When I first started weight-training, I watched a lot of form videos to teach myself how to squat. I made sure my back didn’t round at the bottom, the bar path was straight, and that I was going ass-to-grass. After a few years of training like this, I realized that my quads had outpaced my glutes and hamstrings. I wanted bigger glutes, but my quad growth was making them look relatively smaller.
I knew something about my form wasn’t right for me when I tried out front squats for the first time and found that they targeted my glutes better than traditional back squats. Front squats are commonly used to target quads – so what gives?
It was when I started training in person with a coach that I learned that I was quad-dominant. Because I was focused on just moving the weight, my mind automatically recruited the strongest muscles. For me, these were my quads and my lower back. While my squats were picture perfect as far as powerlifting goes, they were not optimal for building my desired shape.
Read more on training with intention and the mind-muscle connection here.
I had to tweak different things about my squat form to get my glutes and hamstrings to fire more during the movement. I turned my feet out at a slight 20 degree angle. I forced myself to ‘sit back’ as if I was doing box squats. I used a thick fabric resistance band to keep tension on my glutes during the entire movement. I stopped hyperextending my back and sticking my booty out, and focused on keeping a neutral spine. After significant trial and error, I actually felt my glutes flex and burn with just body weight squats. Once I figured out how to ‘turn on’ a muscle, I didn’t need to lift massive amounts of weight to work it.
The glutes are one of the strongest muscles in the body. If you can fire them preferentially, you’ll see strength and aesthetic gains. Here are some tips that helped me:
Perfecting the Hip Hinge
Remember how front squatting activated my glutes more than the traditional back squat? Much of this had to do with my back position. During a front squat, I would keep my back more neutral, which loaded the backs of my hips (glutes) with force, rather than the fronts of my hips (quads).
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IT'S ALL IN THE HIPS . The hip hinge is a fundamental movement that all humans should know how to do. For those who got my seminar overview this week, this is one of those 7 Foundational Patterns we'll be covering. In day to day movement, the hinge helps you move safely and efficiently and distribute stress between the back and hips. It's also is a great way for people with low back pain to move pain free.😃 . Why you should hinge comes down to simply having options. . There is nothing wrong with spinal flexion. It is a natural movement that we should be able to do. But just as we should be able to move with flexion, we should also be able to move without it. 🗝 The more variability we have, the more options we have in our movement. . If you can't hinge, you have no choice but to flex through your spine. And while that's fine to tie your 👟shoes, it may not be the best way to move your couch or pick up a heavy deadlift, especially if you haven't trained loaded flexion. You need to know how to organize yourself and move efficiently when placed in higher stress situations so that you reduce your injury risk.🏋️♂️ . So if you need to work on your hinge, these are two of the components that should be your main focus. The key is to load into the hips and keep a neutral spine. It takes time to build this coordination so don't get frustrated if it doesn't come naturally at first. Keep practicing and you'll get it.✌❤ . Have questions? Hit me up in the comments and I'll try to help you out. Tag a friend who needs to move better and share the wealth! . #Prehab101
Dr. Harden suggests a helpful cue that I use every time to make sure my back is neutral in the squat: Make an L with your fingers, place your thumb on the bottom of your rib cage, and index finger at the top of your hip bones. While standing, get into neutral. As you sit back into your squat, the distance between your fingers should not change.
If your back is positioned properly and you’re sitting back into your squat, you should feel your glutes and hamstrings stretch. As you come up, flex through that stretch for maximum contraction.
Targeted Glute Work
If you want to activate your glutes preferentially in a squat, you have to learn what it feels like when they contract. The best way to do this is by adding in exercises that are predominantly glute-focused. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to training – find the variations that work best for you! Turn your feet inward/outward, move your feet towards/away, add a band – the list goes on and on.
Based on this infographic by BodyLogIQ, these exercises will simultaneously strengthen and activate your glutes:
- Standing Cable Hip Abduction
- Ankle Weight Hip Abduction
- Seated Hip Abduction (the “Bad Girl” machine)
- Hip Thrusts
- Cable Pull-Throughs
- Back Extensions
- Cable Kickbacks
- Bent-knee Hip Extensions (like Donkey Kicks)
I would pick 2 of the above and do 3 sets of 15-20 reps to get the blood flowing into your glutes before squatting or deadlifting. Make sure the tension is in your glutes and not your lower back! Your lower back needs to be in neutral for your glutes to work optimally. If you don’t have ankle straps, I highly recommend the Glute Kickback PRO. The cable hooks onto a point on your foot that maximizes the mind-muscle connection, and you can move weight without feeling like it’s going to rip off of your ankle.
Retraining Movement Patterns
This is the humbling part – you might have to drop your weights once you change your form and start loading your hips instead of your quads. If you’re used to doing exercises one way, changing how you do it can be destabilizing. I personally had to deload because my glutes were so much weaker. I practiced at body weight to warm up, and then moved up to a weight that was challenging enough, allowing me to focus on form while building muscle where I wanted. When you train with intention and develop a strong mind-muscle connection, you don’t need to lift heavy to recruit your targeted muscles. After all, building a physique isn’t about the numbers you’re actually lifting, it’s about the numbers you look like you can lift.
Furthermore, there’s no absolute ‘right’/mandatory way to squat. Squat form can be highly individualized – find the variation that gets your glutes maximally firing! I will occasionally do back squats, but I prefer goblet squats and sumo squats.
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