Are You Actually Using Your Glutes? Here's How to Tell — and How to Activate ’Em

Are You Actually Using Your Glutes? Here's How to Tell — and How to Activate ’Em

Stronger, bigger butts are in, which may be why you’ve been hitting the squats or trying to master the bridge exercise. But if you’re doing the right exercises and still not feeling the burn in your bum, it could mean you’re not activating your glutes.

“It is hard for many people to activate their glutes because they have a sedentary lifestyle or sit down all day for work,” explains Jim White, an exercise physiologist, registered dietitian, and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. Not training heavy enough or eating enough to build muscle can also contribute to a lack of glute activation, he adds.

Essentially it’s a case of “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

“These muscles have become latent, or sleepy, and not used to engaging” if you’re not using them regularly, says Theresa Marko, PT, DPT, MS, a doctor of physical therapy and owner of Marko Physical Therapy in New York City. That can lead to big problems, she warns.

When glute activation isn’t happening, two other muscle groups take on the brunt of the work: your hamstrings and your lumbar paraspinal muscles, which help keep your spine erect. This can lead to hamstring cramps and back pain.

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How Do You Activate Your Glutes?

woman doing kettlebell squat looking in mirror | glute activation

Mostly it comes down to feeling your glutes squeeze during an exercise. To do that during big, compound movements like squats and deadlifts, you’ll need to warm up your glutes and make sure they’re firing properly on lighter exercises first.

That can mean backing way off on how much weight you’re using and how many reps you’re performing because, as Marko explains, your hamstrings and back muscles are so used to taking over. Easier and lighter exercises make sure “the sleepy glute muscles will actually turn on.” Once they’re turned on, you can isolate them.

There are a couple of cues you can use to make sure your glutes are “turning on.” Marko says thinking of squeezing your glutes is ultimately the best cue out there. But you can also try:

  • Watching yourself in the mirror to make sure you can see this squeeze
  • Tapping your glutes to cue them when they’re supposed to fire

You may have heard that pushing through your heel on certain exercises can help you activate or recruit your glute muscles. Marko says that’s true once you have experience firing your glutes. Those with weak glutes may struggle with this cue because they “will often overuse hamstrings,” she explains.

 

5 Exercises to Activate Your Glutes

You still need to remember to squeeze those glutes, but these exercises are some of the best for glute activation:

1. Donkey kick

  • Start in a table position with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
  • Engage your right glute before lifting your right leg off of the ground, keeping the 90-degree angle in your knee.
  • Lift your right leg as far as you can without arching your back.
  • Hold the top position for a couple of seconds, keeping your glute engaged.
  • Slowly lower your right leg back to the starting position and repeat with your left leg.
  • Make sure you’re not arching your back while doing this exercise. Glute activation is what matters here, not how high in the air you can get your leg.

Tip: This is one exercise that can easily be scaled up with a resistance band once you build strength.

2. Bird dog

  • Start in a table position with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
  • Engage your core and your right glute as you lift your right leg and left arm off the floor.
  • Bring them up until they’re extended straight and in line with your back.
  • Hold this position for a couple of seconds before returning your arm and leg to their starting position.
  • Repeat with your left leg and your right arm.

Tip: Make sure to hold tension in your glute at the top of the movement. If you stop squeezing your glute, other muscles will have to work to keep your leg in the air.

3. Prone leg extension

  • Start by lying on your stomach. You can fold your arms and use them as a pillow if it’s more comfortable.
  • Squeeze your glutes and slowly lift your legs off the floor a couple of inches while keeping your knees straight.
  • Hold the top position while squeezing your glutes for a couple of seconds before returning your legs to the floor.

4. Bridge

glute bridge demonstration | glute activation

  • Start by lying down on the floor with your hands at your sides.
  • Bend your knees and pull your feet toward your butt until they’re directly underneath your knees.
  • Focus on squeezing your glutes to pull your back and glutes off the floor.
  • Lift with your glutes until your body is in a straight line from your chest to your knees.
  • Hold this position for a couple of seconds while squeezing your glutes.
  • Using your glutes to support your weight, slowly lower yourself to the floor.

5. Goblet squat

goblet squat demonstration | glute activation

  • Stand with your feet hip to shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold a light weight in both hands right in front of your chest.
  • Shift your weight back into your glutes as you bend your knees and push your hips back and sit down into a squat. Don’t go past 90 degrees with your knees.
  • Keep the tension in your glutes at the bottom of the movement, and use that tension from your glutes to stand back up to the starting position.

Tip: If you have “sleepy” glutes, do several of the other exercises before tackling goblet squats. Since this one “works all the major muscle groups of the lower body,” White says, your stronger muscles may take over if your glutes aren’t warmed up.

About

Linnea Zielinski is a writer specializing in nutrition, wellness, food, and fitness. She was previously the site director at Eat This, Not That! and her work has appeared on MSN, The Huffington Post, Yahoo Health, Refinery29, and Serious Eats. She prefers weight lifting to cardio, swears by CBD massages and dry shampoo, and blogs about living a drama-free life in her spare time.