So many women are not satisfied with the firmness or shape of their gluteal muscles, so if this describes you, be assured, you are not alone. The gluteals are large muscles that provide shape and structure to the buttocks, so improvements in muscle tone and shape cannot occur without calling the gluteal muscles into at least moderately intensive activity. One-legged movements that activate the major muscles of the hip are therefore a prerequisite for laying claim to gorgeous gluteals. One-legged squats are very intensive and will activate the gluteal muscles of the working leg, but this can be too intensive if you have not developed a base for your hip musculature. Thus, if you have not already invested in some serious hip training, it would be better to embark on several months of climbing stairs, machine leg presses and lunges with dumbbells for added resistance, before you progress to the more intensive single-leg squats described here. If you have a base of strength already, you may wish to consider adding this rather intense exercise to your training program. But, there are still some cautions for you to consider before beginning the exercise, and they will be discussed.
The Gluteal Muscles
The buttock or gluteal prominence is located on either side of, and on the posterior portion of, the hip bones. The gluteus maximus is the major hip extensor and it’s the thickest muscle of all the hip muscles. It contains the strongest and largest muscle fibers in the body. The fibers of the gluteus maximus attach to the bones of the hip, the sacrum, and along the lumbar area of the hip and lower back structures. This muscle finally attaches posteriorly to the femur bone of the thigh at a section referred to as the gluteal line or gluteal tuberosity. It also has an attachment on the iliotibial band of the facia lata, which is mostly a tough band of connective tissue running from the hip down the lateral side of the thigh to the knee. The gluteus maximus appears to be well anchored here and as a result, it tends to be active when other muscles of the thigh are active.
This is the major extensor muscle of the hip joint. This means that when the thigh is fixed (e.g., your lower legs are firmly planted on the floor) and the hip joint is free to move, this muscle can extend the lower back. Because it attaches to the hip bones and crosses the hip joint, it can assist the extension functions of the lower back (e.g., erector spinae muscles). The gluteus maximus is active when movement between the pelvis and femur goes beyond 15 degrees of extension, so small depth squats or short strides on a stair climber do not get the job done.
The gluteus medius is a very important fan-shaped muscle that lays just deep to the gluteus maximus. Its fibers run between the ileum bone of the hip and the posterior part of the femur bone of the thigh. It abducts the femur at the hip joint by moving the femur laterally, away from the midline of the body. The gluteus medius has an important function in maintaining balance during walking. This is especially important as we age because weakness in this muscle increases the likelihood of falling accidents in elderly persons. It’s also important for sports requiring quick changes in body position without loss of balance (e.g., martial arts, rollerblading).
The third and smallest muscle in this group is the gluteus minimus. It attaches to the outer surface of the ileum bone of the hip just deep to the gluteus medius. It attaches to the posterior and middle surfaces of the femur bone of the thigh. Similar to the gluteus medius, this muscle acts to abduct the femur on the pelvis.
Exercises that activate large muscle groups are never easy and such is the case for one-legged squats. Therefore, you should be prepared to put out a good effort, and you should also not be surprised if you feel winded after a single set.
1. Position a bench lengthwise behind you. The bench should also sit behind a fixed vertical pole, or if available, the handles of a parallel dip station. You will hold onto the pole or bar with one or both hands to support your body and to keep from falling forward or backward. Parallel (dip) bars are ideal, because you can stabilize your upper body even further by holding onto the bars with both hands.
2. If you first exercise the right leg, you will flex your left knee (non-working leg) to about 90 degrees and place the top portion of your left foot on the bench. This position puts the hip joint of the non-working leg into extension (so the heel of the left leg is posterior to your buttocks). This leg position is to help maintain your balance and to make this a one-legged exercise.
3. Your toes on the working (right) leg should be angled slightly outward and not straight ahead. This angle produces a more direct line of pull of the patellar tendon across the patella (kneecap) than if the knees were placed together and it will slightly reduce the stress through the front of the hip joint.
4. Shift your body weight to your right leg and slowly lower your body by flexing your right knee. Keep your eyes and head looking straight ahead and try to keep your back straight during the descent of your body. Continue to lower your buttocks toward the floor until your knee is about 90 degrees or until your buttocks just touch the bench.
5. Rise upward by straightening your right knee, but don’t allow it to lock out. This will maintain tension in the thigh and gluteal muscles, and will also ready you for the next repetition downward. Do not let your eyes focus on the floor when you are going up or down, because this will decrease your stability and you may lose your balance.
6. After completing about 10 repetitions with your right leg, take a short break. Then reposition your right leg so it rests on the bench. Start your squats for the left leg.
7. If you begin to struggle on the way up, simply sit down on the bench, reposition your feet firmly on the floor and stand up. It’s not worth trying to struggle and lose your balance or strain muscles responsible for stabilizing your hip joints.
8. Add more repetitions as you improve your muscle strength and stamina. After accomplishing about two sets of 30 repetitions with each leg, you will be ready to add some additional resistance. However, it is much better to attach a weighted belt (e.g., 5 pounds of resistance) around your waist because this will distribute the added resistance evenly for your thighs and hips to push against. A poorer approach is to hold a dumbbell in one hand, because you will also increase the likelihood of having some torque (twisting) applied to the hip and spine while squatting and this increases the chances for injury.
More About the Muscles
The angle between the torso and the thighs helps determine the relative activation of the gluteal muscles. If, during the descent, your back is kept vertical and perpendicular to the floor, your quadriceps will assume a greater role and your gluteals will not work as hard. On the other hand, if the torso bends forward slightly (but never forward by more than 30 degrees), the gluteus maximus is more strongly activated. However, bending over more than this will place the lower back at increased risk for injury. The gluteus maximus muscle will be most active during the standing phase (from the lowest position back to the starting position). The gluteus medius and minimus muscles are particularly active during the upward part of the lift and prevent the thighs from crumpling out to the sides.
Other Considerations and Cautions
Although this is a great gluteal and thigh exercise, it is definitely not appropriate for everyone. One problem with the exercise is that it creates a significant amount of hip and knee stress, and this is magnified in some women, where there’s an acute angle between the hip bones and the femur bones of the thigh. Without substantial preparation of the supporting structures, the hip and knee joints can become sore and acutely injured. This will not be the experience of every woman, but the wider your hips are, the more likely you are to develop an injury.
You can help minimize this potential injury by using a rather wide stance during the squat. Nevertheless, if you’re not used to regular leg presses and squats, or stair climbing (not shallow stair stepping, but actually climbing several flights of stairs), you should avoid this exercise until you’ve established a good base of strength around your hip joint, and strengthened the muscles and tendons associated with the knee joint. The one-legged squat it is an exercise that perhaps could be done for two or three months if you are symptom free (other than routine and expected muscle discomfort). Then it would be good to discontinue the exercise for a month and substitute another exercise before returning to it. While this is a great exercise that will help firm and shape gorgeous gluteals, it has a high risk factor for potential injury, so be very cautious and very strict in your exercise form.
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