Category Archives: Glutes
Several years back, T Nation contributor Chad Waterbury wrote a cool article about what he believed to be the best exercises for each major muscle group. I really liked the idea because I’m always interested in how different coaches think, so I thought I’d take a stab at it myself.
However, a small catch – I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a ubiquitous “best” exercise, so instead I’ll simply share my favorites for each group.
Narrowing it down to one exercise though is like trying to pick the hottest girl out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. There are just so many good choices. In the end it boils down to basically my opinion, but I’ll also share the why behind my choices to give you a look into my rationale.
I’ve also shared a couple runner-ups in case you can’t do one due to injury, equipment limitations, etc.
When it comes to back development, I could’ve picked any heavy deadlift variation and felt good about my choice – but since I had to narrow it down to one, I chose the snatch grip rack pull from mid-shin height.
The wider grip puts significantly more stress on the upper back, traps, and rear delts, while pulling from the pins with the bar elevated a few inches off the floor allows for heavier loading.
I’m generally a huge proponent of full range of motion lifting and usually advocate increasing the range of motion before increasing the load; however, I’ll make an exception in this case for two reasons:
To that end, a snatch grip deadlift from the floor is really more like a conventional deadlift from a deficit, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, most people just don’t have the requisite hip mobility to do it safely without rounding their lower back something awful.
If you can, more power to you, but if I’m making a general recommendation for the majority, then elevating the bar a couple inches is a much better and safer option.
Deadlift variations aside, my runner-ups for back are chin-ups and inverted rows.
The overwhelming majority of my chest work comes from heavy pressing and push-ups, but if I had to single out the best exercise for chest development, it’d be ring flyes.
I thought long and hard about a good rationale. Sure, I could talk about how the scapulae is free to move, compared to where it’s pinned down during bench press variations, or the fact that it doubles as a hell of a core exercise, but we’re talking more about chest development here.
To that, I’d just ask that you try them for yourself – because I think after just one shot you’ll realize exactly where I’m coming from. These will fry your pecs like no other.
It’s a very advanced exercise though, so don’t just jump right into it without proper preparation or you’ll end up hurting and/or embarrassing yourself. Before you even attempt ring flyes, you should be able to do at least 25 ring push-ups first.
From there, begin with bent-arm flyes with your arms bent to approximately 90 degrees. That may seem easy, but it’s actually a big jump, so you may want to start on your knees. Don’t laugh; I’m dead serious.
Once you can manage those, progress to full flyes, making sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows to protect the shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
The video below shows all three variations in reverse order: full flyes, bent-arm flyes, and push-ups. Each of these exercises is great in its own right, so take your time and don’t rush the progression. Once you can knock out full flyes though, this makes for one hell of a mechanical drop-set.
If you don’t have access to rings, you can do something similar using Valslides or furniture sliders. These may be even harder due to the increased friction.
My runner-ups for chest are low incline dumbbell presses (both single and double arm) and weighted push-ups.
Let me preface this one by saying that I don’t do a whole lot of curls, and I have the results – or lack thereof – to show for it. Let’s just say that if I started selling tickets to the gun show, my water pistols would draw a smaller crowd than a WNBA game.
It’s not that I’m anti-curls by any means, it’s just that I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with chin-ups and find that when I try to add curls into the mix on top of all the chin-ups I do, my elbows quickly start to hate me.
That brings up an interesting point, though. Many people will tout chin-ups as the best biceps exercise going and tell you curls are a waste of time. To that I’d respectfully disagree. About two and a half years ago I ditched curls altogether and went on a steady diet consisting of approximately a shitload of chin-ups each week.
My lats grew a ton, as did my forearms, but my biceps stayed about the same size.
I’d even argue that if you’re feeling chin-ups a ton in your biceps, you probably aren’t doing them right. My goal is to feel them almost entirely in my upper back and lats – of course the biceps will be working, but I wouldn’t consider it to be a superior biceps exercise when done correctly.
Moral of the story: if you want big biceps, do curls. The majority of your workout should obviously be based around heavy compound movements (such as chin-ups, for example), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with tacking on a few sets of curls afterwards.
