To get ahead in lifting, you have to start with your butt.
A working butt is key for a lifter's progress. Functioning, activated glute muscles and a developed posterior chain — the body parts that make up a big butt — are a shorthand for health, strength, and athletic ability.
Developed butts mean, strength-wise, a couple of things. Referred to as the seat of power, those muscles take a central role in squats, deadlifts, and sprints, as well as correct posture outside of the gym. Functioning glute muscles don’t occur in isolation. Often, in athletes, they come with a developed posterior chain, which includes hamstrings, calves, spinal erectors, and lats. Butts that “sit on a shelf,” rest on healthy, functioning hamstring muscles. Most lifters who follow respectable programs should have as much muscle on the backs of their bodies as they do on the front.
Why it’s good to have a strong butt
The butt’s always been important in sports. Trainer Holly Perkins told Runner’s World it’s the “anchor for your entire pelvis…. your base for body mechanics.” Studies suggest elite sprinters have much more defined gluteus maximus muscles than average sprinters, and that pattern might repeat itself in football and baseball. Baseball scouts would reportedly grade baseball prospects’ potential based on their backsides: a flat butt on a reedy young player denotes they likely won’t fill out their frame; a curved backside implies they’d put on good weight, and get stronger. Their legs would get bigger, and the power — home runs, pitching velocity — that comes from their posterior chain would follow.
Workaday strength training and exercising have taken this lead. Programs have shifted in the past 30 years from jogging and above-the-waist-only bodybuilding splits to yoga and powerlifting. Posterior chains have been getting put to work — and glutes have grown. Yoga, which helps lifters add stability and mobility, includes positions like Warrior pose and upward planks, which place glutes and hamstrings under tension, respectively, and can build up posterior power. Powerlifting’s serious focus on the posterior chain — deadlifts for the back, and squats for the whole body — are a marked improvement over incorrectly followed bodybuilding programs where the legs are ignored. (If the sport is done right, it’s very good for the posterior chain.)
An undeveloped posterior chain can also put you at risk. Unactivated posterior chains — dead gluteal muscles and overly tight, underdeveloped hamstrings — can impinge on your quality of life, and cause hip issues, and knee, ankle, and lower back pain. Dead butts are caused mostly by inactivity and sitting. Long periods in a chair without getting up, over the years, can put glutes into disuse, weakening the muscles and atrophying the back part of the body. Recent scholarship has reframed sitting as a public health crisis, like smoking.
How to get a better butt
Luckily, posterior chains can be built back up by strength training, both directly focused on the glutes and otherwise. Lifters can test their glute health — there are many ways how — and stretches like glute bridges, or this list of glute exercises or Joe DeFranco’s Limber 11 can help get inactive, or slightly dead glutes, back to the equator and ready for work.
Once there, lifters can grow their butts in direct and indirect ways. Glute-focused programs are the most immediate way. Bret Contreras’ Glute Challenge is a classic, helpful periodized program. Known as the Glute Guy, he’s responsible for the stretches in the paragraph above and is one of the first trainers to focus on butt health and butt aesthetics.
His prescribed exercises blow up the glutes and hamstrings, prompting muscle growth through targeted movements like squats, split squats, and bridges. Other glute-focused programs are legion and tend to lean heavily on squats, and squat variants like good mornings, as well as eccentric work and hip thrusters. These programs are hybrid, periodized routines. They’re half bodybuilding, half powerlifting, meant to swap in with other programs, hyper-specific and localized to one part of the body.
Lifters can also grow their posterior chains in indirect ways, i.e., as they grow the rest of their body. There are more options here: just about any good powerlifting program out there will target the butt. as a side effect of building up the squat, deadlift, and bench — the main competition lifts.
Those first two movements build up hamstrings and glutes — deadlifters squeeze their butt on the lockout, and a powerful butt gets a squatter out of the hole — and make up a good chunk of a training plan. Because they’re compound lifts, these exercises don’t target the glutes directly, but as one muscle among many. When followed correctly they still have a positive effect on the butt.
“It’s a Trojan horse way to get healthy.”
Glute-focused assistance exercises that supplement these main lifts can lead to even more growth. Kettlebell swings and Romanian deadlifts, done at high rep ranges, are hypertrophic, and add mass. They also lead to higher squat totals. It’s an organic thing. Powerlifting doesn’t place glute development as a goal — it just happens, since the posterior chain grows as lifters get stronger.
And as fitness has progressed from chest day and jogging to more holistic, full-body workouts, the aesthetic component still remains. And that’s fine. Some people want their butt to be bigger, and that’s why they go to the gym. And if that seems superficial, it’s no more cosmetic a goal than picking up bodybuilding to overhaul your body into something like Arnold’s.
Aesthetic goals get maligned, but if they get us into the gym they can’t be that bad. We might want a flat stomach, or legs like this guy, or we want to look healthy, or have really good posture. What’s wrong with that? It’s better than sitting around, and if that goal can be reached at the gym, then we should.
It’s a Trojan horse way to get healthy: putting on muscle and protecting our bodies from injury. As we build up our butts, whether on purpose, or just incidentally, we build up our posterior chains, and get healthier. It’s an aesthetic exercise, but it’s much more than that.
Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.