Are Squats the Most Effective Glute Exercise?
In today’s Fad or Fact episode, we’re going over whether squats are the most effective glute exercise. This has been a topic of controversy by opinionated fans of bro science, not that it’s a bad thing, but it’s just a thing, and I’m here to not only answer your question, but to dig deep into the human anatomy, break down the function of the squat, the glutes, and explain why it’s a controversial topic to begin with.
What is the function of the glutes?
To learn a little about the function of the glutes, we have to know where the origin and insertions are. This tells us where the muscle starts and ends.
When talking about the gluteus maximus (the largest of your glute muscles), your origin (where it starts) is at the outer ilium of the pelvis, posterior side of the sacrum and coccyx, and part of the sacrotuberous and posterior sacroliliac ligament. Your insertion (where it ends, part that moves with the contraction) is at the gluteal tuberosity of the femur and iliotibial tract.
The function of your glute max is to concentrically accelerate hip extension and to perform external rotation. When you contract a muscle, it’s going to make the two locations (origin and insertion) come closer together.
For example, your glutes are completely inactive while sitting, which you can imagine when you see that the distance from the origin and insertion are further apart than if you were in a neutral, standing position. People who have desk jobs are seen with extremely inactive glutes even in neutral positions due to this. But if you go from sitting to standing, you’ll see that they are no longer “turned off” (in a person with no muscular imbalance). Evenmoreso, you’ll see glute activation if you were to stand up and contract your glutes at the top.
How can we test glute activity in a squat?
We’ve heard several arguments in bro science claim that the squat is the king of all glute exercises, but how do we prove or disprove this?
The best way research has to show muscle activation in an exercise is expressed through %MVC (percentage of maximal voluntary contraction) in EMG data. In simple terms, this means that it shows what percent of the muscle is activated. The most optimal exercise for activation will be at 100%.
Although EMG shows muscle activation, it doesn’t show muscle fiber recruitment. Despite this, it is theorized that higher activation means higher muscle recruitment, implying greater hypertrophy also known as muscle growth.
An easy way to explain the difference between activation and recruitment is to imagine a room. There are several lights in the room. You can turn the lights on, off, or even dim them. That would be similar to activation. You can tell if a muscle is 30% activated in an exercise, 70% activated, completely activated, or not at all.
Now imagine that there are several lights in the room. You can adjust the lights with the light switch, but you can’t tell which lights are being used. Are some partially being used in the beginning and then others taking over? Are the same lights being used the entire time while others aren’t used at all?
This example is similar to the difference between muscle recruitment and activation. With EMG, you can’t tell which fibers are being recruited, because although it may show there is a high activation of that muscle, there may not be a high activation of recruitment of all of the fibers in and of themselves.
All this really means is that we don’t know with 100% certainty which exercises are better than others when exercises with similar activation are compared. This is because there are several other factors that come into play when it comes to hypertrophy, including the muscle fiber recruitment (which can be effected by time under tension, volume, intensity, etc). This is why this has been seen as a controversial topic.
Despite this, we do know which exercises prove higher activation and because there is a correlation between activation and hypertrophy, we can assume that the exercises with higher muscle activation provide better results in growing that muscle.
Is the Squat most effective for glute activation?
The answer is no. EMG activity shows that, despite the glutes being important to perform a squat effectively, glute EMG activity is far less active in comparison to the quads in a back squat.
Glute activity ranges from as low as 17-70% MVC, whereas the quads (vastus lateralis) range from 47-100% MVC for activation during the back squat.
What are the best exercises for glute activation?
The best exercises for the glutes are going to be your hip thrusts, glute bridges, weighted glute kickbacks, and back extension.
This doesn’t mean you should avoid squats. In fact, I suggest that you incorporate a variety of these exercises in your routine for optimal results. In your glute-focused workouts, not only should you incorporate a variation of the above exercises, but you should also incorporate a squat and deadlift variation as well.
Although squats may not be the top exercise for glutes, there are ways to make sure you’re activating your glutes more effectively, especially in today’s world where most people are seated and have taught their glutes to become inactive.
How can we activate the glutes more in a squat?
If you consider yourself inactive, then you more than likely have inactive glutes. Mobility and activation exercises are one of the best ways to build up your glute strength again. I suggest doing these corrective exercises before doing any barbell or resistance work if you’re trying to become active again.
Some of my favorite activation exercises to activate and warm up the glutes before your squat sessions are banded abductor lateral walks, banded monster walks, banded squats, and banded glute bridges. All of these exercises should be light weight and used to wake up the muscle. Your goal is nothing else, but to warm them up and work on activating them so don’t try and use anything but light weight.
Choosing which variation of squat to perform will also make a difference in glute activation. For example, the most optimal is going to be the wide stance squat. This is because increased hip abduction requires more glute activation.
Once you go to squat, make sure that you are completely contracting or squeezing your butt at the top of the squat and fully hitting depth (going to parallel or just below without losing tension) at the bottom of the squat.
To sum it all up, although squats aren’t the best exercise to train your glutes, they can be made more effective by doing exercises such as hip thrusts, kick backs, and hip extensions. I suggest incorporating all of these exercises into your training program for the best results.
Al-Dirini, R M, et al. “Deformation of the Gluteal Soft Tissues during Sitting.” Clinical Biomechanics (Bristol, Avon)., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2015. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26032324
Ayotte, N W, et al. “Electromyographical Analysis of Selected Lower Extremity Muscles during 5 Unilateral Weight-Bearing Exercises.” The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17366959
Beardsley, Chris. Gluteus Maximus EMG Activation. https://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/muscles/gluteus-maximus/
Contreras, Bret. (2014, August 24). “Glute Training.” https://bretcontreras.com/best-glute-exercises/
Fisher, Adam. (2016, February 17). “EMG Amplitude and Muscle Hypertrophy.” https://www.strongerbyscience.com/emg-amplitude-tell-us-muscle-hypertrophy/