Saturday, September 29, 2007

Best Glute Workout Ever!

There are reasons both sublime and ridiculous to build one’s glutes.

On one hand, they’re your largest muscles and therefore deserve some pretty close attention. As I’ve said repeatedly in the past, many, many people suffer from glute inaction, or an inability to literally get their butts moving: their hip flexors are short, tight and overactive from sitting all the time, and as a result, the muscles on the opposite side of the hip joint – the glutes -- become inhibited and weak. The hamstrings step up to fill in, you get a condition called “synergistic dominance,” where the second-stringers are trying to do the work of the starters, and you eventually get injured. Keep the glutes in shape, and you’ll help stave off knee joint problems, back pain, and postural imbalances. So having a nicely-toned set of glutes is good for you, like your proverbial apple a day.

On the other hand, there’s something about a well-shaped set of hip extensors that just screams youth, health, fitness, and, shall we say, fertility. I read a story recently that said that Tour-de-France cyclists are able to evaluate the fitness of their opponents simply by the shape and tone of their rumps. No surprise there: cycling is essentially a series of thousands of single-leg hip-and-knee extensions, so it’s pretty much impossible to be a decent cyclist without walnut-cracking glutes.

My theory about why we’re attracted to the rumps of the opposite sex is that good glutes tend to be the mark of genuine athleticism, not just health-club muscularity. Back when we were spearing mammoths for food, being able to run fast and jump high meant you were a good provider, not just that guy on the office basketball team with the decent jump shot. So Elga the cavewoman was attracted to Oog the caveman because his firm butt made her think he’d be able to climb mountain passes with buckets of water on his back or carry their five children across the rushing river in springtime. Show me someone with a muscular bum and I’ll show you someone who most likely can actually DO athletic things, not just someone whose mirror muscles make them look like they might be able to. There’s a big difference.

So, below is a quick but effective trio of exercises that, taken together, are unbeatable as glute-builders. If you’re putting together a lower-body routine with an emphasis on the rear kinetic chain—that is to say, your glutes and hamstrings, as well as your lower and mid-back musculature—I contend that your time is best spent on the following three movements:

1) The Deadlift
2) The Bulgarian Split Squat
3) The single-leg Romanian Deadlift.

Your quads, hip flexors, adductors and abductors will also get pretty fried by these three moves, so if you have a lower-body “day” in your workout schedule, you won’t need to do much more to make it a complete waist-down torture-fest. I am, however, also a big fan of traditional barbell squats, and so I’d make sure to cycle those in at least once a week in lieu of the deadlifts.

Right away I hear keyboards firing up. People will say, “what, no hyperextensions or reverse hyperextensions? No “butt-blaster-machine extensions”? No donkey cable-kicks? Didn’t you just write about the value of isolation exercises? We thought you were on OUR side!”

Well, yes, I do think isolation moves have their place. But when it comes to butt-building I don’t think they’re much good. If you have REALLY tight hip flexors and just don’t know how to get your glutes to contract at all (and some professional athletes have this condition!), you MIGHT consider using some isolation moves until you feel like those muscles are “wired in” and your brain knows how to make them fire without having to think about it too hard (I sometimes forget how easy it is to get so caught up in the heady world of sedentary brainwork that you actually forget how your body works!)

But as soon as you can, you need to step up and attack these compound moves.
The glutes seem happiest when they are working in conjunction with other muscles, not just contracting on their own. Sprinters, gymnasts, Olympic weightlifters, and the aforementioned pro cyclists all spend the bulk of their training time on movements that require them to extend the knee and the hip simultaneously, and all of them have glutes of steel. So even if you’re far more concerned with filling out a pair of jeans than you are with running 48-second 400 meters, it’s real athletic movement that makes the body look and feel athletic—especially when it comes to lower-body training, and glute-training in particular. You’re got to train like an athlete in order to look like one.

