By Ben Bruno T-Nation
Everyone’s got a favorite body part.
Me? I’m with Sir Mix-A-Lot – I like big butts and I cannot lie.
A strong backside is about more than just being able to fill out a pair of pants. It serves as the foundation of strength for the entire body, meaning it will allow you to build more muscle all over. Try doing any big compound lift with weak glutes. It’s not gonna happen.
I once read a Confucious-esque quote that I seem to recall being attributed to Louie Simmons that said, “He with the biggest butt moves the most weight.” I have no clue if Louie actually ever said that, but either way, it’s a friggin’ awesome line.
Getting your rear in gear will also go a long way towards keeping you healthy for the long haul by helping to ward off low back pain, knee pain, hamstring strains, groin pulls, etc.
The glutes can handle a tremendous workload, but a lot of the classic big lifts that work the glutes the most – namely squats, deadlifts, and lunges – can take a real toll on the lower back and knees when done in excess. Therefore, it’s important to sprinkle some more joint-friendly glute exercises into your program to blast your ass without beating yourself up too badly.
With that in mind, here are some exercises to help give you the kind of butt that will make even Kim Kardashian do a double take.
Trap Bar Romanian Deadlifts
If I had to pick my favorite exercise for the glutes and hamstrings, it might be the Romanian deadlift (RDL). If not, it’d certainly be high on the list. That being said, RDLs can also be rough on the lower back. If you have a history of back issues or just need something a little more low-back friendly to balance out the other lower back intensive work you’re already doing in squatting and deadlifting, give trap bar RDLs a shot.
Remember, this isn’t a regular trap bar deadlift (which some will argue is more of a squat anyway). Instead, think of it as a regular RDL, just substituting the trap bar for the barbell. You perform the first rep from the floor like a regular trap bar deadlift with some knee flexion, but from there it’s a pure hip hinge pattern. For more on the hip hinge, read this article.
The trap bar lets you keep your hands more in line with your body, thereby reducing shear on the spine. It’s very similar to using dumbbells, just with a far greater loading capacity. One cue I like is to think about trying to reach your hands behind you as you lower down. You won’t actually be able to do it, especially with heavier loads, but just thinking you will puts you in a better position and allows you to sit back into the hinge more to load your glutes as opposed to your lower back.
Single Leg Barbell Glute Bridges
When Bret Contreras first introduced the barbell glute bridge several years back, I thought it looked kinda freakin’ stupid. I couldn’t fathom loading a couple hundred pounds across my waist just inches from “the boys,” let alone humping the air with it, in public no less. Furthermore, I was already doing a lot of squatting, deadlifting, and single-leg work, so I figured my glutes were getting enough work anyway.
But as I saw more and more people trying them and becoming raving fans, I decided to join the party and give em’ a rip.
I could tell right off the bat that they were different from squats, deadlifts, and lunges. The contraction in the glutes was second to none (I even experienced my first ever “butt pump”), but surprisingly, they didn’t leave me feeling sore the next day, which is nice if you don’t like walking around like you just spent the night in prison.
The trouble that I’ve found with them is that because it’s a relatively short range of motion and you’re calling on the strongest muscle in your body (the glutes) to move the load, you can really pile on the weight – far more than you can deadlift. That’s not a bad thing alone, but as the loads get heavier, it can get pretty uncomfortable for the neck and hips, and there’s a tendency for your body to slide backwards on the floor as you bridge up.
Plus, after a hard leg work out, the last thing I feel like doing is loading and unloading a barbell with a ****load of weight. So if I’m being completely honest, I guess it was laziness that drove me to try single leg barbell glute bridges in the first place. See the video below.
Interestingly, even though the loads with the single-leg version pale in comparison to what you can handle bilaterally (far less than half), the contraction feels even bigger. Moreover, because the weights are lighter, it’s much more comfortable on the neck and hips, and loading the bar isn’t nearly as big of an ordeal. As a point of reference, I’ve done bilateral glute bridges with 585 pounds and have yet to get over 155 on the single-leg version.
It can be awkward at first to get the barbell centered on the hips, so I’ve found it helpful to start the set with a bilateral bridge and then lift one foot once you’re already in position, as opposed to starting from the floor on one leg. You can also start with eccentric single-leg bridges; just bridge up with two legs and lower yourself down with one.
The eccentric version is both a great progression to work towards single-leg bridges and a great exercise in its own right if you want to overload the eccentric with heavier loads.
