Most people, even elite athletes, rarely activate glutes. As a result, people never take full advantage of these tremendously powerful muscles that should be a big part of everyday movement. Instead, we spend most of our time sitting on our glutes, which causes the muscles opposite them—the hip flexors—to become tight and inactive. Deactivated glutes commonly lead to low-back problems, knee pain, groin strain, and other posture-related ailments and injuries. It’s as if someone flipped a circuit breaker, cutting off power to the glutes.
We know how bad sitting is for our muscles. “Your glutes become stretched and inactive, making them difficult to connect to when trying to perform weight-bearing exercises,” says performance specialist Rachel MacPherson, CPT. “The mind-muscle connection is vital for lifting, but that’s only part of the problem when your glutes get sleepy. If you aren’t activating your glutes, you may be compensating with other muscles, resulting in muscular imbalances and potential pain or injury, especially in your back.”
To keep that communication firing on all cylinders, make a concerted effort to move more throughout the day. “Practice getting up and squeezing your glutes every hour, take the stairs, and walk up hills to contract your glutes and connect with them during the day, especially if you’re lifting or running later,” says MacPherson.
When you activate glutes, you can prevent the most common ailments and get your body back in proper alignment. Some glute exercises can be done over the course of the day (i.e. not just in the gym), though glute activation is an important start to any workout. By approaching daily life as a glute workout, it’s possible to build the musculature and prevent the long-term injuries that come from deactivated muscles. Here are 15 ways to activate glutes both during a workout and in everyday life.
Directions: These are not intended to be done as a workout. Choose 5 to 7, opting for a variety of stretches, mobilization drills, activation exercises, and dynamic moves to prime your lower body.
“It’s easy to find yourself spending 30 minutes pre-workout activating your glutes, then by the time your actual workout begins, you’re already fatigued,” says Josh Schlottman, CSCS. “Your goal is to activate the glutes, not obliterate them,” so if any require weight, go light to moderate.
1. Glute Squeeze x 10 reps each side
Here’s an easy way to activate your glutes from anywhere: From a standing or sitting position, squeeze your left glute and hold for two seconds. Release. Do these throughout the day and not just before a workout. Stand up once an hour at work and knock out a set of 10 on each side. Do them while sitting in traffic or a meeting. While your co-workers are suffering through a Powerpoint, you’re activating your glutes.
2. Quadruped Hip Extensions x 10 reps each side
This is an excellent exercise for directly targeting the gluteus maximus, and it’s beginner-friendly to boot, says Schlottman. Come onto all fours, with hands under shoulder and knees under hips. Tighten your abs and bring your belly up toward your spine while keeping a straight back. Extend one leg back, so it makes a straight line with your upper body. Be sure your hips don’t rotate. Hold for a few seconds before slowly returning to starting position and repeating on the other side. Alternate sides on each rep.
3. Glute Bridge x 10 reps
MacPherson likes this move “to wake up sleepy glutes” and notes it also targets the surrounding musculature of your hamstrings and low back. “It also provides an excellent stretch for tight hip flexors that can shorten and tighten during prolonged sitting periods,” she says. Lie face-up on the floor with knees bent at 90 degrees and feet on the floor. Squeeze your glutes and bridge your hips to the ceiling. Hold for two seconds, then lower hips toward the ground without touching and immediately drive up (this creates time under tension). To up the intensity, elevate your heels on a bench or chair or use a resistance band (shown).
4. Downward Dog x 10 reps
This familiar full-body yoga move is underrated for activating the glutes. Begin on all fours, then extend hands forward, out from under shoulders, so arms are extended at a 45-degree angle. Tuck your toes under, then exhale as you straighten your legs and lift your butt and midsection toward the ceiling. Keep knees slightly bent and weight in your toes, to start. Then, drop your head between your arms, straightening your arms and legs, pushing back through your feet to press your heels into the floor. Hold for two seconds.
5. Donkey Kicks x 30 each side
George Yang, CPT, considers this one of the best activities to target the gluteus maximus. Start on all fours with wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Keep a flat back and core engaged as you lift your left leg behind you and drive the heel, foot flexed, toward the ceiling as you contract your glute. Keep the 90-degree bend in your leg and don’t use momentum to swing. Keep the motion small and controlled to really fire the glute. Lower back to start.
