As a 48-year-old, fairly fit, working mother of two young boys (I had both kids in my 40s), I try to avoid mirrors as much as possible when I’m in a bathing suit. Recently, however, I happened to catch a glance of my backside, and let’s just say I wasn’t too thrilled with the sagging specimen reflecting back at me.
I decided to reach out to two of the top trainers in the business to find out whether it was really possible, at my age, with a chronic knee and back injury, to build a better butt and, if so, how.
My first call was to celebrity trainer David Kirsch, who is responsible for Jennifer Lopez’s enviable backside and is quite pleased that curves are back in style. Kirsch advocates a comprehensive approach to looking your best that includes not only what you do in the gym but what you do the rest of the time, including drinking plenty of water; limiting sugar, alcohol and processed foods; and getting adequate sleep.
He expects his clients to move their bodies every day and live “clean” most of the time, but he admits a personal weakness for pizza on occasion.
When it comes to exercise, he notes, our bodies change as we get older, so it’s important to be even smarter about exercise to get good results, But Kirsch reassured me that change was possible at any age if I was committed.
Since every person’s body is different and factors including age, genetics, body type and weight can all play a significant role in the size and shape of your butt and how you improve it, I decided to break this topic down into three types: the flat butt (aka no butt), the curvy/ample butt and the saggy butt (like mine).
Although there is some overlap in how you tackle all three, there are some differences, as well. I also reached out to another butt-building expert, master Pilates instructor Tracey Mallett, who created the popular butt-sculpting program BootyBarre.
For those who fall into the flat butt category, Kirsch believes in setting realistic expectations: You are never going to have J.Lo’s curves, but you can definitely augment what you have with old-school exercises like basic squats (keeping your weight in your heels) and lunges, in addition to stability ball exercises and hip thrusts (lying on your back with knees bent and slowly raising and lowering your butt) at least twice a week.
For cardiovascular workouts, focus on Spinning (especially classes that include standing work with significant resistance), the elliptical machine (vary the program between hills and intervals, and keep the resistance no less than 7-10) and Stair Climber (vary your steps; try adding two steps at a time and mix in crossover steps for optimal burn and results).
Kirsch emphasizes really concentrating on your glutes during any exercise to optimize results. You can work out the larger butt muscle, the gluteus maximus, with exercises such as standing extensions (stand tall with toes pointing forward, supporting knee slightly bent, and lift the other leg off the floor about 10 inches to the side and behind) and donkey kicks (start on all fours with hands under shoulders and knees under hips; keeping the knee bent, lift one leg behind the body, reaching your foot toward the ceiling). You can also lift the leg to the side with your knee bent, which is known as a fire hydrant.
Mallett emphasizes the importance of thinking of the body as a whole, not just focusing on one area at a time, like the butt. The trunk/core stabilizes your entire body as you move from the hip to work the glutes and hamstrings. If your stabilizers are weak, it is more difficult to activate the target muscles effectively. Having stronger core and supporting muscles allows you to anchor your body for a deeper and more focused contraction of the desired booty muscles.
Women who are pear-shaped or curvy and are looking to slim down and tone up their backsides should limit weights when working the lower body and concentrate more on using their body weight for resistance training.
Kirsch recommends against Spinning or cycling for cardiovascular exercise, as this type of exercise can increase the size of your butt. Instead, he recommends using a machine called the Octane Zero Runner, speed-walking or rowing, plus adding 15 to 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise four times a week, to both slim and shape your backside.
For strength training, Kirsch suggests wide-open stance squats with feet at a 45-degree angle and wider than shoulder-width. This position takes the energy out of the quadriceps (the large muscles in the front of the thighs) and shifts it to the inner thighs and butt. He also recommends toe squats in which you lift your heels slightly on the way down to work the lower part of the butt. (This works for the next category, saggy butt, too).
Mallett again stresses the importance of working the butt muscles at different angles using exercises such as fire hydrants and donkey kicks (aim for two sets of 20 for each leg).
For people with backsides that don’t have the perkiness they did when they were younger (or before having kids), in addition to regular squats and walking lunges, Kirsch recommends something called the platypus walk. Start in a pile squat position with your hands on your hips and your thighs parallel to the floor. Stay engaged in the pile squat as you waddle forward, stepping the left foot in front of the right and then the right foot in front of the left, keeping your knees out and aligned with your toes, your weight on your heels and your butt sticking down and out throughout the exercise.
For cardiovascular exercise, in addition to the choices for a flat or curvy butt, feel free to include Spinning and the elliptical machine (unless, of course, you are very curvy and saggy, in which case you should stick with cardiovascular exercise recommended for curvy women).
Mallett emphasizes focusing on working the hamstring muscles (the large muscles on the back of the thighs that are connected to the butt) as well to help improve the appearance of your backside. One of her favorite ways to target both the hamstrings and the glutes is to place a ball behind the knee, squeezing your heel toward your glutes when doing donkey kicks.
No more ‘buts’
For those like me with knee and back injuries, you may have to limit traditional weight-bearing exercises such as squats and lunges and focus on working on a floor mat or with exercise bands or balls. Another option is to limit your range of motion (for example, not bending as deeply when doing squats and lunges), but this should be initially supervised by a physical therapist or trainer with experience in injuries.
Kirsch recommends his favorite non-squat exercise for the butt: stability ball scissors. To do this exercise, start with your stomach flat on a stability ball (a large rubber exercise ball available at most gyms or purchase for home use) and your hands flat on the ground in front of you. Slowly raise your legs up so your body is in a diagonal position, moving your feet shoulder-width apart. Bring your feet back together; that’s one rep. Repeat 10 to 20 times.
You can also use resistance bands around your ankles to work the butt muscles in different directions, including adduction (to the side), back extension and back extension at an angle.
Aim for working the butt at least twice a week, with at least one rest day in between (although both trainers suggest more than two butt workouts a week for even better results). When combined with regular cardiovascular exercise and a cleaner diet, you should expect to start to see results in four to six weeks.