You want to hit the gym, but you’ve only got a little time to get in some strength training. Which muscles should you work in your abbreviated gym sesh? While every muscle deserves your attention, in a time crunch, we recommend zeroing in on the largest muscles in the body. These big muscles propel your body, move your levers (aka your arms and legs), and are key to helping you avoid injuries. Not to mention that the bigger the muscle, the more calories it burns even while you’re at rest. That means targeting just your three largest muscles can help you look better and feel better. Here’s what you need to know about your glutes, lats, and quads.
Your Glute Is a Beaut
You may actually be sitting on your largest muscle at this very moment. The gluteus maximus, more commonly known as your “glutes,” is a powerhouse muscle. It is critical in almost every big movement you perform, from walking to jumping, sprinting, and climbing the stairs.
Many individuals suffer from low back pain and have no idea why. The answer might be underdeveloped glutes, known in the fitness world as “glute amnesia.” Spending big chunks of time sitting at school, work, or in the car will leave your glutes disengaged for the majority of the day. Weak glutes can lead to poor posture and low back pain.
Don’t let that happen to you! Take care of your backside, literally. Strengthening your glutes will help you in the gym, on the sports field, and in everyday life.
Our Three Favorite Glute Exercises
Ready to fire up your glutes? Great! If you only have time to work one muscle group in the gym (or at home), it should be your glutes.
The very best glute exercise is a squat. This compound movement works many of the muscles in your posterior chain, including your glutes. (Your posterior chain comprises all the muscles on the back of your body.) If you are new to exercising or working out at home, do five sets of 15 air squats. If you feel comfortable with the squat movement, throw some dumbbells on your shoulders to make the movement more difficult. Intermediate and advanced exercisers should consider front squats or back squats with a loaded bar. Remember to squeeze your glutes as you push up from the squat.
Side Steps with a Resistance Band
If you really want to feel the burn, then step into a resistance band and begin performing side steps. Make sure the band is positioned just under your knees or above your ankles. Position yourself into a quarter squat and sidestep slowly. It won’t take long until you feel this exercise on the outer side of your glute. Three sets of ten steps to each side (20 steps per set) is a good starting rep scheme.
Box Jumps or Step-ups
Let’s add some plyometric goodness to your glute workout. Your glutes are critical to improving your explosiveness if your sport includes sprinting, quickly changing directions, or jumping. To work this aspect of your glutes, find a box at your gym and perform three rounds of 10 box jumps. Make sure you choose a box you are comfortable with. Another alternative is to perform step-ups. To make box step-ups more difficult, grab a moderately weighted dumbbell in each hand.
(Bonus Tip: Many gyms offer group fitness classes dedicated to working your glutes. Check your local fitness class schedule. At EōS, some of our favorite glute classes are: Booty Up!, Bellies & Butts, Bootie Camp Barre™, and Bootie Camp Yoga®.)
Lats Are Where It’s At
Running along the center of your back, the fan-like latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle in your upper body. Bodybuilders appreciate that “lats” give their back that nice tapering effect from broad shoulders to taut waist. You don’t have to dream of flexing on stage in order to love your lats, however. This muscle is critical in many upper body movements.
Your lats help you to move your core and arms. When you pick up a grocery bag from the ground and pull it into your body, you can thank your lats for the extra help. Lats also play a critical role in helping you to maintain good posture and can keep you injury-free. Well-developed lats give you thoracic mobility, which means you can move your mid- and upper back. Poor thoracic mobility can lead to shoulder pain, neck pain, and low back pain. So, don’t forget to give your lats some attention next time you hit the gym.
Our Three Favorite Lat Exercises
When it’s time to attack your lats, a few simple exercises can help strengthen this important muscle. If your lats are weak, it won’t take many reps to get them sizzling!
To warm up your lats, hop on the rowing machine at your gym. If you’ve never rowed before, ask a gym attendant or a personal trainer for guidance. Keep your torso upright during your row, and focus on a strong pull with each stroke. If you are new to rowing, try a distance of 500 meters at a moderate pace. As you improve, you can increase the resistance or increase the distance to 1,000 meters.
Almost every major gym includes a lat pulldown machine. You’ll see a bar (or handles) connected to a cable. Start with a light weight if you’re performing the movement for the first time. Grab the bar in an overhand grip. Keeping your elbows tucked into your body and shoulders back, slowly pull the bar down to your chest. Try to squeeze your back muscles at the bottom of the pull. Perform three sets of eight reps at a moderate weight and increase the weight if it feels too easy.
The quintessential gym move is actually a great lat exercise. Try to avoid kipping or swinging during your pull-up as you pull your chin above the bar. Three sets of five pull-ups is a great goal to shoot for. If pull-ups are not yet in your gym tool kit, look for a pull-up assistance machine at your gym. You can also perform jumping pull-ups with the help of a box.
Join the Quad Squad
Your quadriceps are with you every step of the way. Literally. These massive muscles located on the front of your thighs are critical for walking, running, and lifting your legs. Your “quads” also help you extend your knees and bend your hips.
If you suffer from knee pain, weak quads could be the culprit. Your quads function as shock absorbers when you run or jump. Weak quads put more pressure on your knees, which can lead to pain and knee-related injuries.
Our Three Favorite Quad Exercises
Whether you want to tone your quads just in time for beach season or get rid of nagging knee pain, these three great exercises can sculpt and strengthen these large leg muscles.
Lunges are your ticket to major quad development. If you’re new to exercising or are exercising at home, lunging without weight is a great start to building your quads. You may want to put a pad or pillow under your knee. Three sets of 30 lunges (15 lunges on each leg) is an excellent starting point. Intermediate exercisers should consider lunging with a pair of moderate weight dumbbells at your sides or on your shoulders. More advanced exercisers can lunge with a barbell in the back rack or front rack position. Just make sure your form is on point before you start loading on the weights.
One of the best ways to increase the capacity of your quads is to hop on a bicycle and start pedaling. Don’t shy away from hills. That’s where your quads really shine. If you can’t cruise down the bike lanes around your neighborhood, hop on a bike at the gym. Better yet, sign up for a cycling class. If your quads don’t feel like jelly at the end of the class, then you didn’t do it right!
Leg Press Machine
Squats aren’t just great for your glutes. They’re also amazing for toning and tightening your quads. If you don’t feel comfortable squatting with a barbell, slide on into the leg press machine at your gym. Start with a light weight and build as your quads get stronger. We recommend three sets of six reps at a moderately difficult weight. Try single-leg presses to make sure your dominant leg isn’t taking more than its fair share.
(Bonus Tip: A lot of exercisers love working out their quads but then overlook their hamstrings and hip flexors. These muscles all work in harmony, so make sure you hit them as well.)
Love Your Largest Muscles
Giving a little care and attention to the largest muscles in the body can net you the best return on your exercise investment. Working your glutes, lats, and quads will help you avoid injury while also improving your performance in all your fitness-related undertakings, whether you’re looking to set a new strength personal record, dominate your company kickball team, or just keep up with your kiddos. Just remember that your other muscles also deserve your attention. If you aren’t sure how to put together a full-body strength-training plan, it might be time to invest in personal training.
Now get your glutes to the gym — and your lats and quads, too!