It is difficult to select exercises that are effective to train the legs while avoiding the glutes.
Changes to exercise selection and execution are going to be key, but what are the best exercises that minimise use of the glutes?
The 9 best leg exercises that don’t use glutes are:
- Leg Press
- Hack Squats
- Pendulum Squats
- Leg Extension
- Leg Curl
- Hip Adduction
- Calf Raises
- Goblet Squats
- Copenhagen Planks
At the end of this article, you will understand how to adjust exercise execution to shift loading away from the glutes and how these exercises are best performed.
I will cover:
- The reasons you may want to train legs without using your glutes
- 5 exercises you want to avoid and why
- 9 exercises you can use and how to minimise glute use for them
- A sample program you can follow
Why Do You Want To Train Your Legs Without Using Glutes?
There are 4 key reasons why you may want to train legs without using your glutes:
- Injury – Those with a glute injury will want to keep training the rest of their lower body without making the issues worse.
- Recovery issues – If your glutes are not recovering between your sessions then choosing leg exercises that do not use the glutes for certain sessions can aid your overall recovery. In this case, I recommend one lower body session that includes glute targeted exercises, and one that uses the exercises in this article.
- Comparatively bigger glutes – For those with aesthetic goals, a balanced physique is massively important. If your glutes are overshadowing the rest of your lower body, you may want to prioritise bringing up other muscles without further targeting the glutes.
- Weaker quads, adductors or hamstrings – If you are feeling all your squats and deadlifts in your glutes and turning everything into a hip dominant movement, you are likely looking to strengthen the rest of your lower body to match your glute strength.
Can’t Feel Your Quads While Squatting? This article will help.
5 Leg Exercise You Want To Avoid
Hip thrusts are the staple glute exercise added to every program to increase glute size and strength. This makes them top of the list to rule out of your program when trying to train the legs without using the glutes.
We’ve written a ton about hip thrusts previously:
- Do Hip Thrusts Help Squats?
- Hip Thrusts vs Deadlifts: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Don’t Feel Glutes Hip Thrusting? Try These 9 Tips
- 9 Best Barbell hip Thrust Alternatives
Romanian or Stiff Legged Deadlifts
Deadlifts are great for training the hamstrings, erectors and upper back, however they also heavily target the glutes, and even more so when performing a Romanian deadlift or stiff legged deadlift.
Note For Powerlifters: If you are a powerlifter who needs to keep deadlifting, sticking to your competition lift (conventional or sumo) and the closer variants such as paused deadlifts.
Similar to Romanian deadlifts, good mornings are great for training the entire posterior chain, but this also means they train the glutes as a primary muscle.
Low Bar Squats
The low bar squat is the most hinge dominant squat (more bent over torso with less forward knee bending) and thus if you want to keep squatting, a high bar or safety bar squat will suit your needs better.
These are another exercise that many people use to directly train the glutes, and as such, should be avoided when looking to train legs without using the glutes.
9 Leg Exercises That Don’t Target Glutes
In this section, I’m going to discuss leg exercises that don’t target the glutes.
Leg Press – Quadriceps
The leg press will still use the glutes, however, we can minimise this by changing how the movement is performed and therefore still include heavier compound exercises to train the lower body.
To maximise the use of the quadriceps and minimise the use of the glutes there are several things to change with your setup and execution.
Your stance width and position are going to be key factors here.
You want to take a stance that is lower down on the machine to force more knee translation (knees over toes) – aim for as low as you can while keeping your heels against the footplate throughout the entire movement.
Related Article: Leg Press Foot Placement: 5 Stances Explained
A narrow stance, about shoulder width apart, with the feet pointed forward will also help keep the load in your quads, rather than your glutes.
Lastly, you may want to cut the range of motion – working through as much knee extension as you can before going into the deeper ranges of hip extension.
Feel the load primarily in your quads at the bottom of the movement, then you are on target. Feeling the load shift from your quads to your hips, then look to cut the range of motion by 1-2 inches.
