Growing glutes without growing the legs

Hi Bret, 

I had a question if you could help me out. I’ve been hitting legs/glutes a lot but I feel that my legs are getting bigger and I want my glutes to and not my legs. Squatting really makes my legs bulk up. I already have big muscular legs so I wanted to ask if you had any tips for growing the glutes without adding much more mass to legs. Should I forget about lifting too heavy and go for moderate weight and higher reps? Will that still add mass to my glutes?

Thanks,

Kristi

Hi Kristi!

I get this question a lot so it’s time I address it.

I’m going to make two assumptions. First, that you are of ideal weight and indeed have too muscular of legs for your liking. Many women find that when they reach desired levels of leanness (body composition), they love their muscular development and don’t feel that they’re too muscular in the legs no matter how strong they get. And second, that you are referring to the entire leg musculature – the quads, hams, and adductors. I’ve trained several women who did not want their quads and adductors to get larger, but it’s more rare to have women who dislike their hamstring development on account of them being too muscular.

There are indeed plenty of women in your position, so this is a valid question deserved of a well thought-out answer. 99% of fitness experts would just tell you to shut up and squat. And deadlift. I, however, will do my best to give you a proper reply.

This is not every woman's ideal physique.

This is not every woman’s ideal physique. Many would kill to look like her, but some women wouldn’t be comfortable with her level of quad development. This is okay, we can work around it!

You won’t grow your glutes unless you push the intensity very hard and get markedly stronger.

Unfortunately in your situation, most great glute exercises also highly activate the leg muscles. Therefore, pushing the glutes hard will also push the legs hard, causing them to grow as well. This complicates things.

It’s also important that you know that muscles can grow from low reps (1-5), medium reps (6-12), high reps (13-20), and even from really high reps (21-50) as long as the sets are pushed close to muscular failure or the intensity of effort for the session is sufficiently high. So just avoiding a particular rep range or avoiding heavy weights is not the solution.

The solution involves a two-fold approach:

  1. Avoiding exercises that highly activate and stress the quads, hammies, and adductors
  2. Performing exercises that highly activate and stress the glutes

This doesn’t leave us with many options!

Most pictures of great booties you see on the internet have pronounced glute development compared to the quads and hams. This isn't easy to create for most women.

Most pictures of great booties you see on the internet have pronounced glute development compared to the quads and hams. This isn’t easy to create for most women.

To elaborate, if you keep squatting and lunging, especially if you’re gaining strength on these movement patterns, your quads will continue to grow. If you keep performing glute ham raises, Russian leg curls, and RDLs, especially if you’re gaining strength on these movement patterns, your hamstrings will continue to grow.

If you really want your legs to shrink (or stop growing), you need to quit activating them to high levels when you train, and progressive overload is a bad idea for exercises that target these muscles.

So no squats, lunges, Bulgarian split squats, step ups, pistols, leg press, leg extensions, or trap bar deadlifts – these lead to too high of quad activation. Even hip thrusts are out – most people are unaware that they generate enormous amounts of quad activity. And no RDLs, Russian leg curls, glute ham raises, back extensions, deadlifts, good mornings, and leg curls either – they lead to too high of hamstring activation. Finally, no adductor movements such as the adductor machines you commonly see in the gym.

So what’s left to perform? How can we still attain good gluteal results while simultaneously keeping the leg muscles at bay?

There are several things we can still do:

  1. Low load glute activation work – there are tons of drills that you can and should do to shuttle the focus toward the glutes and away from other synergists. Start out your workouts with 5-10 minutes of this.
  2. Hip external rotation movements – band hip rotations are the best, but you really need to learn how to use the glutes during this movement as many women do not.
  3. Hip abduction movements – from side lying abduction, to band standing abduction, to band seated abduction, to band walk variations, to abductor machines – these target the upper glutes.
  4. Barbell glute bridges – these leave out much of the quad activity that barbell hip thrusts produce. This will be your money exercise – the exercise that you want to keep getting stronger at over time. Strength creates curves, and without it your glutes won’t grow.
  5. American deadlifts – this is a better option than RDLs due to the increased glute activation. Don’t go too low on these either.
  6. Pull-throughs and kettlebell swings – just make sure you’re feeling the glutes do the work when you perform them.
  7. Single leg foot elevated hip thrusts – you could also do these with both the shoulders and foot elevated.

