8 Back-Friendly Glute Exercises (Build Glutes & Avoid Pain)

8 back-friendly glute exercises (avoid pain & build your glutes)

If you have back pain, an injury, or lower back soreness but still want to train the glutes, you’ll need to choose exercises that don’t stress your back.

The 8 best back-friendly glute exercises are:

  • Glute Bridges
  • Front Foot Elevated Split Squat
  • Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
  • Bulgarian Split Squats
  • Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge
  • Sled Push
  • Glute-Focused Step Up
  • Curtsy Step Down

In this article, I will go through everything you need to know about training your glutes, why your back might hurt when doing glute exercises, and how to best avoid this.

What Are the Glutes?

Glutes

The glutes are not one muscle group but a group of several muscles. They consist of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. They connect the sacrum, which is the base of the spine, and the ilium, which is the top of the pelvis, to the femur, which is your thigh bone.

Together, your glutes contribute to extending your hips, bringing your thighs away from the midline (abduction), and rotation at your hips.

As your glutes are attached to the base of your spine and pelvis, you can see why training them has implications for your back, as your back muscles and spine are attached to your pelvis.

5 Reasons Your Back Hurts When Doing Glute Exercises

Bulgarian Split Squats

Now that we know that training glutes can affect your back, here are 5 reasons why your back may hurt when doing glute exercises:

  • Poor posture at the start of the exercise
  • Limited hip mobility
  • Over-emphasizing pushing hips back
  • Over-emphasizing thrusting hips forward
  • Asymmetrical strength in your hips

1. Poor Posture at the Start of the Exercise

Your back might hurt when you do glute movements because you started off with poor postural positioning at the start of the exercise. Poor postural positioning refers to the position that you put your back and hips in.

For example, if you start off in a more rounded-back position where the pelvis is tucked under for a sumo deadlift, you may find that your lower back will hurt, and you’ll feel nothing in your glutes.

2. Limited Hip Mobility

If you have a certain limit in your hip mobility for an exercise that activates your glutes and you go past that limit, you may find that your back will compensate. If you do this too many times or go too heavy, you may eventually hurt your lower back.

A good example of this is the squat. If you squat too deep past your own mobility, your lower back may round and get hurt in the process.

3. Over-Emphasizing Pushing Hips Back

A really common problem I see among people who want to focus on training their glutes is that they overly emphasize pushing their hips back in certain exercises with the intention of activating their glutes. 

Examples of some exercises where this problem occurs are the squat and the deadlift. The problem with over-emphasizing pushing the hips back is that you may end up with what is called an excessive anterior pelvic tilt.

A symptom of this is that the lower back becomes overly arched. This places an inappropriate level of tension in the lower back area and may result in back pain.

4. Over-Emphasizing Thrusting Hips Forward

Thrusting the hips in lower body exercises like the hip thrust will activate the glutes, but some people end up overdoing this in the gym.

The problem with this is that thrusting more than you need to will not activate the glutes anymore, but you end up recruiting your lower back muscles a lot to add more movement. Over time, this can cause lower back strains or other issues.

Try these 9 tips if you have trouble feeling your glutes in the hip thrust.

5. Asymmetrical Strength in Your Hips

If you have an asymmetry in strength between the left and right side of your hips and legs, you may find that you hip shift a lot in lower body exercises. This is when the pelvis ends up shifting towards one side (more commonly the right side).

This can cause you to rotate your back or load one side of your back differently from the other side. Over time or with heavy enough weights, you may end up causing pain and discomfort on one side of your lower back.

Check out 7 Ways To Fix Leaning To One Side During The Squat to learn how to fix hip shifts in the squat.

How Do You Target the Glutes Without Working the Back?

Glute Bridges

There are various ways to target the glutes without working the back:

  • Perform exercises that keep the torso upright
  • Maintain good posture and good exercise technique
  • Train with appropriate range of motion

1. Perform Exercises That Keep the Torso Upright

Lower body exercises that enable you to have a more upright torso will train the glutes without working the back so much.

This is because when the torso is more bent over or horizontal, the mid- to lower-back muscles are used to maintain your posture.

2. Maintain Good Posture and Good Exercise Technique

When training your glutes with lower body exercises, it is always important to maintain good posture and execute them with good technique.

Maintaining good posture involves starting with a relatively flat back and keeping it rigid throughout execution.

That said, there are some instances where slight rounding of the back is okay, especially in the deadlift. Learn more in Is It Okay To Deadlift With a Round Back? (Powerlifters Say Yes).

