She went on to perform a set of barbell squats and my initial assumption was correct: she wasn’t squatting correctly. That is why she thinks “squats don’t build glutes.” It wasn’t the exercise that was the problem; it was her execution of the movement that was at fault.
Saying squats performed correctly don’t work the glutes is like saying chin-ups performed correctly don’t work the biceps. If an exercise is performed properly through an appropriate range of motion, the muscle groups that perform the movement will “work.” And if performance is improved (e.g., perform more reps, add weight) consistently for weeks and months, muscle will be built.
How do you know if you’re performing squats correctly so they work your glutes? You need to (a) have a proper stance and (b) perform the exercise through a sufficient range of motion. Individuals who think squats don’t work the glutes typically fail to meet these criteria and have too narrow of a stance and don’t squat low enough.
The glutes are directly involved in the squatting movement, be it barbell squats or goblet squats; the main functions of the gluteus maximus (the largest part of the buttock) are hip extension and external rotation.
It stands to reason if we want to maximize the involvement of the glutes in an exercise we need to use them for their designed purposes. That means the stance and squat depth must be appropriate.
Some people squat with their feet close together and toes pointed straight ahead. This doesn’t mean the glutes won’t be involved in the movement, but it’s not putting them in an ideal position for maximum involvement since the glutes are responsible for hip external rotation.
This would be a great stance for a deadlift or Romanian deadlift, but it’s not ideal for squatting. The feet should be wider, about shoulder width apart, and toes pointed out to the sides, anywhere from 5-30 degrees. Everyone is different; play around with the stance and foot position to find what’s most comfortable for your knees, hips, and back.
What is the purpose of the wider stance and pointing the toes out? To make the glutes perform one of their main functions: to externally rotate the hip. This will be accomplished by keeping the knees out when squatting and making sure they track in-line with the feet at all times (i.e., don’t let them “cave in,” which is a common squat mistake).
The wider toes-out stance also engages the adductors (i.e., inner thighs) to a greater extent too, compared to the narrow stance with feet pointed straight ahead. When you use a shoulder-width stance and point your toes out a bit, don’t be surprised when your glutes and adductors are sore the next day.
The proper depth for a squat is lowering down to the point where the crease in the hips is a bit lower than the tops of the knees. Put another way, the tops of the thighs should be parallel to the ground, or a little lower.
Stopping short of this depth as many commonly and mistakenly do on every rep or as a set progresses and fatigue accumulates and each rep is increasingly shallow, means most of the work is being done with the quadriceps, since the glutes aren’t moving through an appropriate range of motion.
To use your glutes effectively when squatting, they need to be worked through an appropriate range of motion, which is achieved when reaching the depth mentioned above (this way the glutes do one of their main jobs — extending the hips).
If you want to work your glutes, you need to attain the proper range of motion. Aim for the point where the crease in the hips is a bit lower than the tops of the knees. (You can squat lower as long as you can maintain a neutral, rigid spine, but it isn’t necessary.)
Notice the squat depth — the crease in the hips is a bit lower than the tops of the knees in both the goblet squat (left) and back squat (right).
Are Squats All You Need for Maximum Glute-Building Results?
If squats are the main lower-body exercise in your training program — and you perform them properly and consistently improve your performance — they will build muscle on your glutes. If you’re a beginner strength trainee, a squat variation should be the main lower-body exercise in your program so you can (a) learn how to correctly perform this basic movement pattern, (b) build a solid foundation of strength, and (c) practice it frequently thus reinforcing the correct movement pattern and building strength and muscle quickly. This is why the goblet squat is the main lower-body exercise in Phase 1 of Lift Like a Girl and back squats in Phase 2; both are performed with a high frequency of two to three times per week.
This isn’t to say other exercises don’t work the glutes just as well or more directly, or other exercises can’t be used to maximize hypertrophy of the glutes. Using the chin-up example again: you can build a great pair of biceps if bodyweight and weighted chin-ups are the main upper-body pulling movement. But other exercises — palms-up grip rows, dumbbell curls, barbell curls — can be useful for maximizing hypertrophy.
The answer to the Are squats all you need? question is: it depends on your goals and training experience. Let’s look at two trainees.
Trainee A: She’s been squatting correctly and progressively (steadily adding more weight to the bar or performing more reps with the same weight) for over a year. She’s built her glutes using squats as the primary lower-body exercise, but she wants to make them grow more. She can achieve this goal by (a) squatting more frequently, (b) adding additional exercises like reverse lunges from a deficit, single-leg hip thrusts, and single-leg Romanian deadlifts to her training, or (c) modifying her training program and increasing training volume or changing the set and rep schemes (more on this one in a moment).
Trainee B: She’s been squatting correctly and progressively for over a year. She’s built her glutes using squats as the primary lower-body exercise (starting first with goblet squats to learn the movement and then progressing to barbell squats), and she has no desire to increase their size and shape further.
We’re in the midst of the build-a-bigger-butt era and tons of women want maximum glute hypertrophy. If that’s your goal too, that’s awesome. If you don’t care about attaining maximum glute size and shape, that’s awesome too. It’s your body and you should do whatever the heck you want to do with it.
Guidelines for Glute Building
What is your strength training experience? is the first question and What is your main goal? is the second, briefly address above, that need to be answered.
Strength training beginners, trainees more concerned with building strength and training efficiency (they don’t want to spend more time in the gym than necessary to achieve most of the results they’re after, or they’re very busy), and trainees not interested in maximum glute hypertrophy can focus mostly on squats, deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts for most of their lower-body work. Tons of women have built strong, amazing bodies on a steady diet of squats, deadlifts, rows and chin-ups, bench presses and standing presses.
Intermediate strength trainees or those interested in maximizing their glute-building potential can focus mostly on squats, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts and include exercises like rear foot elevated split squats, reverse lunges, single-leg hip thrusts, and additional glute-specific exercises.
And let’s not forget that every body is different. Some people may reach maximum glute hypertrophy with just squats and deadlifts. Some people may need a hefty volume of squats, lunges, and hip-thrust variations to maximize theirs.
Different Rep Ranges for Best Glute-Building Results
The benefit to using a wide range of reps? It allows you to work the fast-twitch muscle fibers with the heavy, low-rep sets and the slow-twitch fibers with the somewhat lighter, higher-rep sets.
If squats are your primary lower-body exercise, use a wide rep range for best glute- and leg-building results. First, get strong in a 5-8 rep range. Once you’d built a solid strength foundation (when you have trouble adding more weight in the 5-8 rep range) you can start including sets of 10-15 reps. There’s muscle-building value in 20-rep sets too, but don’t venture into that range until you’ve been strength training for many months. Twenty-rep squats aren’t as beneficial if the heaviest weight you can use is an empty 45-pound barbell. Get strong first and then include higher-rep sets when you can use a more challenging weight.
What You Should Do Next
Analyze your current squat stance and depth. How does it compare to the information above? You can test the new stance and depth, right now, with bodyweight squats: perform a set of 20 reps and you should immediately feel the difference. Or next time you’re at the gym, perform squats or goblet squats with the stance and depth guidelines above and experience the difference for yourself.
When you have your new stance identified (you may want to play around a bit with stance width and the angle you point your toes to find what feels best), get stronger in the 5-8 rep range. After several weeks of progressive training, you can then include sets of 10-15 reps. You’ll no doubt be stronger and have more muscle within a few months of consistent training.
Squats work your glutes. Squats will build your glutes. You just have to squat correctly.