When I first started deadlifting, my lower back would kill the next day. Turns out, I was skimping on something major: glute activation.
“Glute activation primes the muscle to do the actual work during the workout,” ACE-certified personal trainer Sivan Fagan, founder of Strong With Sivan in Baltimore, M.D., tells SELF. “It boosts blood flow to the muscle and works on the mind-muscle connection.”
When you go into taxing, compound lower-body moves cold—or even after a nonspecific warm-up—the muscles you want to engage during those moves aren’t exactly ready to roll. As a result, your body tends to recruit other muscles to complete the exercise, which ends up overworking them. So when I was deadlifting straight out of the gate, my glutes weren’t picking up their slack, forcing my lower back to step in instead.
“When you activate your glutes beforehand, you’re telling your body that this is the muscle that’s going to work and other muscles are not going to take over,” Fagan says.
The key to glute activation is to really focus on your butt muscles, and to make sure they are firing as hard as they can during the move. One way to make sure your glutes are working is to simply touch the muscle to feel it fire, says Fagan. So when you’re at the top of a glute bridge and really squeezing your glutes hard, if you rest your hand along your butt, you should physically be able to feel the muscles contract.
The best glute activation routine works key movement patterns of your hip, which you’ll likely be performing during a leg workout: hip extension (like with a glute bridge), hip external rotation (like a clam shell), and hip abduction (like with a lateral walk). Low intensity work (think resistance bands instead of free weights) and higher reps are the best way to program it, says Fagan.
That’s the premise behind this glute activation routine created by Fagan. You’ll do high-rep banded work to get your glutes firing, and to prepare them for a lower body workout to come afterward. Completing the circuit once is enough for glute activation before a workout (sticking to the low-end of the rep range took me 3 minutes), but if you want to use this as a butt workout instead, you can complete 4 rounds (which should take under 15 minutes with rest).
Ready to get started? Here’s what you need to know.
What you need: a mini-band (or a resistance band you can tie) and an exercise mat for comfort.
- Glute bridge
- Clam shell
- Donkey kick
- Lateral walk
Complete 15–20 reps of each exercise (15–20 reps per side for single-leg moves), going directly into the next move without rest. Do 1 circuit for a glute activation warm-up.
To make this a workout, rest for 30 seconds after completing the 4 moves. Do 4 rounds total.
Demonstrating the moves: Grace Pulliam, an aerial yoga and Vinyasa yoga teacher in New York City (GIFs 1 and 2), and Crystal Williams (GIFs 3 and 4), a group fitness instructor and trainer who teaches at residential and commercial gyms across New York City.
- Lie faceup on the floor or a mat, your knees bent, and wrap a band around your thighs, just above your knees. Your feet should be hip-width apart and your hands at your sides; your fingers should be close to grazing the back of each heel.
- Engage your core so your low back presses against the floor.
- Push through your heels and lift your hips until they align with your knees, and squeeze your glutes at the top.
- Lower your hips to the floor to return to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
- Do 15–20 reps.
- Lie on your right side with your hips, knees, and ankles stacked on top of each other. Bend your knees to 90 degrees and wrap a band around your thighs just above your knees.
- Keeping your feet together, lift your left knee open, then slowly lower it back to meet your right. This is 1 rep.
- Do 15–20 reps on this side, then switch sides.
- Focus on keeping your core engaged and your back straight. Try not to lean forward or tip back.
- Loop a mini band around the bottom of your right foot and left ankle. Start in an all-fours position with your knees under your hips, wrists under your shoulders, and your core engaged.
- Keeping your knee bent and right foot flexed, kick your right leg up toward the ceiling. Pause at the top.
- Return your left knee to floor for 1 rep.
- Do 15–20 reps, then switch sides.
- Place the band around your ankles.
- Stand in a quarter-squat position (a shallow squat), with your feet about hip-width apart, and your hands at your chest or on your hips.
- Take a step to the right with your right foot, so that your feet are wider than hip width. Follow with your left foot so that your feet are hip-width apart again. This is 1 rep.
- Complete for 15–20 reps, then switch sides. If you don’t have enough room, you can do them in smaller increments (as pictured), making sure you hit the total on each side.