A goal that keeps cropping up with my clients is glute development because people want big, round butts. Before I list the best kettlebell exercises to achieve kettlebooty, here are some essential considerations.
Sitting on your glutes for extended periods causes the brain to forget how to activate them. If your brain doesn’t know how to activate the booty, it doesn’t matter how many reps you do in the gym, growing it will be a long hard road. While you sit there reading this blog, try flexing one cheek at a time. Put both hands under one thigh so you can feel whether you’re also flexing your hamstrings or not. You should be able to flex each cheek as easily as you can tap your big toe while your hamstrings remain completely relaxed. Practice! The more you do this outside the gym, the better your success.
Sitting in chairs for extended periods, for years on end, pulls the pelvis into a posterior tilt. Approximately 60% of the American population live with a posteriorly tilted pelvis. This means that in normal posture, the tail bone is a little tucked under and the lower back is flatter than optimal. People with this posture type almost always have an underdeveloped butt because when the pelvis is in this position the hamstrings will always cheat the glutes out of a job. Thousands of kettlebell swings and other glute exercises will be mostly ineffective.
During everyday hinge or bending patterns, people with a posterior tilt will probably bend from their lower back first because the tissue is long and weak. Optimally, the neck should flex first (to look at the object you’re picking up, say), then the hips, then the mid-back (thoracic spine) and only then, if the everyday task demands it would the lower back go into noticeable flexion*. When the lower back is first to flex, for the many times per day that you bend over, excessive compression of the lumbar disks is caused. This sooner or later leads to disc damage. The glutes are required for locomotive activities such as running, but the overactive hamstrings become the prime movers therefore become very partial to injury.
*Geek time! Before I’m criticized for suggesting that we’re supposed to bend like stiff robots, I want to clarify that all joints of the spine and hips flex a little bit to initiate all everyday bending or hinging patterns. I’m just saying that posterior tilters’ lower backs flex the most, first. Whereas, for optimal safe movement, most of the flexion should come from the hips and thoracic spine, first. In a training environment (with exercises such as deadlifts and swings) flexing from the lower back first leads to disc damage. When a lower back flexes and rotates that’s like the perfect storm for lumbar disc injury. Think, sitting at a chair and reaching down for the bottom drawer on your right-hand side. Or in a gym, performing a chopping pattern without keeping your tail bone up. Ouch! Let’s use our time in the gym to make us better at real life and relearn good, strong movement and lifting patterns.
Low, Medium and High Threshold
Firstly, understand the difference between low threshold, medium threshold and high threshold exercises.
Low threshold: easy, low load, little energy required to perform, won’t produce a burn
Medium threshold: moderate load, slightly more complex pattern (such as lunges)
High threshold: high load, hard exercise, high effort
All three should be in a single butt workout. Low threshold first, then medium, then high. People tend to dive straight in for the high threshold exercises and forget the arguably more important low threshold ones—the ones that’ll teach your brain how to light them up.
OK, So How to Fix It?
Main considerations for posterior tilters’ programs are:
- 1.Reteach the hinge pattern (so the hips become the main driver instead of the lower back)
- 2.Low threshold glute activation (to help the brain remember how to activate it)
- 3.Improve the isometric strength of the lower back muscles. This means improving the lower back’s ability to maintain the same length (and not flex) while your hips and upper back flex.
A popular exercise for strengthening the lower back is doing back extensions using the GHD—glute hamstring developer. Let me take this opportunity to go off on a little rant. Here’s an excerpt from a tongue-in-cheek section within a strength coaching manual I once wrote for a well-known fitness education company:
“The posterior chain is meant to work synergistically and in unison with the other ten (or so) myofascial lines. Teaching one chain of myofascia to work hard while the rest remain dormant is a violation of common sense. Isolating the lower back, glutes and hamstrings while the feet are strapped in causes a neurological misfiring and a detriment to human movement.