6. Trigger Point Glute Release x 30-60 sec.
Sit with a tennis ball, racquetball, or mobility ball under the outside of one of your glutes. Adjust your position on the ball until you find a sore “trigger” point. It shouldn’t be difficult to locate one. Hold on the spot for desired time. Move the ball to a different spot and repeat. Maintain as much body weight on the ball as possible.
7. Lateral Lunge x 10 reps each side
So often we think of training only in terms of moving forward and backward. The lateral lunge stretches the glutes, along with the quads and hamstrings. Start by stepping out to the right, keeping toes pointed straight ahead and feet flat. Squat down over your right leg, keeping the left leg straight. Hold for two seconds. Return to the starting position and complete all reps, then switch sides.
8. Fire Hydrants x 10 each side
If you’re a beginner, follow Schlottman’s guidelines below. If you’re advanced, place a mini band above your knees to up the intensity. Come onto an all fours with hands under shoulders and knees under hips. Tighten your abs and bring your belly up toward your spine while keeping a straight back. Slowly lift one leg laterally, keeping the 90-degree bend, until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Be sure not to over-rotate your hip. Squeeze and hold at the top before slowly returning it back to the starting position. Don’t sink into the non-working side; maintain even distribution of weight so your glute is the main mover.
9. Inverted Hamstring x 10 each side
This not only works your glutes and hamstrings, but tests your balance and core strength. Balance on your right foot, keeping your core engaged and shoulders back and down. Bend at the waist and extend your left leg back as you fire the left glute, bringing arms straight ahead. Your shoulders and heel should move together, forming a straight line. Return to the start position and repeat, switching sides after all reps are complete.
10. Inchworms x 10 reps
This is a full-body move that lengthens the hamstrings and calves, opens up the ankles and low back, and activates the glutes. Stand with legs straight and hands on the floor. Walk your hands out until you’re in a plank position. Keep legs straight as you walk feet toward hands using short steps.
11. Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch x 60 sec. each side
While this isn’t technically a glute-activation exercise, “it does lengthen the psoas muscle, which makes it easier for your glutes to activate in hip extension,” Schlottman says. Start off in a kneeling position with one knee directly below your hips and your other leg in front of you, foot flat on the floor, knee bent at 90 degrees. Make sure your feet are in line with your hips. Tilt the bottom of your pelvis up and hold it there as you shift your hips toward your front foot. Keep pushing your hips upward and forward while squeezing the glute on the side you’re stretching. Hold this stretch before repeating on the other side.
12. Kettlebell Goblet Squat x 10 reps
Hold a moderately heavy kettlebell with two hands by the horns. Squat by sitting the hips back and down, keeping your weight in the heels of your feet without lifting toes. Lower until your elbows touch your knees (don’t force it if your mobility doesn’t allow for it). Rise and extend powerfully through hips, engaging glutes at the top.
13. Romanian Deadlift x 10 reps each side
The RDL builds the proper activation patterns in your glutes and hamstrings while also strengthening your back. Start with a light set of dumbbells. Stand with weights in either hand, palms facing your legs. Maintain a slight bend in your knees, then hinge at hips, maintaining a flat back, as you lower weights toward shins. Engage glutes and hamstrings to lift back up. The form is especially key to getting the full benefit, so think of sitting back with your torso moving forward instead of staying upright.
14. Squat Jumps x 10 reps
This move works the hips, knees, and ankles but the key is using your glutes to generate power. Stand with feet just outside shoulders and hands at your sides. Lower into a squat as you extend your arms in front of you. Hold the bottom position for two seconds, then jump vertically, swinging your arms back for momentum. Land softly in the starting squat position and hold for three seconds. Repeat.
15. Clamshells x 10 reps
This tried-and-true beginner move is a great warmup exercise Grab a mini band or tie a loose, flat resistance band into a loop that’s about a foot across. Wrap the band around both legs just above your knees. Lie on your side, knees bent. With your heels touching, open your top knee against the band. Hold for at least 10 seconds, then return to the start.
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