Whether it was the threat of COVID, stress of unemployment or the isolation driving you to draw a smiley face on your depression light, it’s fair to say that the past year has kicked all of our butts in many ways. That’s what drew me to the butt-kick exercise, otherwise known as butt kicks or donkey kicks — the one workout that allows you to kick your own ass for a change, a quaint novelty in comparison to life doing it for you.
According to experts, the butt-kick exercise is also an effective warmup and cardio all in one. “The butt-kick exercise is a standard warmup exercise for athletes,” John Fawkes, a certified personal trainer and nutritional counselor, tells me. “Just think of runners you’ve seen performing this move before hitting the pavement.”
I’d always seen people warming up like this and thought to myself, “That looks like running, but stupid.” It turns out, though, I’m the idiot for not kicking my own butt. “Butt kicks offer a burst of heart-healthy cardio, strengthen the glutes and stretch the quads,” Fawkes explains. “It’s also a super-effective tool for strengthening your hamstrings, as the exercise encourages your fast-twitch muscle response. Whether you’re a dancer or a runner, you’ll be able to move your legs more quickly.”
Fellow personal trainer and nutritionist Jenny Abouobaia agrees, adding that “butt kicks are also plyometric training, which is great for intensely working your hamstrings and targeting your gluteus maximus and gluteus medius.” Plyometric training, also known as jump training or plyos, are explosive exercises that provide that burst of energy Fawkes referred to. They’re key for improving speed, but they also help build endurance as well.
As someone who enjoys running and dancing, but has never done either activity particularly well, I was curious if butt kicks could kick my performance up a notch. Per Fawkes and Abouobaia’s instructions, I started off with my feet hips-width apart, slowly bringing my right heel to my ass while contracting my hamstring, before repeating the same motion on my left side, gradually improving my speed and continuing to alternate between legs. “You can bring your arms into it as well by pumping the arm opposite of the leg you’re working forward,” Fawkes recommends. “Whatever variation you choose, keep your core engaged and bring your navel toward your spine.”
Although knee, neck and back injuries are possible if you don’t keep your spine straight, the goal of the butt-kick exercise is mostly to prevent injuries. “The butt kick is beneficial in preventing injuries such as muscle tears and strengthens the range of motion in your knees and hips,” Abouobaia says. Once I got moving, I did three sets, 20 seconds each, which made my knees crack so much that I knew it had to be doing something. I repeated this for two days, before starting two separate workouts: a two-mile run and the NYC Ballet Workout on YouTube.
On a good day, I run a slow 11-minute mile and tend to struggle with charley horses in my hamstrings no matter how much I hydrate and stretch. To my surprise, kicking my butt helped with both recurring issues during my run. After stretching with the help of Yoga with Adriene’s “Yoga for Runners” and doing three sets of butt kicks, I was able to get my mile just under 11 minutes — 10:57 to be exact, which felt like more of an accomplishment after taking the winter off.
My progress in ballet was harder to gauge because it’s more of an art than an exercise, and it’s an art I’m very bad at. Although I may have been biased coming off of an improved run the day before, I felt like my display of dance was more coordinated than before I added butt kicks to my warmup. And even though I expected the many pliés and passés to be worse than ever after the butt kicks, as both trainers pointed out, I did have more energy and stamina from the ass-kicking warmup.
In the end, the ultimate irony of the butt-kick exercise is that it doesn’t kick your butt, but makes your workouts a little more efficient and slightly easier. And despite the fact that I don’t mind being a mediocre runner and dancer, I’ll continue to do butt kicks before either activity as long as they make me a bit better at them — or until my ass starts to hurt.