Squats are designed to work your lower body, specifically your butt and hips, thighs, calves, shins, and abdominals, according to the American Council on Exercise. Most people are into squats before they're a way to work your butt without equipment. But the thing is, for as simple as squats are, it can be tough to tell if you're doing them correctly.
In a squat, you might feel your thighs on fire or your lower back pulling, when you know you're "supposed to" feel the bulk of the movement in your butt. This is pretty normal, because most of us have slight muscular imbalances in our bodies, like overworked quads (aka thigh muscles) and under-worked abdominal muscles. Either of those things could lead you to feel a squat in your quads and your lower back, rather than your glutes.
So, how can you tell if you're working the right muscles in a squat? Do a squat. If your first instinct was to move your knees and shins forward, that's usually a sign that your quads are doing all of the work, according to the American Council on Exercise. Over time, this can put excess pressure on your knees, and it doesn't really target your glutes. On the flip side, if you feel any pressure on your lower back when you sit into a squat, then it's usually a sign that your back is taking most of your weight. In most cases, that's because your abdominals and glutes are weak, and your hip flexors are tight. (Confused? This video from the American Council on Exercise explains and illustrates the difference described here.)
Ideally, you should initiate every squat by hinging at your hips and driving your seat backwards. This simple tweak protects your knees, reduces strain in your lower back, engages your hamstrings, and ensures that your glutes assume most of the load of your weight. In other words, if you want to work your butt, really focus on shifting your hips back and down.
These are just a few common form issues that could lead people to not "feel" a squat the way you're technically supposed to, but there are certainly more. For example, if you have stiff or tight ankles, that can make it harder to lower down into the full range of motion of a squat. Or you might not be lowering your seat low enough so your hips are below your knees.
This is a lot to think about, so if you're not really sure what you're doing in a squat, then it might be a good idea to talk to a personal trainer who can examine your body's specific mechanics. Don't be intimidated: personal trainers are in the gym to help you and provide pointers that are tailored to your needs.
The good news is that once you identify what areas need strengthening or stretching, you can work your way up to a proper squat. Squatting is super important, because the act of bending and lifting is one of the most basic activities that you'll encounter in your daily life. And if you're really determined to build a stronger butt, keep in mind that there are plenty of other exercises that can help you do that.