuries, give this exercise a miss. And even if you have healthy knees, always maintain proper form and opt for lighter weights (if using any).
Here’s how to do the reverse curtsy lunge:
The deficit reverse lunge helps elicit muscle damage (a muscle hypertrophy mechanism neglected by the hip thrust) by placing the most tension on your glutes when they’re in a lengthened state. You could also try doing the deficit curtsy lunge if you have healthy knees.
#2: Bulgarian split squat
Is the reverse lunge getting too easy for you? Then try the Bulgarian split squat.
It’s a super challenging movement even if you’re limited in weights because it shifts nearly all of the load onto your front foot (the back leg is only there for support).
Here’s something that’ll illustrate just how challenging the Bulgarian split squat can be.
A 2014 study shows that the Bulgarian split squat can have similar levels of glute activation to bilateral back squats – while using half the load (17)!
Bulgarian split squat form tips
To maximize glute activation with this exercise:
- Vertical shins at the bottom of the position: Figure out the ideal distance between your front foot and the bench such that your shins are perpendicular to the ground at the bottom of the movement. Having your foot too far forward shifts the load to your hamstrings. Having your foot too far back shifts the load to your quads.
- Minimize pressure on the back foot: Remember, the Bulgarian split squat is meant to be a unilateral movement. It’s essentially a single-leg squat. Do not engage the back leg to make the exercise more manageable for you! Use your back leg for balance only.
- Brace your core throughout each rep: Keep your core tight and maintain a slight lean forward (roughly 20 degrees) as you complete the reps. Whipping your torso up and down – as if you were bowing – places unnecessary stress on your lower back.
Here’s how to do a Bulgarian split squat:
Because the Bulgarian split squat shifts more load onto the working foot, it’s slightly more challenging than the reverse lunge. As a result, performing it can be somewhat tricky, but the following tips can help: 1) strive for vertical shins at the bottom position, 2) minimize pressure on the back foot, and 3) keep your core tight throughout the full range of motion.
#3: Step up
The step up is undoubtedly one of the best glute exercises you could do.
It’s a simple movement to grasp (it’s like climbing stairs).
Another plus point? All you need is, well, something to step onto. This can be stairs or a bench right in the vicinity of your neighborhood. It could even just be a weight bench or an aerobic step in the gym.
Step up form tips
As usual, here are a few pointers to note for maximum glute activation and safety:
- Height of step up: The higher your step up platform, the greater you work your glutes due to the increased hip flexion. But how high should you go? Go as high as you can without rounding your lower back or shifting your hips to the side. This depends greatly on your mobility.
- Keep your feet shoulder-width apart: You shouldn’t feel like you’re on a tightrope – but you also shouldn’t be going super-wide. This will help you keep your balance. Still wobbling through the movement? You can also choose to reach your arms in front of you for counter-balance.
- Control your descent: Make sure you control your descent (slow down your eccentrics) so you aren’t free falling down on each rep. Keep your landing light as you’ll be landing with the front of your back foot.
Here’s how to do a step up:
The higher the elevation for the step up, the more you’ll work your glutes. That said, you shouldn’t simply go for the highest thing you land your eyes on – you should only go as high as you can without sacrificing your form (i.e. rounding your back or shifting your hips).
Category #3: Hinge/Pull
The next category of exercises involves the hinge/pull mechanism. These are known to emphasize the lower glutes and hamstrings.
So, let’s look at the best glute exercises found here.
#1: Romanian deadlift
The Romanian deadlift is a variation of the traditional deadlift where your: 1) legs remain (relatively) straighter and 2) hips stay higher. It’s the classic example of a ‘hip hinge’ movement.
This increases the amount of hip flexion – resulting in higher glute activation levels.
While the Romanian deadlift is one of the best glute exercises you could do in this category, performing it with the correct form can get a little tricky.
