Although you sit on it every day, your butt probably doesn't get much of your attention. If you notice it at all, most likely you're complaining that it's too fat, flat, or flabby. But however you feel about your back end, the gluteals—the muscles that form the buttocks—do crucial work every day, stabilizing your body and moving you through life.
No matter how weak or flabby, the musculature of everyone's tush is composed largely of the three gluteals. The biggest of these, the gluteus maximus, is also the heaviest and strongest muscle in the body. The muscle along the sides of the buttocks, the gluteus medius, and the smaller gluteus minimus underneath it allow you to lift your leg out to the side. "Your gluteals are one of the main muscle groups responsible for holding your body upright," says Mark Uridel, a licensed physical therapist, certified kinesiology instructor, and yoga teacher in Austin, Texas. "In short, without your glutes you wouldn't be able to walk."
Getting these muscles in shape can help you stand straighter, make your back feel better, power you uphill and upstairs, and ease the strain of heavy lifting.
Unfortunately, however, the modern world asks very little of your glutes. You probably sit in chairs most of the day and ride elevators and escalators instead of taking the stairs. And when was the last time you walked uphill just for the fun of it? If you think about it, probably the only time you use your butt in the course of a normal day is when you go from sitting to standing.
Yoga Poses that Strengthen Your Gluteus Maximus
Fortunately, yoga can help counteract the effects of modern life. Nearly all standing postures, including Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) will strengthen your gluteus maximus; so will Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and other backbends, although whether and how much to engage the glutes in backbends is controversial among yoga teachers. (Most people do use the glutes in these poses, but you should take care not to overclench the buttocks.) The medius and minimus are strengthened by all of the one-legged balancing poses, including Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose).
Once you move as far as you can into a pose that works the glutes, you condition the muscles statically, through isometric contraction; although you continue to contract the muscle fibers, the muscles as a whole don't become any shorter. You can increase your fitness and strengthen your glutes dynamically by doing multiple repetitions, moving in and out of leg lifts, lunges, squats, and other exercises similar to what you would do in a typical leg-toning class. Coming in and out of these positions repeatedly conditions the glutes and legs dynamically—both in concentric contraction, where the muscles contract and shorten, and in eccentric contraction, where the muscles continue to work even as you gradually lengthen them while coming out of the position. By practicing both longer holds and movements, you can condition your glutes both statically and dynamically.
How to Work Your Glutes in Yoga Poses
To apply this strategy in Salabhasana, first do several repetitions of the pose: Lying on your belly, lift your chest and legs as you inhale and lower them as you exhale, coordinating your movement with your breathing. Then, on your final repetition, hold the lifted position for at least three to five breaths, working the muscles to the edge of your endurance. In the brief repetitions, you dynamically strengthen your gluteus maximus as the muscle shortens during the lifting phase and lengthens as you lower it. As you hold the posture, you strengthen the gluteus maximus isometrically.
Similarly, you can combine static and dynamic work in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I). Do the dynamic conditioning first: Move in and out of the pose 5 to 10 times, bending the knee of your front leg as you exhale and straightening it as you inhale. As you settle into Warrior I for a longer hold, press down through your back heel. This contracts the glutes in your back leg and helps you draw that hip forward so it's closer to squaring with the hipbone of the forward leg.
From Warrior I, move into Warrior III. In this pose, the gluteals of the standing leg are working to keep the hips level, and the gluteus maximus of the raised leg is working to keep it in the air. You can further condition the gluteus maximus by pulsing: Without moving the pelvis or bending the knee of the raised leg, lift that leg a few inches higher, and then lower it back to parallel with the ground, repeating the movement until you start to tire. "These microlifts increase the intensity of the effort," says Uridel. If you tend to lose your balance or focus too much on maintaining it during this exercise, do it with your palms placed against a wall for support.
Microlifts can also increase the effectiveness of Ardha Chandrasana. Once you're in the pose, raise your lifted leg six inches higher, lower it six inches, and repeat 12 times. The gluteus medius and gluteus maximus of the lifted leg work hard just to hold it up; pulsing taxes them even more. If you struggle with balance, do the pose with your back against a wall. If the intense stretch in the hamstrings of the standing leg demands all your attention, reduce the intensity by placing your hand on a yoga block instead of on the floor.
When you mix long holds with multiple repetitions and pulsing, you create both isometric and dynamic strength and endurance. Dynamic work increases the number of times you can contract your muscles before they tire, while isometric work eventually increases the length of time you can keep the muscle contracted. Both forms of conditioning will put more bounce in your step and ease in your life.
Glute-Toning Moves to Add to Your Yoga Practice
Lie on your back, arms at your sides, knees bent, and feet flat on the floor. Then place your left ankle on your right thigh just above the knee. As you exhale, lift your hips toward the sky; inhale as you come back down. Repeat 10 to 15 times and then switch legs.
Reaching Single-Leg Squats
Standing upright, shift your body weight onto your left foot. Bend your right knee to lift your right foot behind you. Keeping your sternum lifted, squat as deeply as possible on your left leg without rounding your spine or leaning forward. Then reach your left hand down and about a foot and a half in front of your body. Straighten your left leg and repeat 5 to 10 times before switching to balance on your right leg.
Cardiovascular Glute Exercises
Try hiking and uphill walking, racket sports, fast-paced running, and running on an elliptical trainer.
Alisa Bauman is a freelance writer and yoga instructor in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.