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Woman does glute bridge with a mini resistance band

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Wake Up Your Glutes with These 10 Glute Activation Moves

Exactly what your workout warm-up is missing.

By Lauren MazzoFebruary 29, 2024

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At some point in your life, you’ve probably heard that your glutes may be asleep or even “dead.” While it paints a great visual, glute laziness isn’t quite that dramatic. Your glutes won’t “turn off” or stop working completely from a lack of use. (After all, the gluteus maximus isn’t exactly wimpy; it’s the biggest muscle in the human body.) Over time, however, your glutes can weaken if you’re not using them often enough—and in certain exercises, allow other strong muscles, such as the quads, to take over.

How can you ensure your glutes are pulling their weight? Glute activation exercises. These simple, bodyweight drills can help you warm up before complicated movements and tap into these powerful muscles so you get the most out of your training. Here’s how.

What Is Glute Activation?

“Glute activation refers to the process of engaging and activating the muscles in the buttocks,” says Peloton instructor Adrian Williams. That’s the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus.

To get more specific, “activating” or “engaging” your glutes means you’re contracting the muscle, explains Dr. Scott Cheatham, board-certified orthopedic physical therapist and part of the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Scientific Advisory Board. It’s typically done using isolation exercises, which seek to target one specific muscle group—in this case, the glutes.

Why Is Glute Activation Important?

In general, glute activation exercises simply build strength in your glutes. “Glute activation exercises keep the muscles strong, which helps with lower body movement,” Cheatham says. “The glutes are a major muscle group that assists with functional tasks such as, but not limited to, walking, squats, pushing, pulling, and lifting.” Keeping your glutes strong and capable ensures you can do all those movements efficiently in your workout and daily life.

Glute activation also helps you build a mind-muscle connection. “This is key when trying to maximize the muscle activity of your workout,” says Schuyler Archambault, physical therapist and owner of Arch Physical Therapy and Fitness. “Mind-muscle connection simply means focusing on the muscle group while you’re performing the exercise to improve the recruitment of that muscle.” Studies have found that mentally focusing on the muscle group you’re using (in this case, your glutes) results in increased muscle activity versus focusing on completing the movement (i.e., lifting your leg). By isolating your glute muscles using targeted activation exercises, you can really feel them work; this can help you learn exactly how to contract those muscles so they can better contribute later, such as when you’re lifting something or climbing up a hill.

That’s also why many exercise professionals recommend activating your glutes at the beginning of your workout: so they’re ready to help with what’s coming next. “This pre-activation helps ensure that the glutes are properly engaged during the exercise, improving performance and reducing the risk of compensatory movements or injury,” Adrian says.

What Causes Weak Glutes, Anyway?

Some factors are unavoidable, like muscle injury, age-related muscle loss/weakness, or medical conditions, says Cheatham. More often, though, “weak glutes are caused by a lack of activity,” says Archambault. “Many people have weak or inactive glutes due to sedentary lifestyles or improper training techniques,” Adrian adds. Sitting for hours generally tightens your hip flexors and lower back, and weakens the opposing muscles, your abs and glutes. This muscle imbalance is called lower cross syndrome or, more colloquially, “dead butt syndrome,” according to NASM.

Your training may be leaving your glutes behind, too. Many people (runners and cyclists, especially) tend to be quad-dominant—meaning, their quadriceps (the muscles on the front of the thighs) are inclined to take over moves like squats or lunges, stopping the hamstrings and glutes from doing their fair share of work. That is to say, without directly focusing on your glutes, they may not be getting the workout you think.

Many training programs that include dedicated glute exercises also tend to favor the gluteus maximus, leaving the smaller gluteus medius and gluteus minimus behind. This can happen if your routine has a lot of forward and backward movement but not enough side-to-side motion, which recruits the latter two glute muscles more. “Our glutes work in multiple planes of motion, so we want to make sure we’re using them in multiple planes of motion,” Archambault says. Glute activation exercises can help you ensure you’re not just using your glutes, but using all of them.