Romanian deadlift form tips
So, here are a few pointers:
- Initiate the movement with your hips: Don’t squat the weight down. What you want to do, instead, is to push your hips back while lowering the load for maximum hip flexion. Your knees will bend slightly, but your shins should remain vertical throughout the range of motion. Also, maintain a neutral spine (no anterior pelvic tilt at the bottom or hyperextension at the top).
- Keep your chest up and shoulders back: Engage your upper back throughout the motion. This prevents your upper back – and shoulders – from rounding forward towards the bottom of the lift, which can increase the risk of injury. You also want to keep your neck in line with the rest of your body through the full range of motion.
- Be mindful of your range of motion: Your height and flexibility will determine how far past your knees you can get. In general, though, your weight should stop somewhere between your knee and the middle of your shin. That’s when your hips can no longer be driven back further. You don’t want to go too far down – as that can be a sign that you’re lowering the weight with your lower back instead of your hamstrings and glutes.
Here’s how to do a Romanian deadlift:
The Romanian deadlift is a classic hip hinge movement that activates your glutes. One of the most crucial points to note when performing this exercise is that you should only lower the load to the middle of your shin. Going beyond that likely signifies that you’re using your lower back – instead of your glutes.
#2: Straddle lift
The Romanian deadlift is a fantastic hip hinge movement for sure. But it has a problem: the range of motion you can get isn’t all that great – and is further limited by your hamstring flexibility.
Thankfully, there’s a workaround to this.
And it’s something called the straddle lift; the perfect blend of the squat and deadlift movements. To understand why this is so, we need to first recap the movement mechanics of both the squat and the deadlift:
- Squat: Significant knee flexion (i.e. bending of the knees), coupled with an upright torso.
- Deadlift: Minimal knee flexion, coupled with a greater degree of forward lean in the torso (i.e. hip hinge).
So, what’s a straddle lift? Well, it’s essentially a 2-in-1 exercise; It combines significant knee flexion with a greater degree of forward lean in the torso.
This significantly increases the range of motion you’d get from the traditional hip hinge movement.
Straddle lift form tips
As usual, though, here are a few form tips to be mindful of:
- Perform the movement on an elevated platform: You’ll have to perform the straddle lift on an elevated platform (e.g. aerobic steps, weight plates, assisted pull up machine). This prevents you from cutting the range of motion short, which basically defeats the purpose of this exercise.
- Initiate the movement by driving your hips back: It’s important to remember that the straddle lift isn’t a squat. Always initiate the movement by pushing your hips back first – then bending your knees to get to the bottom position. The execution for this exercise can be tricky. So, practice with lighter loads before going heavy.
- Allow the load to travel between your knees: Holding the dumbbell closer to your body (instead of in front of you) cuts down on unnecessary strain on your lower back. Only go as deep down as you can without letting your lower back round.
Here’s how to do the straddle lift:
By combining the knee flexion found in a squat and the hip hinge pattern found in a deadlift, the straddle lift is the perfect 2-in-1 exercise that allows for greater range of motion. Just remember to perform it on an elevated platform. Fail to do so, and you’d have missed out on the point of this exercise (i.e. greater range of motion on the hip hinge movement pattern).
#3: 45-degree hip extension (back extension)
When it comes to glute activation levels … obviously, the hip thrust comes in first.
But did you know that the 45-degree hip extension (also commonly known as back extensions) comes in second?
What’s more, this exercise is generally easier to learn than other hinge/pull compound lifts (e.g. deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell swings).
45-degree hip extension form tips
To maximize the amount of glute activation you’d get from this exercise (18, 19):
- Position the pad just below your hips: Position the pad too high up your body, and you’d be cutting down on your range of motion. On the other hand, positioning the pad too low increases the likelihood that you’d fall out of the machine.
- Point your toes about 45 degrees outwards: EMG analysis shows that this simple tweak in your feet angle helps create higher glute activation.
- Round your upper back: Rounding your upper back reduces the involvement of your erector spinae muscles (i.e. lower back muscles), and that allows your glutes to take over most of the load.
