I’ve been a personal trainer for over 30 years, and while I’ve seen many trends come and go in terms of aesthetics, fashion, and exercise modalities, one discussion prevails.
When hearing I’m a trainer — and sometimes even in an initial training consultation — people ask, “How can I get… ” followed by some oversimplified physical attribute.
Over the years, that inquiry has ended with many things, including “… get a back like Madonna?” and “… get arms like Michelle Obama?” But lately, there’s a lot of interest in getting more of an hourglass shape, meaning a smaller waist and wider hips.
However, while certain things can be done to increase the muscle size of the outer thighs and hips, we still must accept the genetic bone structure that we were gifted at birth.
Those of us born with a narrower hip structure will likely never reach Kardashian proportions. And vive la difference! Beautiful bodies come in many shapes.
That said, you can definitely strengthen your hip and abdominal muscles in ways that will emphasize your hourglass potential within your predisposed genetic structure. And by focusing on your diet and core strength, you may notice that your waistline shrinks, too.
To build outer hip muscles, emphasize hip abduction exercises, which involve moving the leg away from the centerline, as well as external rotation exercises, which involve turning the thigh bone away from the midline (so the knee and feet slightly point outward).
These actions mainly rely on the gluteal muscles, from maximus to minimus, as well as the tensor fasciae latae (TFL) and piriformis, among others. Let’s look closely at these muscles:
- Gluteus maximus. This is the biggest muscle in the booty, giving you more of a rounded shape in back. The gluteus maximus acts to extend the hip (move the leg back), as well as externally rotate the leg.
- Glute medius. This is your best target for widening the look of your hips. Of the hip abductors, it has the most muscle mass (except for the glute max, which just assists with abduction). It’s dedicated to lateral movements, acts as an important stabilizer for the hips and knees, and with training, can show a bit of hip-rounding hypertrophy.
- Glute minimus. This is the smallest of the glute muscles and works to stabilize and abduct the hip. The glute medius hides deep under the other gluteal muscles at the back of the hip.
- Tensor fasciae latae. The TFL is considered a glute muscle and works in conjunction with the three muscles above to support a variety of hip movements. The TFL’s attachment to the iliotibial band (IT) band also influences flexion at the knee (
Here are some of my favorite hip exercises that can help strengthen and sculpt your hips. Most of them can be done with just body weight, but if you want to increase muscle mass faster, consider holding a dumbbell.
1. Side lunges
This classic exercise will sculpt your hips by challenging your glutes to accelerate and decelerate your abductors, all while building strength.
The benefits of this exercise include some pretty spectacular isolation of your side-movers, and it also serves to keep your inner thighs (adductors) flexible and even strengthens your core as you stabilize.
Do it with your hands on your hips or your hands behind your head for a greater challenge in the core, or add dumbbells for an extra punch.
- Start by standing straight, with your feet together.
- Leading with your right foot, step out to the side, bending your knee as you land, keeping your left leg straight. Slightly rotate your leg and foot out to the side, and be sure to align your bent knee over your second toe.
- Continue to bend deeper into your right knee and move your hips back, keeping your abdominals engaged and your spine neutral. Your torso will hinge forward slightly.
- Keep your eye gaze forward and exhale as you complete the movement above.
- Push off with your right foot and return to standing.
Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 reps.
2. Curtsy lunges
Curtsy lunges are an ideal companion to the traditional side lunges explained above.
While the side lunge relies on external rotation of your leg to decelerate, this lunge uses internal rotation, helping balance your hip strength and flexibility while still relying heavily on the abductors (
You may hold dumbbells for added intensity.
- Start by standing straight, with your feet together.
- Step your right leg behind your leg, bending both knees as you land and keeping your chest high and abdominals engaged.
- Keep both knees aligned over your shoelaces as you bend, and aim your back knee toward the ground. Try not to let your left leg deviate to the left. You may feel that you are making an “X” with your thigh bones.
- Stand tall as you return to the starting position.
Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 reps on each leg.
