While many people focus on big glute exercises and compound glute exercises like deadlifts, step-ups, squats, split squats, lunges, and hip thrusts, there are also benefits of doing isolation exercises for the glute muscles, including exercises like donkey kicks.
But, does the list of “donkey kicks muscles worked” include anything other than the glutes? What muscles do donkey kicks work?
Keep reading to find out!
We will look at:
- How to Do Donkey Kicks
- What Muscles Do Donkey Kicks Work?
- Benefits of the Donkey Kick Exercise
Let’s get started!
How to Do Donkey Kicks
Here are the steps for how to perform donkey kicks:
- Get down on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and knees stacked under your hips.
- Ensure that your back is neutral, your core is tight, and your gaze is straight down.
- Place a dumbbell behind one knee (or wear an ankle weight) and lift the leg up so that your thigh is parallel to the floor, keeping the knee bent at 90 degrees. Think about pressing the sole of your foot into the ceiling.
- Hold the top position, squeezing the glutes and hamstrings, but lifting the leg up as high as you can without arching your back or twisting your hips.
- Slowly lower the leg back to the starting position.
- Complete 10-20 reps.
- Switch sides.
What Muscles Do Donkey Kicks Work?
The muscles worked by donkey kicks depend somewhat on exactly how you perform the exercise.
The standard donkey kick exercise is performed in the quadruped position, which means that you are down on your hands and knees.
From there, you keep a 90° bend in your knee while you lift one leg off of the mat, bringing the thigh parallel to the floor, the shin vertical, and the foot facing the ceiling.
Some people conflate the donkey kick exercise with the glute kickback exercise and/or fire hydrants since all of these exercises are performed in the same quadruped position and target similar muscle groups.
However, the donkey kick muscles worked are going to vary somewhat from the glute kickback muscles worked.Similarly, donkey kicks muscles are somewhat different than fire hydrant exercise muscles because the fire hydrant modification of donkey kicks involves some external rotation of the hip and leg abduction, which will target more of the deep hip rotators like the obturator muscles and the gemelli muscles, along with gluteus medius.
While these deeper and smaller glute muscles are included in the list of donkey kicks muscles worked, they are not the primary muscles targeted by the standard donkey kick exercise.
Glutes and Hamstrings
The main muscles worked by donkey kicks are the gluteus maximus and the hamstrings.
The gluteus maximus is the largest and strongest of the muscles in the gluteal group, or the muscles that form your butt.
The primary function of the gluteus maximus is hip extension, which is essentially the very movement you are performing with the donkey kick exercise.
If you think about how to do donkey kicks, when you are in the quadruped position and then bring one leg up so that the thigh is parallel to the ground, you then engage your gluteus maximus to draw the leg up towards the ceiling as you extend it (or bring it back in the direction of what would be behind you if you were standing).
This is why you really want to think about squeezing your glutes when doing donkey kicks so that you are actually engaging the correct donkey kicks muscles when performing the exercises.
Another key step to activating the glutes with donkey kicks is to make sure that you keep your spine neutral and only extend your leg up as far as you can without arching your back; the range of motion shouldn’t be that large.
Instead, you really want to contract your glutes as much as possible and move slowly with a small range of motion rather than rely on momentum and think about hoisting your leg up toward the ceiling.
As mentioned, the other leading donkey kicks muscles worked are the hamstrings, which are the group of three muscles that run along the back of your thigh from the very base of the pelvis at ischial tuberosities (sit bones) to the back of your knee.
The hamstrings work in concert with the gluteus maximus to allow for hip extension, as described.
Additionally, the hamstrings cross the hip joint and the knee joint, so in addition to helping you extend the leg at the hip, the hamstrings help you flex the leg at the knee.
When you perform donkey kicks, you are supposed to maintain a 90° bend in your knee at all times rather than kick your leg back straight extended behind you (as with the glute kickback exercise—-the bent knee is what differentiates donkey kicks back glute kickbacks).
Therefore, the hamstrings have to contract isometrically throughout the duration of your donkey kick exercise set to maintain the 90-degree angle in your knee while simultaneously alternating between contracting and relaxing at the hip joint to control leg extension with each donkey kick rep.
This dual responsibility required with the donkey kicks hamstring activation ultimately makes donkey kicks a highly effective functional exercise for the hamstrings that can improve hamstring strength and muscular endurance.
Other Muscles Worked By Donkey Kicks
You will also work additional muscles with donkey kicks, such as the erector spinae group and multifidus along the spine, the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius, the quadratus lumborum (QL muscle), and the iliopsoas.
These can all be considered supporting muscles rather than prime movers or agonist muscles for donkey kicks.
They help maintain the proper form and body positioning, particularly in terms of your trunk while you do donkey kicks, but don’t play a key role in initiating the donkey kick movement pattern.
If you are performing the movement correctly, another key muscle worked by donkey kicks is the transversus abdominis, which is a deep core muscle.
You will also engage the other abdominal muscles, including the internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, and even the pelvic floor muscles, because you need to stabilize and brace your core while just one leg is in motion.
However, one of the common technique mistakes with the donkey kick exercise is that people allow some amount of rotation in the hips/pelvis or trunk.
You really want to keep your hips and shoulders square to the floor by engaging all of your core muscles when performing donkey kicks.
This will not only help protect your spine but will train your body to activate your core in a functional manner, stabilizing your trunk while one leg is moving (as is what happens in all sorts of functional activities such as running, walking, climbing stairs, etc.).
Plus, if you really want to maximize the muscles worked by donkey kicks, it is essential that you focus on keeping your torso as stable as possible in the tabletop position while you extend the one leg up and back behind you.
Benefits of the Donkey Kick Exercise
In addition to the muscles strengthened by donkey kicks, one of the benefits of adding donkey kicks to your workout routine is that this exercise helps stretch the hip flexors.
The hip flexors are the muscles found in the very front of your pelvis/leg.
These muscles help lift your leg when you take a step or climb stairs, and they are frequently very tight in most people due to the fact that we spend a lot of the day sitting, and the hip flexors are in the shortened position while sitting.
Unless you are frequently getting up and walking around or deliberately performing hip flexor stretches, you likely will develop tight hip flexors.
This can contribute to lower back pain and can affect the posture and positioning of your pelvis, leading to conditions such as lower crossed syndrome and a posterior pelvic tilt.
Because the donkey kicks exercise involves extending the leg up towards the ceiling, you are forced to take full advantage of the range of motion of your hip flexors and stretch these chronically tight muscles.
Plus, since the primary donkey kick muscles are the glutes, this exercise helps counteract the muscle imbalances seen with lower crossed syndrome or a posterior pelvic tilt.
In these conditions, the anterior muscles, like the hip flexors, are chronically overactive and tight, whereas the glutes are weak and inactive.
Over time, the disparity in the activation, strength, and length of these muscles continues to grow (the weak muscles become weaker, and the strong muscles become stronger and tighter), exacerbating the problem.
Again, this is another key reason why donkey kicks are a good functional rehab or prehab exercise for core strength and hip flexor strength.
For glute activation exercises, check out our guide here.