Best Gluteal Muscle Activation Exercises

Review Based on EMG Studies

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Glutes.  There are a multitude of exercises that claim to “target the glutes.” But what does the research say? The glutes have long been thought of as the powerhouse of the body, and their development is critical for arguably all athletic endeavors.  When someone says, “Lift with your legs, not your back!” or, “Use your hips!” they are actually referring to incorporating more posterior chain and gluteal muscle involvement.

This article will dive into the research looking at which exercises provide the greatest amount of muscular contraction, as evidenced by electromyographic analysis.  That is, using skin or fine needle electrodes on/in the muscle belly, recording the intensity at which the muscle contracts.

The two major muscles that will be discussed are the Gluteus Maximus (GMax) and the Gluteus Medius (GMed). We will also touch on the Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL), as this is a major compensatory muscle in those with weak or deconditioned GMed.


Gluteus Maximus

OriginOuter surface of ilium,
sacrum, coccyx, sacrotuberous ligament
InsertionIliotibial tract
Greater tuberosity of femur
NerveInferior Gluteal nerve
ActionHip Extension
Hip External Rotation
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Gluteus Medius

OriginOuter surface of ilium
InsertionGreater trochanter of femur
NerveSuperior Gluteal nerve
ActionHip Abduction (OKC)
Contralateral Hip Abduction (CKC, single limb support)
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Tensor Fascia Lata

OriginIliac Crest
InsertionIliotibial Tract
NerveSuperior Gluteal nerve
ActionHip Abduction
Maintains knee extension (through IT Band)
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So, what does the research say?


EMG Article Review of Gluteus Maximus

Caterisano et al (2002), developed a study to look at the contribution of four thigh muscles during different barbell back squat depths.  Depths of 45 degrees (Partial Squat), 90 degrees (Parallel Squat), and 135 degrees (Full Squat) were studied.

The authors obtained 10 subjects, all experienced in weight lifting and squatting, and had them perform three repetitions of squats at various depths. Surface electrodes were placed over the Vastus Medialis Obliquus (VMO), VL (Vastus Lateralis), Biceps Femoris (BF), and Gluteus Maximus (GMax).  Subjects performed 3 repetitions each at the aforementioned depths, at a load of 100-125% the subjects body weight.  Depth was monitored and confirmed through “2-dimensional spatial model of video analysis” of five reflective markers (hip, knee, lateral ankle, calcaneus, 5th metatarsal).

Cateriano, Table 3, Concentric Peak Percentage
Cateriano et al 2002

The findings in this study show that of the four muscles analyzed, the gluteus maximus had a statistically significant higher percentage of peak concentric muscle activation with full depth squats. This suggests that deep squats are one of the best ways to build strong glutes.

 

In a more recent study by Contreras et al (2015), published in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics, they looked at the EMG activity present in the VL, BF, and GMax during both the barbell back squat (BSq), as well as the Barbell Hip Thrust (BHT).  The authors analyzed 13 females, all of whom had at least three years of resistance training experience.  Each subject was asked to pick a resistance and perform the individual movements to establish a 10 repetition max (10RM). This was then recorded as it would be the resistance that individual would use in later testing.

Surface electrodes were placed on the aforementioned muscle bellies, and subject’s maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) recorded, and the subjects were then asked to perform both the BSq and BHT. Resistance was determined based on the previous 10RM value. They were also asked to perform a second set at the same resistance, however this time being an isometric hold (parallel squat; lockout position on hip thrust) for 3 seconds. EMG activity was recorded throughout.

Contreras, Table 1, EMG results
Contreras et al 2015

As you can see in the data, the BHT outperformed the BSq in both isotonic/isometric peak and mean EMG amplitudes. This suggests that the Barbell Hip Thrust is superior to the Back Squat in terms of gluteus maximus muscle activation.  With that said, it is unquestionable that the BSq is also a top gluteus maximus activator, however the BHT isolates the GMax more (which is likely related to hip position at time of maximal contraction).


EMG Article Review of Gluteus Medius

Distefano et al (2009), in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, looked into the best gluteal muscle activation exercises based on common therapeutic exercise interventions.  They used 21 subjects, (9 male, 12 female, age 22+/- 3), who were all physically active several times a week.

Surface electrodes were placed over the gluteus maximus, at 1/3rd the distance between the sacrum and the greater trochanter.  Similarly, surface electrodes were placed on the gluteus medius at 1/3rd the distance from the iliac crest to the greater trochanter.

