Welcome to the third and final installment of my epic trilogy on building an epic booty. In part one I taught you the basics. In part two I gave you some advanced training techniques to work with, and told you how much and how hard to train your glutes.
Today I’m going to bring it all home by showing you the best glute exercises, and giving you a few workouts you can start using.
The Best Booty-Building Exercises
Not all exercises are created equal. Many of the most popular glute exercises, are sub-optimal. Here are some of the characteristics of a good exercise:
Full range of motion. A good exercise should make it possible to work the muscle through the full range of motion. This is particularly important for the glutes, since many exercises only bring the glutes into play when you go deep.
A full range of motion isn’t possible with some exercises. For instance, hip thrusts need to be done from a deficit to allow a full range of motion, but it’s damn near impossible to do barbell hip thrusts from a deficit, so barbell hip thrusts are not one of your best options.
Strength curve matches resistance curve. In other words, there’s no sticking point. It’s hard to get this perfect, but if you’re only slightly weaker at the sticking point than at other parts of the movement, that’s close enough. This is why you’ll use resistance bands when you squat.
Closed chain, not open chain. The technical definition of the kinetic chain is, well, pretty technical. But in practice it’s simple: Closed-chain movements are movements in which your body moves. Open-chain movements are movements where your body stays still while you push or pull a weight. Closed-chain movements are better, which is why (well, one reason why) we’ll favor squats over leg presses.
Unilateral over bilateral. I’ve already covered this one. There are some bilateral movements that are worth doing because they have no direct unilateral equivalent, but six of the nine exercises I’m about to list are unilateral.
Dynamic contraction. Exercises that involve dynamic contraction- meaning the muscle is actively contracting during both the concentric (raising) phase and the eccentric (lowering pahse) – are superior to exercises that are only either concentric, eccentric, or isometric. Concentric and eccentric contractions each stimulate muscle growth in different ways, so you need both.
With that said, how many different exercises do you need to do for your glutes? As with volume and frequency, the optimal amount of variety goes up with training age, but you don’t need much- having one or two compound and one or two isolation movements in your workout split at any given time is good enough, but a little more won’t hurt either. I’m going to give you four compound and four isolation movements (in addition to one exercise purely for pre-exhausting the hamstrings) so that you can choose the ones that work for you, or that your gym has the equipment for.
Back squats with elastic bands. The back squat is a mainstay of glute programs. While it’s not the best exercise for targeting the glutes per se, it does build the lower back and upper glutes. I include it in most glute programs for developing clear muscle separation between the butt and lower back.
This is your standard back squat, but with about 30-50% of the total weight replaced with elastic band resistance in the top half of the movement. Remember that resistance bands add more resistance as the weight moves up. Each band has two number listed, representing the amount of resistance applied at the bottom and top of the movement. It’s the higher number you want to look at.
As an example: suppose you normally back squat 150 pounds (that’s the amount you squat for your usual working sets, not your 1RM). You would want a band that applies 50-75 pounds of resistance at maximum, which means you’d want the purple band from my recommended brand. If you squat at 250 pounds (again, for working sets), you’d want a band that applies 90-125 pounds, like the green band.
And remember: to target the glutes, you need to go as deep as possible. Don’t add more weight then compensate by not going deep; that’s totally counterproductive when your goal is to build a big, strong butt.
Bulgarian split squats from a deficit. The Bulgarian split squat is the best iso-lateral squatting exercise, period. It works to sculpt and defines the sides of your butt in a way that bilateral squats never could.
To get a full range of motion, you should do it from a deficit- meaning your front foot as well as your back is elevated, allowing your knee to drop below the level of both feet. This provides better muscle activation, and of course, lets you go deeper to target the glutes more effectively.
Cable pull-through. This exercise isn’t well-known, but it’s one of my favorite glute exercises- particularly for guys, since it trains the same hip-thrusting movement pattern used for…fun times. Ahem.
Make sure to stand far enough away from the cable machine that there’s tension on the cable throughout the full range of motion, even when you’re bent all the way over and your hands are going slightly behind your butt. Contract the glutes with each rep and keep a loose grip- don’t turn this into a arm exercise. Your arms should move forward because your hips push them forward, not because you contract your arms.
Jump lunges. I used to recommend jump squats, but I switched to jump lunges because they’re iso-lateral, and it’s also a little easier to go deep on them compared to jump squats. This is a great exercise for athletes who want to train for power- for aesthetic purposes, its main use is in post-activation potentiation supersets.
Don’t try to add dumbbells to these- you don’t want to smack yourself with them.
Unilateral hip thrust from deficit. I like this better than the barbell hip thrust because a) the deficit allows a better range of motion, and b) it’s unilateral. The downside is that you can’t easily put a barbell on your hips, only a single barbell plate. Once you get really strong, that might limit this exercise to higher-rep work. Once you can do more than twenty or so and can’t raise the weight, it’s about time to switch to kick-backs.
