First things first: let's talk about having reasonable expectations. Your shape is largely determined by genetics. There is no diet and exercise program that will give Ashley Olsen junk in the trunk like J-Lo. However, if you're small and seeking a curvy backside, lifting will help you build it up with more muscle, plus it will give you more roundness and lift. If you're concerned that your butt is too big as it is, keep in mind that exercise will give your rear more depth rather than width, which few women will complain about!
Now, on to the exercises! I've seen the same headlines you have: "Get the secret to a great butt!" "Secrets of celebrity trainers revealed!" and so on. I've seen the crazy battery of obscure exercises spread across glossy magazines. So you may think that what I'm about to suggest is woefully prosaic: squats and deadlifts. Yes, the good ol' standbys. Getting a great butt isn't about discovering some cutting-edge esoteric move. People do squats and deadlifts because they work, because they've been extensively researched, the results easily duplicated, and the conclusions are clear. They are simply unbeatable when it comes to lower body exercises.
So why squats and deadlifts? Aside from building up your backside, I could extoll the benefits of these exercises all day. First, they are quite possibly the most functional exercises you could do. How many people throw out their backs trying to pick up something heavy? Do your deadlifts and you don't have to worry about that happening to you. And isn't it nice to be able to squat to the ground without grunting and rubbing your knees? Plus, rather than just being a quad exercise or a hamstring exercise or a hip, core, or lower back exercise, they do it all, and train the muscles in your whole posterior chain to work together. This brings me to the reasoning why these compound lifts are such effective booty lifters. Unlike a silly machine exercise, you're not just training isolated muscles with laser focus. Rather, you're working the full range of your posterior chain: your gluteals, hip flexors, hamstrings, the glute-ham tie-in, your vastus lateralus (the curvy outer "sweep" of your quads), and all those other muscles that work together to create a lovely silhouette. And because you recruit so many different muscle groups, you're able to bear a lot more load. Heavier weights = more muscle! I regularly see people at the gym squatting several hundred pounds. Ever see someone do 100 pounds on the hip extension machine? Me neither.
Getting the most out of your squat
For the longest time, I didn't understand why squats were heralded as such a fantastic booty exercise. I wasn't feeling it in my rear and I wasn't getting the results I wanted. Now that I'm older and wiser, I understand what I was doing wrong.
First, let's talk about a phenomenon that's casually referred to as "sleepy glutes". Do you work at a computer or have a similar job that involves sitting at a desk all day? You may be a victim. Being in a seated position all day contracts and tightens the hip flexors while stretching and relaxing the glutes. Tight, overactive hip flexors + weak, underactive glutes = lessened glute activation. So, we're going to take a three-pronged approach here: a proper warm-up, beneficial stretching, and correct form for the squats themselves.
A common mistake that people make is statically stretching before their workout. In actuality, you want to do a dynamic warm-up first, such as a five minute brisk walk, to literally warm up your muscles. Stretching when everything is cold and tight can actually increase the likelihood of injury, plus you won't be able to get the most out of your stretches in such an inflexible state. Do dynamic mobility work before your workout, and stretches after. For our booty-building purposes, we're seeking warm ups that will increase hip mobility and fire up the glutes. There are plenty of mobility drills out there, so you can find your favorite, or do a few of my suggestions:
- For hip mobility, fire hydrants
- For the gluteus minimus and medius, scorpions
- For the gluteus maximus, glute bridges
That's right: I'm telling you to use the power cage. Here's the reasoning: to accomodate the highest load possible, you want to do a squat with the bar resting on your upper traps (as in the picture above). Your quads and glutes are much bigger muscles than those in your upper body, therefore they can bear more weight, so you can squat more poundage with the bar resting over your shoulders than you could if you were limited by upper body strength, such as with dumbbell or overhead squats. When you step into the power cage, the bar is already resting on the rack. All you have to do is position your traps underneath, grip the bar, and walk it back. This is much safer than if you had to pick a heavy barbell off the ground and finagle it over your shoulders. Also, keep in mind that the bar alone in the power cage weighs 45 lbs, so don't be surprised if you can only stack on a few 5lb plates!
The next aspect of squat form I want to touch on is depth. You may have heard that you should only lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground. This myth, however, is based on antiquated research. It has since been demonstrated that as long as you use proper form and have a reasonable rate of descent (read: you don't pile on more weight than you can handle and snap to the ground), there is no increased risk of injury. In fact, if you don't do a full ass-to-grass squat, you don't tap into your vastus medalis (the little teardrop shaped muscle over your knee). If you don't strengthen the muscles around your knees, you may develop a strength imbalance which will cause injury if your quads write checks that your knees can't cash. But perhaps the #1 reason why you want to squat deep? That's how you're going to tap into your booty muscles. I recently encountered a study which performed EMG analysis at the glutes for different squat depths. The verdict? Squat as low as you can go for maximum rear activation.
There's a great in-depth description of proper squat form here. Here's the gist: stand with your feet about shoulder width or slightly wider, toes turned slightly out. With a straight back, squat down as low as you can. Focus on sitting back rather than sitting down; this may help you keep proper form. When you get to the bottom, contract your glutes and use those muscles to bring yourself up, keeping your back straight and your feet firmly planted. Do NOT rise up on your heels! Do these correctly and you'll feel like someone took a blowtorch to your butt! If you can't do a deep squat with proper form using heavy weight, do them with a lighter weight at first, or even just body weight. If you need to make it even easier, do wall squats with a ball. Programming your body to squat low and with proper form is the first priority; you can always add more weight as you progress.
When you're done with your workout, this is the time to stretch. I recommend the following:
- Gluteus maximus: squatting glute stretch
- Gluteus minimus and medius: lying crossover
- Hip flexors: lunging hip flexor stretch
- Quads: lying quad stretch
- Hip adductors: squatting groin stretch
Stay tuned for part II: deadlifts and diet!