Squat shoes can help with targeting your quads in the leg press, these articles will help you further understand why and give you recommendations on the best shoes for you:
- Heel Or Flat Shoes While Squatting? (6 Things To Consider)
- 5 Best Lifting Shoes For Beginners (2021)
- Best Shoes For Squats: Buying Guide And Reviews (2021)
- Best Squat Shoes Under $100 Reviewed (2021)
Hack Squats and Pendulum Squats – Quadriceps
These two exercises are very similar in their uses and execution tips, and if your gym has either available, I highly recommend using them!
Similar to the leg press, these will still use the glutes, however with execution changes you can minimise their use and shift more load onto the quadriceps.
Rather than setting up with a stance you would use for a barbell squat, take a stance shoulder width apart with your feet pointing straight forward.
Place your feet between the bottom and middle of the foot plate – this may take a few practice reps to get right but the aim is a position that allows your knees to continuously shift forward throughout the movement.
This will enable you to keep working through a full range of motion, while maximising the use of the quads and minimising the use of the glutes.
A squat shoe, or heel wedge, will also help for both exercises.
For those without access to these, or those who train at home with minimal equipment, you can set up a great hack squat equivalent with just a foam roller and a wall.
Place the foam roller between you lower back and a wall and place your stance 1-2 feet in front of you.
Squat down, rolling down the foam roller on the wall, and squat back up – you can add load by holding plates or dumbbells, but I recommend performing higher reps before chasing load due to the nature of the set up.
Looking for more alternatives to the hack squat? Check out my article 9 Best Hack Squat Alternatives.
Leg Extension – Quadriceps
Leg extensions are going to be your best choice for a quad exercise that completely avoids using the glutes.
While nothing will beat a great leg extension machine, if you don’t have access to one, these can be performed using a kettlebell, dumbbell, cable or band and a high box or bench by hanging these on your foot or around your ankle.
These are best done working through a full range of motion and pausing at the top of each repetition. Leg extensions suit a higher rep range and are typically best following a heavier quad exercise such as a leg press or hack squat.
Looking for alternatives to leg extensions? Read our article 15 Leg Extensions Alternatives (At Home, Bands, Free Weight)
Leg Curl – Hamstrings
The hamstrings function as a knee flexor and a hip extensor. With the glutes also functioning as a hip extensor, training the hamstrings via knee flexion is the best option for not targeting the glutes as well.
Leg curls (or leg curl alternatives) are great as they can be set up in several different ways; seated machine and lying machine, cable, dumbbell or even with bands, all performed unilaterally (one leg at a time) or bilaterally (both legs together).
Machines are my personal favourite option, with both the lying and seated offering different benefits.
The seated leg curl allows us to train the hamstring while lengthened at both the knee and hip joint and offers more positional constraints such as the machine holding our legs in place making it harder to cheat the movement.
Leaning forward slightly can help further lengthen the hamstrings throughout each rep making these even more challenging.
While seated leg curls are a fantastic exercise, I always find myself coming back to the lying options.
The key here is that you should keep your hips pushed down into the machine, as the reps get harder it is increasingly tempting to lift them and cheat your way through extra reps.
I also recommend stopping just shy of the bottom range of motion, keeping tension on the hamstrings through the full movement.
However, there’s no need to choose just one of these exercises. Both can be used across differing training sessions or within the same sessions in different rep ranges or performing one unilaterally.
Hip Adduction – Adductors
The adductors have two functions, hip adduction, and hip extension in the deeper ranges of hip flexion. However, targeting the adductors as a hip extensor is not plausible while trying to avoid loading the glutes so this leaves us with adduction focused exercises.
A hip adduction machine is my primary recommendation; however, these can also be set up using bands and cables with an ankle attachment.
Work through as much range as you can comfortably manage and squeeze each rep at the peak contraction as if you are trying to crush something between your knees.
Given the adductors are often trained in the lower rep ranges when performing squats (1-10 reps) I prefer to use these for the higher rep ranges (10-15 reps) and push them closer to failure.
Incorporating methods such as drop sets or AMRAPs are a great way to increase the intensity of this exercise and chase progressions as load increments are typically not as frequent as quad or hamstring exercises.
