Glute training, tailoring it to you for the best results.
Optimal training for building Glutes
The glutes have become the prized asset of many a female (& males) in gyms all over the world, and rightfully so, they are a powerful & aesthetic muscle that most, if not all of us, would like to develop more. The question is then, how do we train to make our derrières look their best? In this article we will delve into some of the science and application behind this. I will start, with the most important principles and they will rank lower as we proceed through the article.
Training volume can be defined as the amount of work we are doing (load x sets x reps), this can be calculated muscle group to muscle group, week to week, month to month and so on. For ease, we will define training volume as the amount of ‘hard sets’ (sets taken within 4 repetitions of failure) we can perform for a given muscle group (the Glutes in this article) over the time span of a week/mesocycle.
Another preface on volume, as we know by now in literature, if you can perform more volume, still recover and adapt, then you probably should, if you want to grow your muscles the most you can (1). It is important to note, that there is a ceiling to this; the most amount of volume you can perform, or maximum recoverable volume (MRV) as coined by Dr. Mike Israetel(1)(5). MRV is going to differ, for different people, for different reasons (this will be covered in our hypertrophy handbook), so don’t just add more because you think it will be best, start lower and just increase volume weekly until you cannot recover (5) the next week with another volume increase.
With that in mind, a general recommendation for sets of which the Glutes are the primary mover (this is a recommendation on top of a normal amount of squatting & hip hinging work that already work the Glutes but secondary over the main movers i.e. Quads or Hamstrings) is between 4 -16 sets a week (5). You can see that there is a large range here, 4 is going to be the minimum most people (other than complete beginners) will need to get any growth & 16 sets is going to be the most people can probably recover from (note: you may be able to do slightly more, but you definitely will need to make room in your program by removing volume on other body parts; this will also depend on the exercises you pick, the more compound, damaging exercises will reduce the amount of volume you can perform the most).
‘Stretchers, activators & pumpers’
To dive into how different exercises affect the total volume you can perform, this section will discuss a concept I first heard from Bret Contreras (now seriously, peep his work, he’s literally a doctor of Glutes); he has categorised Glute exercises into ‘stretchers’, ‘activators’ & ‘pumpers’ (4). To quickly & simply preface the mechanism behind how muscles grow, we will say that there are 3 main mechanisms (1) although this is in contention and out of the scope of this article. These are as follows-
1. Mechanical tension
This is achieved by overloading the amount of weight we lift (to take full advantage it needs to be above 60% of 1rep max) over time forcing the muscles to produce more and more force, aiming to create high activation levels of all motor units in a muscle.
2. Metabolic stress
This is seen mainly in anything above maybe 6 reps, but is most prevelant in higher repetition ranges i.e. 20+,. The build-up of by-products of creating energy for exercise, over takes the ability to flush it away, this is the harsh ‘burn’ you will feel on higher repetition sets, this build up signals for growth.
3. Muscle damage
This is the physical damage that is done to the contractile tissues and their connective supports etc., this is emphasised by overloading the eccentric/lengthening portion of an exercise.
Now we can see how the names Bret has chosen sort of fits each bill- ‘activators’ target growth through mechanical tension/high muscle activation levels and ‘pumpers’ aim to overload the metabolic stress pathway/pumping up the muscles with metabolites, and ‘stretchers’ cause growth mostly through muscle damage/stretching under load (note: it is important to realise there is always going to be carryover between exercises but some emphasis one mechanism over the others).
How these 3 different types of exercise affect how much volume we can perform (1)(4), is how much disruption away from our resting levels of stress (homeostasis) they cause, and subsequently, how long they take to recover from (the more disruption an exercise causes, the longer it takes to recover from generally) (2). As repair and recovery of physical damage to the body takes a lot of effort, ‘stretchers’ usually cause the most disruption (4) and will therefore take the longest to recover from. The large range of motion (ROM) most of these types of exercises have causes a huge load in the stretched position of the muscle as well as the fact the we are stronger eccentrically than concentrically, i.e. we could hold a really heavy weight on the way down in a squat but we may not then be able to stand up with it.
