Busy Philipps is seriously dedicated to her fitness hustle, and she often documents sweat sessions at L.A. fitness hotspot LEKfit on her ultra-popular Instagram stories. But as much as she loves the dance-inspired workout, it’s not all fun and games. She posted a video demonstrating one of her least favorite moves from the class, and there’s a reason it burns so good.
Mouthing to her camera, “this is my least favorite, I don’t love it,” Philipps showed off a variation on classic donkey kicks. Instead of having her leg directly behind her, her leg is out to the side.
“[The leg position] is a very traditional ballet move called an ‘attitude,’ where you’re turning out from your hip and you’re keeping your knee bent,” LEKfit creator Lauren Kleban, who trains Philipps, tells SELF. So unlike a regular donkey kick, where your knee is pointing toward the ground, it’s pointing out to the side of the room as you lift and lower your entire leg.
Here’s a look at the exercise in action from the back (with the addition of resistance bands for an extra challenge):
As Philipps knows, these can feel seriously killer—but the burn is worth it. Donkey kick variations like these are excellent for targeting the smaller muscles in your glutes, which don’t get as much love from traditional compound exercises like squats and lunges, says Kleban.
While you might think of your butt as one big muscle, your glutes actually refer to many different muscles. “[You have] your gluteus maximus, and that’s the biggest glute muscle,” Sarah Otey, C.P.T., an NYC-based trainer and instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp, tells SELF. (That’s probably what you think of when you think about a butt muscle.)
“Then, you also have the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus, which are smaller glute muscles. And within all of those you also have different muscles that are external rotators and internal rotators,” she explains. “You have muscle fibers going each and every way.”
Each different variation of a donkey kick dials in on these smaller muscles, depending on the angle of your leg, says Otey. In a traditional donkey kick, for example, you’re still mainly targeting your gluteus maximus. But during this attitude variation, you’re firing up your abductors (or your outer thighs and glutes) as well as your external rotators, which are deep in your glutes.
In layman’s terms, think about feeling this attitude variation mainly in the little pocket of muscles “underneath” your butt, says Kleban, above your gluteal fold (where your thighs meet your butt). You’ll feel it in your outer thighs, too.
And this isn’t just about aesthetics: Your glute muscles perform best when they’re working as a unit, and that includes these smaller muscles, explains Otey. Even if you’ve got a super strong gluteus maximus from all of those lunges and deadlifts in the gym, having weaknesses in your other glute muscles slows down the whole team. At best, this means you’re not as strong as you could be during other workouts, whether you’re sprinting or squatting. And at worst, these imbalances leave you more prone to pain and injury.
Compound exercises like squats and lunges are still very important to an overall fitness routine (because they work several large muscle groups at once), but donkey kick variations like these are a great complement because they strengthen these smaller muscles and address imbalances.
Of course, be prepared to feel ’em: Since you probably don’t work your smaller glute muscles often, this attitude variation brings on the burn. Plus, when you’re doing a high number of reps with exercises like these, you’re also training your strength endurance (or how long your muscles can keep working), says Otey.
And if you needed another reason to try them, your core is also working when you’re on all fours. “It really forces you to engage your lower abdominal muscles,” says Kleban. They help stabilize your hips, so you can keep them steady while you’re working one leg. To get the most out of the exercise and avoid hip flexor pain, it’s important not to drop into your hip on the “resting” side.
Want to try it yourself? Here’s how.
- Start on all fours with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and your hips stacked over your knees.
- Point your right leg back behind you, then bend your leg so your right knee is facing the right side of the room. Your toes should be facing slightly upward.
- Holding that position, lower your entire right leg so your right toes hover just above the ground near your left foot.
- Slowly raise your leg back up, pause and squeeze your right glute at the top, then lower back down.
- That’s one rep, do 20 to 30. (To amp it up, you can incorporate ankle weights like Philipps.) Repeat on the other side.
To really target your smaller glute muscles, you can also incorporate other variations into your routine. Here are three to try, including the original donkey kick.
1. Donkey Kicks
- Start on all fours.
- Pull your right knee toward your chest, keeping your foot flexed.
- Then, kick your right leg up behind you, keeping your knee bent and
2. Fire Hydrants
- Start on all fours.
- Lift your right leg to the side, keeping knee bent, until your knee
reaches hip height.
- Lower to start.
3. Donkey Whips
- Start on all fours.
- Lift your right leg, extending it behind you.
- Swing your right leg to the right side and then back to center.