Build Stronger Glutes & Hamstrings: Personal Training Guide
In this field of fitness, you can almost always expect to get asked: “How Do I Build the Perfect Glutes?”
Challenges tend to arise when trying to target the posterior chain muscle group. Clients sometimes have trouble feeling the posterior chain muscles work during exercise, so a critical part of being a trainer is being able to properly cue clients. This helps them activate the muscles they are targeting. It also helps ensure the client achieves proper form.
So, let’s dive into some of the best ways to activate and build the hamstring and glute muscles.
Glute and Hamstring “Backside” Anatomy
First, you must understand the structure and actions of these two muscle groups to effectively train them.
Three muscles make up the glutes: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. The attachment site for these muscles is the ilium and sacrum. They all insert on the femur.
Knowing the muscles originate in the hip region and insert on the femur can explain their muscle actions. The main functions of the glutes are extension, hip abduction, external rotation of the hip, and internal rotation of the hip. The insertion onto the femur allows the glutes to play a role in knee extension.
The semitendinosus, semimembranosus, long head biceps femoris, and short head biceps femoris make up the hamstrings. The hamstring muscle group originates on the ischium and attaches to the tibia and fibula. Important muscle actions of the hamstrings are hip extension and knee flexion.
The glutes and hamstrings work together throughout many lower body exercises. Let’s first look at isolation exercises for each muscle group. Then we can examine compound exercises that incorporate both muscle groups at the same time.
The legs are the largest muscle group in the body. They provide your clients with the best opportunity to build more muscle and burn more fat. All clients need stronger legs.
Top Glute Activation Exercises
Implementing the following exercises can help clients who have muscular imbalances or trouble feeling the glutes contract. These exercises help stimulate the glutes without too much help from other muscles.
Your client will start this by lying on the ground in a side elbow plank position. Knees remain bent at 45 degrees with one mini band around both legs. The band should sit above the knees. With one leg on top of the other, your client will raise the top leg against the band. The knee and ankle should rise off the bottom leg together.
External rotation of the hip creates isolation of the glutes. It helps with muscle activation and stability. In turn, this transfers to compound leg exercises.
In a standing position, have a mini band around both legs located at the ankles. Slightly bend at the knees and hips. Proceed by walking in a diagonal pattern. Move forward, step laterally.
Hip abduction or external rotation against the resisted band triggers glute activation.
Banded Hip Thrusts
Lie flat on the back with a band around the thighs. Initiate the movement by raising the pelvis off the ground. Keeping the hips raised towards the ceiling, drive through the heels to perform hip extension. Squeeze the glutes at the top or end range of motion.
The resistance band forces hip external rotation, creating more glute activation. This is achieved through “pushing the knees out,” against the band.
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Glutes: Compound Strength and Muscle Building Exercises
The difference between isolation exercises and compound strength exercises is the number of muscles working at one time. Compound exercises recruit more muscles and muscle fibers. Isolation exercises aim to target just one muscle group.
The following exercises target mainly the glutes. They are complex exercises so they will receive help from other muscle groups in the lower body. This promotes heavy weight training to achieve stronger glutes.
Barbell Hip Thrusts
This is one of the best glute building exercises. Barbell hip thrusts encourage clients to perform hip extension and overload the glute muscles. The heavier the load, the more type II muscle fibers recruited. This leads to more muscle growth and strength gains.
Sumo deadlifts are a preferred exercise for the glutes. The excessive bending at the hips and knees during a sumo deadlift promotes more hip extension. Sumo deadlifts require more hip and leg drive. The conventional or straight leg deadlift uses mainly the lower back and hamstrings due to only a hip hinge movement.
Bulgarian Split Squat
If done correctly the Bulgarian split squat overloads the glutes tremendously. The main obstacle here is the quadriceps can easily take over the exercise.
Start in a stationary lunge position with the back foot elevated on a bench. Hold two dumbbells to the side and ensure the front knee remains over the ankle. Drop the back knee towards the ground keeping an upright position. Drive through the heel of the front foot to return to the starting position. Make sure your client has a loose grip on the dumbbells.
The key here is keeping the top of the back foot on the bench. Avoid pushing the toes into the bench. Instead, rest the back foot and laces flat on the bench. When the toes come up and push through on the bench the quadriceps are stimulated.
Top Hamstring Activation Exercises
The hip hinge movement pattern is the most important aspect of hamstring muscle recruitment. Use the following isolation exercises in your client’s training program.
Good Morning and Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
The good morning and single-leg Romanian deadlift require the hip hinge movement pattern. The hip hinge movement stimulates the muscles in the posterior chain. Bending at the hips should be accompanied by a neutral spine. This results in a hinge.