Next, due to the potential amount of load lifted and force required from the muscle, ‘activators’ are the second most disruptive (4), they have a shorter ROM and don’t accentuate the eccentric near as much, so they don’t cause as much physical damage, but the amount of energy needed to produce the high force needed to lift big weight still causes a big disruption, these take a little bit less time to recover from. Lastly, ‘pumpers’ don’t produce high forces, have an even shorter ROM, and don’t cause much if any physical damage to the structures of our muscles, this leads to the least overall disruption and the shortest time to recover from (2)(4).
With this knowledge, we can see that if the ratio of Glute exercises adds more ‘stretchers’ to our program, our maximum recoverable volume will decrease (everything else equal), if we bias more ‘pumper’ work then our total volume possible may increase, you need to keep this in mind when programming.
It has been established, that for building muscle, all rep ranges are valid with no benefits in terms of the amount of muscle they build, to any vs. another (1). This leads me to say that all repetition ranges should be used (potentially above the 1-3 rep range for hypertrophy but never say never), BUT there are inherent advantages for muscle building in the 6-12 rep range (I will not discuss them here as they will be discussed in our hypertrophy handbook). So focusing the most of your work in the 6-12 rep range, some in the 4-7 rep range, and some in the 12-20+ rep range is probably a good idea; I advocate emphasising some over the other at different times, i.e. focus one month at 4-7 reps but still have some of the other ranges in there and so on (3), but on the net balance, most of your work should ideally be done in the 6-12 rep range unless you have good reason to do so, & this isn’t any real difference for the Glutes.
For the Glutes, like other muscle groups, it would probably be advantageous to match certain exercises to certain rep ranges (5), barbell back squats for example, they can be loaded up to 1 repetition max pretty safely and effectively (I’m definitely not saying do 1RMs all the time by the way), could you do the same with a cable kickback? Or a side lying hip abduction? You probably see where I’m going with this. Some effective exercises that could be used in the 4-7 rep range include –
· Most barbell squat variations
· Most deadlift variations
· Barbell hip thrusts (maybe for some)
· Barbell lunges (maybe for some)
Why did I say maybe for hip thrusts? I find for most people, they simply cannot make the Glutes the primary driver of movement when the weight is loaded so heavy, heavy enough to go below 3 repetitions of failing. This lower rep range is probably reserved for more advanced/skilled lifters; to get the most out of this I tend to program the majority of time in the 8-15 rep range, this allows for a good amount of tension overload but not allowing for technique to be heavily affected (people tend to just get a much better feel in the Glutes with 8-15 reps and I know this isn’t the only concern, but I think it makes a difference, as pain from heavy loading on the lap and spinal extension can reduce muscle activation for sure.
Most exercises can be appropriately loaded in the 8-12 rep range, aside of a lot of bodyweight variations and banded work, so you have more variation in your hands when programming here (make sure to use the principle of variation appropriately, more on this further down). The 12-20+ rep range is generally appropriate for all exercises in my opinion, you just need to make sure that your technique remains pretty solid and you're golden (cardiovascular fatigue from higher repetition sets, of squats for example, can really throw someone off and may increase risk of injury).
The 12-20+ rep range is most effective for some of the less overloading exercises (think ‘pumper’s) as you can really emphasise that metabolite accumulation, this will be of up most importance in these rep ranges as there is little mechanical tension or ROM (stretch) so you will need to be going near close to failure to get the most out of these.
Lastly on intensity, when programming, it is probably ideal to stick to one repetition range at a time (for 1-2 months/mesocycles at a time), this is due to the principle of directed adaptation (2)(3), this dictates that you must perform a specific thing enough by itself, to develop the quality related to it, when you throw lots of other things in the pot, the response is somewhat blunted. By focusing on one rep range/intensity at a time, it allows us to be very ‘sensitive’ to the new rep range when you change over to it, and then again when you get back round to the original one (think about that last time you introduced a brand new exercise for Quads or Hamstrings, it probably tore you up pretty bad the first time you trained it hard, then it probably got a little less so each time, this is an example of sensitivity to exercise).