What type of curls you choose is up to you. In my mind, they’re all basically the same. I like barbell curls, incline dumbbell curls, and hammer curls.
As mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of doing tons of direct arm work. It’s not that I’m opposed to it or think it’s detrimental by any means, I just don’t enjoy doing it very much so I look for any excuse I can to skip it. Just being honest.
With that in mind, I generally let all the heavy pressing I’m doing for chest and shoulders take care of the triceps as well, but if I’m looking to really smoke the triceps, my number one go-to exercise is bodyweight triceps extensions using suspension straps.
I like this exercise because it also serves as a great anti-extension core exercise, and since I’m also not a big fan of doing tons of core work either, it allows me to kill two birds with one stone.
If you don’t have suspension straps, it’s not the end of the world and you can get a similar training effect using a bar in a power rack or Smith machine. However, the straps add a nice dimension to the exercise if you’ve got them.
When using a bar, the range of motion is limited because you’re forced to bring your forehead to the bar, much like traditional skullcrushers. With the straps though, you can extend your arms out further away from your body, which increases the demand on the core while also enhancing the stretch on the long head of the triceps and taking stress off the elbows.
It also allows you to rotate your hands as you move through the rep, which I find feels better on the elbows and increases the contraction in the triceps.
Be sure to keep your body straight and avoid piking at the hips. While this is ostensibly a triceps exercise, from a core standpoint, it should feel similar to an ab wheel rollout.
This one also lends itself very well to burnout sets at the end of the workout. Start with the straps adjusted lower and step forward as you start to fatigue. You’ll probably be cursing my name after that.
My runner-ups for triceps are close-grip bench presses and chain bench presses.
I love the overhead press and think it’s the best exercise going for building big shoulders, but it can be tricky for folks with shoulder and/or lower back issues.
If the overhead press doesn’t bother you, definitely do that.
If it does, the staggered stance landmine press can be a great joint-friendly alternative since it allows you to press on an angle and use a neutral grip.
I also really like this band pullapart variation that I picked up from Joe Defranco. It’s much harder than it looks, so don’t knock it until you try it.
This one was a toss-up between Bulgarian split squats and front squats, but in the end, Bulgarian split squats get the nod.
I know this won’t sit well with some of you – and I myself would’ve considered it blasphemy a few years ago before I really tried them – but the more I do them and use them with my athletes, the more I’m convinced that it’s a better way to load the legs for most people.
We’re consistently seeing athletes do Bulgarian split squats with 70-90% of the loads they can front squat, and sometimes more. Here’s a video of a college hockey player doing Bulgarian split squats with 235 pounds for 5 reps like it’s an empty bar.
As a point of reference, he back squats 300 for 5. I think it’s clear the legs are getting more loading in the Bulgarian split squat.
Furthermore, with the front squat, the limiting factor is usually the upper back, whereas with Bulgarian split squats you’re able to hone in more directly on the legs. What’s more, since you aren’t loading the spine as heavily, it doesn’t take as long to recover, meaning you can do them more frequently, which could potentially lead to greater gains.
The big caveat is that you have to take the time up front to get good at Bulgarian split squats before they’re a viable size and strength builder, but that’s true of any exercise. Truth be told, most people get good at Bulgarian split squats much faster than they become good squatters.
If you have a good build for squatting and can squat well, it’s an absolutely phenomenal quad exercise, but if you aren’t built for it, well, you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle. It’s easier to target the quads in a Bulgarian split squat regardless of your anthropometry, making it a good choice when I have to choose one exercise to fit everyone.
I’m often asked if I think you could build absolutely massive quads using Bulgarian split squats; the kind of size you see from elite bodybuilders and Olympic lifters. I’m honestly not sure because I’ve never known anyone to do it, so at this point it’s mere conjecture.
My hunch though is that huge guys may not do as well with it – at least initially – because they tend to struggle more with balance and coordination, so the transition may take longer and it may not end up being the best choice. Again, I’m not sure though because I don’t know many huge guys that use them.
As for Olympic lifters, I think their massive legs are more a result of their loading parameters than their exercise selection. If they did Bulgarian split squats extremely heavy on a daily basis like they do their squats, I bet their legs would be just as big, if not bigger.