3. Train with Appropriate Range of Motion

When you train your glutes, as with any muscles, there is a finite range of motion that you exercise through. You should avoid trying to extend the range of motion in an attempt to get more activation.

You will just compromise your posture and lower back in the process without getting any value from it.

8 Back-Friendly Glute Exercises

1. Glute Bridges

The glute bridge is one of the most common and simple glute exercises that you can perform with just your own body weight or with additional load.

You can perform it as a main exercise or as a warm-up drill for your glutes.

How To Do It

  • Lay down flat on your lower back with your knees tucked up to 90 degrees.
  • Keep your feet parallel to each other and about hip-width apart.
  • Flatten your lower back to the floor so that you have a more neutral pelvic tilt.
  • Squeeze your glutes and thrust your hips up to the sky while keeping your abs tight. The tight abs are to stop your lower back from taking over.
  • Slowly lower your hips back down to the floor with your back flat on the floor first before your tailbone.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Pros

  • Can be performed anywhere. Glute bridges as a bodyweight exercise can be performed at home, in the gym, or outdoors.
  • Beginner-friendly glute exercise. Glute bridges are one of the most beginner-friendly glute exercises that a first-time exerciser can do.
  • Can teach you to manage posture. Having the floor as a tactile cue (a cue that relies on touch to reinforce a correct position) can help you manage your posture, particularly if you have a tendency to over-extend your lower back.

Cons

  • Difficult to overload glutes. Glute bridges have a short range of motion for a glute exercise, and it is very difficult to overload the glute muscles properly.

Pro Tip

If you have a hard time trying to flatten your lower back down to the floor, put a foam roller or yoga block between the knees and squeeze it gently. This will help activate the adductors (inner thighs) and hamstrings, which will help you tuck your pelvis under to flatten your lower back down to the floor.

2. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat

The front foot elevated split squat is a great variation of the split squat exercise that targets the glutes quite effectively.

The front foot is elevated so you can keep the pressure on your heels more and load into the glutes more.

How To Do It

  • Set up a 6-inch elevation with an exercise step or something similar.
  • Stand your front foot on top of the elevation and stand in a split stance with your rear foot on its toes or forefoot.
  • Make sure your hips face forward. Ensure that your knees are bent with your back knee under the pelvis and your front knee above the ankle.
  • Squat down until your rear knee touches or almost touches the floor.
  • You can allow your front knee to bend forward, but don’t let it go further than the toes.
  • Squat back up to your original starting position and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
  • Repeat the same process for the other leg.

Pros

  • Fix hip shifting in squats. The front foot elevated split squat can help you fix any hip shifting issues in squat exercises. For example, if you hip shift to the right, you can try performing left foot forward only front foot elevated split squats. Try this for 4 weeks at a time before reassessing how symmetrical your squats are.
  • Improves hip mobility. If you struggle with hip mobility and get limited range of motion in bilateral exercises like squats and deadlifts (in which you train both legs at the same time), you may find that you round your back in those exercises. The front foot elevated split squat is a great way to stretch those glute, hamstring, and inner thigh muscles to improve your hip mobility.

Cons

  • Quads may be a limiting factor. Your glutes tend to be a very strong pair of muscle groups, so if you have weak quads, they may limit you from progressing in a front foot elevated split squat.

Pro Tip

If you have a hard time balancing with this exercise variation, try to reach forward with the arm that is opposite to your front leg. You can allow your torso and pelvis to rotate with it, but keep your head and eyes facing forward.

3. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

The single-leg Romanian deadlift is a more advanced glute exercise that you can perform with or without external load.

If you’re a novice or intermediate exerciser, you can also adjust it to make it easier with external support for balance.

How To Do It

  • Stand up straight with your center of mass over one foot and the other foot slightly hovering off the ground.
  • Keep a soft bend in the knee and hip that you are leaning on.
  • Lean forward and kick your hovering leg back. Make sure this hovering leg and your torso form a straight line.
  • Ensure that your shin from your standing leg is always vertical, but your knee is bent.
  • Squeeze your glute and return yourself to an upright position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and repeat the same process for the other leg.

Pros

  • Large range of motion through glutes. The single-leg Romanian deadlift can train the glutes through its maximum range of motion. Research has shown that training through a larger range of motion is better for increasing muscle mass.
  • Isolate glutes one side at a time. The single-leg Romanian deadlift is also good at isolating each glute at a time. If you have an imbalance between glute size or strength, you can manipulate the number of reps you do by doing more reps on the weaker side to balance it out.

Cons

  • Difficult to balance. This exercise is also incredibly challenging with respect to balancing during execution. If you lose balance a lot, you may find that this exercise is hard to commit to.