A general recommendation would be to start with a phase/month in the lower ranges, moving on the next month to the mid ranges, and then finishing another with the high ones (3), each month you can introduce and take away some exercises that are & aren’t applicable to that range. For example, adding lots of metabolite work in the final month (high rep ‘pumper’ sets), and removing some of the heavier work ('Activators' such as hip thrusts or squats) from one of your training days, particularly if they are programmed in more than once a week. You could do this over 3 months or so, and then change the exercises you started with, repeat & so on.
Something I see in most circles when it comes to training for growing muscle, is the idea that each muscle group should have it’s own day at a time, meaning we train each muscle group once a week. Whilst there are times when this is applicable, for the majority of trainees (especially my readers), this is landing us short of making the most gains we can. We need to firstly explain the concept of stimulus/response/adaptation (SRA) and their curves, before we can discuss the reasons for this.
The full explanation for SRA is included in our hypertrophy handbook so PLEASEEE get ready for this, but I will quickly explain and provide a visual to help understand it now (2). When a stimulus (that the body sees as dangerous) is provided, there is a stress response specific to the stimulus provided, the body then attempts to fight this response by first attempting to bring the stressed system back to its baseline level of homeostasis. If the stimulus was disruptive enough, we can then get a positive adaptation to it (as long as we have adequate recovery reserves i.e. useable energy), allowing our body to need less of a stress response to fight the same stressor if it was provided again (2). We are now in a position that we have improved, if we don’t provide a similar/more disruptive stress again within a short period of time, our adaptation will start to degrade back to baseline and below. Here's a practical example of this...
An average intermediate level gym goer, trains their Quads really hard on Monday. For about 12 hours after (not an exact number), their performance will have dipped below baseline, as the stress was high, some fatigue is generated; so their body will then start to respond by recovering their Quads (incrementally, it isn’t instant) until they reach baseline again. This may take another 12-24 hours depending on the person; because the stress was large enough and that person has adequate recovery reserves, they make positive adaptation above their baseline up until this peaks, or reaches its best adaptation if you will (2), this may take another 12-24 hours.
This process took about 2-3 days, not a week. As soon as this peak is reached, we want to be training that muscle again (4), repeating the process, and ending up with a higher adaptation peak the next time (I won’t discuss how to add light days to extend the curve as this is in the hypertrophy handbook). This may look something like below, with the peak being at the end of super/overcompensation (2).
So what happens if we don’t train it again? We start to dip into de-training/involution as shown on the graph, and our performance gets worse (2) (again this is a brief description, there are some cases when the curve will last longer/shorter so don’t take the numbers as specifics, I’m vastly generalising to get the point across, so we can discuss how it relates to Glutes).
Now onto Glutes, the general rule, that is likely correct, will be to train them between 1-5 times a week (4) (5) (average around the median, 2-3), why the broad range? Because depending on your exercise selection (as well as other factors), your SRA curves will change length (4) (how long it takes to reach the peak), meaning the length of time between Glute training sessions will change length. I am now going to refer to the ‘stretcher’, ‘activator’ & ‘pumper’ theory again (if anything the names are just cool).
As we have already discussed, different intensities should be varied at different times (3), and certain exercises are going to be introduced to take advantage of these, so at different times you will have more ‘pumpers’, some more ‘activators’ and sometimes all of them together- you get my point. A theory that is again, likely to be correct, is that high muscle damage cause the longest SRA curves, high mechanical tension & metabolic stress probably creates comparably long ones (although the effectiveness of metabolic stress appears short lived vs. tension overload), but if you remember back to our description of the different types of Glute exercises, the ROM of the exercises will make a big difference to how long your recovery from them will be (4) (metabolite work with leg presses and squats will cause a vastly longer SRA curve than banded Glute work ever will).