For the average-sized guy reading this article though, I think Bulgarian split squats are an awesome choice for building up the quads. Even if you think I’m completely off base, at least give them an honest try before calling for my head. I think you might be singing a different tune once you do.
My runner-ups are front squats and reverse sled drags.
While quads were my toughest choice, hamstrings may be my easiest. It’s hard to argue against RDLs.
The biggest drawback of RDLs is that they can be tough on the lower back. If that’s the case, try doing them with a trap bar, or if that’s not possible, from a dead stop in the power rack.
You can also try doing them for higher reps at the end of your workout so you don’t need as much weight, which even with lighter loads serves as one hell of a brutal finishing exercise.
I make no bones about it; glutes are my favorite body part. As such, I feel they warrant their own section.
You may feel the glutes get more than enough work from your quad and hamstring exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but I believe that if you aren’t doing specific glute exercises like bridges and hip thrusts, you’re leaving a lot on the table as far as glute development is concerned.
My personal favorite is single-leg barbell hip thrusts.
I like the single-leg version because even though the loads pale in comparison to what you can handle in the bilateral version, I feel an even bigger contraction in my glutes when I do them, all without feeling any stress in the lower back.
Moreover, because the loads are lighter, it’s more comfortable on the hips and you don’t have to bother with loading and unloading such a heavy bar.
The bodyweight-only version is a great exercise in its own right, so start there and add weight slowly as you improve.
My runner-up is the single-leg shoulder and foot elevated hip lift. It can be tricky to add weight to these, so if you’re looking for a way to make them tougher, try using “1.5” reps, like this:
If these two exercises don’t have your booty begging for mercy, I don’t know what to tell you.
I’ve never been able to crack the code to get my calves to grow much. I’ve tried a slew of different exercises and techniques, but to no avail.
I think the next thing I’ll try is getting some new parents.
(Don’t worry mom, I’m totally kidding.)
Seriously though, don’t go to a guy with puny calves for advice on how to get huge calves.
That rules me out.
And I’m Done
These are some of my favorites. Give some of them a try if you aren’t already and see how you like them.
I believe in rotating exercises from time to time though, so I’m always on the market for new choices to keep in the ol’ toolbox. So I now turn it over to you. What are some of your favorites?
I wrote an article called Glutes Gone Wild in which I shared a bunch of exercises to help you build a butt you can be proud of without beating up your lower back and knees in the process.
This article picks up right where that one left off, giving you eight more variations to bolster your booty-building arsenal. Think of it as one article for each cheek.
1. Rack Romanian Deadlifts
Properly performed Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are one of my all-time favorite exercises for developing the glutes and hamstrings. Trouble is, far too often they’re butchered worse than a Christmas ham.
As a small tangent, let me first make it clear that a RDL is not a “stiff-legged deadlift.”
In a stiff-legged deadlift, you keep the knees locked out and bend forward like you’re trying to touch your toes. However, if you do the exercise in this fashion – especially under heavy load – you’re asking for trouble.
Maybe it’s because I’ve gone through so many serious back problems, but I cringe every time I see someone doing stiff-legged deadlifts and wish they’d be ditched in favor of the RDL – which is far safer for the lower back, not to mention a superior glute exercise.
The RDL is a hip hinge where you maintain a slight bend in your knees while pushing your butt back as far as you can.
Lower down only as far as you can go and still maintain a flat back. Go too low and you risk hurting your lower back. By the same token, it’s easy to let your ego get the best of you as the weight gets heavier and you start cutting more and more reps, which you also don’t want.
With that in mind, I’ve found it can be extremely helpful to do your RDLs in the power rack with the pins set at the proper depth. This way you know just how low to go and don’t have to worry about it throughout your set. Think of it like using a box for a depth gauge with squats.
Set the pins at a level that allows you to keep good spinal positioning. When in doubt, or if you’re in between pins, err on the side of the higher setting. You can always lower it as your flexibility improves.
Another thing I like about doing them in the rack is that it forces you to control the eccentric portion of the rep to avoid bouncing the bar off the pins. Place it down gently, pause for a second, and come back up.
