by Bret Contreras March 01, 2010
I don’t want to waste anyone’s time so I’m going to dive right into things. Women want a nice butt. There’s no debating that. The conundrum for a woman now becomes, “how do I get a nice butt?” The answer is, “it depends on your body.”
Women come in all shapes and sizes. Most need to lose fat. Many need to gain muscle all over. Some need to gain muscle in certain places and avoid muscle gain in other places. Every woman is unique in this regard.
One problem that turns many women off to strength training is that many of the “great” glute exercises are also the best quad exercises. A simple bodyweight squat typically activates 70% MVC for the quads and only 20% MVC for the glutes in women. This is why most women feel squats only in their quads.
I’ve trained a whole lot of “skinny types.” The stronger you get these types of women, the better they look. Get them strong at squats and lunges and their butt and thighs keep looking better.
I’ve also trained a whole lot of “heavier types.” No matter how hard these women worked, their thighs always appeared a bit bulky. This is where the disconnect lies between trainers and clients. A trainer may know deep down that over time getting a woman strong at the most basic movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges, bench press, bent over rows, chin ups, dips, and military press will serve her body very well. However, the worst thing you can do to an already-insecure female client who is self-conscious about how large her thighs are is prescribe a bunch of exercises that the woman feels working her quads. The second her jeans start fitting more snug in the thighs and she will want to quit working out.
Many trainers don’t really experience this phenomenon, simply because they are “conditioning-type” trainers. They don’t worry about loading the exercises and they stick mostly to bodyweight, band, med ball, dumbbell, kettlebell, and trx exercises. They simply move you from one exercises to another and try to keep your heart rate elevated throughout the workout. While this is good for fat loss, it’s usually not the best solution to developing a better butt.
A typical client has experienced severe gluteal atrophy due to inactivity over the years. Their rear-ends may appear large because they are loaded up with excess adipose tissue, but underneath all that fat there isn’t a whole lot of muscle. We need to whittle away the fat, which decreases hip width, while building muscular shape, which increases hip depth. That’s the secret to developing a nice set of buns.
Getting back to what I alluded to earlier, women don’t want to develop shapely glutes at the expense of simultaneously developing huge thighs. Can a typical woman’s thighs get too big from regular strength training? Again, it depends on the trainer/training. I come from a strength and conditioning background and am well-versed in bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, and Olympic lifting. A healthy woman who trains with me for six months could easily build her full squat up to 115-225 pounds if I pushed her. She could be performing walking lunges with 30-50 pound dumbbells as well. This may or may not lead to overdeveloped thighs, depending on the shape of the woman. Furthermore, it may or may not lead to great glutes. Some woman don’t get a lot of glute activation from squatting and lunging. Even though they exhibit what appears to be great form, they’re using mostly quads. Clearly we need to search for exercises that are more “hip-dominant” and less “quad-dominant.”
Are deadlifts the solution? Deadlifts may lead to a similar problem, albeit in a different area. A healthy woman who trains with me for six months could easily build her deadlift up to 185-275 pounds if I pushed her. This may or may not lead to overdeveloped traps, depending on the shape of the woman. Deadlifts indeed work the glutes well, but they are also the best all-around back exercise and will lead to muscular growth from the neck down to the feet. Is there an exercise that is more specific to “what women want?” Enter the hip thrust.
Let me preface this by stating that squats, deadlifts, and lunges are amazing exercises. I’m not stating that women or trainers should avoid these amazing exercises. I’m simply stating that there comes a point where women may become “too strong” at these exercises and their strength will start to negatively impact their physiques. In contrast, a women can develop all the strength in the world at hip thrusts and it will only benefit her physique. The stronger she gets, the better her butt will look. A simple bodyweight hip thrust typically activates 40% MVC for the glutes in women while offering less quadricep activity and virtually no upper back activity. While squats and lunges may make the thighs too big and deadlifts may make the back too big, hip thrusts hone in on the butt region.
It’s very rare that a woman’s actual glute musculature become too bulky. Sure, we’ve all seen pictures of women with huge, round butts but usually all the matter/mass comes from a combination of fat and muscle. If we were to take a scalpel and carve away the fat, these women’s butts would likely look absolutely perfect; shapely and firmed. The problem with the typical “starve yourself and do tons of cardio” method is that you’ll lose weight and lose your butt along with it. Now you’re left with “No-ass-at-all,” a disease characterized by an uninterrupted flow of legs right up into the back with no bulge where the glute muscles should appear.
In all my years of experience as a trainer, I’ve seen several women whose quads started getting too big, several women whose backs started getting too big, and not a single woman whose glutes started getting too big. A healthy woman who trains with me for six months could easily build her hip thrust up to 185-275 pounds if I pushed her. The best part about the hip thrust is that I don’t have to worry about the woman getting “too strong.” The stronger the thrust, the better the butt!
Obviously training needs to be very specific to the individual. Overweight women need to simply move around a lot using basic movement patterns so they can lose weight and eventually incorporate barbell movements into their arsenals including hip thrusts. On a side note, since overweight people weigh a lot, bodyweight hip thrusts are an excellent strength and conditioning exercise for these folks. Weak, tight women need to increase their hip mobility, core stability, and glute activation before attempting barbell hip thrusts or they’ll simply use their low back and hamstring muscles to move the weight and will end up doing more harm than good to their bodies.
However, I’ve had a ton of success with hip thrusts and if you start incorporating them into your routine, I believe that you can have huge success as well. Just make sure you start off with bodyweight and move up slowly over time. After you get the hang of bodyweight and can perform 3 sets of 20 repetitons, move up to the barbell. Make sure you place a pad around the barbell to minimize the pressure on the hips. Learn to develop an intense “mind-muscle connection” by contracting the glutes as hard as physically possible on each repetition. Always make sure you feel” the glutes doing the work. There are also many other great glute isolation exercises that can be employed that won’t work the quads or upper back, such as single leg hip thrusts, band quadruped donkey kicks, single leg back extensions, reverse hypers, and pull throughs.
If you are a woman, I recommend continuing with squats, lunges, and deadlifts, but keep an eye on the size of your quads and upper back. If muscle mass starts negatively impacting your physique, then stop going heavy on these exercises. Concurrently, start supplementing your routine with hip thrusts and some other targeted glute exercises for optimal glute development. If you do this, I believe that your glutes will be very appreciative.
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