In a world of Instagrammable workouts, efficiency can sometimes be mistakenly measured in perspiring selfies and the number of burpees completed. But some of the most subtle exercises can contribute to a well-rounded fitness routine in addition to more flashy moves. One such underrated but essential move is the timeless, glute-burning clamshell.
What Is the Clamshell Exercise?
“Clamshells are a exercise you learn about pretty immediately when getting into fitness,” says Peloton instructor Selena Samuela, who could easily be considered the maneuver’s biggest advocate. “And every fitness professional has used them. You might have seen them performed in physical therapy as well, as they’re a go-to for individuals with lower back pain, individuals looking for hip strengthening, and injury treatment and prevention.”
Here’s how the basic clamshell works: you lie on your side with your knees bent, raising and lowering your top knee while engaging your core and glutes. Yes, your legs are the “shells” in this analogy.
Samuela is such a firm believer in the clamshell that she incorporates the move into the vast majority of her lower body-focused Peloton classes. “Clamshells primarily target your gluteus medius — the part that forms the outer buttocks,” she explains. “Strengthening that part of your body is so important regardless of what you do in life, but especially if you’re active or an athlete.” It aids in stabilizing your pelvis whenever you walk or when you lose balance. (
How to Perform the Classic Clamshell Exercise and Variations
For an exercise so effective, clamshells appear deceptively simple. After all, you’re lying down when you perform them. But don’t be fooled by the setup. Stick with Samuela’s instructions and your glutes will be screaming in no time.
How to Perform the Basic Clamshell Exercise
A. Begin by lying on your side with legs bent at a 45-degree angle and feet, ankles, knees, and hips stacked on top of each other. Allow your bottom forearm to rest on the ground.
B. Activate your core and glutes. Keeping your feet together, lift your upper knee up as high as possible without rocking or shifting your hips and/or pelvis.
C. Lower your top knee to return to the starting position.
How to Perform Variations On the Clamshell Exercise
The exercise is challenging enough on its own, but if you’ve managed to master the stripped-down version, you can start to add some excitement with modifications and advanced add-ons.
“To progress a clamshell, incorporate a hip raise,” says Samuela. “When you add a hip raise to a bridging clamshell, you’re also demanding much more from your core; it’s essentially adding a side plank to the movement.” Additionally, the variation also enhances shoulder stability and activates your triceps, she adds.
Are you prepared to crank it up? Here’s the method to perform a modification of the shell exercise:
A. Begin by lying on your side with legs bent at a 45-degree angle and feet, ankles, knees, and hips stacked on top of each other. Allow the lower forearm to rest on the ground.
B. Activate your core and glutes. While keeping your feet together, raise the upper knee as high as possible and simultaneously lift the bottom hip off the ground.
C. Lower the top knee and bottom hip to return to the starting position.
You also have the choice to include a dumbbell with or without the hip raise, according to Samuela. To perform this variation, simply hold a light dumbbell in your upper hand and gently rest it against your outer hip while performing the exercise.
“You can begin with a relatively light weight if you’re using a dumbbell and gradually increase as you become more comfortable adding resistance to the movement,” she suggests. “Resistance bands are also fantastic.”
Advantages of the Clamshell Exercise
To fully appreciate the efficacy of the clamshell exercise, it’s crucial to grasp the anatomy of your posterior. Your buttock muscles consist of three main components: the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius, which move your legs away from the center of your body, rotate your legs inward, and stabilize your pelvis, as well as the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in your body responsible for extending your hips and rotating your legs outward. The gluteus maximus is the most superficial of these muscles, positioned at the surface of the buttocks, originating at the hip bone and extending downward to the thigh bone. The gluteus medius lies beneath the gluteus maximus, while the gluteus minimus is the smallest and deepest of the three, as previously mentioned by Shape magazine.
“Clamshells compel you to engage both your gluteus medius and maximus,” states Samuela. “If you’re seeking progress in your lower body, squats and deadlifts are probably the exercises you prioritize. However, have you ever completed a workout centered on squats and only felt a burn in your quads? That is likely because you’re not effectively activating your glutes.”
Nevertheless, clamshell exercises “force you to involve your glutes, heightening the muscle-mind connection and enabling you to activate these muscles in other more complex lower body movements (like squats and deadlifts), thereby promoting balance in all of your exercises and helping you achieve the lower body gains you desire,” she explains.
A robust gluteus medius, in particular, translates to enhanced stability, balance, and power in virtually every activity you undertake, according to Samuela.
Hip fortification is incredibly vital in any activity wherein jogging is engaged due to the fact that incorrect or insufficient hip steadiness can be the fundamental source of numerous jogging traumas — which I’ve gained personal experience of through numerous years of physical rehabilitation for different foot, ankle, and knee problems.
While there are several other exercises for the glutes that can bring variation to your routine, mastering the clamshell exercise is an important starting point for beginners who want to focus on their glutes. That’s because this foundational movement teaches your brain how to activate the correct muscles so that you can get the most out of your other exercises, according to Samuela.
“The clamshell exercise is not the only one that targets the gluteus medius, but it is definitely one of the most effective and easiest ones because it makes it harder to rely on other body parts to perform the exercise,” she explains. “Your glutes are designed to do most of the work, which is why trainers often use it as an activation exercise. It helps establish a strong mind-muscle connection so that when you move on to other exercises like squats, you can easily engage your glutes and rely less on your quads or lower back.”
Some other exercises that target the gluteus medius include frog pumps (which require more activation of the booty compared to regular glute bridges) and hip thrusts (which can make you rely on your hamstrings if you haven’t learned how to properly activate your glutes), says Samuela. Once you have mastered these exercises, you can challenge yourself with more difficult unilateral movements like single leg deadlifts or single-leg squats.
“Again, it is important to note that if you haven’t figured out how to properly activate your glutes, these exercises can cause you to rely on other muscles to do most of the work,” Samuela cautions. So, starting your workout with the clamshell exercise is a good idea.
How to Incorporate the Clamshell Exercise into Your Workout Routine
While it is generally recommended to give each muscle group enough time to rest and recover, doing clamshell exercises on a daily basis is not a bad idea, according to Samuela. “You can include clamshells in your routine every single day, whether you are focusing on low-impact exercises to improve hip mobility and stability, or if you are increasing the intensity and incorporating load and bridging to enhance hip power,” she explains.
“I recommend starting with 10 reps using just your body weight or trying 20 to 30 seconds of reps on each side,” she says. If you are new to the clamshell exercise, it is best to start with just your body weight, as recommended by Samuela. “And if you decide to use a band or weights, make sure to reduce the number of reps unless, of course, you have gradually built up your strength.”
By adding this exercise to your regular routine, you may notice improvements in other areas of your workout. And don’t forget to thank Samuela for helping you achieve stronger glutes.
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