Getting the Maximum from Your Maximus Training
Unlike muscles like the biceps, the glutes are nearly impossible to isolate from their adjacent muscle groups. When you train your quads or hamstrings, for instance, your glutes are commonly called into the equation. In fact, even without glute-specific training, you may not realize that this area is already fairly strong.
Since gluteal development is first and foremost a byproduct of performing exercises for the quadriceps and hamstrings, training legs consistently and correctly should allow you to sculpt great glutes without ever giving them a second thought. In fact, some of our best exercise choices for glutes are likely already part of your leg workouts. Yet you can adjust exercise performance to maximize gluteal development, as well as add a few real glute burners for more direct isolation work.
Timothy Moore, PhD, CSCS, former strength coach for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) basketball team and fitness editor at SHAPE magazine, says that the best approach to gluteal training integrates multi- and single-joint exercises. "An isolation-type movement like the standing cable kickback minimizes the involvement of assisting muscles and allows you to focus on the glutes," he says. "But for gaining mass - particularly if you have limited time in the gym - you need to perform compound exercises like the squat and leg press."
Why are the glutes taxed by what are ostensibly quadriceps exercises? Straightening your legs from a bent-knee position involves hip extension, the primary function of the glutes. Translated, extension refers to two opposing bodyparts moving apart from each other at a joint. Your torso and upper legs, which meet at the hip joint, move apart as you explode out of the hole on a squat, drive up the carriage of a leg-press machine or push off your lead foot after lunging forward. In softball, hip extension occurs anytime a catcher springs from a crouch position to throw out a base runner. If you still can't picture it, stand up; you just performed hip extension.
In the resistance-training examples above, the torso remains stationary and the legs do all the work. Hip extension also occurs, however, when your legs stay put but your torso moves in a way that increases the angle between it and the quadriceps. Next time you do a stiff-legged deadlift, good morning or back extension, concentrate on where you feel the movement as you raise your torso back to the start position. Your low back, hamstrings and abs will contract and pull, but your glutes should do the lion's share of the work.
In addition to such compound movements, several exercises work the glutes in near isolation. The aforementioned cable kickback is one example; lying prone on an elevated bench and raising your straight legs above the plane of your torso is another. You won't be able to use much weight, but keeping your knees fixed will mitigate the involvement of your quads and hamstrings and force your glutes and low back to perform most of the work.
Glutes also perform leg abduction, the act of raising your leg out to the side. (Picture a hockey goalie side-stepping to block a puck.) To mimic that movement, try the one-legged cable lateral (side) raise movement. Glutes also assist the hamstrings in many actions.
Given that compound leg exercises such as the squat and leg press work the glutes so effectively, can their performance be adjusted to maximize glute recruitment? Theoretically, increasing the range of motion for hip extension should increase the recruitment and stimulation of the gluteal muscle fibers. On some leg-press and hack-squat machines, placing your feet higher on the platform increases hip flexion by bringing your knees closer to your chest on the descent, which should increase hip extension slightly as you press the carriage sled back up. On the leg press, however, you don't want to come down so far that your pelvis tilts forward, which would place your low back in a vulnerable position. How low is too low? Stop when you start to feel a pull in your low back.
You can maximize gluteal stimulation during the squat by adopting a wide stance (shoulder-width or wider), says David McWhorter, PhD, an assistant professor in the anatomy department at The University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine (Kansas City). "I know empirically that if I spread my legs far apart, there's more gluteal involvement," says McWhorter, a former competitive bodybuilder. "From a wide stance, you increase hip extension and decrease knee extension, so the emphasis shifts somewhat from the quads to the glutes."