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  • Dr. Allison Andre, DPT

Maximize Your Glute Gains: Glute Exercises Ranked in Order by EMG


Strength training is one of the most empowering forms of exercise (physically, mentally and emotionally!) So, let's talk glutes!


Your glutes are one of the largest muscle groups in your body, and as such, they play an important role in your overall strength, power, and movement. (Check out Part I to this post if you haven't already!) Strong glutes can help improve your posture, reduce your risk of injury, and enhance your athletic performance, and longevity.


Doing the same glute exercises over and over again can get repetitive and even lead to a plateau in your progress. We've put together a list of 7 different glute exercises that offer variety in intensity and focus, ranging from traditional moves like squats and lunges to more unconventional exercises like hex bar deadlifts and hip thrusts.


These exercises are ranked in order on their level of electromyography (EMG) activation - which measures the amount of electrical activity in the muscle during an exercise - helping you choose the moves that best suit your fitness level and goals and get the most out of your training.


Train smarter not harder is my motto!!


2 woman performing box jumps

If you are new to lifting or have glute imbalances and weaknesses it is a good idea to video yourself performing the movements to ensure proper movement technique and glute activation.


It's a great way to maximize those glute gains! When we have weaknesses and imbalances, the body naturally compensates and alters movement patterns. So, start light, ensure proper technique and build from there!


Additionally, it's a smart idea to get a good warm up in before you start adding weight; add in bridges, unweighted movements, banded good mornings, for example to get those glutes firing! Now let's get to the exercises ranked in literature from highest glute activation and on down.


 

TABLE OF CONTENTS


 


Top Glute Activation Exercises Ranked by EMG


#1 Step-Ups



Box step ups


Step-ups - the OG booty builder! With the highest EMG activation for your glutes over all other exercises, whether you're stepping up and over, performing side step ups, or in a crossover motion.


One of the key benefits of the step-up is that it is a unilateral exercise, meaning it works each leg independently. This can help to correct muscle imbalances between the legs, which can occur as a result of injury, poor posture, or favoring one leg over the other during daily activities or exercise. It is also insanely functional, versatile and easily adaptable to all abilities. You can perform weighted step ups, or bodyweight step ups - both will work!


How to Perform a Step-up:

  1. Stand facing a step, bench, or sturdy platform that is around knee height (if too difficult, feel free to lower the height to a level where you can perform at least 3-8 reps).

  2. Place one foot firmly on the step, making sure your entire foot is in contact with the surface.

  3. Keeping your chest up and core engaged, slowly lift your other foot off the ground and bring it up onto the step, making sure to push through the heel of the foot that's on the step.

  4. Pause briefly at the top of the movement, making sure your hips are fully extended and your glutes are engaged.

  5. Slowly lower your non-stepping foot back down to the ground, returning to the starting position.

  6. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, then switch sides and repeat with the other foot.

To increase the glute activation during the exercise, make sure to focus on pushing through the heel of the foot that's on the step, rather than using your toes or the ball of your foot. Add weight via dumbbells, a barbell or kettlebell for increased difficulty; and only go as heavy as you can with perfect form. Variations include lateral, diagonal, and cross-over.



#2 Hex Bar Deadlift


Trap Bar Deadlift


Hex bar deadlifts, also known as a trap bar deadlift, are really effective at activating your glutes - ranking higher in EMG activation than traditional deadlifts. Even better, there is lower risk of injury as it puts less stress on your lower back due to a different center of gravity. Personally, I love hex bar deadlifts! Ready to give it a go?


How to perform a hex-bar deadlift:

  1. Stand in the center of the hex bar with feet shoulder- to hip-width apart and a slight knee bend. Keep your shoulders over your hips and your head neutral.

  2. Hinge your hips and bend your knees to lower towards the hex bar handles. Grab the handles and engage your back muscles.

  3. Engage your core, lift your hips until you feel a stretch in the backs of your legs, maintaining a neutral spine.

  4. Push your feet through the floor, squeeze your glutes, and stand up while keeping the hex bar centered.

  5. Lower the hex bar by hinging your hips and bending your knees, remember to keep your core engaged.

  6. Complete the repetition once the weight plates reach the floor or your hands reach mid-shin without weight plates.

  7. Repeat for desired number of repetitions.

Let's discuss hex bar weight. It can be a bit frustrating as there is no standardized weights for hex bars (unlike barbells where men's bars are 45lb and ladies are 35lb as they are smaller in diameter for more optimal grip for generally smaller hands). Hex bars range between 40-70 pounds.