Here’s Marianne doing a barbell glute bridge workout – they did her glutes well!

Here’s Kellie doing them too – these two ladies have excellent form!

Finally, here’s Steve doing band hip rotations – these hammer the glutes if done properly:

The list above gives you plenty of exercises to utilize in your training endeavors. If your thighs shrink down to your liking, you may start to experiment with adding “banned” exercises into the mix – just do them for variety’s sake and don’t utilize progressive overload and set PR’s on them.

Best of luck to you, BC

56 thoughts on “Growing glutes without growing the legs

  1. Becky

    Thanks for this! Very helpful. I actually like the size of my legs (some women would probably consider them “bulky” though) and wouldn’t mind if they got a little more size, but my glutes need to catch up!

    Love your book too. :)

    Reply
    1. Helen

      I am working very hard to get my legs to grow, I know most women want broomsticks for legs.

      I do step ups, single bulgarian squats on one day total of 10 sets 12-15 reps. on the second leg day I do weighted lunges, calves, leg curls/ext. similar rep range. Any tips on gaining size would be appreciated.

      Reply
  2. Dawn

    What if we do some of the “leg growing” exercises because we like them, but we add in a little more slow cardio of some sort (treadmill, stationary bike, etc.) or HIIT to counter some of the muscle building exercises. Would that be beneficial?

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Dawn, treadmill cycling actually has been shown to be synergistic for quad mass – Wilson did a recent review on this in the JSCR. So I don’t feel that what you’ve proposed is a solution. However, I do feel that many women cannot give up squats and deads as they indeed love doing them, even if they’re not the perfect lifts for their physiques. Once you get coordinated and strong with them, they’re addicting (squats and deads).

      Reply
  3. Terri Brzozowski

    Thank you for this great information. I love squats but my quads have grown more than I had hoped for. Can’t wait to incorporate the glute bridges!

    Reply
  4. Tim

    Bret- why would pull-throughs/swings be significantly less strenuous on the hammies vs. RDLs? And why suggest the foot elevated since I thought that contributes more hamstring vs. other hip lift variations? Is it not significant toward hamstring development?

    Always appreciate your work and your display here of a willingness to answer commonly asked but not usually well answered fitness questions!

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Excellent questions Tim!

      The RDLs place more strain on the hammies (more stretch loading due to the vector). Their EMGs are similar though, but there’s more than just EMG – actually the EMG-angle curve is very telling (along with the torque-angle curve). But I thought of this exact thing and considered omitting pull-throughs and kb swings for that reason.

      And the foot-elevated single leg hip thrust does indeed work more hamstring than the other variations, but the quad activation diminishes drastically. The shoulder elevated single leg hip thrust activates much more quad than the foot elevated single leg hip thrust, hence the decision.

      Again, great questions. You’ve got a good mind for sports science!

      Reply
  5. Martin

    Bret,
    Have you ever come across someones whose glutes are strong when it comes to doing exercises, ie hip thrusts, single leg deadlifts, quadruped hip extensions, RDL, yet in everyday life situations like walking/running they just still sit there doing the bare minimum?
    This is a problem my girlfriend has, its not that they aren’t firing when doing load bearing exercise either, as she complains of a serious burn during and soreness the following day without fail.
    Is there likely to be something she hasn’t addressed? She had the most severe gluteal amnesia and quad dominance I have ever seen and it took around 18 month of low load activation exercises for her to be able to even remotely use her glutes under any weight without the quads burning.
    Cheers
    Martin

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Some folks are anatomically built this way. My training partner Charles Staley feels squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts all in his hamstrings and rarely feels his glutes working (except when he does band seated hip abductions). Yet his hammies don’t even fire that hard in the aforementioned movements – it’s just a stretch he’s feeling due to anterior pelvic tilt. My girlfriend Diana feels hip thrusts mostly in her quads, but her glute EMG activation is through the roof when she does them. So don’t rely just on what she feels; I rely on palpation and EMG (obviously you don’t have EMG). And just keep doing the best you can.

