How to Actually Activate your Glutes (What the Science Says!)

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Introduction

In this post recently, I looked at the research surrounding the practice of “glute activation” prior to weight training and its overall ineffectiveness. It probably doesn’t hurt but it doesn’t seem to help, so it’s basically a waste of time. What can you do instead? Here are a few science-backed options:

What is your goal?

First of all, I think it is important to clarify what you’re looking for by doing these exercises.

Do you feel your glutes working in the lifts you’re doing and you just want to work them more? Or are you dealing with a bad case of gluteal amnesia and are looking to rebuild that mind-muscle connection?

Gluteal Amnesia

Gluteal amnesia is the more official term for dead/sleepy glute syndrome. Amnesia means “loss of memory” and you’ve literally lost your brain’s memory of how to use your glute muscles.

In today’s sedentary society, this is a pretty common problem!

Even with a few years of lifting weights under your belt, you may not realize you aren’t actually using your glutes and other muscles are compensating.

If you really have difficulty with that mind-muscle connection in firing your glutes, you really shouldn’t be doing any serious weight training involving your glutes until you’ve fixed this.

This can really lead to significant back, hip, and knee pain and eventually true injury.

If you’re looking for ways to rebuild your glute mind-muscle connection, check out this post here.

If you have a solid ability to contract your glutes on command, read on:

Posterior Pelvic Tilt

So “glute activation exercises” before your workout don’t help, but you’re looking to build that booty, then what can help?

Many studies have shown that focusing on a posterior pelvic tilt “cue” while lifting is the way to go.

This “cue” means that as you are executing the range of motion in the lift, you are focusing on contracting your glutes to pull your pelvis into more of a posterior pelvic tilt.

In some cases, like hip thrusts and cable kick backs, you can safely flex your core and actually tilt your pelvis posteriorly. Remember to focus on squeezing your glutes to do this.

In other cases, like squats and deadlifts, it’s unsafe to actually flex your core forward and tilt your pelvis back. In these exercises, you want to focus on keeping your back and pelvis neutral but tending towards posteriorly. This works especially well at the top of the rep.

How to actually activate your glutes and maximize work of glutes while weight lifting - according to science - at Belle of the Barbell showing posterior pelvic tilt

Here are a couple of interesting studies on the subject:

Contreras, 2016:

This study measured activation of the glute max by EMG in three different barbell hip thrust variations.

They found that EMG activation of the glute maximus was significantly higher in the variation where posterior pelvic tilt was maintained throughout the entire movement.

Quieroz, 2010:

This study had the participants perform a pilates hip extension (essentially a cable kick-back) with 4 different body positions.

These positions ranged from torso flexion with posterior pelvic tilt all the way through to torso extension with anterior pelvic tilt.

They then measured muscle activation of various abdominal and back (including glute) muscles by EMG.

Ultimately, they found that position A, torso flexion with posterior pelvic tilt activated the glute maximus by almost three times as much!

Kim, 2014 and Chance-Larsen, 2010

Similarly, this study looked only at the effects of drawing the anterior abs in during movement and found a significant increase in glute max activity.

Posterior Pelvic Tilt Cue Tips:

So as you are doing your glute isolation lifts, think about pulling your pelvis into a posterior tilt along with abdominal contraction (torso flexion).

I’ve been trying this out and finding I get SIGNIFICANTLY more glute burn using this position for hip thrusts and cable kickbacks.

OF NOTE: BE CAREFUL DOING THIS FOR HEAVY BACK-FOCUSED LIFTS, ESPECIALLY SQUATS AND DEADLIFTS.

Any exercise where a significant amount of strain is placed on your lower back, MAKE SURE your lower back is in a completely neutral position – not flexed. Be smart and be safe.

Apply it in this case by keeping a neutral spine and pelvis but thinking about tending towards the posterior tilt more than anterior.

Full Posterior Pelvic TiltNeutral Back with Posterior Emphasis
Hip thrusts
Cable kick-backs
Glute bridges
Split squats
Step ups
Lunges
Deadlifts
Squats
Good mornings

Health Note on Posterior Pelvic Tilt

While this hip position works well for maximizing the use of your glutes during your workout, you don’t want to spend the majority of your day in this position.

When sitting or standing outside of your workout, be sure to have a neutral pelvis and neutral spine for as much time as possible.

Hip Abduction

Another modification to your lifts that has been shown to increase gluteal activation is partial hip abduction.

Your glute max is both a hip extender and a hip abductor (and minorly an external rotator!).

So it would only make sense that positioning your self to allow the glutes to pull your legs apart slightly during the movement would help maximize their contribution.

Kang, 2016

This was a great study that looked at glute max activity via EMG during bridge exercise with legs at 0°, 15°, and 30° angles of hip abduction.

It showed in both men and women that the glute max had the highest activity at 30° of hip abduction.

It also showed that pelvis was tilted most posteriorly at 30° of hip abduction.

How to actually activate your glutes and maximize work of glutes while weight lifting - according to science - at Belle of the Barbell showing woman abducting legs 0, 15, 30 degrees

So double-win for that glute max!

One great way to work your glutes to emphasize the hip abduction component is to use a hip band/booty band/mini resistance band around your lower thighs.

I personally have this band and it works fantastically. I only recommend it because it was one of the cheapest ones and it does it’s job perfectly going on more than a year now.

Any similar one should work just as well but I do recommend using at least some kind of similar hip band.

I always feel my glutes working much harder when I use it, likely for the reason cited above.

Conclusion

We’re in luck! Although “glute activation” warm up exercises don’t work, there are many other things we can do to actually activate our glutes – as shown by science. Focus on that posterior pelvic tilt, ab contraction, and a small amount of hip abduction and your glutes will be on fire!

Sources

  1. Chance-Larsen, K., Littlewood, C., & Garth, A. (2010). Prone hip extension with lower abdominal hollowing improves the relative timing of gluteus maximus activation in relation to biceps femoris. Manual therapy, 15(1), 61-5.
  2. Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A.D., Schoenfeld, B.J., Beardsley, C., & Cronin, J. (2016). A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyography Amplitude for the Barbell, Band, and American Hip Thrust Variations. Journal of applied biomechanics, 32(3), 254-60.
  3. Kang, S.Y., Choung, S.D., & Jeon, H.S. (2016). Modifying the hip abduction angle during bridging exercise can facilitate gluteus maximus activity. Manual therapy, 22, 211-5.
  4. Kim, T.W., & Kim, Y.W. (2015). Effects of abdominal drawing-in during prone hip extension on the muscle activities of the hamstring, gluteus maximus, and lumbar erector spinae in subjects with lumbar hyperlordosis. Journal of physical therapy science, 27(2), 383-6.
  5. Queiroz, B.C., Cagliari, M.F., Amorim, C.F., & Sacco, I.C. (2010). Muscle activation during four Pilates core stability exercises in quadruped position. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 91(1), 86-92.
How to actually activate your glutes and maximize work of glutes while weight lifting - according to science - at Belle of the Barbell showing posterior pelvic tilt
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