Although the gluteus maximus—the largest of the gluteus muscles/butt muscles located in the center of the glutes—appears to get the most attention, both aesthetically and when it comes to glute-shaping workouts (think: running, squats, jumping, lunges), the often overlooked, smaller gluteus medium may be the key to toning and strengthening your lower body. Not only will strengthening the gluteus medius create definition in the seat and improved strength in this less prominent muscle, but it may also help reduce back pain and improve function and stability in the knees and hips. A more deliberate emphasis on targeting the gluteus medius will result in a more balanced and mobile lower body.
The gluteus medius is smaller than the gluteus maximus and is responsible for hip abduction, external and internal rotation of the hip. Research studies have shown that for many, this important hip muscle is underactive and weak, which can alter hip, knee, and lower-back function and is associated with low-back pain.
The gluteus medius is activated through exercises that abduct one leg at a time, which means the movement of the leg away from the midline of the body. Try these three barre-inspired moves that require no equipment and exercise to target your gluteus medius and build strength.
1. Side-lying hip abduction.
- Lie down on the left side of the body and extend the left arm overhead on the mat.
- Rest the left ear on the left arm/biceps.
- Place the right hand on the right hip.
- Bend the lower leg (left leg) to a 90-degree angle in front of the body.
- Extend the top (right) leg straight out. Make sure the hips are stacked and the shoulders are stacked. Imagine that your top right shoulder, right hip, and right heel are aligned in one straight line.
- Lift the top leg to hip height and point the right toes.
- Engage the gluteus medius (upper and outer muscle in the butt) to lift the top leg just an inch and hold; then slowly lower the right leg an inch. Repeat this movement 10 to 15 times.
- Flex the right foot and repeat, lifting and lowering the right leg just an inch 10 to 15 times. Point the right toes and circle the right leg clockwise 10 times; circle counterclockwise 10 times. Repeat the entire sequence on the opposite leg.
2. Standing hip abduction.
- Stand on profile near a counter, wall, or sturdy chair, something you can use for balance.
- Bring your right hip just 1 to 2 inches from your support; bring both of your heels together and toes apart, making a V-shape with the feet; elongate the spine, growing taller; stack ears over shoulders and shoulders directly over hips.
- Pull the abdominal muscles in toward the spine; as you pull the abdominal muscles in, drop the tailbone toward the floor, lengthening the low back; keep your core muscles active through the entire exercise.
- Rest your left hand on your left hip, or you can cross the left hand in front of your waist to balance on your support (like a seatbelt); extend your left leg straight behind you and point your toes.
- Bring your left leg 1 to 2 inches out to the side (so that your leg is in a diagonal line from the hip).
- Keep a soft bend to your standing knee; level off your hips so that your left hip is in line and the same height as the right hip.
- Engage the gluteus medius muscle to lift your left leg 1 inch and hold for a few seconds, then lower the left leg back down 1 inch. Repeat 15 to 20 times.
- Flex the left foot and repeat, lifting and holding the left leg 15 to 20 times. Repoint the toes and circle the left leg clockwise 20 times, then reverse the direction of the circles 20 times. Repeat entire sequence on opposite leg.
3. Glute bridge hip abduction.
- Lie flat on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Walk your feet out wider than hip distance. The ankles should be directly below or just slightly in front of the ankles.
- Rest the palms by your side and flat on the floor and draw the lower abdominals in toward the spine. Keep the abdominal muscles active for the entire exercise.
- Curl your tailbone up and off of the mat while tilting your pelvis slightly toward the ceiling. Engage all the glute muscles to lift the entire seat 4 to 6 inches off the floor. Keep the back of the rib cage on the floor as much as possible.
- Start to press the knees out to the side (just one half-inch to 1 inch) with small controlled movements; this will activate the gluteus medius muscle. Repeat 20 to 30 times.
- Hold the slight press out of the knees and lift the hips up and down just an inch (still engage the side of the seat/gluteus medius muscle), repeat 20 to 30 times.
- Hold the hips lifted off the floor. Lift just the toes so that the heels are pressing into the floor.
- Start to press the knees out to the side (just one half-inch to 1-inch distance) with small controlled presses; repeat 20 to 30 times; hold the slight press out of the knees and lift the hips up and down just an inch (still engage the side of the seat/gluteus medius muscle), repeat 20 to 30 times.
- Lower the hips down and rest for 60 seconds. Repeat the entire exercise sequence 1 to 2 times.
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