A couple of finer point before you rush off to the gym to attack the those deads, Bulgarians and Romanians (with exercise names like these, I should rename it the “Dracula” workout):

1) DEADLIFTING. The best two pieces of advice I’ve ever received about deadlifting are a) that you should feel like as if you were “falling back onto your heels” when you lift and b) that you should visualize the bar as freshly glued to the floor with so that you have to “peel it” off the floor, gradually ramping your efforts up to the full force required to hoist the weight rather than jerking abruptly it off the floor (I’m pretty sure that’s a Chad Waterbury tip, just giving credit where it’s due). The chest should be high and the gaze should be straight ahead or a tad above for good focus and alignment. To ensure that the bar is really “dead” at the beginning of the movement—and to give my gripping muscles a break—I ‘reset’ between each rep, setting the bar fully down and relaxing my hold each time the bar hits the floor.

2) BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUATS. Bulgarians are typically seen as a quad-builder, and they work beautifully as such, but I’ve found that in conjunction with the other two movements they also work well as a glute exercise provided—and this is a crucial point—you go low enough. If you’re weak in this movement, and can’t descend till the back knee grazes the floor, you won’t really nail the glutes. If that’s the case with you, work up to it carefully. It’s okay if your knee goes past the much-feared 90-degree point as long as your front knee doesn’t wobble to either side as you ascend. If you do have a case of wobbly-knee syndrome, lighten your load, shorten your range of motion, or both until you can manage the full motion without the extraneous movement. Otherwise, go deep in your Bulgarians, find a real tightness in the glute of the front leg at the bottom of the movement, and push off quickly from the “down” position.

3) SINGLE-LEG ROMANIAN DEADLIFTS. Every list of “favorites” has to include at least one unexpected element—sort of like including an album by “Weird Al” Yankovic on your list of desert island CD’s just so you can feel fresh and unpredictable--and this is it in my list of top three moves for the glutes (for the record, ALL of my desert island CD’s would be by “Weird Al” Yankovic, perhaps with an extra copy of WEIRD AL IN 3-D just in case one gets scratched). Most trainers would put the two-leg version above this one, but for many reasons, I disagree. Single-Leg Romanians are more functional (in that we are almost always on one foot when we are in motion); they’re safer (because you can use half the weight and still get the benefit of the two-leg version); and they’re a more complete hip-extensor workout (because you have to both stabilize AND contract during the movement). Finally, the single-leg Romanian deadlift is the closest thing to a direct glute move among these exercises, and even still, the hamstrings, quads, calves, core, and gripping muscles all contribute significantly to its successful execution. I like holding a dumbbell in each hand, though some trainers prefer their clients use just one in the hand opposite the foot they’re standing on. Stand, hold the weights, bend forward one one foot, allowing your other leg to extend back behind you, as if picking up a piece of loose change off the floor. Touch the dumbbells lightly to the floor—they should touch the floor at the same instant--and return to the starting position. Alternate legs for sets of 8-12 reps.

The angle of the knee of the supporting leg is key! Keep a 10-20 degree knee bend in order to optimize glute activation. Any straighter and the move will be almost pure hamstring and lower back. The move requires a fair amount of concentration to get right and to maximize the hip extension movement, but once you find the right groove of stability, bend in the supporting leg, and core activation, it becomes one of the most effective glute-builders out there.

Perform the workout twice a week, and vary your rep and set configurations from more standard parameters of 3x 8-12 and 5 x 5 to 2 x 25 or 6 x 4, always working with impeccable form.

Good luck, and, as ever, feel free to write me with questions or comments.


Discoseven said...

Thanks for posting this Andrew! I did these exercises today and all I can say is wow! I feel muscles I didn't know I had :) I workout quite a bit and didn't know how to target this area that seems to be getting smaller and smaller but not developed. This is Definitely going to do it! Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

i do deadlifts...with a barbell...i'm looking for variations, but i cannot visualize how to do this excersize...can you include a video perhaps?