Most ‘stretchers’ will have the longest SRA curve, ‘activators’ will have the second longest & ‘pumpers’ will have the shortest curves (4). How short you ask? An approximation is that for most beginner/intermediate trainees (1-3 years of training for most cases), ‘stretchers’ SRA curve will peak at 3-4 days after (so you should train them again then), ‘activators’ 2-3 days and ‘pumpers’ 1-2 days (4). These numbers will vary depending on whether you mix different ones (which you probably should), extending the curves longer, but these are good general rules. So ,to wrap this section up, train ‘stretchers’ 1-2 times a week, ‘activators’ 2-3 times a week & ‘pumpers’ 3-5 times a week. Some examples of how this may look below are;
1. Whole body split over 4 days –
· Monday – ‘stretchers’, some (but not quite as much) ‘activators’ and some ‘pumpers
· Wednesday – ‘activators’ & ‘pumpers’
· Friday – ‘stretchers’ & ‘pumpers’
· Sunday – ‘activators’ & ‘pumpers’
2. Upper/Lower body split (3 U/L combinations per microcycle/over 8 days for this case)
· Monday (Upper body) – ‘pumpers’ to finish the workout
· Tuesday (Lower body) – ‘stretchers’, ‘activators’ & ‘pumpers’
· Thursday (Upper body) – ‘pumpers’ to finish again
· Friday (Lower body) – ‘activators’ & ‘pumpers’
· Sunday (Upper body) – ‘pumpers’ to finish again
· Monday (Lower body) – ‘stretchers’, ‘activators’ & ‘pumpers’
(note: these are just examples and will vary case to case)
Up to now we have made the conclusion that using variation of exercises, sets, reps etc. is important, with different training frequencies being used at different times (3)(5). We will now discuss how each type of exercise can vary at another level, and when to vary them.
I will first discuss variation over the month/mesocycle & multiple months/macrocyle (again, this is covered more completely in the hypertrophy handbook). Variation is used for a slew of reasons, it allows us to help prevent injury by slightly switching the angles at which force is being produced in a muscle & the amount of forces produced (letting certain portions of the muscle that are being emphasised to recover better while training other portions), it allows us to re-sensitize to the variables we have just been performing (reps, intensities, volumes, exercises etc.) so that when we come back round to them we can be ‘sensitive’ to them again and potentially elicit some new growth (2)(3). Strategic variation can also be used to improve different qualities when put in a specific sequence, called phase potentiation (2)(3) (i.e. training for bigger muscles will aid strength training as bigger muscles give bigger potential to produce force, general strength training will help to improve power qualities as power = force x acceleration and so on).
So, in terms of variation for hypertrophy, I would usually look to vary volume (generally increase to a point and then rinse and repeat the process) week to week & month to month, vary rep ranges and intensities month to month, and exercises may vary every 1-3 months depending on the circumstances (however if someone were to get hurt or they could just not get anything out of an exercise it may go earlier, usually no less than a month though). Again, more on this subject in the hypertrophy handbook, if you’d like your questions answered in the Q&A when it’s finished then head over to www.myo-nomics.com and fill in our form.
Next, we will talk about the different movement focuses we are going to have when training the Glutes; broadly, the Glutes will extend the hip (go from a bent over position, to up right position), abduct the hip (take it laterally away from the centre line) & externally rotate the hip (rotate our thigh from facing in front of our body, to the side of our body) (6). To fully develop the Glutes, we want to train all of these functions (4). Each exercise type (‘stretchers’ etc.) will have different sub-types of exercises that perform different movements. An example of hip extension would be a hip thrust, with the barbell across the hips. Hip abduction can be displayed as a side lying leg lift, side lying clam shell or exercises that add a band around the knees/ankles etc. to resist the knees/thighs falling in. And external rotation can either be doing certain movements with the toes pointed out to about 45 degrees +, or moving the feet from a neutral position up to about 45 degrees throughout the movement (i.e. a squat with toes out or a clamshell with a focus on external rotation too).