Some might say this strengthens the lower back. The lower back musculature might be challenged in isolation during the actual exercise. But the neurological misfiring weakens the whole body. Besides, the lower back musculature likes isometric contraction, not concentric. Patterning multiple reps of lumbar flexion eccentrically controlled by the lower back, especially for the chair-bound masses could very well lead to bulging disks in the future.
It’s actually great for unloading and creating space in the lumbar spine. It offers something to curl over, unlike the Jefferson curl that relies on proprioception. But you don’t need to spend $600 to do that because we have child’s pose. Anything this piece of equipment claims to be good for can be done to better effect using the floor. You could put a shiny sticker on the floor and pretend that the floor is a new piece of kit if that’s what floats your boat.
If the world changes and there’s suddenly a daily requirement for everyday people to hang over the side of a boat with a friend holding their feet and repeatedly pick penguins out of the water, our opinion on the functionality of the GHD will stay the same. Until then, we’ll keep the valuable floor space, thanks.”
Here’s all I would suggest using a GHD for:
I digress. Include the following low-threshold activities at the beginning of your training session:
Primal gait, segmental rolling, rolling to all fours, bird dogs, six-point knee circles, kneeling hinge, stick hip hinge, shin box pumps. IF YOU'RE IN PAIN DO NOT ATTEMPT ANY EXERCISE WITHOUT PROFESSIONAL ONE-ON-ONE GUIDANCE
Then include these medium threshold exercises:
Lunge patterns (maintaining a neutral lower back), pop and stop, stability crawl, glute bridges, side plank glute pumps
This brings us to the high threshold kettlebell exercises for the best glute activation…
Top Eight Kettlebell Exercises to Achieve a Kettlebooty
Banded KB Glute Bridge
Keep neck neutral (chin tucked in). Toes up off the floor. Hold the kettlebell by the horns and rest your wrists on your pelvis so the hips (glutes) do the work. Keep tension on the loop resistance band throughout and keep your toes up.
Exhale: explosively drive hips up then hold for 2 to 3 seconds
Inhale: slowly return to start. Drive back up for the next rep as soon as your butt touches the floor
Single Leg Romanian KB Deadlift
Humans are able to stand on one leg because we have glutes (glute med). Most single leg activities fire up the glute med. Add a hip hinge to the equation where the hip is the main driver for movement and big brother (glute max) gets involved too. Remember, if the lower back flexes during the hinge, the glute is cheated out of a job and the stability muscles of the lower back drive the movement instead of the glutes.
Geek time! The lower back is made up mostly of tonic, stability muscles that like to hold gentle isometric (same length) contractions all day long. They hold the vulnerable lower back in place while the powerful hips drive movement. If these are asked to lengthen and shorten to create movement for the entire body injury tends to occur. Glutes, on the other hand, are phasic prime mover muscles that like to produce powerful contractions for very short periods. When bending, keep the lower back arched to hit the glutes.
Why do adult humans naturally default into a C-shaped spine position when they bend over? Because that’s the pattern they’ve taught their nervous system by spending too long in a chair.
Inhale: break the knee and drive the butt back, keeping the tail bone high
Exhale: return to the top position, squeeze the glutes and stand tall
This is the great white shark of exercises—it’s at the top of the food chain and doesn’t need to evolve. When performed well, it’s glutetastic. However, a higher level of technical proficiency is required. There’s a lot more going on under the hood than even a coach’s eye can see.
Throughout the movement, keep all parts of spine (including neck) neutral. Remain perfectly symmetrical throughout the legs, hips and torso. If the kettlebell pulls you into rotation at any point, the kettlebell wins and you lose.
Geek time! In order for the glutes to be the main driver during a hip hinge (as opposed to the hamstrings), the knees must flex to approximately 20-25 degrees. This is why the hardstyle swing is a better option than the pendulum swing (kettlebell sport) if the goal is glute and hip hinge development. The pendulum swing also involves rotating at the bottom then scooping the knees forward. This sends the kettlebell in an upward trajectory (required for the sport) and makes torso rotation, quads and hamstrings the main drivers for the movement, instead of the glutes.