With regular RDLs, it’s easy to let your form deteriorate as the set goes on and start relying on momentum to help move the weight, but starting each rep from a dead stop reflexively teaches you to stay tight throughout, which protects the lower back.
You should initially reduce the weight as you adjust to the new technique, but it shouldn’t take long before you’re back up to using just as much weight as you could with regular RDLs – only now you’ll be feeling them in all the right places, keeping yourself healthy, and using a full range of motion on every rep.
2. Landmine Single-Leg RDLs
I’ve been a bit slow to come around to single-leg RDLs, which is odd because it seems like an exercise that’d be right up my alley given that I love RDLs, single-leg work, and virtually anything geared towards building up the caboose.
For some reason though, I’ve always struggled with the balancing aspect to the point that I don’t feel like I’m working my glutes and hamstrings to their full capacity. It’s gotten significantly better with practice, but I’m still not entirely comfortable with them.
If you find yourself in a similar boat, landmine single-leg RDLs may be the answer. Stand on your left leg facing the landmine unit with the bar in your right hand about an inch in front of your right thigh. Keeping a flat back, hinge at the hips as you reach your right leg straight back behind you while lowering your right arm towards the floor.
It should look like this:
When loading with dumbbells or a barbell, there’s a strong tendency to reach your arms too far out in front of you as you lower down, which pitches you forward and makes it tricky to keep your weight back on the heel of the working leg where you want it, thereby putting more strain on the lower back.
You don’t have to worry about that issue with the landmine because the bar travels on a fixed arc, so it automatically puts you in the correct position every rep and lets you get in a good rhythm.
It also allows you to reap the benefits of offset contralateral loading with far greater loading potential than holding a single heavy dumbbell. I do like holding a dumbbell in the opposite hand of the leg being worked, but I find that once I get over 50-60 pounds, it becomes very awkward to stabilize. With the landmine, I’m able to load it up as heavy as I can handle without any issues.
You can also set up perpendicular to the landmine that – due to the arc of the barbell – creates a “cross-body” reaching effect. Set up with the bar directly in front of “the goods,” just to the side of the working leg so that when you reach the floor, it’s directly in front of the foot.
Confused? This video should help clarify.
In the first version, the motion occurs almost entirely in the sagittal plane (although admittedly it requires stabilization in the frontal and transverse planes), but here you’re adding in a transverse plane component, which increases glute recruitment by forcing the hip external rotators to fire harder.
I find this version even easier to balance than the one where you’re facing the landmine, but I don’t like the idea of loading it up heavy once you introduce the rotational component. I’d probably recommend using this variation with lighter loads to familiarize yourself with the movement and then transition to the other way when you’re ready to start crushing some weight.
Play around with both ways and see what feels best to you.
Another bonus to using the landmine is that since you’re holding onto the fat end of the barbell, it’s great for building grip strength. The downside to that though is that as you start get stronger, you may find that your grip becomes the limiting factor. If that’s the case, just use straps.
Lastly, if you don’t have a specific landmine unit to secure the barbell, place it in a corner with a towel over the tip (so you don’t scuff up the walls and draw the ire of the gym staff) and place a heavy dumbbell on top to keep it from shifting around. Problem solved.
3. Offset Single-Leg Glute Bridge
I like single-leg barbell glute bridges more than bilateral barbell glute bridges because despite the load being significantly lighter, I feel an even bigger contraction in my glutes when I do them.
Moreover, because the load is a lot lighter, it’s also much more comfortable on the neck and hips, and there’s a lot less of a tendency to slide back on the floor like there is with heavy bilateral glute bridges. Plus, you don’t have to bother with loading and unloading a heavy-ass barbell at the end of your workout.
To make the single leg version even more intense, try offsetting the load by adding slightly more weight on the ipsilateral side (i.e. the side of the working leg) like so:
It won’t take much weight at all to notice a huge difference. As a point of reference, if you’re doing anywhere under 135 pounds of total load, a 10 pound differential will be about all you can handle. Anything over that and a 20-25 pound differential will be more than enough. Trust me, the contraction from these is insane.