How to Activate Your Glutes

To activate your glutes, all you need are a few glute-targeted exercises, like the 10 below. (Some of these even wake up the whole posterior chain—the muscles along the whole back of your body—which is key for anyone who sits at a desk all day or falls into the quad-dominant camp.) A great place to add glute activations to your routine is in your warm-up. “Many athletes incorporate muscle activation movements into their warm-up to prepare the neuromuscular system for the activity,” Cheatham says. 

Can You Use Bands for Glute Activation Exercises?

Resistance bands, including mini loop bands, are a great tool to use for glute activation. They make it easy to work your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, which work to abduct your leg (i.e., move it away from your body). That said, you don’t need bands to activate your glutes; plenty of glute activation exercises use just your body weight.

Can You Activate Your Glutes Without Squats?

You don’t need squats to activate your glutes—as evidenced by the list of glute activation exercises below. Squats are a fantastic lower-body exercise, but they work much more than just your butt, including your quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and core. Research even shows that squats recruit your glutes less than other lower-body strength moves like hip thrusts, deadlifts, and lunges. Thus, squats should be part of your workout routine, but they’re not necessary for glute activation.

Glute Activation Exercises

Before your next workout, try a few of the glute activation exercises below, which require only your bodyweight, a resistance band, or a step.

Hip Thrust

Studies show hip thrusts are among the best lower-body strength moves for recruiting your glutes. That’s why Adrian, Archambault, and Cheatham all recommend it as a glute activation exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Sit on the ground with your upper back against a bench and feet hip-width apart. (Do this with your body weight as a warm-up move, or add weight across your hips to build more strength.)

  2. Drive through your heels and lift your hips until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. 

  3. Squeeze your glutes at the top, then slowly lower back down. Focus on bending at your hips, not your back.

  4. Do 10-12 reps. 

Muscles worked: Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, hamstrings, core

Step-Up

Another exercise up there with the hip thrust regarding maximum glute activation? The step-up. 

How to do it:

  1. Stand facing a step or bench. Place your entire right foot onto the step.

  2. Shift your weight onto your right foot to step up onto the bench, bringing your left foot next to your right. 

  3. Slowly step down with the left foot to return to the starting position.

  4. Do 10-12 reps, then repeat on the other side.

Muscles worked: Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, hamstrings, quads

Banded Lateral Walk

Adrian recommends this glute activation move which targets the gluteus medius using a mini loop resistance band. (Research suggests placing the resistance band around your ankles or feet to make it harder and increase glute activation even more.)

How to do it:

  1. Place a resistance band around your thighs above your knees. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a slight bend in your knees.

  2. Keeping your chest up and core engaged, step your right foot to the right side, then the left foot, always maintaining tension in the band.

  3. Take the 8-10 steps in one direction, then repeat in the opposite direction.

Muscles worked: Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, hip flexors

Standing Hip Abduction

Abduction is mainly the work of the glute medius and minimus. Make this move harder by adding a mini resistance band around your ankles.

How to do it:

  1. Start standing with your feet together, hands on your hips, core engaged.

  2. Shift your weight into your left foot and squeeze your glute to lift your right foot up and out to the side. Keep your torso upright. 

  3. Return your right foot next to your left without touching it to the ground. 

  4. Do 12-15 reps, then repeat on the other side.

Muscles worked: Gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, core

Lateral Step-up

Cheatham recommends this move, which doesn’t necessarily activate the glutes more than the regular step-up but helps you train in a different range of motion.

How to do it:

  1. Stand just to the left of a step or bench so your feet are parallel to the step. Place your entire right foot onto the step.

  2. Shift your weight onto your right foot to step up onto the bench, bringing your left foot next to your right.

  3. Slowly step down with the left foot to return to the starting position.

  4. Do 10-12 reps, then repeat on the other side.

Muscles worked: Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, quads 

Woman does clamshell exercise, a gluteus minimus exercise

Clamshell

The clamshell is a classic glute activation exercise you’ve probably seen in Pilates or barre classes in addition to strength warm ups with Adrian, who picked this as one of his favorite moves. To make it harder, add a resistance band just above your knees.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your side with your hips and knees bent, with your heels together.