Pro Tip

If you have a hard time balancing with the single-leg Romanian deadlift, you can hold onto a dowel with the arm that is opposite to the leg that is on the ground. You may also find that pointing your pelvis towards the inner thigh of the leg you’re standing on helps you balance.

4. Bulgarian Split Squats

The Bulgarian split squat is the most common variation of the split squat that activates the quads and glutes.

You can perform this with or without external load and load it in different ways to activate different muscle groups.

By holding the weight on the arm opposite to the front leg, you will activate more of your glute medius (a glute muscle located at the side of your hip). By holding the weight on the arm of the same side to the front leg, you will activate more of your inner thighs.

How To Do It

  • Set up an elevation for the rear foot with something that is about 1 foot high, such as a free-weight bench or a racked barbell.
  • Place your rear foot or the front of your ankle onto the rear foot elevation and stand in a split stance.
  • Keep the thigh of your rear leg in line with the rest of your torso.
  • Squat down and back until your back knee touches or almost touches the floor and stand back up.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and repeat the same process for the other leg.
Bulgarian Split Squats

Pros

  • Can be adjusted to hit glutes differently. If you want to focus on the glutes a bit more, you can increase the distance of how far forward you step and also elevate the toes so that the pressure is on your heels. Both adjustments will help train the glutes more.
  • Good range of motion on glutes without training hamstrings as much. In a similar way to the single-leg Romanian deadlift, the Bulgarian split squat can take you through a large range of motion in the glutes, with the advantage of not activating your hamstrings as much.

Cons

  • Quad-dominant variation. The nature of the Bulgarian split squat is that your center of gravity is tipped forward, which will keep a lot of load onto your quads. This means that your quads may be a limiting factor in this exercise.

Pro Tip

If you have a hard time feeling the glutes and you feel your quads more in this exercise, you can step forward a little bit further and elevate your front toe with a small wedge or small weight disc. This helps keep the pressure on your heels, which increases the activation of your hamstrings and glutes.

Looking for ways to make Bulgarian split squats easier or harder? Check out 9 Bulgarian Split Squat Progressions (From Basic to Advanced).

5. Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge

The front foot elevated reverse lunge is similar to the front foot elevated split squat, except that it is slightly more challenging and you load the front hip more. This will in turn load the glute muscles of the front leg more during each repetition.

This makes it a suitable progression from the front foot elevated split squat.

How To Do It

  • Set up a 6-inch elevation with an exercise step or something similar.
  • Stand with both feet on top of the elevation with your center of mass over the side you want to work.
  • Let the foot on your non-working side hover above the elevation.
  • Take a step back to lunge backward behind the elevation and squat down until your knee almost touches the ground.
  • Drive yourself back up to the box with your front heel and stand back up.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and repeat the same process for the other leg.

Pros

  • Fix hip shifting in deadlifts. This front foot elevated reverse lunge replicates a similar hip movement to deadlifts. If you are weaker in one glute and hip shift in the deadlift, this exercise is very effective at fixing that. You want to train more reps or more sets on the side that you shift away from.

Cons

  • Reps can be inconsistent. As you lunge back repeatedly, your reps can be inconsistent throughout the set if you step back at different distances each time. The tension you feel in your glutes may vary through a workout, and you may even lose balance in some of the reps.

Pro Tip

If you want to activate the glutes more, specifically the gluteus medius muscle, carry a load in the contralateral arm, which is the arm opposite to the front leg. The gluteus medius will activate in order to help you balance with the shift in the center of mass with the added load.

6. Sled Push

The sled push is not usually considered a glute exercise, but if performed correctly, it can load the glutes in a way that is very different to any squat, split squat, or deadlift. The main muscle groups that are activated are the quads, the calves, and the glutes.

How To Do It

  • Load the sled with a heavy load. Stand behind the sled and hold onto the poles with your arms straight.
  • Lean forward with a roughly 45-degree lean.
  • Keep your lower back flat and your abs tight to brace your posture.
  • Push through one leg at a time and fully extend your hips and knees to maximally activate the glutes.
  • Alternate with the other leg once you fully extend the first leg, then bring your first leg forward to repeat the process.
  • Continue doing this for the desired distance.

Pros

  • Increase muscular endurance in glutes. The sled push is an exercise that you can perform for long distances, which makes it very useful for developing muscular endurance in the glutes. This may be useful for sports-related activities or if you generally want to improve how long you can train in a workout.
  • Hits glutes differently from most other exercises. For most squatting and deadlift exercises, the glutes are activated the most when the hips are flexed. The amount of activation goes down when you fully extend your hip. With the sled push, there is more of an even activation through the glutes as you drive your legs to full extension.

