Personal Training Blog
Getting into the gluteals
Recently we asked the following question in an online poll::
"Presuming your client could complete each of these lifts well and all at the same weight / load, which is the best compound exercise to strengthen the gluteals?
From 116 votes we got these results:
Clarifying the criteria
To get to a potential answer we need to check the criteria we're applying.
Firstly we need to eliminate any exercise that could be construed to be an isolation exercise as the question asks 'the best COMPOUND exercise to...' So, I'm going to ignore Prone Swiss Ball Hip Extension (heel lifts) and Supine Floor Hip Extensions (hips to neutral).
Secondly we need to normalise the loading approach as we have stated in our question that each lift will be done at the 'SAME LOAD'. So let's say all of these lifts are at 60kg (or 132lbs).
Thirdly we have already stated in the question posed that this is 'PRESUMING YOUR CLIENT COULD COMPLETE EACH OF THESE LIFTS WELL''.
Now we have a question we can work with.
Gluteal loading - the biomechanics
From here the greatest load in the gluteals will be found by working out which exercise gives the gluteals the longest moment arm - that is the distance between the hip joint (around which the gluteals will do the most work), and the line of force (which is where the load is acting through the centre of mass).
A moment arm that is the longest will put the most load through the joint axis and therefore load the muscles of that joint the most - in this case the joint is the hip and the muscles are the gluteals. Let's find the longest moment arm around the hip then.
Here's a look at each of the exercises we have proposed and a few we didn't but I thought I'd put in just in case you were thinking about them too.
So, I'm going to eliminate the swiss ball squat because not only has it got a strange line of force and a tiny (if any) moment arm for the gluteals, but it would also be deadly on the knees with 60kg due to the line of force. Generally, this swiss ball exercise is done very poorly (using the technique as in the picture above) in clubs. Other than conditioning the leg muscles to help someone dive backward I'm yet to find a valid use for it done this way.
The exercise with the largest moment arm for the gluteals in our diagrams is the dead lift.
Given the dead lift is tricky to teach and it requires great extensor chain strength and a linking of the pull and squat patterns one might use the back squat (a close second) instead. But, from a purely biomechanical perspective - dead lifts done correctly wins the bun blaster award.
Buns of steel
It upsets me a little (I'm very sensitive - ask anyone) when I attend fitness clubs at the moment because I see various strategies for working the glutes many of which are mis-guided or have no merit at all (that is, they are fads).
There are a huge variety of low load, low stability, open chain, neuromechanically bizzare exercises being given to clients by trainers with the promise of buns of steel. Clients wilfully seem to be taking part in this charade because they know no better - but personal trainers should.
To analyse any exercise you simply need to know a bit about biomechanics, some functional anatomy, understand the neuro-mechanical demands (ie how hard is this for the nervous system to control), and most importantly understand the clients current capabilities and any barriers to the movement so you can prepare the client well for the movement and then progress / regress the exercise selection accordingly.
At all times though (where injury isn't present in the various structures involved), for the gluteals, you should be aiming to maximise loading in stable conditions. This is because the glutes are functionally powerful hip extensors, particularly in closed-chain exercises. Get the knee alignment right throughout and you'll generally get gluteus medius and minimus active as synergists and stabilisers at various stages of the squat movement. We need to remember the glutes have pennate fibres (allowing greater cross-sectional area), have larger motor units (a lower number of nerves per square inch/cm), are designed to be powerful repeatedly (they are red muscles not white) and therefore are most suited to repeated and significant loading.
What seems to be drawing us away from the challenge of loading them properly is the requirement for the client to control the lumbar and pelvis during the closed chain movement. So we seem to be working around that or just guessing a bit and avoiding the issue altogether.
If a client doesn't control that area well then it's a very strong indicator that conditioning progressively through this movement should harbour the greatest benefit. Rather than avoid the movement we should simply be targeting the movement properly through active mobilisation and movement progression. Afterall, until we get the movement working for us we will sruggle to get clients the buns of steel they sometimes want.
For those of you reading this blog who are going out tomorrow to give your clients buns of steel - can I suggest reviewing what you're already doing with them with some science in mind. Fundamentally a client's buns will change once you load them properly. To load them you need to condition the movement and then load the movement. The movements of most value are closed chain squat patterns of various types.
Lunging also has benefits for the gluteals but the qualifier is the trunk must get to a point where it is nearing the line of the knee and generally the knee must move over the toe at some time within the lunge you have prescribed. Otherwise, there is simply no moment arm around the hip meaning the gluteals won't recieve any loading. In the step out and step back lunge shown on the left there is little gluteal loading.
I used to use static lunges (with the torso forward) and then later walking lunges. Most of what I'm seeing in clubs now is step out and back lunges or lateral lunging. Both have their merits in the right situations but neither will significantly load the gluteals.
Soon there will be some site updates including some content around movement mechanics and motor learning. For those of you who found this blog useful you might like to drop back in a week or so and search 'movement mechanics'.
Until next time, happy training!
P.S. This just in from Wendy from Victoria, Australia
From: Wendy Snowball
Sent: Wednesday, 20 June 2012 6:38 p.m.
Subject: Re: Which exercise is best for developing the gluteals?
You haven't mentioned 1 legged squats?? I feel this is one damn good glute exercise, what do you think??
Yes, it certainly can be.
The key for any squat pattern based on the biomechanics (1 legged or two) is to get the moment arm around the hip longer – that is to have the body weight / torso forward. This also conditions the extensor chain which can be notoriously weak.
One reason you also get a higher glute activity with one legged work is the lateral sling mechanism where quadratus lumborum (leg up side) and glute medius and minimus coupled with adductor (planted leg side) are used to keep the pelvis level and fixed in the frontal and transverse plane as well as to fixate the hip in those planes whilst glut maximus causes extension in the sagital plane.
Single legged squats are a big bang exercise on the glutes but quite advanced – but you’re right – they have merit. Just make sure the client can stabilise correctly, doesn’t have pre-existing movement dysfunction in that sling and you’re away!
Thanks so much for the reminder – sorry I missed it in the poll and analysis but hopefully everyone will get the drift.
Steven Gourley – Site Director