Inhale: break knees and drive butt back while keeping pelvic floor engaged. Simultaneously pull kettlebell backwards (not downwards) using the lat.
Exhale: drive feet through the floor. The exhale is created by massive abdominal pressure. The kettlebell only floats as far as the power of your hips drives it—which should be between belt and chest level. Aside from loosely hooking the kettlebell, the arm and shoulder plays no part in the upswing. Any arm involvement cheats the hips out of power generation.
At the top of every swing, stand as tall as can be and clench your butt, quads and hamstrings hard. Imagine you’re holding your credit card there and someone’s trying to take it. Squeeze!
The snatch is a swing, but the kettlebell ends in the overhead position instead of floating to chest height. The snatch has a higher demand for a vice-like hook grip and requires more power. Therefore, the hip hinge needs to be more explosive than that of a swing. When performed well, this’ll hit the glutes even more than a swing. But again, it requires even higher technical proficiency than the swing to perform safely and well.
The most common problems with peoples’ snatches are: hip hinge too shallow, rotation is allowed, lack of shoulder ability to own the overhead position, hook-grip too weak to catch the falling kettlebell.
The muscle fibers of the glute run in a diagonal fashion. The glute swing brings one glute from its end range of motion at maximal stretch to its shortest length and demands it to be the main driver of the movement. It doesn’t take many glute swings, even with a light load, to make your butt feel like it’s about to explode.
As previously mentioned, the more a muscle is brought to its end range of movement eccentrically, the more it will be used for movement creation during the concentric action. The glute swing is one of the hardest of all exercises to perform safely because the risk of the swinger’s lower back flexing is so high. Lumbar flexion not only makes this dangerous, but ineffective because the lower back and hamstrings become the main drivers instead of the glutes.
Geek time! During hinge exercises where torso rotation is involved it’s critical for the lumbar spine to remain in a sagittal neutral position. When the lumbar spine (lower back) is in a neutral position the inferior and superior articular processes interlock and prevent rotation (aside from a very small 8 degrees throughout the entire lumbar area). When the lumbar spine flexes, these articular processes drift apart and rotation is allowed to occur.
Lumbar flexion + lumbar rotation = lumbar disc damage
Inhale: keep tail bone high
Exhale: drive foot down, mainly through the heel. Stand tall and squeeze butt hard at the top.
Goblet Shin Box Pumps
Not only great for a glute pump but awesome for hip mobility. I program this one in regularly as a warm-up. Super simple and accessible, provided there’s a basic level of hip mobility in place.
Exhale: pump up and squeeze glutes
Inhale: slowly lower back to the floor. Try to remain as tall as possible throughout.
Open Half-Kneeling Windmill (Plantarflexed)
A high-value exercise that develops stable shoulders, a mobile mid-back, a strong torso as well as working the glutes and patterning a good hip hinge. Plantarflexing the back ankle allows more range of motion for the hip therefore gets into the glute more.
Inhale: push butt back and allow the floor to come to the elbow—don’t reach for the floor
Exhale: crush the kettlebell handle and fully extend the hips
Goblet Step Ups
Use a high step (or a table if you’re tall) to bring one hip into full flexion, thus bringing the glute towards its end range. The fact that the other hip is extended helps keep an optimal pelvic posture for hitting the glute. Holding a kettlebell helps keep your torso active and promotes an upright torso posture and adds load.
Inhale: prepare by building tension in your abdomen
Exhale: keeping your body upright, drive your front heel down without using the back foot for help. Fully extend both hips at the top position.
Firing up the glutes reciprocally inhibits the hip flexors, which are usually super tight on most people. Take this opportunity and give your psoas a good stretch using this tree stretch.
I hope this is useful!