Cons

  • Difficult to fatigue glutes. It may be difficult to fatigue the glutes as the quads and calves may be the first muscles to give out. You may even find that your cardiovascular fitness may be your limiting factor.

Pro Tip

If you want to progress the sled push to train the glutes more, hold the sled at a lower point on the poles so you lean forward more. When you lean forward more, you can bring your knees and feet higher, which will increase the range of motion going through your glutes when you drive the sled forward.

7. Glute-Focused Step Up

The glute-focused step up is a great way to train the glutes without training the back.

You can train the glutes hard with this exercise with just your own body weight, but after you get used to that, you can add external load.

How To Do It

  • Set up an exercise step or plyo box that is high enough that when you step on the box, your hip crease is level with the knees.
  • Put one foot on top of the box with your shin vertical, and create a slight forward lean. Make sure your back leg forms a straight line with your torso.
  • Push through your front foot’s heel and step up onto the box. Do not let the back foot touch the box – make sure it stays hovering in the air.
  • As you step off the box and lower yourself to the ground, lean forward and keep the middle of your chest over your front thigh.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and do the same thing for the other leg.
glute-focused step up

Pros

  • You can control your posture at the hardest point. When you step down from the step, your back leg supports your hip and spine position. This back leg stops your pelvis from wanting to tuck underneath and round your lower back.

Cons

  • Easy to cheat with the back leg. If you do get fatigued in the glute-focused step up, it is easy to try and push off the ground with the bottom leg. This reduces the effort and work done on the leg muscles of the front leg. This can make each set very inconsistent.

Pro Tip

If you struggle to control your descent when you step down, hold onto a dowel or some fixed beam. This will allow you to control your balance in the descent and slow the lowering phase, which will increase the time under tension. This will increase the training on the glute muscles more.

8. Curtsy Step Down

The curtsy step down is a great progression from a glute-focused step up to train the glutes without causing any stress on the back.

This exercise will have a slightly higher demand on balancing when executing.

How To Do It

  • Stand near the edge of an exercise step or low plyo box.
  • Bring the foot that is nearest the middle of the box back and across your front foot and onto the floor.
  • Make sure you keep your front knee behind the toes and pressure on your heel.
  • The moment your back foot touches the floor, push yourself back up and bring your feet together.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and turn around to repeat the same process on the other leg

Pros

  • Targets side glutes effectively. The curtsy step down is very effective at activating the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, which are your side glutes. You can have a very deep stretch in these muscles if you use a higher box, which can help you gain more muscle mass.

Cons

  • Requires good hip mobility. You need good hip mobility to perform this movement. If you are not careful or use a box that is too high, you can risk straining a muscle. It is best to start with a low box and get used to the movement before going for a higher box.

Pro Tip

You can progress this exercise in two ways. You can either hold onto an external load by holding onto a kettlebell or dumbbell in a goblet position (i.e., holding the weight at your chest), or you can increase the height of the exercise step or box that you are standing on.

Can You Train the Glutes With Lower Back Pain?

Sled Push

Yes, you can train glutes if you have lower back pain. However, great caution is needed when you do.

First and foremost, you should seek advice from a physical therapist or a qualified medical professional regarding any lower back pain.

If they have given you the green light to exercise lightly, follow these measures to train glutes with lower back pain. 

Avoiding bilateral (meaning both legs) squats or deadlifts is a good place to start, as they generally have a high demand on your lower back to brace your posture. 

You should start with light bodyweight exercises first to assess the tolerance of your lower back. If multiple sets with just bodyweight exercises such as glute bridges or step ups are faring well, you can slowly add load.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Work My Glutes Without Hurting My Back?

You can work your glutes without hurting your back by making sure that you use good exercise technique, train within the appropriate range of motion, and use a sensible load.

How Do You Build Glutes With a Bad Back?

To build your glutes with a bad back, you need to choose exercises that either make your back feel better or don’t make it worse. Start with exercises such as glute bridges without weight and keep reps and sets low. When you no longer have back pain, add load to those exercises or perform other exercises with load.

Does Strengthening the Glutes Help With Lower Back Pain?

Strengthening glutes can help with lower back pain, but not always. Sometimes, weak glutes can cause your lower back to compensate, which is why it hurts in the first place. However, you will need to get a diagnosis from a qualified medical professional before figuring out if strengthening the glutes can help.

Additional Glute Training Guides


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com