Two of the most common questions I receive regarding glute training is, “How do I target my upper glutes?” and “How do I target my lower glutes?” The answer to these question is somewhat complicated because 1) it’s not possible to activate the lower glutes without activating the upper glutes, 2) it is possible to activate the upper glutes without activating the lower glutes, and 3) some of the most effective glute exercises highly activate the upper and lower portions simultaneously. Furthermore, many individuals want to know if they can target the inner or outer glutes as well. Let’s see what the research has to say about this topic.
Fast- and Slow-twitch Fibers
In 2006, McAndrew et al. used laser-based mechanomyography to study six regions of the gluteus maximus: upper outer, upper inner, middle outer, middle inner, lower outer and lower inner divisions. The researchers saw no differences between inner versus outer gluteal fiber function. However, they found that the upper region displayed the longest contraction time, indicating that it contains more slow-twitch fibers and is more involved in postural tasks compared to the lower region, and that the lower region displayed the shortest contraction time, indicating that it contains more fast-twitch fibers and is more involved in dynamic tasks.
This jives with the findings of both Lyons et al., who found that the lower gluteus maximus was more involved than the upper gluteus maximus during stair climbing, and Karlsson and Jonsson, who found that the upper gluteus contracted independently from the lower gluteus maximus during frontal plane hip abduction (raising the leg out to the side). Each of the three studies mentioned here are acute mechanistic studies; there are currently no longitudinal training studies investigating the effects of different exercises on actual upper and lower glute muscle growth.
The Best Exercises
Since there isn’t much published research to go by, let’s discuss some of the unique findings that I’ve discovered in my glute lab utilizing electromyography. In examining 13 trained women, I discovered that 10-rep maximum loads in the back squat elicited mean upper and lower gluteus maximus activation of 29 percent and 45 percent of maximum voluntary contraction, respectively, whereas 10-repetition maximum loads in the barbell hip thrust elicited mean upper and lower gluteus maximus activation of 69 percent and 87 percent of maximum voluntary contraction, respectively. This indicates that the barbell hip thrust does a much better job of activating the gluteus maximus than the squat, especially in the upper region.
However, what about other exercises? Based on eight years of conducting various experiments, I would recommend the following. If seeking maximum hypertrophy in the upper glutes, perform barbell hip thrusts, back extensions, cable kickbacks, band hip thrusts and single-leg hip thrusts. If seeking maximum hypertrophy in the lower glutes, perform barbell hip thrusts, back extensions, cable kickbacks, band hip thrusts and single-leg hip thrusts. Please note that these lists are identical, as these exercises consistently show the highest levels of glute activation in both the upper and lower regions. If seeking upper glute hypertrophy independent of lower glute hypertrophy, perform side lying hip abduction, cable standing hip abduction and lateral band walks. If seeking lower glute hypertrophy independent of upper glute hypertrophy, perform squats, lunges and Bulgarian split squats.
Many women wish to target their outer glutes because they mistakenly believe in spot reduction, which is the false notion that body fat is burned in the localized regions of the body that are activated. Even so, it is not possible to target the inner or outer regions of the glutes since the fibers activate identically from left to right along the length of the gluteus maximus fibers.
More research is needed to determine the most effective exercises and training methods for targeting specific regions of the gluteus maximus. However, it is indeed possible to target the upper glutes independently from the lower glutes. This is achieved by performing exercises that raise the leg out to the side, which can be done in the side lying position or in the standing position using cables or bands. It is not possible to target the lower glutes independently from the upper glutes, however, single and double leg squat patterns activate the lower gluteus maximus more heavily than the upper gluteus maximus.
The most efficient way to work the gluteus maximus is by focusing on variations of hip thrusts, back extensions and kickbacks, since these movement patterns activate the upper and lower glutes to the highest degree.
1. McAndrew D, Gorelick M, Brown J. Muscles within muscles: a mechanomyographic analysis of muscle segment contractile properties within human gluteus maximus. J Musculoskelet Res. 2006;10:23-35.
2. Lyons K, Perry J, Gronley JK, Barnes L, Antonelli D. Timing and relative intensity of hip extensor and abductor muscle action during level and stair ambulation. An EMG study. Phys Ther. 1983;63:1597-605.
3. Karlsson E, Jonsson B. Function of the gluteus maximus muscle. An electromyographic study. Acta Morphol Neerl Scand. 1965;6:161-9.