      Reply
  6. matt

    Hey Bret,

    How would hip band rotations change if doing them in an asymmetrical stance (split stance) rather than a symmetric stance? Also, what changes would there be depending on the lead foot of said stance: ie, band/weight on left side pulling across to the right with left foot forward vs band/weight on left side pulling across to the right with right foot forward?

    Reply
  7. Craig

    Awesome post Brett. Are you familiar with Evan Osar? He was featured on Sports Rehab Expert. His book discusses how excessive “but grippers” can create a lot of anterior shear, driving the head of the femur anteriorly in its socket, which down the road may lead to FAI etc. As one with excessive divots in my lateral hip, I can’t help but wonder if hip thrusts may further decrease my hip joint centration. Maybe having the bar rest at the top of the femur will help keep the head of the femur a bit more posterior? Thanks, I’m a big fan of your work.

    Reply
      1. Bret Post author

        Yep, see the link Derrick posted. I never thought about the bar pushing down on the head of the femur during hip thrusts…perhaps that gives you an “excuse” to clinch the glutes then ;)

        I have Evan’s book and it’s great (except for the butt-gripping situation IMO). However, I’m curious as to how he’d have clients do heavy-ass hip thrusts. Either he’d have to avoid heavy weight, avoid locking out the weight (and just do partials), or try to do them without using the glutes that much (which is counterproductive to the goal in question). Neither of these are ideal.

        In all my years of training, I’ve never had anyone develop hip pain while training with me. But I’ve had clients improve their anterior hip pain, presumably to better-functioning glutes.

        Reply
        1. Barb

          Thanks for the article! I do hope there’s some future interaction between you and this Dr. Osar! I’ve had a hip issue corrected. I can get more force out of a heel plant and my upper body feels less twisted. I’m amazed when I get out of bed in the morning. The correction’s been stable for over a month and I hope I don’t squander that as I get stronger. I’m still doing unloaded glute work but hope to progress very soon!

          One thing I’ve noticed is that my glutes aren’t CONSTANTLY working to stabilize my leg. I never had hip pain — rather: glute pain and leg numbness/dysfunction, right down, through the foot. I think a more optimally “socketed” femur gives me a new opportunity to develop my formerly overworked glutes.

          Reply
        2. jamila.laliberte@facebook.com

          Hi there. I have a question. I have been focusing on my glutes for a while and have developed intense anterior hip pain, every time no matter the weight I use or the reps I do. I have seen doctors,physio therapists, chiropractors and massage therapist to no avail. Feels like a muscle is not firing. I was wondering if you had any ideas as to what the problem could be

          Reply
  8. Amy

    Hi Brett,
    Could you possibly post an example of a full leg workout incorporating these exercises?
    Thanks,
    Amy

    Reply
  9. Martin (another one)

    Hi Bret.

    Interesting post. I find that while quad development can give that heavy thighs look, I find that ham development gives the legs an attractive shape.

    2 questions

    I find that hip thrusts work well but they hurt my lower back when I go heavy for reps. What am I doing wrong?

    I find that hip thrusts also hit my quads, as you point out and sometimes quads burn before butt. Can the hip thrust be classified as a quad exercise and at least substitute for the squat? it seems much safer than the squat as you get heavy.

    thanks

    Martin (Lopez)

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      I agree about the hamstring comment (to an extent obviously). You’re probably anteriorly tilting the spine. Try this version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjWiwq1wgFg

      No, not a substitute for squats. They work the quads mostly isometrically, which is inferior to full ROM dynamic movement for strength and hypertrophy. I’d prefer a single leg squatting motion.