Remember, form is key with the hex bar deadlift. Keep your back straight, your core engaged, and your shoulders pulled back throughout the entire movement.



#3 Hip Thrust


woman performing a hip thrust


Hip thrusts have gained popularity in recent years as one of the most effective exercises for building strong glutes. And it's no wonder why: with high EMG activation for the glutes, it's a powerhouse move that can help you build muscle and increase strength. Plus, hip thrusts are a highly adaptable exercise. Give it a try!


How to perform a Barbell Hip-Thrust

  1. Start by setting up a bench with a barbell across your hips. Sit on the ground with your back against the bench and position your feet flat on the ground about shoulder-width apart, with your toes angled outward at around 30 degrees (this will elicit the highest glute activation).

  2. Place a padded barbell pad over the barbell to protect your hips and make the exercise more comfortable.

  3. Grab the barbell with both hands, keeping your palms facing down and your fingers wrapped around the bar. Brace your core and engage your glutes to lift the barbell off the ground, so that it rests on your hips.

  4. Keeping your feet flat on the ground and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, lower your hips down towards the ground.

  5. Press through your heels and drive your hips up towards the ceiling, squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement. Be sure to keep your core engaged and maintain a neutral spine throughout the exercise.

  6. Slowly lower your hips back down towards the ground and repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions.

  7. When you have completed your set, carefully lower the barbell back down to the ground and rest for a moment before performing additional sets.

Remember to keep your core engaged throughout the exercise and focus on squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement.


An interesting fact is that barbell hip thrusts elicit very high glute max activation even when relative low loads are lifted, so you don't need to add TONS of weight to benefit from this workout.

So, feel free to add whatever weight you have handy! You can perform a dumbbell hip thrust, or a weight plate hip thrust - pick your poison! And if you don't have a hip thrust bench, be creative, I've done dumbbell hip thrusts from my couch! They will all activate your glutes and give you the results you are looking for.




#4 Split Squat


Bulgarian Split Squat with one dumbbell

The Bulgarian split squat is an excellent unilateral lower body exercise that are great for building glute strength and rank high for EMG glute activity.


It is also a challenging exercise that requires balance and stability, while offering a greater range of motion than traditional split squats, making it an ideal exercise.


Both split squat variations are safer for the lower back than exercises like traditional back squats, as they put less stress on the spine due to a more upright torso position. I highly recommend giving either the Bulgarian split squat or split squat a try!


How to perform the Bulgarian Split Squat:

  1. Stand facing away from a bench or elevated surface, with your feet hip-width apart.

  2. Place one foot on the bench behind you, with the top of your foot resting on the bench.

  3. Take a big step forward with your other foot, so that your front foot is about two to three feet away from the bench.

  4. Keep your torso upright and your core engaged.

  5. Lower your body by bending your front knee, while keeping your back leg straight and your back foot flat on the bench.

  6. Continue to lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the ground.

  7. Pause briefly at the bottom of the movement, then push back up through your front heel to return to the starting position.

  8. Repeat for the desired number of reps, then switch legs and repeat the movement on the other side.


It's important to maintain good form throughout the movement, and to avoid letting your front knee extend past your toes or collapsing your torso forward. Additionally, it's a good idea to start with lighter weights or just your bodyweight until you feel comfortable with the movement, as it can be quite challenging.



#5 Traditional Lunge


Single leg lunge

The traditional lunge is a tried-and-true exercise that has been around for as long as we can remember. It's a simple move that requires nothing but your own bodyweight, making it the perfect go-to exercise for anyone looking to strengthen their glutes.


But don't be fooled by its simplicity - adding weight as you progress can take this move to the next level. By holding a dumbbell, kettlebell or barbell, you'll not only increase the difficulty of the exercise, but you'll also add an extra challenge to your core and stability muscles.


How to perform a single-leg lunge:

  1. Begin standing up tall with your feet hip-width apart and your arms by your sides.

  2. Take a step forward with one foot, keeping your spine straight and your core engaged. Try to maintain proper posture throughout the exercise.

  3. Lower your body until your back knee is hovering just above the ground and your front thigh is parallel to the ground. Your front knee should be directly above your ankle, and your back knee should be pointed towards the floor.