Squats are a fundamental movement pattern that will help with many functional movements like sitting down and standing up from a chair. They’re also a great hip strengthener.
- Start in an upright position with your feet comfortably wide. Your toes should point out slightly.
- Send your hips back as if you were sitting into a chair. Keep your spine long and your knees pointed over your second toe.
- Keep your abdominals engaged to support the spine. Breathe out as you reach your hips down and back until your thighs are approximately parallel to the floor.
- Be sure to keep your weight in your heels and knees pointed slightly outward.
- Engage your glutes to push down into the ground as you stand up. Use your quadriceps to extend your knees and return to an upright position.
Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 reps.
4. Squats with sidekicks
Adding a sidekick to your squat not only incorporates hip abduction into the standard squat exercise but also momentarily gives you a single-leg squat experience — a highly efficient hip and leg strengthener — and challenges your balance.
Alternate legs as you do this, as you may find it kicks your heart rate up! Hold dumbbells at your waist for a boost, or hold on to a wall or chair for balance.
- Perform the squat exercise described above, with both feet on the ground.
- As you begin to straighten your legs back to standing, shift your weight to your left foot and pick your right foot up off of the ground.
- Bend your right knee to bring your foot off of the ground. Kick your right leg straight up and out to the side (your leg will be slightly in front of your shoulder), keeping your toe pointed to the front.
- Bring your right leg back down to the ground, center your body weight over both feet, and bend back down into a squat. Repeat on the other side.
Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 reps, alternating both legs for one rep.
5. Bulgarian split squats
This exercise works the legs and glutes, increases your stability, and initiates a deep contraction in the glutes of the back leg. Hold dumbbells for greater intensity.
- Stand facing away from a bench, chair, or platform, spacing yourself 2–3 feet (about 60–90 cm) in front of it.
- Place your left foot on the platform, ensuring that your knees and hips face forward, square to the front. A slightly wider stance will increase stability, but don’t go too wide or you’ll miss that great glute squeeze.
- Keep your chest high and abdominals strong as you bend both knees, moving your hips toward the floor. Straighten both legs back to the starting position. Make sure both knees are aligned over your toes.
- Stay on your right leg for the full set of 10–12 reps before switching to your left leg.
Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 reps with each leg, alternating legs between sets.
7. Sumo walk
This move is a great way to strengthen your quadriceps. Keep your weight in your heels to activate the muscles on the backside of your body. Add a mini band around your thighs for greater intensity, as well as greater use of the glute medius.
- Assume a squat position with your arms comfortably bent in front of you.
- Maintain the squat position and begin to step to the right 2–4 steps, repeat to the left.
- For an intense burn, stay low for as long as you can.
Assuming 1 repetition is 2–4 steps right followed by 2–4 steps left, do 10 reps, 2–3 times.
Clamshells are a simple way to strengthen all the glute muscles while emphasizing external rotation but not ignoring abduction. Add a mini band around your thighs for extra intensity.
- Lie down on a mat on your right side. Stack your legs on top of each other with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle and your hips flexed at about a 45-degree angle. Your knees will be slightly in front of your hips.
- Rest your head on your arm, a towel, or a yoga block.
- Stabilize your hips so they don’t roll open as you rotate one knee up to the ceiling, keeping the other thigh on the ground, similar to a clamshell opening. Your feet will stay together.
- Slowly return to the starting position.
Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 reps.
9. Hip lifts
Hip lifts, or shoulder bridges, are a great way to isolate your glutes. You can do these with your shoulders up on a couch or bench for greater intensity and range of motion. Add a mini band around your thighs to focus on abductor strength.
- Start by lying down with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor, and your legs hip-width apart.
- Keep your shoulders relaxed and your arms down by your side.
- Lift your hips by contracting your glutes. Keep your weight on your shoulder blades rather than lifting all the way up to the neck. Also, keep your knees pointed forward and your upper thighs parallel, feeling engagement in the inner thighs.
- Pause and breathe at the top before returning to the starting position.
Complete 2–3 sets of 10–12 reps.