      Reply
  10. Marcy

    Great article!

    I cut a pool noodle in half and then lengthwise and slipped it on the barbell. Works great in place of a thick bar pad, and it only costs $4. I used it for 135# glute bridges today, and no discomfort at all!

    Reply
  11. William

    Hi Bret, sorry if I getting out the main topic. Here is my hypothesis: Considering that anthropometry, orthopaedic profile, age, nutrition and genre (among other factors) might affect performance, I reckon, here is a list of maximum percentage that any male should manage to consider himself fit and balanced:
    If Hip Thrust is 100% of the the maximum load per 5 reps, Deadlifts should be around 90% of the hip thrust, High Bar squats around 80%, Front squats, Chest Press, Chin-ups 70%, Lunges 60%, Press Overhead 50%….
    In regards to females, as their lower body is proportionally stronger than their upper body, the Hip Thrust would be 100%, Dead Lifts and Squats 90% Front Squats 75% Lunges 60%, Chin-ups 50%, Chest Press 45%, Press Overhead 30%… Obviously, those percentages are just an expression according to the total average during my personal experience with clients over the years. Would you agree with such proportions in terms of ideal percentages or , did you write anything regarding that topic in the past? or perhaps do you know any scientific study as a guide? Great fan of your work. Thanks for reading. William

    Reply
  12. Jackie

    Hi Brett,

    Can you recommend exercises that target the very upper part of the glute; the part that goes into your back? That area is flat for me (it looks like my upper glute goes straight into my back). I am already doing hip thrusts, squats, deadlifts. However, I don’t know if those exercises target the very top part. I want to have that “shelf” look at the top of my glutes (more curves). I feel like all the exercises I am doing target mainly the mid and lower glutes. Thanks so much.

    Reply
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  14. Nick Nilsson

    This is a question I get a lot as well…what do you think of the idea of utilizing pre-exhaust training, using one of those 7 exercises you recommend followed immediately by an exercise such as barbell hip thrusts or a squatting or lunging variation to target the glutes with heavier weight after they’ve been pre-fatigued with the “isolation” movements.

    The legs are still involved but they aren’t worked as hard and since they’re fresher, they can actually help push the glutes harder when you move to the second exercise.

    I’ve had a lot of good feedback on this approach and was curious to hear your thoughts, Bret.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  15. Brett Smith

    Bret I have been doing hip thrusts for a year or so, I watched the 2 videos or the girl doing these flat on there back. I tried this the other day and my range of motion is about half of what these girls are doing. I usually do them on a smith machine with my back supported by a bench. How can I inprove my range, I would like to be able to do them like these videos show.

    Reply
  16. emarnyc

    Bret, you’re a friggin’ genius!! If your books sales have increased its because I can’t stop singing your praises. However, I love big legs and if you can get me to photo one, I’d empty my bank account to you (no complaining about the balance!)

    Signed – 2″ across the glutes in 2 months following Strong Curves!

    Reply
  17. Maria

    Thanks for the article, this is something I’ve been trying to fine answers to for a while now. Are ankle weights useful for some of the standing and lying abduction exercises instead of or in addition to using bands?

    Reply
  18. Brandon Green

    Hello

    For someone who want to vertical jump high or run a fast 40 yard dash
    what should be the glute strength compared to quadricep-
    Olympic style full squat vs. Glute bridge ?

    Reply
  19. ggs

    When I do my glute raises I put my hands to my side and bring my heels to my fingertips. Am I keeping my feet to close to my body? I noticed on Marianne video her feet seemed a lot farther away. It seems like that way
    shortens the range of which you have to move the weight. Is the way I am doing it okay or do I need to change.

