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?
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.
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:
- Avoiding exercises that highly activate and stress the quads, hammies, and adductors
- Performing exercises that highly activate and stress the glutes
This doesn’t leave us with many options!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- American deadlifts – this is a better option than RDLs due to the increased glute activation. Don’t go too low on these either.
- Pull-throughs and kettlebell swings – just make sure you’re feeling the glutes do the work when you perform them.
- 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