Build Your Glutes, Save Your Lower Back
Is Direct Glute Training Dangerous?
There’s been some talk lately about how certain glute exercises are dangerous for the lower back, but I’m calling BS. My clients have been doing the barbell hip thrust and its variations with great success for almost 10 years. Those clients include elite athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and even physical therapy patients.
Anything done with bad form or too much weight is risky. Which means that hip thrusts, done properly, are no more dangerous than bicep curls, done properly. Bottom line? If you want strong glutes, or just better looking ones, you need to train them directly and intelligently. Here’s how to target your glutes and build them up without trashing your lower back.
1 – Basic Banded Glute Bridge
Never underestimate the power of a seemingly simple movement like the basic glute bridge. You can find this exercise in many half-assed therapy programs, and my problem isn’t with the exercise, but rather the setup and execution.
Many people set up the glute bridge haphazardly. And as a result, they shift the tension away from the glutes and onto the hamstrings or lower back, which defeats the purpose of a butt exercise.
It’s called the “glute bridge” for a reason. And it’s up to us to get our bodies into the position that’ll allow for hard active contraction of the gluteal complex first, with the hamstrings and lower back (to some extent) kicking in as secondary extensors.
Take your unique hip and pelvic structure into account. By altering the distance between your feet to place the ball and socket joint of the hip as centrated as possible, you’ll create a stronger gluteal contraction. Manipulate the position of your knees in relation to your hips. Most of the time it’s far wider than people think. Get that position right and you can recruit the glute muscles and get them to do their primary jobs.
Finally, if you’re having trouble positioning yourself and gaining torque and tension through the hips and glutes as you bridge, add a band that acts as a “reactive neuromuscular stabilizer.” This will cause the glutes to kick in more.
Watch the video above to put these tips together and improve this staple movement. Then use it for dynamic warm ups, activation drills, and more.
2 – Banded Dumbbell Frog Pump + RKC Plank Finisher
The next step is to train this movement pattern with more intensity to generate the greatest muscular training effect possible while sparing the spine.
People forget they can load the bodyweight glute bridge by simply adding a plate or dumbbell to the lap. This variation is written off since it’s not super likely you’ll be pulling a 200-pound dumbbell onto your lap for max effort glute bridges. But don’t write it off.
By positioning your hips further into an externally rotated and abducted position, you can isolate the glutes more while minimizing recruitment of the hams and lower back. This is called the “frog” position and is one hell of a way to increase neural activation of the glutes while making smaller loads placed on the front of the hips more effective for pain-free loading. Like the glute bridge, you can also add a band around the knees to create a greater activation.
Remember, the gluteal complex consists of the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. They’re largely tonic postural stabilizing muscles that act on the both hip and pelvis to create static and dynamic stability. That means this group of muscles will respond best to hypertrophy-work, endurance, and set/rep schemes that increase metabolic stress. It also means they may respond less favorably to heavy power and pure strength-based schemes of lower reps.
But as the load increases and relative intensity increases, the likelihood for injury and form falling to shit is also increased, which is never a good thing. So isolating the glutes should be more about time under tension with moderate weight than it is about throwing your back out for one second of glory using too much weight.
This is one reason I love the banded-frog pump exercise. You get a strong mind-muscle connection with a relatively light dumbbell placed on the lap. You increase the time under tension using a higher rep scheme (between 15-30 reps). It’s a metabolic stress based movement combined with an isolation hold of the glutes.
Combined with a movement like the RKC plank it’ll create the perfect storm of joint-friendly glute work. Try it as a finisher.
3 – Barbell Glute Bridge
Bodyweight glute training is useful but limited. The next progression is the barbell glute bridge. This exercise looks and feels almost exactly the same as its bodyweight counterpart. Don’t let the ego drive you to adding more weight than necessary, especially if you want direct glute training to stay in your future.
The addition of the bar makes it more challenging to keep the pelvis in a neutral position. To minimize uncontrolled pelvic tilting, actively and forcefully posteriorly rotate the pelvis and add tension to the glutes before ever lifting the bar up off the ground.