Video 1: Unilateral hip thrust from deficit (note: the deficit should be bigger)
Video 2: Unilateral hip thrust from a deficit with weight (better deficit)
Cable unilateral hip abduction. This is the best exercise for specifically targeting the gluteus medius. As a reminder, the gluteus medius is involved in hip abduction, but only when the knees are straight- the more common seated hip abduction will build your outer thighs, but won’t do much for your butt. If you want to develop wider hips, this is the main exercise you would use to do that.
Glute cable kick-backs. This iso-lateral booty-building exercise is your best option for building the main part of the gluteus maximus once you reach a point where you can’t keep increasing the weight with the unilateral hip thrust.
Glute-ham raise. This movement works both the hamstrings and the gluteus maximus at various parts of the movement; the assistance from the hamstrings make this useful for post-exhausting the glutes after they’ve been fatigued by a compound movement. It can be done either on a glute-ham station, the seat of a cable machine, or on the floor with a partner holding your ankles. Keep your back as straight as possible; while it looks similar to a back extension, the movement here should come from flexing/extending the knees, not the back.
I prefer doing them on a machine because the contractions are more dynamic, whereas doing them on the floor, the movement can easily become eccentric-only as you push yourself up with your hands. If you do perform them on the floor, be careful to push off with your arms only as much as you need, and no more.
Unilateral lying leg curl. The leg curl is the main movement used for isolation the hamstrings. Whereas the glute-ham raise will be used to post-exhaust the glutes, the leg curl is going to be used to pre-fatigue the hamstrings before your main compound lifts. The lying leg curl is preferred over the seated leg curl because it produces superior levels of muscle activation and allows a slightly greater range of motion.
Six Optimized Glute Workouts
Now for the grand finale: the actual workouts. The following workouts incorporate everything I’ve presented to you so far- all of the exercises, advanced set and rep schemes, and principles of workout design. The whole shebang.
Like any body part-specific workouts, they’re very short- around fifteen to twenty minutes per workout. That means you can use them in one of two ways- as stand-alone workouts, or as parts of a longer workout. If you want to use them on their own, you can do them as written. If you wish to incorporate them into a larger workout, each workout has instructions on where to slot in other exercises to maintain optimal exercise ordering.
Before we get to the workouts, a couple last notes:
Rest periods. In most cases, you should take about two or three minutes’ rest between sets of isolation exercises and three to five minutes between sets of compound exercises. Exceptions, such as antagonist-agonist supersets and post-activation potentiation supersets, are noted when they come up. You can also take shorter rests if you’re alternating between two muscle groups- pushups and squats, for instance- or if you’re doing a unilateral exercise and alternating each leg.
Contrary to popular belief, the research suggests does not support the common prescription of shorter rest intervals for muscular hypertrophy. Rest periods don’t need to be timed; you can wait until you subjectively feel recovered, provided this doesn’t cause your workout to drag on forever.
Number of sets per workout. These workouts include prescriptions for how many sets of each exercise you should do, but you may need to adjust those numbers up or down to match them to your target weekly training volume. The default numbers are written with intermediate trainees, experiencing average stress levels, in mind, so they average about six sets of glute work per workout.
As an example, suppose you’re a novice trainee with average stress levels. You’re aiming for 14 sets a week and you train glutes every four days. You want eight sets per workout, so you’ll probably want to add an extra set of each exercise per workout. That’s right- because training frequency increases slightly faster than weekly training volume, your number of sets per body part per workout often goes down as you get more advanced.
There are six workouts here, which is more than anyone needs. Pick one or two of them to use as standalone workouts, or two to four of them to incorporate into your full-body workouts.
Glute Workout 1: Back Squat-Centric
A1) Unilateral lying leg curl, 3 cluster sets per leg at 85/70% 1RM (DUP)
A2) Bilateral leg extension, 3 sets at 65% 1RM
B1) Back squat with resistance bands, 3 sets at 85/70% 1RM (DUP)
B2) Pushups, 3 sets to mild fatigue
C1) Glute kickbacks, 3 sets per leg at 70% 1RM
For the leg curl, alternate between each leg- performing three reps on each leg (starting with the weaker leg) before resting ten seconds, then doing the other leg. The leg curl should be taken to within one rep of failure, as the purpose is to pre-exhaust the hamstrings.
The opposite is true for the leg extension- you want to warm up the quads without fatiguing them, so stop your leg extensions several reps short of failure. To benefit from the antagonist-agonist pairing, you should move quickly from the leg curl to the leg extension, taking most of your rest after the leg extension.
The pushups are just there to fill your time while your legs are recovering; you can leave them out if your upper body is already fatigued from doing something else.
Intermediate to advanced trainees should incorporate DUP as noted, alternating between the two intensities with each workout. Novice trainees should only use the first listed intensity- 85% in this case- on every workout.
Apply a reactive deload to the back squat if needed, as described in part 3 of this guide.
