Glutes are king as far as the hierarchy of your muscles is concerned. "For athletic performance, overall lower body power, strength, speed, and everyday optimum function, honing strength in and activating your glutes should be a top priority in all exercise programs," says Robert Reames, C.S.C.S., Gold’s Gym Fitness Institute and Pear Training Intelligence System's weight control coach.
Your glutes serve as the main mover and power output to most of your major and accessory lifts—squat, deadlift, kettbell swings, box jumps—so the more you develop and stimulate your gluteal muscles, the more you're able to maximize control, strength, and stability. (It doesn't hurt that women love watching you do leg and glute work in the gym, either.)
Below (in no particular order) are the top glute exercises to incorporate into your fitness regimen. You can mix and match these in multiple combinations for awesome glute and overall lower body work. Sets and reps for each exercise depends on your particular needs, goals, and current abilities. But, 2-5 sets of 8-15 reps is Reames' general recommendation.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your feet planted firmly on the floor, knees bent. If you're just starting and using your bodyweight, reach your arms straight up over your chest and clasp your hands. If you're using dumbbells, place the weight (plate, kettlebell, dumbbells) comfortably on your pelvis and hold it steady. To really activate your glutes, thrust your hips up toward the ceiling, driving with your legs, and dig your heels into the floor. Lower your hips until they're hovering right above the floor level, then repeat.
How to do it: Lie flat on your back with your feet firmly planted on the floor, knees bent, as if you're doing a standard bridge. Keeping one foot fixed to the ground, lift the other up, keeping the bend in your knee. Drive your hips up toward the ceiling, driving through your planted leg and using the raised leg to keep your pelvis even and balanced. Don't let your non-working leg/side drop, Reames advises, and keep emphasizing the heel plant. Lower toward the ground, then repeat.
Expert tip: To make it harder, inch yourself close to a wall so your trunk is about a foot away. Bring what would be your "planted" leg on the wall, foot flat against the surface. From here, raise your "non-working leg" up into the air, keeping your knee bent. As you raise up into the glute bridge, you'll drive your heel against the wall, raising your hips. You can also use a bench. And like the standard bridge, you can up the ante by adding weight.
How to do it: Begin with your head, neck, and shoulders comfortably fixed against a stability or Swiss ball and both feet firmly planted on the ground, knees bent at 90°. (This is also known as table top position.) Either stretch your arms straight up above your chest with your hands clasped to maximize the balance and stability challenge, or down on either side in case you begin to slip or tip over. As with the other bridge motions, simply lower your hips toward the floor then drive them toward the ceiling. Lower and repeat.
How to do it: Lie on your back with both feet planted firmly against the flat base of a Bosu ball, knees bent. Stabilize your body. If you're feeling a bit wobbly, your arms can hover on either side of you in case you fall in one direction. If you feel balanced, raise your arms straight up above your chest, hands clasped to challenge and work your stability. Drive your hips toward the ceiling, then lower and repeat.
How to do it: In general, your feet should be shoulder-width or slightly wider apart (if you've got a bigger frame go wider; if you're smaller, go closer together), and your feet planted firmly on the floor, driving and emphasizing that heel drive. Stand tall. Depending on your preference or what's available, hold a dumbbell in each hand (arms down at your sides); position yourself under a barbell with the bar against your traps for a back squat, and just over your chest for a front squat; hold a kettbell or dumbbell at your chest for goblet squats; wrap resistance bands under your feet and around your shoulders; or, use just your bodyweight to perform a basic squat.
Simply bend your knees as you move your glutes back like you're about to sit in a chair. Keep your spine straight, being careful not to move it too far forward. Your range of motion should come from your hips, knees, and ankles, Reames says. From here, raise up to the starting point and repeat.
Expert tip: "Optimum form and range of motion for the squat is very dependent on your physicality, structure, joint integrity, limb length, strength, flexibility, and current condition," Reames says. Your range of motion is 90° max at the knee. Some guys will be able to go lower than this, but not everyone will squat to parallel, he says. And that's totally okay. "Stick to form and the appropriate resistance levels for you; the squat is still one of the best and simplest moves for overall strength, building lower-body muscle, core strength, and athletic performance.
How to do it: Stand tall with a dumbbell in each hand, arms to your sides. Put some slack in your knees so they're in a neutral position, slightly bent. Extend one leg back; this non-weight-bearing leg should extend straight back until it's parallel to the floor, while your planted leg remains engaged and planted firmly to the floor. Your weight-bearing knee should be neutral to just slightly bent to avoid hyperextension. Sink your arms toward the floor when you draw your elevated leg back, moving with the flow of gravity. Use your glutes to pull yourself back to the upright position.
Expert tip: Retract your shoulders down your back so they don't fall forward, Reames says. Also make sure the top of your spine (cervical) stays neutral so your head doesn't drop.