Distefano - electrode placement
Electrode placement

Subjects were instructed on 12 common body weight exercises that are thought to target gluteal muscle development:

  • Hip Clams
    • 30 degrees hip flexion, and 60 degrees hip flexion
  • Side lying Hip Abduction
  • Single Leg Squat
  • Single Leg Deadlift
  • Lateral Band Walks
  • Multi-planar lunges
    • Forward, Lateral, and Transverse (135 degree drop step)
  • Multi-planar hops
    • Forward, Lateral, and Transverse (135 degree hop towards ipsilateral side)

Following performance of these exercises, the subjects underwent MVIC testing of both the gluteus maximus and medius, based on standard manual muscle testing procedures.

Their results found the following top 5 exercises for Gluteus Medius muscle activation (based on percentage of MVIC):

Distefano - GMed Percentage of MVIC
Distefano et al 2009: Highest EMG for Gluteus Medius based on percentage of MVIC

And for Gluteus Maximus:

Distefano - GMax Percentage of MVIC.png
Distefano et al 2009: Highest EMG for Gluteus Maximus based on percentage of MVIC

The gluteus medius is known for its ability to keep the pelvis neutral during single limb positions. Weakness of the gluteus medius can create contralateral hip drop (Trendelenburg) during single leg stance.  This may explain why there is carry-over where both single limb exercises are seen with high EMG activity in both the gluteus medius and maximus.

Knowing this may be helpful in programming a comprehensivetime efficient program for you or your clients. Meaning, single limb exercises may give you “more bang for your buck.”  Unlike the previous studies mentioned in this article, Distefano et al did not look at values under load. One can infer that these % MVIC values may increase with resistance training.

 

Selkowitz et al (2013), in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, had a novel idea in looking at which exercises best maximize the activation of gluteus medius/maximus, while minimizing the activation of TFL (Tensor Fascia Lata).  The TFL is widely known as a commonly used compensatory muscle during glute strengthening.  Because of its common nerve and muscle action (very similar to GMed), it is quite impossible not to activate this muscle when contracting the gluteus medius. With this said, it is widely thought that one can bias the gluteal musculature with a focus on hip and pelvic position during certain exercises.

The authors developed an equation to describe the gluteal-to-TFL muscle activation ratio, and called this the GTA index.  From the authors, “an exercise with a high GTA index would be one in which there were high normalized EMG amplitudes of both gluteal muscles, and both of these amplitudes were higher compared to the TFL amplitude.”

They found that five exercises demonstrated considerable (>50% of MVIC) gluteal EMG activation compared to TFL (GTA index):

  • Clamshell (60 degrees of hip flexion)
  • Resisted Sidestep
  • Unilateral Bridge
  • Quadruped Hip Extension (knee extended)
  • Quadruped Hip Extension (knee flexed)
Selkowitz - GTA index
Selkowitz et al 2013: GTA index

 


How to implement this into your routine:

Below you will find video information from our Exercise Directory on the movements that have been described in this article.

You will also find the series of 5 exercises by Selkowitz, et al. to best target the glutes and minimize TFL activation.


Exercises targeting Gluteus Maximus:

  • Barbell Back Squat (Caterisano, 2003)
    • Full depth = 0.79 rad
    • ~135 degrees
    • 100-125% load compared to subjects body weight

 

  • Single Leg Squat (Distefano, 2009)
    • Subject stands on one limb, squats down and touches toes with contralateral hand.

  • Barbell Hip Thrust (Contreras, 2015)
    • Subject places barbell in hip crease, with back against a bench/surface approximately 16 inches off the ground. Subject then extends hip to perform the movement.


Gluteus Medius:

  • Sidelying Hip Abduction (Selkowitz)

  • Band Resisted Sidestep (Distefano, 2009)

  • Single Leg Deadlift (Distefano, 2009)


Best Exercises to Maximize Glutes and Minimize TFL Recruitment:

Selkowitz 2013:
  • Clamshell

  • Sidestep

  • Unilateral Bridge

  • Quadruped Hip Extension (Knee Flexed & Knee Extended)

 


References:

  • Caterisano A, Moss RF, Pellinger TK, Woodruff K, Lewis VC, Booth W, Khadra T. 2002. The Effect of Back Squat Depth on the EMG Activity of 4 Superficial Hip and Thigh Muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 16(3), 428-432.
  • Contreras B, Vigotsky AD, Schoenfeld BJ, Beardsley C, Cronin J. 2015. A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. 31, 452-458.
  • Distefano LJ, Blackburn JT, Marshall SW, Padua DA. 2009. Gluteal  Muscle Activation During Common Therapeutic Exercises. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy. 39(7), 532-540.
  • Selkowitz DM, Beneck GJ, Powers CM. 2013. Which Exercises Target the Gluteal Muscles While Minimizing Activation of the Tensor Fascia Lata? Electromyographic Assessment Using Fine-Wire Electrodes. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy. 43(2), 54-64.