While most people can achieve a slightly posterior pelvic tilt, it’s far harder to maintain that position, especially at the top of this lift where your hips are driving vertically. Your spine will want to get into an extension position to extend the range of motion.
The fix is to move slower, more deliberately, and under control throughout the concentric lifting and eccentric lowering portion. Cueing yourself to flex hard at the top without bouncing at the top is a great place to start.
4 – Explosive Barbell Glute Bridge With Flex
Now add a band around the knees. This may seem simplistic, but remember that stability is largely dependent on your body getting into a biomechanically sound position. You’re looking for the type of movement in which your neuromuscular system takes over to create synergistic torque and tension through the entire kinetic chain.
Once the band is on, you can play with the velocity of the concentric portion, depending on the stability of the top position. By driving up hard with some bar speed and flexing the top of the movement, then letting the eccentric (negative) become a bit more passive as the bar comes back down to the ground, you can work on strength-power which transfers extremely well into sport, while also minimizing the more tolling eccentric load.
Increased velocity of a movement is always a progression that needs to be earned in order to prevent training injuries. Challenge yourself intelligently, and by no means is compensation and half-cocked technique an excuse for getting hurt in the gym.
Check out the explosive barbell glute bridge with bands around the knees above. Notice the volitional flex at the top of each rep, which aids in the stabilization of the pelvis and limited hyperextension of the lower back. And yes, you can absolutely train this movement with some bar speed well into hypertrophy set/rep ranges.
5 – Barbell Glute Bridge With Banded Rest-Pause Finisher
Since the glutes respond well to metabolic stress and higher effort-based intensities and volumes, one of the best ways to add a pain-free training response is by using a rest-pause finisher set.
This will add intensity to the barbell glute bridge, especially if you’re training without a partner. It’s not practical to do drop sets on hip thrusts or barbell glute bridges because you’d have to unload the plates from each side of the bar between each drop. But the addition of a rest-pause will challenge you similarly without that problem. Here’s how to do it:
- Ramp up in weight and get to a top end load that challenges you to get the last rep on a set (maintaining perfect form and technique).
- On that last working set, do your programmed number of reps, and then lay back and pause for 10 seconds, resting while the bar remains on your hips.
- After that short rest, start again and drive up as many reps as you can get without grinding out anything that looks ugly.
- Once you hit relative failure again, pause 10 seconds and do one more bout.
The simple addition of a few more reps under mechanical and metabolic stress will create one hell of a training effect. If you push yourself, keep your tension high, and choose the proper loads, this will leave you with some serious butt hurt. But done properly, your lower back will feel like a million bucks!
6 – Barbell Hip Thrust
The hip thrust is a progression from the glute bridge which increases the available range of motion. Since the upper body and back are positioned on an elevated surface, the hip is able to move deeper at the bottom of the movement, and essentially the same extension at the top.
The more range of motion you can take a load through with proper tension and technique, the better training effect that muscle or region of movement will exhibit.
With that said, the main reason so many people are critical of this exercise is because it’s easily butchered. The setup is more challenging than the average lift, or glute bridge, for that matter. And an imperfect setup in terms of bench height, foot placement, pelvic stability, and core stability all integrated into a heavy loaded movement can cause more unwanted flexion and extension at the lumbar spine. This is a non-muscular compensation.
Many times, people struggle with too high or too low of a bench to position their backs on. A great alternative to a traditional weight bench that’s about 18 inches in height is stacking plastic exercise stairs that jump by a few inches with each insert you place below the stair. This has quickly become our preferred setup that can be far more custom than a too-tall bench.
But if you can control the tension and stability of the hips, pelvis, and core together, this movement is not only a great way to train the hips with serious load into extension, but can also be a staple of a lower-back friendly program. I routinely use the barbell hip thrust with clients who have lower back pain with great success. Setup, execution, and mastery of a movement is what pain-free training is dependent on.
Don’t buy it when someone calls these exercises “inherently dangerous.” Instead, look at their form and the weight they’ve been using. You may find that it’s only dangerous for people who make bad choices.
With the progressions above you can turn these movements into pain-free staples. Earn your hip thrusts by first mastering the progressions and you’ll bulletproof your back while developing rock-hard glutes.