  4. Pause for a second at the bottom of the lunge, then push through your front heel to return to the starting position.

  5. Repeat on the other side by stepping forward with your other foot.


#6 Traditional Deadlift


Barbell deadlift

This compound exercise targets multiple muscle groups, including the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and lower back.


Performed correctly, this lift is a powerful tool for building strong and shapely glutes with high levels of EMG glute activity. Why? Well, because the glutes play a crucial role in the deadlift movement, responsible for hip extension and helping you complete the lift.


Remember to keep proper form and don't forget to give your glutes a little squeeze at the top for full extension and activation.


How to perform the Traditional Deadlift:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with the barbell on the floor in front of you. The barbell should be centered over the middle of your feet. Keep your neck in a neutral position. Avoid the pez-dispenser head!

  2. Bend down and grip the bar with both hands, using an overhand or mixed grip. Your hands should be just outside of your legs.

  3. Lower your hips and bring your shoulders down and back, engaging your core and keeping your back flat, neck aligning with your back.

  4. Take a deep breath, brace your core, and lift the bar off the ground, keeping it close to your body.

  5. As you lift, drive your hips forward and straighten your legs, keeping your back flat and your shoulders pulled back.

  6. At the top of the lift, squeeze your glutes and hold for a moment before lowering the barbell back down to the floor.

  7. Lower the barbell back down to the floor in a controlled manner, bending your knees and hips as you lower it down.

  8. Repeat for your desired number of reps, keeping proper form throughout the lift.

Remember, the traditional deadlift is a powerful exercise, so it's important to start with lighter weights and focus on proper form before increasing the weight! Don't forget to snag a video of yourself performing the movement so you can make adjustments to your technique if needed!


#7 Back Squat


Back Squat


With the high glute activation (along with quads and hamstrings), this exercise is sure to have your lower body muscles working hard! One of the key benefits of the back squat is that it's a compound exercise, meaning it works multiple muscle groups at once. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned lifter, the back squat is a great exercise to add to your workout routine!


How to perform a barbell back squat:

  1. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing slightly outward (or parallel depending on your anatomy).

  2. Place the barbell on your upper back, resting it on your traps, and grip the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

  3. Take a deep breath, brace your core, and unrack the barbell by straightening your legs.

  4. Take a step back with one foot, and then the other, until you are standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Ensure your weight is evenly distributed through your feet from toe to heel, imagine gripping the floor.

  5. Keeping your chest up and your back straight, begin the descent by bending at the hips and knees simultaneously, keeping your neck and head in a neutral position. Keep your core engaged!

  6. Lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the ground, or slightly below, while keeping your knees in line with your toes.

  7. Pause briefly at the bottom of the squat, and then exhale as you drive through your heels and stand back up to the starting position. Squeeze those glutes at the top!

  8. Once you are back at the starting position, take another deep breath, brace your core, and repeat for your desired number of reps.

It's important to note that proper form is crucial when performing a back squat to avoid injury. Make sure to keep your core tight, your back straight, pelvis tucked and your knees in line with your toes throughout the entire movement.



 

Glute Anatomy Abbreviated


Let's get cheeky and talk about glute anatomy! I cover the anatomy in more detail here, but briefly, the glutes are comprised of three muscles: the Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius, and Gluteus Minimus.


The Gluteus Maximus is the largest and most powerful mover that is primarily responsible for hip extension. When we think of wanting a more ''perfect buttocks", generally you want to grow your gluteus maximus which will give you that fuller figure.


All the exercises detailed above are freakishly effective at challenging your gluteus maximus. Additionally, the single leg movements are primo choices for Gluteus minimus exercises and gluteus medius exercises as those muscles are highly responsible at stabilizing your pelvis and femur during single limb stance. So, if you are looking for upper glute exercises, or lower glute exercises - all of the above will work for you!


 


There you have it! Building strong glutes through resistance training is not only essential for improving your physical performance, but also for enhancing your overall health and well-being. By incorporating a variety of exercises into your routine that are ranked based on their EMG activation, you can train smarter and achieve your goals more efficiently.


Don't be afraid to mix it up and challenge yourself with these glute exercises. With consistency and dedication, you'll soon reap the benefits of a strong and powerful lower body and feel empowered to take on any challenge that comes your way!


 




REFERENCE


1. Neto WK, Soares EG, Vieira TL, Aguiar R, Chola TA, Sampaio VL, Gama EF. Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Feb 24;19(1):195-203. PMID: 32132843; PMCID: PMC7039033.

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