Glute muscles: What they are and how to make them stronger

Anatomical illustration of glute muscles
(Image credit: Getty)

We use our glute muscles every day just by standing, sitting and walking. But what exactly are they? And how can you make them stronger?

The glute muscles (and the relevant muscle fiber types), which are in your posterior chain, are having a bit of a moment. You only have to look at the latest exercise trends, scroll through Instagram or hop over to YouTube to see the numerous ways you can build bigger and stronger glutes. Some people swear by squats to build your rear muscles, others prefer deadlifts, while some studies – like this one published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy – recommend adding some of the best resistance bands to help level up your leg workouts and activate specific glutes.

To help decipher everything there is to know about our glute muscles, including what they are, why are they important, how you can get stronger glutes and the best exercises to help you do so, we spoke to Dr Edward Merritt, who is an associate professor in kinesiology at Southwestern University and a member of the American Physiological Society.

Edward Merritt
Edward Merritt

Merritt graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise. He earned both his Masters in Kinesiology and PhD in Exercise Physiology from the University of Texas, and did his postdoctoral fellowship at in the Department of Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

What are the glutes?

The glutes are in your buttocks. The reason why we refer to our ‘glutes’ instead of our ‘glute’ is because they are made up of three different muscles. This includes the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. 

Glute muscles diagram

(Image credit: Getty)

Merritt says: “The gluteus maximus is the one most people think about when they think about the glutes. It's the largest of the three and it is the largest muscle in the body. It originates on the back of the pelvis and sacrum and inserts on the back side of the top of the femur, but also connects to the iliotibial band which goes all the way down the lateral part of the thigh and past your knee.”

The gluteus medius is a large muscle too. “It originates from the back of the pelvis, where you might have your thumb if you're standing with your hands on your hips”, says Merritt. “It inserts right on the top of your femur very close to where it connects to your pelvis.”

While the gluteus minimus is a smaller triangular shaped muscle just underneath the gluteus medius, Merritt adds that: “It also originates on the pelvis – below the spot where your thumb would be with your hands on your hips – and also inserts on the very top of the femur at the hip joint. It connects there just slightly in front of where the medius connects.”

Why are they important?

Our gluteal muscles help us do every function, such as sitting, standing, walking, running or jumping. Plus, research published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy shows that our glutes help to aid injury prevention and our ability to maintain an upright erect posture. They also help contribute to optimal movement and athletic performance.

Man doing lunges warming up glute muscles

(Image credit: Getty)

“Because of their size, shape and connections, the glutes are important in nearly every movement that moves your leg backwards, straightens your leg at the hip – as you are moving from sitting to standing – rotates it around the hip, or moving your leg out or back in,” says Merritt. “Because of the way they connect to the top of the femur, parts of the glutes will cause your leg/femur to internally rotate or they can cause your leg to externally rotate.

“Your glutes, especially the gluteus maximus and medius, are also extremely important in the big powerful movements you have to make to move your whole body weight. Like when you stand up from a chair, walk upstairs, or run or jump. But also, they're important in stabilizing the hip joint during any movements because they essentially hold the head of the femur in the socket of the pelvis,” he says.

How can you get stronger glutes?

The best way to make any muscle stronger is by putting them under enough resistance.

“One thing many people do wrong, especially when they're trying to work out their gluteus maximus, is to not use enough resistance,” says Merritt.

You can do this through weighted exercises or with the use of resistance bands that can support elevated gluteus maximus activation.

Merritt says: “Glutes need big forceful movements/lifts to actually get the stress on them that they need to adapt.” 

And research agrees. In a study published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal, researchers found that muscle hypertrophy – which is an increase and growth of muscle cells – follows a “dose-response relationship, with increasingly greater gains achieved with higher training volumes”.

The best exercises to build stronger glutes

1. Squats

Along with your gluteus maximus, research from the Strength and Conditioning journal has shown that squats will target your quads, hamstrings, calves and abdominal muscles. 

Merrit says: “Even if you're just using bodyweight with no barbells or dumbbells or kettlebells you can get a great glute workout with all the different variations of squats and lunges – but don't neglect the side-to-side squats and lunges.”

Couple performing bodyweight squats to activate glute muscles

(Image credit: Getty)

To perform a bodyweight squat:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width or shoulder-width apart and point your toes forwards.
  • Pull your shoulder blades back and down and engage your core. Push your hips back, and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Keep your chest upright and make sure your weight remains over your heels.  
  • Drive your body back up through your heels to stand. You can keep your arms out in front of you if you are struggling to balance.

2. Box jumps

According to Merritt, this exercise is especially key for people training for sports that might require quicker, explosive movements. He says: “Plyometric training using movements like box jumps can be important for glute adaptations.”

Woman performing box jumps to activate glute muscles

(Image credit: Getty)

To perform box jumps:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a box one step away from you
  • Bend your knees slightly (in the same form as a squat but not as deep).
  • Jump upward onto the box allowing your arms to swing in front of you as a counter-weight.  

3. Deadlifts

According to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, deadlifts will help train your hip extensors, which include the gluteus maximus. 

“Deadlifts are a more advanced movement I wouldn't recommend for everyone, but for more experienced lifters can also be great for the glutes,” says Merritt. 

Woman performing deadlift to activate glute muscles

(Image credit: Getty)

To perform a deadlift:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a barbell with an overhand grip.
  • Keeping a slight bend in your knees, engage your core and bend forwards at the hips.
  • As you do so, lower the bar down the front of your shins until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
  • Slowly come back up to the neutral standing position. That’s one rep.

4. Fire hydrants

Merritt says: “Don't neglect the rotation exercises. Fire hydrants – especially with resistance bands – are good for the gluteus medius and adduction and internal rotation exercises for the minimus.”

Woman performing fire hydrant exercise to active glutes

(Image credit: Getty)

To perform fire hydrants:

  • Start on your hands and knees with your shoulders above your hands and your hips above your knees.
  • Engage your core and lift one leg away from your body at a 45-degree angle. 
  • Move your raised leg back down to the starting position and repeat with the other leg.
Becks Shepherd

Becks is a freelance journalist and writer writing for a range of titles including Stylist, The Independent and LiveScience covering lifestyle topics such as health and fitness, homes and food. She also ghostwrites for a number of Physiotherapists and Osteopaths. When she’s not reading or writing, you’ll find her in the gym, learning new techniques and perfecting her form.