With the glute kickbacks, you can take just a minute or so of rest between sets since you’re alternating legs.
As a standalone workout, this should take about 20-30 minutes. If you want to add other movements to make it a full-body workout, add them between circuits B and C. Adding anything between A and B will remove the benefit of pre-fatiguing the hamstrings.
Glute Workout 2: Split Squat-Centric
A1) Bulgarian split squat, 4 sets per leg at 80% of 1RM
A2) Arnold press, 4 sets at 75% of 1RM
B1) Cable unilateral hip abduction, 2 sets per leg at 65% of 1RM
B2) Glute-ham raise, 2 sets at 70% of 1RM
Notes: As with the last workout, the Arnold press is there to make this workout more time-efficient, doesn’t need to be taken close to failure, and can be left out if you have other plans for your shoulders.
As a standalone workout, this will only take about twenty minutes, so it’s a good candidate for incorporating into other workouts. If you add more stuff, put at least some of it in between A and B to allow for more glute recovery time.
Glute Workout 3: Pull-Through-Centric
A) Unilateral lying leg curl, 2 cluster sets at 80% 1RM
B) Cable pull-through, 4 sets at 85/70% 1RM (DUP)
C) Unilateral hip thrust from deficit, 2 sets per leg at 75% 1RM
Notes: As with the first workout, the leg curl should be taken very close to failure, and novices should just train the pull-through at 85% intensity and ignore the daily undulating periodization.
This workout is designed to be quick and simple, and can be completed in fifteen minutes. If you want to add more exercises, you could add another circuit or two between B and C. But you might also add another exercise to A, B and C, alternating two exercises for unrelated body parts in much the same way that the previous workout alternated spit squats and Arnold presses.
Glute Workout 4: The One-Superset Glute Workout
A1) Paused back squat with resistance bands, 5 sets at 85% intensity
A2) Jump lunges, 5 sets to fatigue
Notes: On the back squat, pause for one second at the bottom of each rep, performing an isometric hold to further fatigue the glutes. Proceed immediately from the squat to the jump lunges with no rest. On the jump lunges, keep your stride fairly long and go deep.
This workout is short, but very intense. You’ll need longer than normal rests between circuits; rest about 4-5 minutes after each set of jump lunges. The whole thing should take 20 minutes. If you incorporate this into a longer workout, put this at the beginning, just after your warmup. But don’t add too much more exercise, even exercise that targets other body parts- seriously, this short workout will tire you out.
Glute Workout 5: Cable Machine Only
A1) Glute-ham raise, 3 sets at 70% 1RM
A2) Cable pull-through, 3 sets at 80% 1RM
B1) Cable unilateral hip abduction, 3 sets at 70% 1RM
B2) Cable glute kickback, 3 sets at 65% 1RM
Notes: The glute-ham raise should be paused 2-3 reps short of failure, while the pull-through, abduction and kickback should be taken to within one rep of failure. The glute-ham raise can be done on the seat of a cable machine.
Glute Workout 6: Bodyweight Only
A1) Bulgarian split squat, 4 sets per leg unweighted to fatigue
A2) Jump lunges, 4 sets to fatigue
B1) Glute-ham raise, 3 sets per side unweighted to fatigue
B2) Unilateral hip thrust, 3 sets per side unweighted to fatigue
Note: This workout is meant to be done at home or while traveling. If you don’t have the equipment/partner to do the glute-ham raise, leave it out and raise the other three exercises to five sets each.
There’s a tremendous amount of information packed into this guide, but I want to close it out by taking a step back from the finer details to look at the big picture.
First things first: if you take just one thing away from this guide, it should be the need to actually train your glutes, which many supposed glute programs don’t do very well. Many squat-focused glute programs actually do more to train your thighs than your glutes, and allow quadriceps fatigue in particular to become a limiting factor for glute training. The result is that the glutes grow a little bit, but actually look smaller by comparison to the muscles around them.
Second, I hope this guide has underscored the need to clearly define your goals. Think beyond “growing your glutes” and ask yourself: Do I want my butt to be leaner, or do I want a little extra padding? Do I want it to be wider, thicker from front to back or both? Do I want the extra growth to be apparent when viewed from the front? And how much do I care about functional strength vs hypertrophy? The answers to these questions will determine which exercises you use and how you order them, among other things.
Last but not least, the sections on training volume and frequency will be an eye-opener to many people. While most of us have a general sense that total training volume probably needs to go up as you get stronger, very few people understand that training frequency also goes up with training age, and in fact goes up faster than total training volume. More advanced trainees should be doing shorter glute workouts, but way more often than novices.
And that concludes my series on glute training. You now have everything you need to build yourself a glute program more advanced than what 95% of other coaches would design for you.
Got a friend who wants to build a better butt? Send this article to them. Love the article, but still want a trainer to design a program for you and be there to help you every step of the way? Sign up for my custom weight training coaching plan, or if you want nutrition advice as well, join my comprehensive fitness coaching program.