A better behind: The fitness world’s obsession with the perfect glutes is back
By ELIZABETH KIEFER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: June 13, 2018
Depending on whom and what you follow on social media, it’s possible your feed is populated with food porn, puppies, celebrity babies or even poetry. But if your browsing behavior is anything like mine, you’ve noticed an uptick in photos featuring a certain element of the female anatomy, often accompanied by a peach emoji, the new universal symbol for the perfect derriere.
Almost a quarter-century after “Buns of Steel” made its VHS debut, the obsession with having firm, toned glutes is back. Classes such as Best Butt Ever and Gluteus Maxout pepper the schedules of gyms, while concept studios targeted toward building the behind spread across the country, including Booty Barre in Seattle and Booty Works in Los Angeles. Fit-fluencers such as Sam Paparo and Cassey Ho have built whole YouTube and Instagram brands on their backsides.
Gone are the willowy, flat-bottomed, Spandex-wearing workout queens of the early ’90s. Instead, today’s gluteus craziness celebrates the curves of Kim Kardashian, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj — and seems geared toward confidence and strength, as well as sex appeal. “The focus is on curves, and that appeals to everyone,” says Bec Donlan, a personal trainer and the founder of Sweat With Bec. “But I also want you to be strong.”
Donlan attributes the renewed focus on glutes in part to the body positivity movement’s acceptance — and celebration — of curvaceous figures. She also thinks we’ve reached a more pragmatic moment in fitness culture. Her example: The average woman can’t transcend genetics to look like Heidi Klum — but she can create a firm behind.
“Rather than everyone being desperate to have that stick-thin model bod, which genetically is not possible for 99.9 percent of the population,” Donlan says, “we are more accepting of what our bodies are realistically capable of.”
“It’s not about being skinny right now,” agrees Stephen Pasterino, a physical therapist turned “pre-hab” trainer whose streamable workout concept P.volve focuses on shaping the butt, hips and thighs, has a similar assessment. “People want that athletic, strong, lean look — everyone is looking for that feminine physique, and the butt is a major part of that.”
He acknowledges, however, the influence of Instagram, “where every girl is in a bikini with a butt shot.” Though that might be a slight overstatement, the social media platform deserves some credit for the craze. The hashtag #TushyTuesday, launched in 2010 by Elana Rosenblatt, director of partnerships for the women’s clothing brand Reformation, appears on more than 30,000 images on Instagram. Crediting Jennifer Lopez as her inspiration, Rosenblatt says, “I wanted to show that being skinny isn’t the only trademark for beauty.”
But she and Pasterino point out a dark side: The quest to get the full-bottomed look sometimes leads women to go under the knife, or at least the syringe — a trend that made a controversial appearance in last year’s adaptation of “She’s Gotta Have It” on Netflix.
“I think it’s crazy what girls are doing to achieve that look,” Pasterino says. “And I think it’s a result of not knowing how to do it on their own. You don’t have to do plastic surgery or anything like that; you just have to go through the right exercises and motions, and get the right muscles turned on, and you can have it naturally.”
Building a firm, round behind naturally is also the only way to attain important muscular benefits. “The butt and the hips are the drivers of everything you do, whether you are an athlete or not,” Pasterino says. “Without a strong butt, the chances of getting hurt are sky-high. It supports your back; it supports your hips; it drives you through motion and accelerates motion; it helps to prevent injuries in the knees, even in the shoulders.”
The problem is that most of us aren’t using our glutes at all, which Pasterino calls “dormant butt.” Donlan explains: “For 90 percent of people, their glutes don’t fire, they don’t activate. So instead you compensate with all the muscles around it.” For women, this usually means the quadriceps muscles in the front of the thigh.
Firing up the glutes isn’t done the way most of us think it is. “You just can’t accomplish a perfect round butt with just squats, dead lifts and lunges,” Paterino says. “It’s just not possible.” In fact, you’ll be targeting the wrong muscles, Donlan says: “You can squat for days, and if your glutes aren’t firing, you’re building up your quads.”
Donlan recommends using a resistance band, which “instantly forces your body to switch on your medial glutes, the biggest part of your butt. If you make sure your glutes are firing before you lift or whatever it is you’re going to do, that will help work that muscle more.”
Donlan, who sells bands and instructions online, offers these examples as glute-activating exercises: Kick things off by putting a band around your ankles and doing 20 sidesteps to one side, then 20 to the other. Then do squats from a wide-legged stance with the band above your knees. Follow with single-leg dead lifts: Put the band under one foot, hold it with the hand on the same side, then bend and straighten.
“We’ve nicknamed that last one the ‘bend and snap,’ ” similar to a scene from the movie “Legally Blonde,” she says. “It works your hamstrings, the muscles underneath your butt, so it will help your butt as well.”
But she also cautions against overtraining. “Your butt needs to rest and recover after a workout so it can build muscle. If you’re constantly working on one muscle group, that will lead to a constant state of fatigue, meaning zero results and an unbalanced workout.”
Pasterino, whose proprietary resistance equipment can be purchased online and used to take his classes at home, also abides by this less-can-be-more philosophy. He also uses fitness bands, as well as gliders, ankle weights and mini-squats, “which stay in the range of motion where it’s just the butt and the lower stomach.” But he never has clients do more than eight to 10 reps of any move at a time.
“I am adamant about this,” he says. “After eight to 10 reps, your muscles start to fatigue and overdevelop.”
He emphasizes the importance of form. If you’re attending any of these new fanny-focused classes, your instructor should be ensuring that you’re truly activating those glutes, not relying on other muscles to do the work. Even if you choose not to become an Instagram icon, your back and knees will thank you.