Calf Raises – Calves
While you are trying not to train your glutes, it is the perfect time to catch up with the ever-neglected calf training.
Calf raises can be performed with a range of machines, body weight and free weight exercises.
I recommend incorporating two calf exercises, one with a straight leg, such as a body weight or loaded calf raise on a step, and one with a bent knee, such as a seated calf raise machine, or you can do them seated with plates balanced on your thighs if no machine is available.
The straight leg exercises target your gastrocnemius, the typical calf muscle you think of aesthetically, whereas the bent knee shift load to the soleus, which sits under the gastrocnemius.
Goblet Squats – Quadriceps
These are a great option for those without access to a leg press, hack squat or pendulum squat.
Stand with a narrower stance than a barbell squat, holding a dumbbell, weight plate or kettle bell in front of your chest and squat down, driving the knees forward while trying to stay as upright as possible.
The front loading helps keep you upright and increases the quadriceps demands, while reducing the hip extension requirements and therefore loading on the glutes.
I recommend elevating your heels with squat shoes, or a wedge to make these even more quad dominant.
Related Article: Goblet Squat vs Front Squat: Form, Benefits, Differences
Copenhagen Planks – Adductors
These are another home gym essential, or even for those with access to a gym looking to bring up their core and adductor strength.
These allow you to isometrically (without movement) load the adductors by holding the static position for a prescribed amount of time rather than performing a set amount of reps.
If you find yourself struggling with the full lever position, you can half this by placing you knee on the bench rather than the foot, or by placing the foot on the ground rather than elevating it on a bench.
Sample Program: How To Structure Your Leg Day Without Using Glutes
This two-day program will help you get the most out of training your legs while minimising the use of your glutes.
- Hack Squat – 3 Sets of 8 Reps – Treat these as 3 ascending sets that get progressively more difficult, aiming to be 1-2 reps from failure on the last set.
- Seated Leg Curl – 3 Sets of 10 Reps – Aim for a load you could perform for 12 reps and look to progress the load week to week.
- Leg Extension – 2 Sets of 12-15 + 1 AMRAP Set – Start with a load you can do for 12 reps, once you hit 15 reps on a set, progress the load. Take the last set to failure, performing as many reps as possible (AMRAP).
- Standing Calf Raise – 3 Sets of 15-20 Reps – Pause at the top and bottom of each rep.
- Hip Adduction Machine – 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps – Hold the peak contraction for 1-2 seconds and perform 2-3 second eccentrics.
- Unilateral Leg Press – 3 Sets of 15/12/10 Reps – Start with a load you can do for 15 reps, then increase the load for 12 reps, and increase again for 10 reps.
- Lying Leg Curl – 3 Sets of 12-15 Reps + 1 Drop Set – Progress load when a set reaches 15 reps. Drop the load 25% for the drop set, aiming for 12-15 more reps.
- Goblet Squat – 3 Sets of AMRAPs – Load with a weight you can perform for 15+ reps and perform 3 AMRAP sets with 60 seconds rest between sets.
- Seated Calf Raise – 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps – Hold the peak contraction and perform 2-3 second eccentrics.
- Copenhagen Plank – 3 Sets of 10-15 Seconds – Look to add load or progress the lever length once you hit 15 seconds for all 3 sets.
Other Helpful Guides
- 7 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Hip Flexors
- 7 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Ankles
- 8 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Hamstrings
Training the legs without using the glutes is a viable option, with many exercises needing simple adjustments to their execution rather than complete exclusion.
You may want to do this if you have an injury, poor recovery of the glutes, or a strength or aesthetic imbalance between the glutes and the rest of the lower body. Training should look to target the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors and calves.
About The Author
Jacob Wymer is a powerlifting coach and PhD Candidate in Biomechanics and Strength and Conditioning, researching the application of barbell velocity measurements to powerlifting. He is involved in powerlifting across the board, from athlete to meet director. Jacob runs his coaching services at EST Barbell. You can also connect with him on Instagram.