The Best Exercises for Activating Your Glutes

Research helps pinpoint the best exercises to build your glutes

You will find many tips on strengthening the gluteus muscles, the large and powerful muscles of the butt. However, research presented in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy helps clear up some of the confusion about the best butt exercises commonly used in a rehab or therapeutic setting.

The authors of this study used electromyography to quantify and compare signal amplitude as the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius muscles fired, in order to determine which therapeutic exercises most effectively recruit the glutes.

The Importance of the Gluteus Muscles

It's not surprising that weak glutes can lead to a variety of problems, including back, hip, and knee pain and injuries. But what is surprising is how many people, even recreational athletes, have weak glutes.​ The reason is that today many of us spend a lot of time sitting.

Sitting for extended periods of time can result in tight, shortened hip flexors and hamstrings, and weak glutes that fail to fire properly.

Athletes with lower body injuries who visit a physical therapist often take home a list of exercises to get the glutes firing. This research helps sort out which of those exercises really work.

Comparing Glute Activation in Common Exercises

Researchers measured the actual muscle firing of the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius during common gluteus rehab and therapeutic exercises. They were able to identify which movements activated the butt muscles to the highest percentage. These results can help sports medicine specialists, physical therapists, and even athletes decide which exercises to include or drop from a rehab, pre-hab, or basic training program.

The ultimate goal of these exercises is to get the glutes to fire properly, build a strong backside, prevent lower extremity injuries, and maintain proper alignment and biomechanics.

Based on this research, the exercises that produced the highest amount of activity in the gluteus medius and gluteus maximus include some basics that anyone can do with little or no equipment.

Best Butt Exercises for the Gluteus Maximus

These exercises produce the highest percentage of activity in the gluteus maximus muscle group.

  1. One-leg squat: 59% activation
  2. One-leg deadlift: 59% activation
  3. Sideways, front, and transverse lunges: 41% to 49% activation

Best Butt Exercises for the Gluteus Medius

These exercises produce the highest percentage of activity in the gluteus medius muscle group.

  1. Side-lying hip abduction: 81% activation
  2. One-leg squat: 64% activation
  3. Lateral band walk: 61% activation
  4. One-leg deadlift: 58% activation

Designing a Glute Activation Exercise Routine 

Depending upon your overall fitness goals, you can use this information in a variety of ways. You can perform all the exercises on a rotating basis to get a variety of movements while still targeting the glutes. Or you can focus on the exercises at the top of the list to get the most "bang for your buck" and build muscle strength in a maximal and isolated way.

Based on the results, the one-leg squat and one-leg deadlift exercises are a good all-around way to target both the gluteus maximus and medius at the same time.

To target the gluteus medius, perform side-lying hip abductions. This is the most effective way to strengthen the gluteus medius, which plays a significant role in keeping the hips and pelvis aligned. This is an important and often overlooked way to prevent knee pain. In short, everyone can benefit from adding side-lying hip abduction to their routine.

The overhead lunge and the lunge with a twist are two more exercises that can be helpful for preventing and rehabbing lower body aches and pains. When done slowly, and with controlled movements, lunges place less stress on the joints and are generally easier and safer than plyometric jumping exercises or deep one-leg squats.


One-Leg Squat

pistol squat
Hero Images/Getty Images

Single leg squats produced 59% activation in the gluteus maximus and 64% activation in the gluteus medius, if you do them properly.


Single Leg Deadlift

one leg deadlift
Credit: Caiaimage/Trevor Adeline

The researchers found that the single leg deadlift produced 59% activation in the gluteus maximus and 58% activation in the gluteus medius.



Erik Isakson/Getty Images

Sideways, front, and transverse lunges produced between 41% to 49% activation in the gluteus maximus in the study.


Lateral Band Walk

lateral band exercise
Credit: Maria Fuchs

According to the research, lateral band walking produced 61% activation in the gluteus medius.


Side-Lying Hip Abduction

The study found that side-lying hip abduction produced 81% activation in the gluteus medius.

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  1. Distefano LJ, Blackburn JT, Marshall SW, Padua DA. Gluteal muscle activation during common therapeutic exercisesJ Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2009;39(7):532-40. doi:10.2519/jospt.2009.2796