  2. Keeping your hips stable, open your top knee as far as possible without tilting your pelvis.

  3. Hold for a moment, then return to the starting position. 

  4. Do 15-20 reps, then repeat on the other side.

Muscles worked: Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius 

Peloton Instructor Rebecca Kennedy Single Leg Deadlift GIF

Single-Leg Deadlift

Research shows that single-leg deadlifts emphasize the glute medius more than two-legged deadlifts do. Try it with weights or just your body.

How to do it:

  1. Start standing with your feet hip-width apart. Shift your weight into your left foot with the knee slightly bent.

  2. Lean forward, keeping your back flat and core engaged. Lift your right leg behind you, reaching your right hand toward your left leg.

  3. Keep your hips square to the ground. Pause when your torso and right leg are about parallel to the floor.

  4. Slowly lower your right leg and lift your torso to return to the starting position, squeezing the glute in your standing leg.

  5. Do 8-10 reps, then repeat on the other side.

Muscles worked: Gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, hamstrings

Instructor demonstrates a single leg squat

Single-Leg Squat

Single-leg squats are all-stars for hitting the gluteus medius and minimus, per research. To make this move accessible for most exercisers, use a chair or bench.

How to do it:

  1. Stand just in front of a chair or bench, facing away. Lift your right foot with your leg extended forward so it hovers off the floor.

  2. Keeping your core engaged and left knee tracking over your toes, sit your hips back and down, lowering into a single-leg squat until your glutes touch the chair. 

  3. Allow the chair to hold your weight for one second, then press into your left foot to stand back up and return to start. 

  4. Do 8-10 reps, then repeat on the other side.

Muscles worked: Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus

Side-Lying Hip Abduction

This beginner-friendly move recommended by Cheatham puts the spotlight on the gluteus minimus.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on the right side of your body, supporting your head with your right arm. Keep your legs straight and stacked on top of one another.

  2. Lift your left leg toward the ceiling, keeping it straight and without allowing your hips to tilt backward.

  3. Slowly lower it to the starting position without allowing it to rest on your bottom leg.

  4. Do 15 to 20 reps, then repeat on the other side.

Muscles worked: Gluteus medius, gluteus minimus

Instructor demonstrates a single leg glute bridge exercise


Single-Leg Glute Bridge

The single-leg glute bridge works your glute medius more than a two-legged glute bridge, according to research. If doing reps of this move is too hard, try holding the bridge for 10-20 seconds as an isometric exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Lie face-up on the floor with your knees bent and your right foot flat on the floor. Extend your left leg toward the ceiling directly over your hip. Engage your core, tucking your hips under just slightly, and place your weight into the right foot.

  2. Press into your right foot to lift your hips off the ground into a glute bridge.

  3. Hold for one second, trying not to let your hips tilt side to side or back arch, then slowly lower your hips to the floor. 

  4. Do 8-10 reps, then repeat on the other side.

Muscles worked: Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, hamstrings

How Often Should You Do Glute Activation Exercises?

A good rule of thumb is to warm up with glute activations before doing any exercises that heavily involve those muscles, Adrian says. For example, you’ll want to do glute activations ahead of a lower- or full-body strength session, or cardio workouts like running, cycling, or HIIT. Activating your glutes beforehand can help prep your muscles for intense workouts, enhance your performance, and reduce injury risk, he says.

If your goal is muscle growth, Archambault suggests doing glute-isolated exercises at the start and end of a session, with compound movements in the middle of the workout. “To build strength or hypertrophy, you need to be progressively loading your glutes to make changes,” she says. “I would recommend training them three or four times per week if that’s your goal. For general health benefits, I’d recommend two to three times per week.”

The exact best strategy will depend on your goals, abilities, and the type of training you’re doing, Cheatham says. 

How Glute Activation Exercises Impact Running and Cycling

Glute activation can be especially useful for people who run or cycle since the glute muscles are heavily recruited during both activities, Cheatham says. “Glute weakness can result in lower power output in the legs, overworking of other leg muscles (e.g. quadriceps), and biomechanical issues (e.g. poor form or technique) at the hip, knee, and ankle during activity,” he says. Doing glute activations during your warm-up can help prep those muscles to perform better and avoid injury by helping maintain proper form. 

Put simply, whether you’re heading out for a long run or hopping on the Peloton Bike, activation moves ask your glutes: “Are you ready to work?” And then make sure the answer is “heck yes.”


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