As a sports and exercise physiotherapist, I often get asked for the best exercise for this and that, and at the top of the list is “what’s the best exercise for the gluteals”? Sometimes I’m cheeky and say it’s the exercise that gets done, or being slightly more serious I’ll say we need to take a clinically reasoned approach and prescribe the best exercise for your current level of strength, neuromuscular control and ultimate goals.
Numerous studies have looked at measuring gluteal muscle forces during common exercises such as a step up, hip hike or single leg squats using surface electromyography (EMG), however, assessing muscle force with surface EMG alone makes the electrical signal susceptible to cross-talk (the EMG signal detected over a non-active muscle and generated by a nearby muscle) and movement artifact (the muscle tissue moves relatively to the skin surface, which causes a motion artifact).
A team of Australian researchers has taken a different approach in assessing gluteal muscle forces – hoping to overcome some of the limitations of surface EMG analysis alone with an EMG-informed neuromusculoskeletal model to estimate gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus muscle forces during 8 common exercises;
- Single leg squat
- Split squat
- Single leg Romanian deadlift
- Single leg hip thrust
- Banded side step
- Sidelying leg raise
- Hip hike
- Side plank
Image: Exercises assessed with EMG-informed neuromuscular model
All exercises other than the side plank & banded side step were done as both a body weight exercise and loaded with weights – 12RM
So which exercises produced the most force for each muscle?
Gluetus Maximus = 12RM split squat
Video: Split Squat Technique Tips
Technique: place one foot forward and the other foot back, then lowering the back knee towards the ground while keeping the torso upright, before pushing back up to the starting position.
Gluteus Medius = BW side plank
Video: Side Plank Technique Tips
Technique: keep the body in a straight line, supported by one arm and the side of one foot. The free arm can be raised towards the ceiling or rested on the hip.
Gluteus Minimus = 12 RM single leg RDL
Video: Single Leg RDL Technique Tips
Technique: balance on one leg whilst hinging forward at the hips lowering the weight towards the ground, then slowly return to an upright position
There are a few things to consider ‘in real life’ when applying the results of this research to your own training, or if you’re a health practitioner – your patient/client;
- Rarely should you select an exercise solely for the purpose of gaining strength or hypertrophy for any one particular muscle. The exceptions to this are Body building - (I suppose), and possibly for those with a specific strength deficit in one muscle as diagnosed by a health or exercise science professional. Focus on a functional outcome, such as improving hip extension strength, rather than getting one muscle strong.
- If you’re looking for a great all-in-one exercise that does a nice job targeting all three gluteal muscles, the 12 RM single-leg deadlift is a stand out – being classed a Tier 1 for all three muscles in this study. I also like this exercise as it challenges postural control of the pelvis and lower limb in a functional position that applies to many sports (such as leaning over to pick up or hit a ball).
- Load matters. With the exception of the side plank, which has significant long lever arms at play, the “top” 3 or 4 exercises were loaded at 12RM. Whilst body weight exercise are great at the right time and place, if you’re looking to maximise strength gains, adding weight is important.
Well done to Tyler Collings and his colleagues for conducting this interesting and useful research.