To counteract the additional loading, you’ll need to position yourself a few inches closer to the more heavily weighted side to stabilize the bar on your hips. It might seem that the bar shifting and offset loading would counteract each other, but give it a try. It just feels different and the glutes fire harder.
Start the set by bridging up on both legs and getting yourself situated before removing the other foot from the picture, as that seems to help the set go more smoothly than just starting the set on one leg.
The downside to this one is after you finish one side, you have to physically get out from underneath the bar and face the other direction before doing the other side. Boo hoo. As mildly annoying as that might seem (suck it up), I think you’ll find that after a hard set your glutes will need the break anyway.
I also experimented with offsetting the load on the contralateral side and played around with offset loading for bilateral glute bridges as well as bilateral and unilateral hip thrusts, but I didn’t have as much luck with any of those. They sounded good in theory but didn’t pan out in reality.
4. Single-Leg Hip Thrusts
Single-leg hip thrusts are quickly becoming one of my favorite glute exercises. I actually like the bodyweight version and for many people, that’ll be sufficient for quite a while. Eventually though, bodyweight will no longer be challenging and you’ll need to add some load.
At first, the best way to add weight seems to be draping chains or weighted vests on your lap, but this can become cumbersome after about 40-50 pounds, so you’ll probably find that you’ll need to use a barbell.
It’s tough to balance the barbell at first though, so start by bridging up on two legs and lowering down on one. Keep the eccentrics on the slow side, and make sure you’re really controlling the weight.
Once you feel stable with that, you can then try the full single-leg version. Again, it’s useful to use slow eccentrics in the beginning to make sure you’re controlling the weight, and it also helps with learning how to stabilize the hips and pelvis so the bar doesn’t tip. Remember, using slower eccentrics will require you to use substantially less weight than you think you might be ready for, so plan accordingly.
The last step would be to do the exercise normally – still under control, but just not so slowly.
As with any bridging or thrusting variation, a good rule is that you should always be able to squeeze and hold the contraction at the top for a one-second pause. If you can’t, the weight is too heavy. Pausing the reps at the top also helps to ensure that you’re using your glutes and not just hyperextending from the lumbar spine.
That’s an important point to note. If you’re feeling this exercise in your back, you’re not doing it right and you probably need to lighten the load or slow down the movement (or both) and focus on doing it correctly. I find that for me, the unilateral version is more back-friendly than the bilateral version (probably just because of the lighter loads), but the point still applies.
Happy thrusting my friends.
5. Single-Leg Hip Thrust/Leg Curl Combo
I got the idea for this one from one of my readers, Matt, after writing Leg Curls 2.0. Matt wrote to me suggesting that I try a hip thrust combined with a Valslide leg curl.
So basically, it’d be a hip thrust where you start with your legs extended and slide them in as you thrust up. It seemed like a great idea, so I dropped what I was doing, got out my Valslides, and tried them leaning against my couch. While it’s a cool idea, I found it very awkward to perform a simultaneous hip thrust and leg curl without dipping the hips, and it just didn’t quite feel right.
Of course, maybe it was just too hard for me.
That being said, it got my wheels turning and I kept playing around with it and found that combining a single-leg hip thrust with an eccentric leg curl works really well. As in, it absolutely smokes the glutes and hamstrings.
Perform a single-leg hip thrust until your torso is parallel to the floor and you have a straight line going from your knee to your shoulder (the tibia will be about perpendicular to the floor). From there, maintain that line (which means you have to keep the glutes contracted) while you slide your leg out to full extension. Tap your butt down, return your foot to the starting position, and repeat. The key is to control the eccentric.
Here’s what it looks like in action.
I also tried it bilaterally, and while it’s okay, I like the unilateral version much better. You can also put a light chain across your waist to increase the difficulty if need be.
Beyond just the exercise though, this is a great example of respectful dialogue leading to something good. I appreciate that Matt sent me a message, and I ended up learning something useful from it, and now you will, too. I appreciate all your comments (well, most of them anyway) and please never hesitate to give me feedback as I’m always down to learn something new.
And I’m Out
That’s probably a good place to end. By now you’ve got more than enough artillery to build a praiseworthy posterior, but before you can build up your butt, you’ve got to get off your butt and get into the gym. I can’t do that part for you.