- Think about ‘thrusting into the pad’: This cue could help you better engage your glutes (instead of your lower back) throughout the movement.
Also, if you’re trying to minimize training your quads, the 45-degree hip extension does this better than the hip thrust.
Here’s how to do the 45-degree hip extension:
Few hip thrust alternatives come close to rivaling the back extensions, which come second only to the hip thrust in glute activation. Maximize glute activation on this exercise by: 1) positioning the pad just below your hips, 2) pointing your toes about 45 degrees outward, and 3) rounding your back.
Category #4: Abduction/Rotation
Look through the list of best glute exercises – and you’d realize that you’re failing to target one of the most important functions of the glutes: hip abduction. And that’s where training your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus comes in.
Just so you know: the gluteus medius wraps around to the front of your hips (20).
A well-developed medius can help your hips appear wider, and that can create the illusion of a smaller waist.
But of course, developing the gluteus medius is not just for aesthetics’ sake.
Because the primary function of the gluteus medius is hip abduction, having a strong gluteus medius can help prevent knee valgus on many of your compound lifts – including hip thrusts, deadlifts, and even squats.
That’s why the last category of glute exercises (i.e. abduction) is so important.
Note the exercises here can be further categorized into straight leg and bent leg options. Try to incorporate both into your routine; variety is key for optimal growth.
#1: Seated hip abduction
Bret Contreras (aka ‘The Glute Guy’) recommends doing 10-15 reps with your back straight up, 10-15 with your back leaning forward, then 10-15 with your back leaning back. This helps target different fibers and regions of your glute medius.
Here’s how to do the seated hip abduction:
#2: Side-lying hip raise
The active range of motion in this exercise is pretty small. Avoid raising your leg too high throughout the exercise; doing so can disengage the gluteus medius. Also, make sure to keep your core tight. This will help relieve the pressure on your lower back.
Here’s how to do the side-lying hip raise:
#3: Lateral band walk
Maintain a half-squat position as you’re stepping out to the left and the right. Keep your hips level at all times; tilting them up and down (or sideways) takes the load off your gluteus medius.
Here’s how to do the lateral band walk (2nd slide):
#4: Glute kickback
Note: don’t do the regular kickback (i.e. where you’re kicking straight back) here. Doing so shifts the focus to your gluteus maximus – which we’ve already trained extensively using the other categories mentioned above.
To better target the gluteus medius, focus on kicking back diagonally. If it helps, you can think of this as a cross between a regular glute kickback and a hip abduction.
Here’s how to do the glute kickback (3rd slide):
Abduction exercises help target the gluteus medius (i.e. the ‘side’ of your glutes) – a region that’s inadequately targeted by nearly all other glute exercises. The 4 best glute exercises belonging to this category include the seated hip abduction, the side-lying hip raise, the lateral walk, and the glute kickback.
Structuring your workouts with the best glute exercises
Now … how do you apply all that to your training routine?
Well, for optimal glute development, you’d want to select at least 1 exercise from each category. I usually include 2 abduction movements because they offer little opportunity for overload – so I compensate with more volume.
Depending on your training volume requirements, you could also spread out your sessions over the week to suit your preferences and lifestyle.
Here’s an example of how you could structure your glute workouts based on the list of best glute exercises:
Structure each of your glute workout sessions to include at least 1 exercise from each unique category. This ensures you’re targeting the glutes in a varied and well-balanced manner. Consider programming in 2 abduction exercises as they’re challenging to overload; the increased training volume can help with better growth.
Train with a variety of glute exercises for the best results
Finding the best glute exercises that help you train through different movement patterns isn’t difficult. What you want to aim for is variety in your exercises.
Of course, don’t interpret this as changing up your exercises frequently and randomly. That’s not going to be an effective approach.
Instead, focus on consistent progressive overload and maintaining a suitable calorie intake for your goal.
From there, all you need to do is wait and watch those peaches grow!