Exercises that focus on loading hip extension through ‘standing up’ where the weight is usually across the back or in the hands, i.e. squats & deadlifts, emphasise the ‘lower’ portion of the glute muscles (4); exercises that focus on loading directly against hip extension, i.e. barbell hip thrusts when the weight is through our lap, emphasise the ‘upper’ glute portions but still hit the ‘lower’ portion pretty hard, & abduction & external rotation based exercises, i.e. clam shells, seated abductions, target the ‘upper’ glute musculature more (4).
With ‘stretchers’, most movements are going to be more extension focused with an emphasis on ‘standing up’ with the torso ending vertical, i.e. barbell squat, lunge, deadlift variations; there are also a couple of abduction variations which you can use, i.e. extra range off bench side lying hip abductions or extra range cable hip abductions, so one, maybe two of each movement is ideal.
With ‘activators’, we have a lot of exercises in our arsenal, we can focus on hip extension with the torso vertical, i.e. weighted/high step ups, as well as hip extension when the weight is opposing the movement directly (loaded hip extension), i.e. hip thrusts, cable pull throughs etc. Lastly, we have abduction based exercises, such as ankle weighted hip abductions, cable abductions, seated abductor machine etc. As we mentioned, emphasising ‘activators’ a little more is probably a good idea, so we want at least one of each movement variation, maybe when focusing on certain movements we could have 2 exercises (the emphasis can switch over time).
With ‘pumpers’, we again have a slew of available exercises, with all movements. For hip extension with a vertical torso, we can use a bodyweight/lightly weighted squat & create the ‘pumper’ effect by using pulses or pauses in the bottom range of the movement to create a high metabolite accumulation in the Glutes, as we stay in the bottom position, the muscle contraction needed to stay there impedes blood flow lightly, stopping metabolites from leaving the area (which is good for this technique). We can challenge loaded hip extension by simply reducing the load & increasing the repetition on most, if not all exercises, and adding bands to load the shortened position on most exercises also works well (as the band lengthens it gets tighter creating more resistance), bodyweight exercises like frog pumps & hip bridges also work well.
For challenging hip abduction, we again can use bodyweight or bands around the knees/feet to load it more in shortened position, using exercises like lying hip abductions, banded crab walks and seated hip abductions allows us to load this weaker ROM a lot better (‘pumpers’ excel at training hip abduction as the muscles are fairly weak so overloading with metabolites works well). As ‘pumpers’ can commonly be done in circuit fashion to create high metabolite accumulation, as well as the fact that there are so many variations with bands, weights, bodyweight etc., I’d recommend picking 2 variations for each movement or maybe 3 for a couple if you are looking to emphasise a particular area, i.e. the upper glutes by using more abduction based exercises.
I won’t list all the exercises as this article would become too long (most will come up with a youtube search), but hopefully it has outlined what you are looking for with each movement and what to vary, so you can research different ones, play around with what works best and create your own best Glute exercise selection.
Although there are a lot of similarities between all muscle groups in how you train them, what to focus on etc. there are always inter-individual differences, I will discuss some nice general tips (most are anecdotal) that may help you in developing your Glutes.
· Use the exercise types (‘stretchers’ etc.) to dictate what you are emphasising throughout the movement, i.e. if you are performing a ‘stretcher’, get as deep as you can in the stretched position, if you are performing an ‘activator’, accentuate the shortened position with a forceful squeeze, i.e. a pause at the top of a hip thrust with a forceful squeeze can work.
· Play around with foot position & stance width on Glute exercises, some have a better ‘feel’ with straight toes, some with a wide stance; find what works best for you and allows the best progression (this is only a minor change but can make a big difference)
· In terms of exercise order for Glute focused exercises, probably start with ‘activators’ first (you generally use the most weight on these and are probably best to emphasise most of the time), ‘stretchers’ second, and ‘pumpers’ last (metabolite work can be quite tiring so put last not to effect the rest of the workout, metabolite accumulation is probably lower ranked in it’s ability to cause muscle growth than mechanical tension too).
· Try different exercises to see what works best for you, however make sure you give them long enough to actually give them time to respond to the work you’re doing. Results are never immediate!
Thank you for reading
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