When it comes to strength training, people often focus on the big players, like the quads, hamstrings, and chest. But your smaller muscles deserve love, too, and hip abductor exercises are a prime example of underrated moves worth adding to your routine.
A lot of folks actually have weak hip abductors, Evan Williams, CSCS, CPT, founder of E2G Performance, tells SELF. And that can be a problem, since subpar strength in this area—the side of your butt—can trigger a cascade of issues in other parts of your body, including your knees and ankles. The good news is, targeting this small-but-mighty muscle group can help provide the balance you need.
Ahead, all you need to know about the hip abductors, including what they are, why strength in this area matters, the best way to fire them up, and a whole bunch of hip abductor exercises you can try right at home. Right this way for a stronger side butt!
What are your hip abductors?
Before we get into how to work these butt muscles, let’s get clear on what they really are. Put simply, your hip abductors are a group of muscles named for the action they perform: They move your legs away from the center of your body, Ava Fagin, M.Ed., CSCS, assistant director of sports performance at Cleveland State University, tells SELF. This motion is known as abduction.
Your primary hip abductors include your two smaller butt muscles, the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus, as well as your tensor fasciae latae (also known as the TFL, a muscle located at the outside of the hip), Fagin says. Any time you take a step or hop to the side, these muscles are at work. They also help stabilize your hips in unilateral exercises, and even when you're on a single leg in general, Fagin adds. That means they play a key role in exercises like lunges and single-leg deadlifts as well as in everyday movements like walking and running.
Why is it important to strengthen your hip abductors?
Lots of folks have weak hip abductors since so much of our day-to-day motions—both in life and at the gym—occur in the sagittal plane of motion, says Williams. This means we spend a lot of our time in forward and backward movements, like walking, running, biking, climbing stairs, squatting, and lunging. We tend to skimp on movements in the frontal plane where we abduct our legs and move them out to the side. As a result, it’s all too easy to develop weakness in our hip abductors, explains Williams.
Additionally, people who spend a lot of time sitting down can inadvertently weaken their glute muscles, including those that make up the side butt. That’s because the position creates a constantly flexed hip, which can tighten hip flexors—a group of muscles that engage whenever you move your leg up toward your body—and weaken glutes, Fagin explains. Plus, sitting a lot prevents us from simply using the glutes more.
Weak side-butt muscles can hamper your single-leg strength and cause your knees to cave in (a motion known as valgus) when you’re walking, squatting, or doing other movements. Valgus places a lot of stress on the knees and can ultimately lead to injuries to that joint, says Williams. For one, it can contribute to iliotibial band syndrome, a condition that can cause sharp pain on the outside of your knee.
It can also lead to problems even lower on your kinetic chain: Weak hip abductors can increase the risk of ankle injuries, especially when you’re running. The small muscles along the side of your butt help you stay steady and balanced as you stride on uneven surfaces, helping to prevent ankle rolling or sprains, according to the American Council of Exercise.
Moreover, when your abductors aren’t firing and stabilizing like they should, other joints and muscles can step in to compensate, says Fagin. For instance, if the gluteus medius isn’t doing its job keeping your hip steady, your hip flexors can take on some of that work, which can ultimately lead to strain and injury.
How to work your hip abductors at home
When you hear “hip abductor exercises,” you might envision the classic gym hip abductor machine—the chair equipped with weighted pads you press out with your knees. While this move is extremely common, it’s actually not the most functional way to work these muscles, says Fagin. After all, there are pretty much no scenarios in daily life where you’d be simultaneously flexing your hips and pressing your knees out.
A better way to strengthen your abductors? Focus on simple moves that involve bringing your legs out to the side and away from your body. Examples include clamshells, fire hydrants, lateral lunges, curtsy lunges, and lateral leg lifts. You can also incorporate unilateral moves like single-leg deadlifts, reverse lunges, and single-leg squats to challenge the stability of those muscles, says Fagin.
Now, you may notice a lot of common hip abductor moves use mini-bands or resistance bands. That’s because these portable tools are easy ways to add external resistance to an exercise, which makes it more challenging than bodyweight alone, says Fagin. Many banded moves can also be done with a cable machine or ankle weights, but for lots of folks a mini-band or resistance band is the most accessible option for progressing it. That said, if you’re just getting started, it’s smart to do the movements with just bodyweight at first. Then, once you’ve mastered proper form, you can progress by added resistance or weights.
When it comes to incorporating abductor exercises into your routine, you don’t need to devote an entire workout to them. You can add one or two moves into every session, advises Fagin. For moves like lateral lunges, curtsy lunges, single-leg deadlifts, and reverse lunges where you can easily add a lot of external load in the form of free weights, aim to go heavy and keep the rep count lower—for instance, do four sets of eight reps if you goal is to build muscle, or four sets of six if you’re wanting to increase strength. For moves that use resistance bands, like clamshells, fire hydrants, and lateral steps, aim for three sets of 12 to 15 reps to work your muscular endurance.
Fagin also recommends incorporating banded moves as part of a warm-up, since activating those muscles is super important for the rest of your workout. Many movements—from running to biking to strength training—require the use of your abductors, so properly firing them up beforehand can help reduce your risk of injury, Fagin explains.