Single-Leg Hip Thrusts (Feet Elevated)
The shoulder and feet elevated hip thrust is a great way to work the glutes and hamstrings through a greater range of motion. It’s substantially more difficult than having your feet on the floor though, so don’t go trying to add load right away. Your bodyweight should be more than enough to start. See the video below.
I don’t entirely like calling this exercise a hip thrust because a thrust implies a fast and jerky motion, whereas this exercise is better served being done in a controlled fashion with a pause at the top of each rep. Think of it instead as a controlled thrust.
After you’ve spent some time mastering the bodyweight version you can add weight by draping chains or weighted vests over your waist. When that’s no longer sufficient or practical, try a lightly loaded barbell.
Just as I suggested with the single-leg glute bridge, start by raising yourself up on two legs and getting your bearings before removing one foot from the bench rather than starting on one leg directly from the floor.
Before you even start, safety first – be careful that both benches are secured to the floor so they don’t slip mid-set.
I also highly recommend resting and resetting between legs to make sure you’re situated and stable on the bench before you start.
Modified Reverse Hypers
Here are a few variations of the reverse hyper exercise that are a bit easier on the lower back and don’t require any specialized equipment. With a regular reverse hyper, it’s easy to descend too far down and go into lumbar flexion at the bottom, which puts tremendous shear on the lumbar spine.
Likewise, it’s easy to come up too high and hyperextend your lumbar spine at the top, which is also problematic, especially under heavy loads. To avoid this issue, try moving the legs “in and out” instead of “up and down.”
Lie prone on a table or bench with your legs hanging off the edge, your knees bent and your hips flexed to approximately 90 degrees. From there, brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and extend your legs straight back behind you. Hold for a brief pause and return to the starting point. When your legs are fully extended, there should be a straight line going from your feet to your head. Here’s what it looks like in action:
Since your legs aren’t moving up and down in the vertical plane, it’s much easier to keep a neutral spine, thereby allowing you to hone in on the glutes without irritating your lower back.
Start with just your own bodyweight until you get the hang of it. Trust me; it’s harder than you might think. You should feel it almost entirely in your glutes. If you feel it in your lower back, you’re probably raising your feet up too high.
Once you can comfortably do a few sets of 8-10 reps with just bodyweight, you can progress by adding ankle weights or putting a small dumbbell between your feet. If you’re doing them correctly with controlled form, it won’t take much weight at all (around 10-25 pounds tops). You can also modulate the difficulty with your setup position – the more of your torso that’s resting on the bench, the easier it will be, and vice versa.
Prone “Running Man” Hip Extensions
This one is very similar to the modified reverse hypers above, only it’s done one leg at a time. I call it “running man” hip extensions because the leg motion vaguely resembles the running stride. Plus, that way it allows me to double-dip and count it as my cardio for the day since it’s sort of like running, right?
Regardless, the same form cues discussed above all apply. Extend the legs straight back behind to avoid hyperextending the lumbar spine. When one leg is extended completely, the other hip should be flexed at approximately 90 degrees.
The “running man” name is somewhat of a misnomer in that you don’t want to fly through your reps quickly. Rather, do them in a controlled fashion with a deliberate pause as you extend each leg, almost like you’re running in very slow motion.
The unilateral element increases the core and hip stability demands significantly. The key is to avoid motion at the pelvis and lower back and have all the movement originate from the hips.
When these become easy, you can either add small ankle weights or progress to the variation below.
“Donkey Kick” Reverse Hypers
Of all the reverse hyper variations I’ve shared, these are the hardest. They’re also my favorite. They’re similar to the “running man” extensions, only rather than alternating legs each rep, you keep one leg fully extended the whole time while the other leg performs all the given reps before switching sides and repeating the process.
I realize they don’t look like much, but if you do them correctly and do both legs back-to-back with no rest, the burn in your glutes and hamstrings is insane. As easy as it might appear, it’s really an advanced exercise so make sure you’ve got the previous steps down cold before trying them or chances are you’ll be feeling it more in your lower back, which of course we don’t want.
Obviously none of these reverse hyper variations are meant to replace heavy lifting, but they’re great supplemental exercises to give your glutes some extra work without crushing your lower back and/or knees. They’re also great choices if you can’t make it to the gym and need something challenging to do at home that doesn’t require weights or machines.
And That’s A Wrap
Failing to perform a wide variety of glute exercises leaves room on the table for glute development.
The more exercises you have in your arsenal, the better off you’ll be. Hopefully I’ve given you some good stuff to try, so now it’s on you to put it into action.
Remember, half-assed training leads to half-assed results, or in this case, a half-assed ass (try saying that ten times fast).