The best butt and leg exercises, according to a fitness trainer

These six exercises will wake up your glutes and thighs after sitting all day.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
6 min read

Quarantine life means many people are sitting more, which is not good news for your lower body muscles. 

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If working out to get a stronger lower body is on your to-do list while in quarantine, I have some bad news. The exact thing you're doing the most (sitting) is probably sabotaging your goals. But, don't give up just yet.

"For most of us, our lifestyles involve so much sitting, where the glutes are numbed by the pressure placed on them throughout the day. In addition, the hip flexors are in a tightened position. This shortening of the hip flexors sends a signal to the glutes to essentially shut off -- a process called reciprocal inhibition. Over time, the neurological connection to the glutes gets weaker and weaker," says Adam Swartz, Chief Fitness Officer and personal trainer at The DB Method.

Read more: The best home exercise equipment in 2020 

So how can you better train and access the glute muscles (other than avoid sitting for too long)? Swartz says there are a few ways you can "wake up" your glutes properly before working out to make sure they are activating and optimally firing when you do butt exercises.

"We are very much forward-oriented creatures -- we are far more connected to the front of our bodies rather than the back. Therefore when it's time to train we really need to spend time waking up and reconnecting to the glutes before we expect them to work optimally," Swartz says.

Keep reading to find out Swartz's best exercises for targeting your lower half, including your butt and thighs, and the benefits of strong glutes. 

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The functional benefits of strong glutes

No matter what your original motivation for committing to doing more squats or donkey kicks, strengthening your glutes is a key part of a functional fitness routine. This means that there's way more to doing butt workouts than only the aesthetic benefit or for the sole purpose of building muscle. "The glutes are actually the foundation of our posture: they push our hips under our shoulders. When they are strong, the lower back doesn't do extra work to compensate," Swartz says.

And if you are a runner, strengthening your glutes can help protect your back and provide more stability in your knees and ankles. "When the glutes aren't working properly, there's a whole host of overcompensation patterns that can develop," Swartz says. 

The best butt and leg exercises to try at home

Like Schwartz mentioned before, the glutes can become "lazy" or "sleepy" from inactivity or sitting for long periods. For that reason, it's important to actively "wake them up" before you try an exercise. "Two exercises I'd suggest right away are both straightforward activation drills:  Fire Hydrants and Donkey Kicks. Both are 'simple' yet require a lot of mindfulness to get the most out of them," Swartz says. 

Best butt exercises

Fire Hydrants

  • Start on your hands and knees. With any glute work the first thing you want to do is activate your core by pulling in your navel, which stabilizes the spine. 
  • From there, brace your abdominals like someone is going to punch you, ensuring you won't be using your lower back muscles to complete the workout move.
  • Holding your torso in place (imagine a ruler along your spine and across your hips), lift one leg, bent at the knee, out to the side and up as far as it can go (again, not allowing your torso to move or rotate at all).  Hold for 5-10 seconds, really firing up the gluteus medius.  
  • Repeat 5-10 times per leg. If you want to ramp up the intensity, try it with a straight leg instead of bent.

Donkey Kicks

  • Start in the same hands-and-knees stance with abdominal activation as a you would for a fire hydrant.  
  • Take one leg, keeping it bent at the knee, and gently reach your heel towards the ceiling. 
  • Actively squeeze the glutes while maintaining torso stability. 
  • Hold 5-10 seconds and repeat 5-10 times for each leg. 

If your hamstring cramps, it's a good sign that the glute isn't used to doing its share of the work. In that case, shake it out and let your knee straighten slightly until you can begin to wake the glute up.

Classic Squat

"As far as strengthening the glutes once activated, the grandparent move of them all is the classic squat. It's a very technical move, as you must stabilize the spine while creating a 'hip hinge,'" says Swartz. "The key is to practice sending your hips backwards while striving to keep your chest up and abdominals braced. The competing tensions put the glutes in a great position to do what they do best; drive the hips forward in order for you to stand up."

How to do it: 

  • Make sure your feet are slightly wider than shoulder width. Slowly lower your body down as if you are going to sit in a chair, bending your knees and hips. Pull your knees outward as you drive your hips back.
  • Keep your spine straight and your chest lifted as you lower your body.
  • Go as low as you can, ideally getting your thighs parallel with the ground. Do this movement slowly to get the full benefit.
  • Start with three sets of 10-15 reps, but the key is to make sure you're engaging the glutes and not just dropping straight down and letting the quadriceps to take over. 

With any complex movement, you want to really take your time to make sure you are engaging all of the right muscle groups, otherwise older compensation patterns will jump in right away. For squats, that means keeping your ab muscles flexed so you don't strain your back.

If you are having trouble with squat form without a coach or trainer to give hands-on form corrections, Swartz recommends The DB method machine, a squat machine designed to help put you into the correct form. The machine also adds extra resistance without having to use dumbbells or weights.

Best leg exercises

Below are a few great leg exercises to give you a stronger lower body. Even if you aren't particularly interested in exercising your glutes, you should still integrate squats, as described above, into your workouts. Below are a few exercises that target your legs, but will also work your glutes.

The Romanian Deadlift

This really works the whole posterior chain of muscles and is a great move for glutes, hamstring strength and mobility, as well as lower back and postural support. 

  • Hinge your hips as you would in a squat, but only bend your knees slightly.
  • Push your hips back with a straight spine and braced abs.
  • Go down as far as you're able to keep your spine straight, and your hamstrings will let you know when that point is. When you feel a distinct, moderate stretch in the hamstrings, drive your hips forward while leading with the chest up. 
  • Do three sets of 10-15 reps.  

You can start with body weight and if it gets too easy add some moderate dumbbells for more of a challenge.

Cossack Squats:

These involve balance and mobility so they can be a bit of a challenge.  

  • I suggest facing a wall, with legs out in a wide stance. Feet turned out roughly 45 degrees. 
  • The Cossack is essentially a single-leg squat. You lower into one leg, hinging back, while the opposite leg straightens and rotates so your toes reach up towards the ceiling.  
  • Keeping the spine straight, abs braced, pull the bending knee outward as you drive your hips back. Simultaneously stretch the straight leg. Go slow. 
  • Pause in the bottom of each rep before moving up again.  

Three to five slow reps on each leg can be a real workout if you're digging into it. You'll often be surprised at the difference in range and strength from one leg to the other.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.