Ask any trainer for their favorite glute-building exercises. Somewhere in their top-five answers will likely be the traditional back squat. As one of the three main heavy resistance, glute-building hinge movements (deadlift and hip thrusters being the other two), this exercise is vital to any well-rounded training program. However, squats can easily be executed incorrectly, reducing glute activation significantly. As a society, years of seated, knees-in positions have weakened our glutes and caused our squats to be significantly more quad-dominant. Oftentimes, this causes a forward pitch to the torso, driving the bar forward and loading the quadriceps preferentially over the glutes. This common imbalance between our quadriceps and glutes can make squatting for glute development a tricky task for many, regardless of training experience. To ensure that you are getting the most out of your back squat, follow these four tips and note how each changes the emphasis placed on your glutes.
*When employing any variation to your squat, test with a lightened load to judge how the changes affect overall squat strength*
Many versions of the squat can be accomplished with parallel thighs, however, executing your squats in this manner greatly reduces the activation of the smaller, upper division gluteal muscles that give the glutes that fully rounded appearance. The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus are responsible for lateral abduction of the thigh, as well as external rotation. By separating the knees during your squat, these muscles must be active to stabilize the movement and protect against dangerous knee caving. Squatting in this fashion will also have a more beneficial effect on overall balance and strength, as the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus play a vital role in stabilizing the knee in single leg movements.
Keeping in mind that most of us will default to a quad-dominant squat when fatigued or challenged, the load you choose to squat with can greatly affect your glute activation. Each individual will have a different fatigue level and load at which their body will default to a quad-dominant squat. This should be kept in mind and load should be adjusted to maintain glute-dominance during your squat. If you feel yourself pitching into your forefoot or losing your upright torso position, you have likely shifted into a quad-dominant squat. If your goal is glute development, it is time to lighten the load that you are using to squat.
“But won’t reducing resistance make my squats less effective?”
A fair concern. If you must lighten your squat load to achieve proper positions for glute activation, then consider changing your pace as well. By slowing down the negative (eccentric) portion of the lift and focusing on maintaining proper form, you can cause significant damage to the desired muscles. Start with a three-second pace on the negative portion of the squat, still firing quickly out of the bottom. A slight change in pacing will adequately stress the muscles while allowing you to squat with your glutes as the primary mover.
If you don’t feel your glutes enough during your squats, it is possible that you may not be squatting low enough. Hopefully by now you have thrown out the old adage that tells us not to squat past parallel. While this was a generalized safety tip in the past, keeping the hips above the knees at all times during the squat will limit glute activation, asking the quads to bear most of the workload. In order to maximize glute development, the hips should pass below the knees without shifting forward into the forefoot. While this will also increase quadriceps activation, a squat just below parallel will allow the glutes to fully stretch, taking further advantage of the negative (eccentric) portion of the movement.
Hip Position and Finish
Poor hip posture can significantly affect the quality of your squats. While most advanced lifters likely have already addressed this issue, I still see poor hip posture in the gym on a daily basis. Correct hip posture for maximum effectiveness in your squat can be achieved by squeezing the glutes and maintaining core engagement throughout the movement, eliminating any lower back curvature. The pelvis should be facing forward, as opposed to facing the floor. This position will allow you to get full stretch and engagement from your glutes during the squat, in addition to protecting your lower back from potential injury. Upon finishing each repetition, drive the hips forward at the top of the movement, maximally flexing the glutes to achieve full range of motion.