10. Hip lift progression
When a standard hip lift becomes easy, try a single-leg hip lift. The load is heavier, and this exercise uses the stabilizing muscles to a greater extent to keep your pelvis stable.
- Start by lying faceup on your mat with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and legs hip-width apart. Keep your feet on the floor. Place your hands palms-down at your sides.
- Lift your right leg up off of the ground with your knee bent, and keep your left leg where it is.
- Exhale to press your left foot into the floor and engage your glutes and hamstrings to lift your pelvis up toward the ceiling.
- Breathe in at the top, aiming to keep a straight line from your knee to your chin.
- Slowly lower back down to the ground.
Do 2–3 sets with each leg, 10–12 reps each.
11. Donkey kick
Donkey kicks are great for your core and glutes, but be sure to keep a neutral spine and strong abdominals throughout the exercise. This exercise can be done on your hands or elbows.
- Assume the starting position on all fours with your knees hip-width apart, your hands under your shoulders, and your neck and spine neutral.
- Brace your core and begin to lift your left leg behind you, keeping your knee bent.
- Use your glutes to press your foot directly toward the ceiling, as if to make a footprint on the ceiling. Squeeze your glutes a bit more when you reach the top.
- Ensure you’re keeping your hips square to the floor.
- Return to the starting position, tapping your knee on the ground if needed, or floating it between reps for more intensity.
Complete 20 reps on each leg for 3 sets.
Again, there’s a strong genetic component to the shape of your midsection, and all the crunches in the world won’t override your predisposed shape. Still, you can certainly strengthen your core and improve your posture, which will give you a longer, leaner look.
Stick with bodyweight core exercises and focus on drawing in your abdominal wall with a deep, hollow hold rather than bracing and pushing out.
Additionally, remember that abdominal aesthetics are a function of how much body fat you carry in the midsection. Pay attention to your diet and continue your cardiovascular exercise for the best results.
Some great choices for a long, lean midsection include:
This exercise is great for maintaining a long and strong spine while training the abs and lower back. As a bonus, you get a little extra glute work in the process.
- Lie facedown on a yoga mat.
- Reach your arms out in front of you, a little wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facedown. Reach your legs straight behind you, with the tops of your feet down on the mat, a little wider than hip-width apart. If this is uncomfortable, you can slightly turn your feet and knees out to the side.
- Lift your upper body to look just out over the front edge of the mat while simultaneously lifting your right arm and left leg up off of the mat.
- Keeping your upper body lifted, switch to the left arm and right leg. Switch back and forth, using your breath to keep the rhythm, by inhaling for 4 switches and exhaling for 4 switches.
- Remember to keep your abdominals engaged to support your lower back. The work of lifting should come from your upper back (for your arms) and the hamstrings and glutes (for your legs). Try to initiate the motion from your shoulders and hips rather than your hands and feet.
Do 3 sets of 24 breaths.
This challenging plank will strengthen your shoulders and test your abdominal strength and stability.
- Start in a forearm plank position.
- Keep your belly lifted high as you glide your chest forward toward your fingers, shifting your body weight forward on an inhale and shifting back, pressing into your heels, on an exhale.
- Keep your shoulders and hips stable, and be sure not to sag into either. Think “high and strong” rather than seeking a big range of motion.
This classic exercise prioritizes the abdominal obliques with rotation while building overall abdominal strength.
- Lie faceup on a mat with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Bring your hands behind your head, keeping your elbows open wide.
- Lift your upper body off of the floor as high as your shoulder blades, and rotate to one side. Bring your opposite knee up. Be careful not to think of this as “elbow to knee,” as you’ll end up putting too much pressure on your neck. Instead think of rotating from your midsection, aiming your shoulder to your knee and using your upper body as heavy resistance. Exhale as you rotate.
- Switch directions, inhaling as you cross the midline and exhaling as you twist to the other side. Your lifted leg will tap back down to the floor as you twist to the opposite side.
- Keep your abdominals pulled in tight and your shoulders stable as you move.
- To increase the difficulty, extend your bottom leg out at a 45-degree angle rather than tapping it on the floor.