    Thanks

    Reply
  20. Lynn Curtis

    Dear Bret,

    Thank you so much for answering this question. Coincidentally, only two days ago I composed a similar message to you regarding this topic.

    I personally have been avoiding deep squats and dead lifts (LOVE both exercises!) because of FAI issues. I have been concentrating instead on hip thrusts, glute bridges (225lbs!), KB swings, etc. and I have noticed a significant decrease in hip pain. In fact, my pain has improved so much that I cancelled my upcoming surgery.

    I echo what others here are saying: thank you for your research, commitment, and willingness to share your expertise with all of us. Strong Curves is the best book I have ever read on strength training for women and you are changing lives.

    Warmly,
    Lynn

    Reply
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  23. Gina McNeal

    Hi Bret,

    I am currently doing Strong Curves Gluteal Goddess program and wondered how I could substitute some of the non-quad-intensive exercises for the exercises in those workouts. Should I just replace the quad one from each workout with one of the above, or will that mess up the progression? I am one of those blocky quad women, and while I don’t expect my quads to get smaller, I don’t particularly want them any bigger either. Love your book!!!!

    Reply
    1. Amber

      Hope you get an answer, I have the book too and I’m wondering the same thing! Except I do want my quads and hammies to shrink a bit!

      Reply
  24. Sue

    Hi Bret,
    Love your new book Strong Curves. Even though I have looked in the book to compare what is the difference between the american dead lift and the romanian dead lift? Is it just the range of how far you bend over?
    I’m not really a newbie but I am.

    Reply
    1. Gina

      Sue, I had never heard of the American deadlift either, but in the back of the book where all the exercises are listed by category, Bret says in the description that the American deadlift is like a regular RDL, except at the very end, you do a pelvic tilt (anterior) to recruit more glute fibers.

      Reply
  25. Dr. Darrell Wolfe

    Hi Bret, would you be so kind as to guide me to the owner of the picture that you used in an article you wrote for t-nation.com. This is a black and white picture of a very fit, ripped man inside a silhouette of a very large man drinking from a sports bottle. Thank you in advance for your help with this……Dr. Darrell Wolfe.

    Reply
  26. Hailey

    I’ve been doing glute bridges for the last three months or so, and they’ve done a great job targeting my glutes. Just yesterday I hit 255, but it seems as the weights get heavier, I end up sliding back, and have to cut my ten rep session(s) into two five rep sessions to re-adjust my position. I usually butt my head up against a wall so I’m not pushed back, but instead my feet then end up sliding out from under me and I have to re adjust. Lol I just have to put up with it i guess. But I love this exercise. Ive noticed my squat go up since I’ve targeted my glutes too.

    Reply
  27. Hailey

    I also noticed that Kelli (in the video above) had to stop every rep to adjust herself because the weight pushed her back a bit, like it does with me. I wish someone would invent a machine you could adjust so you could place your head against a soft but firm pad and the other end would be a place you could put your feet so you can just rep away without having to stop or be sliding around on the floor. You could adjust it according to your height too. That would be flippin’ fantastic. :P

    Reply
  28. Asli

    Bought the strong curves book… great…easy to follow.. 2nd week but I lost half an inch on my glutes! :( …I did lose fat all around but I was trying to add more muscular mass there.
    Background: naturally have a round full butt and wanted to give it more of a lift and maybe another inch. Been working out for 13 years.. good diet..not too much cardio (twice a week as u put in the book)…so what is going on?

    Reply
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  30. Claudia

    Bret,

    I was reading your 2010 blog and then found all this new current options. Problem is I am so confused as to what option is best for me…. The ebook, the paperback book strong curves (I think that was the name) or get glutes…. There seems to be 3 options and have no idea what is the right choice for me. I am a female about 118lbs. I would like to tone entire body but especially build up my glutes! which one would be best for me? The ebook, the curves paperback or the get glutes? I want something that will be straight forward and not confusing as to which exercises I should be doing and how to do them. There might even be a fourth option I missed. I need your advice before I can choose.