Optimal hinge movements occur only through the hips and not by flexing the lower back. When a client's lumbar spine begins to round or flex, they are not moving through the hips.
The good morning exercise is one of the best examples of what a hip hinge should look like. Have your client start with the barbell in a back-rack position, same as what they would use for a back squat. Their foot stance should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and, like the squat, toes pointed slightly outward. Your client will engage their upper back and keep a good arch in their lower back. They should have a slight bend at the knees and be pushing their butt back as they start to bend forward at the hips. Have them bend forward until their torso is slightly above parallel. Then, slowly raise back up to the starting position, engaging the glutes and hamstrings to get there.
The single-leg Romanian deadlift works on hamstring activation and stability. Clients stand up tall with two feet on the ground. To start the exercise, they will raise the right leg off the ground balancing on the left leg. Bend at the hips and cue them to shoot them back as far as they can. The right leg is off the ground and should remain straight. The client will lower the dumbbells to below the knee. Ensure they do so without rotating the pelvis. Once the client's upper body is parallel to the ground return to the starting position. Drive through the heel of the foot on the ground. Simultaneously extend the hips forward to complete the movement.
Stability Ball Curl
Knee flexion is a hamstring muscle action. Stability ball hamstring curls isolate the hamstrings without having to use much of any other muscles.
Lying flat on the back and calves rested on the stability ball. Instruct clients to lift their hips off the ground and pull the ball in with their feet. Flexing the knee and contracting the hamstring. Slowly let the ball go back to the starting position by extending the legs and keeping the hips raised towards the ceiling.
Hamstring: Compound Strength and Muscle Building Exercises
The following exercises will utilize both the glutes and hamstrings. But they emphasize the hip hinge movement pattern more. This makes them optimal exercises for the hamstrings.
Straight Leg Barbell Deadlift
The positioning of the body during a conventional or straight leg deadlift promotes more hamstring contraction. Little to no bend at the knee and driving the hips as far back as possible creates this contraction. On top of that, the barbell allows higher loads to be used. The lower back and hamstrings work together to move the heavy weight.
The kettlebell swing also uses the glutes and hamstrings. At the top end of the exercise when you extend the hips forward you create a glute contraction. The hip hinge though is the dominant part of the exercise. This is where the demand is highest for hamstring recruitment.
Learn how to perform the kettlebell swing and cue clients properly.
The name says it all. The hamstrings are highly activated during the eccentric muscle contraction in a glute-ham raise. This is what makes the hamstrings work even harder.
Check out this ISSA blog to learn why eccentric training is highly beneficial.
Squats: The Most Important Lower Body Exercise?
The exercises discussed in this article use all lower body muscles. This includes the glutes and hamstrings. The main difference between them is that one muscle usually ends up working more than others during specific exercises. Although hamstrings and glutes work together throughout all posterior chain exercises.
The big question still remains: What do squats actually work?
Do they target the glutes? Hamstrings? Quadriceps?
Well, the short answer is: All the above.
More specifically a barbell back squat incorporates all lower body muscles. This exercise even uses other muscles throughout the entire body. Trainers today still try to figure out which muscle group benefits the most.
Contrary to popular belief, the hamstrings are not as active during squats as you might think. Squats are a quad-dominant exercise. The reason for this boils down to the muscle actions of each muscle group involved in the squat exercise.
To properly stimulate any muscle, the muscle needs to contract. During a squat, there is excessive bending at the knees and hips. This results in almost no change in hamstring muscle length. Therefore, very little contraction occurs.
As a muscle concentrically contracts the muscle length shortens. This does not happen enough during a squat for the hamstrings to be fully engaged. This is why a sumo deadlift targets the glutes more than it does the hamstrings.
The conventional deadlift's main focus is a hip hinge. In other words, only bending at the hips. Not at both the hips and knees.
The more muscle groups used during a single lift, the better the metabolic response. Use isolation exercises to help stimulate muscles that are weak or inactive. When a client lacks strength in certain areas and you neglect to train that muscle, you can expect injuries.
For optimal strength and muscle gain, train the hamstrings and glutes together using compound lifts. Utilize isolation exercises to ensure that your client moves biomechanically efficient through these lifts.
If you are looking to take your personal training career to the next level and help more people, check out ISSA’s Glute Specialist Certification. Become the go-to expert for building glutes, hamstrings, and the whole posterior chain.
Certified Glute Specialist
The ISSA Glute Training Specialist Course teaches trainers the science behind building better glutes and how to focus on these muscle groups to give clients the best results. You’ll learn how to unlock the hips, create better programming, and deliver envious results. You’ll master the art of developing a superior posterior and be the go-to glute expert!