    Please help! Lol

    Claudia

    Reply
  31. Chandni Alwani

    Dear Bret,

    First of all loved this article. Have asked numerous trainers in numerous countries about this…and all they keep saying is : ‘keep doing squats and deadlifts.’ I am a 22 year old woman, who hates her thighs (especially the quads and upper thigh area), because I find them too bulked up. I used to do a lot of the spinning, but have left it now, because heard it bulks up thighs. Anyway, so now I have two goals: 1. Get the best butt possible for my body 2. Reduce the bulkiness in my upper thighs. Since this requires me not doing squats, deadlifts etc, will the exercises you mentioned in this article give me the best butt possible? Not a good one, a great one!! Thanks!!

    Reply
    1. Chandni Alwani

      Dear Bret,

      First of all loved this article. Have asked numerous trainers in numerous countries about this…and all they keep saying is : ‘keep doing squats and deadlifts.’ I am a 22 year old woman, who hates her thighs (especially the quads and upper thigh area), because I find them too bulked up. I used to do a lot of the spinning, but have left it now, because heard it bulks up thighs. Anyway, so now I have two goals: 1. Get the best butt possible for my body 2. Reduce the bulkiness in my upper thighs. Since this requires me not doing squats, deadlifts etc, will the exercises you mentioned in this article give me the best butt possible? Not a good one, a great one!! I want my butt to be a bit bigger and way more rounder. I have been doing leandro cavalho’s workout but not great results !Thanks!!

      Reply
  32. engy

    Dear Bret
    I bet you’ve been asked that question a few times before,
    I’ve just bought your book, but have been a bit reluctant to start any of the programs included.
    In your answer above you assumed that kristi is of ideal weight, but what if you have heavy legs and still have some fat to loose ? Is it advisable to follow any of the programs in your book while actually loosing fat or perhaps better wait till you decrease your body fat percentage before you start your program.

    Reply
  33. Andria

    Wish you provided some examples of low low glute activation exercises. I have no idea what these are and a video of the American deadlift would have been helpful especially since I don’t know anything about these exercises and would not know if I landed on someone else’s video if they had proper form.

    Reply
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  35. June

    hey bret,
    so muscle is smaller than fat so.. when i lose the fat for muscle to appear… mh u will be very small..correct? so would that mean… to increase my butt size, i will have to add a LOT of weight to the hip thrust? (assuming that’s the only part i want bigger)

    Reply
  36. Michelle

    Hi Bret

    Would appreciate if you could reply, or anyone who can help.

    I found this article really helpful. My thighs are thick naturally and I have a big bum. I’ve started working out doing cardio and also squats/lunges for my gluteus. However I really don’t want to make my thighs muscly or have any growth! A personal trainer advised me to lift no more than 2kg dumbbells with higher reps to do this but I still feel a burn in my quads which worries me!

    Could you please explain the workouts u suggested in more detail as I don’t know how to do them. Inc,uding reps and sets

    Thanks

    Reply
  37. Stella

    Hi Bret your article is actually the best I could find on this subject about growing glutes without growing legs. Congrats on your whole site too, I found it really interesting and full of information to apply. Just a quick question ; since my quads are quite big and my hamstrings too ( ex pro basketball player you see :( ) I try to work on my glutes and keep the exercises as isolating as they can be for the glutes ( I’m 17% I’m a 22 year old girl and my quads and hams are still bulky ) do you suggest pull throughs and glute bridges with barbell for me ? As far as I read I can isolate the glutes with the glute bridges if I learn the technique right and pull the weight up with my glutes so I’m not activating the hams too much, am I right ? Will the hams be activated enough to grow ? Cause I don’t want them to. And what about the pull throughs? Do they activate the hamstrings a lot ? and is there a right technique to avoid that happening ? Thanks in advance, greetings from Greece, Stella.

    Reply

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