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Growing the glutes – to thrust or to squat 

One of my most frequently asked questions has always been how to hypertrophy the glutes. Some say squat, others say thrust, but what really is best?

Over recent years I have noticed an increasing number of females undertaking resistance training programmes, not just for health, fitness, or sports’ benefits but also for body image and aesthetics too. There is also a growing trend, particularly among females to enhance their gluteal musculature (1,2). Although the potential reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article, I do believe that the growing popularity of social media sites such as Instagram and their so called ‘Instafamous’ trainers and physique competitors have had a big part to play in this. I have personally run a strength and conditioning (S&C) programme, aimed exclusively at recreationally active females for over seven years. During this time, one of the most frequently asked questions has always been how to hypertrophy the glutes.

The loaded barbell squat and its various derivatives have long been the go-to exercise for gluteus hypertrophy and strength development for S&C coaches, bodybuilders and physique competitors alike (3,4). Recently however, there has been a new kid on the block, the barbell hip thrust. The hip thrust has rapidly gained popularity in gyms, particularly with females, and the ‘Instafamous’ influencers looking to enhance their ‘glute gains’. Even within the fitness industry several equipment manufacturers have begun producing dedicated ‘hip thrust’ equipment, designed to improve the biomechanics and/or the comfort of the exercise. But what exactly is the hip thrust and is it really the best exercise for glute development? Keep reading to find out my thoughts.

The hip thrust

The hip thrust is a relatively new exercise within S&C, the origin of which is credited to Bret Contreras who claims to have been using the exercise since 2006. Although it is highly likely that some variation of this exercise has been carried out by athletes or trainees at some point prior to this, there is currently no record of that (5). The first appearance of the hip thrust in any literature came in an article in Men’s Fitness magazine authored by Contreras, some ten years ago (6), followed shortly afterwards by its introduction to the scientific community (7). Since its inception, there have been an increasing number of studies carried out on the hip thrust, looking at its impact on improving sprint time (8), vertical jump (9), horizontal jump and strength and power (10) among other things. Despite the exercise’s recent popularity in gyms and with the ‘Instafamous’ along with its claimed effectiveness as an exercise for gluteal hypertrophy (11), there is lack of empirical evidence to specifically support this. To date, only one study exists where gluteus maximus hypertrophy was specifically measured following a hip thrust exercise intervention (12), but more about this a little later.

Despite the exercise’s recent popularity in gyms and with the ‘Instafamous’, there is a lack of empirical evidence to support its effectiveness for gluteal hypertrophy.

Personally, I have used this exercise for several years in my programming. However, in the early days I was quite sceptical as to how beneficial it could be. Contreras does an excellent job at promoting the hip thrust, but then it was the subject of his Phd (13), and I am also sure he does very well from his ‘glute’ focused programmes and hip thrust paraphernalia. That said, once you incorporate the exercise into your own programming its usefulness becomes evident.

Not the most comfortable exercise in the World

Traditionally the hip thrust is performed by initially sitting on the ground with the upper back supported against an exercise bench. The barbell is then rolled over the legs and positioned over the hips before the heels are brought towards the bench by flexing the knees to the starting position. The hips are then lifted horizontal to the floor creating a 90 degree angle at the knee and the upper back allowed to hinge across the bench (14). From personal experience it is certainly not the most comfortable exercise, particularly when heavy loads are used. This is due to the considerable pressure applied by the barbell around the lower abdominal and pubic regions, even when additional padding is used as recommended (7). This aspect of the exercise is where I receive the most resistance and complaints from clients, simply due to comfort.

Figure 1 – Example of a commercial hip thrust bench 

Additionally, if the bench used is too high the individual will struggle to assume the correct exercise form. I have frequently witnessed dangerous executions or trainees struggling with this exercise in commercial gyms. Thankfully, because of its growing popularity several gym equipment manufacturers are now producing safer, more comfortable, dedicated hip thrust equipment. These range from the iconic Nautilus Glute Drive (15) to ergonomic benches, some with added ‘band pegs’ (Figure 1) to facilitate the use of additional accommodating resistance or to enable banded hip thrusts in instances where the use of a bar is particularly uncomfortable (16). As a practitioner who has used this exercise for many years, with both recreational and professional athletes alike, I have even purchased one of these dedicated benches for my own gym.

What makes the hip thrust so special for those ‘glute gains’?

As I have already mentioned, the loaded squat has always been considered key when it comes to gluteus hypertrophy, indeed research has regularly identified the gluteus maximus as the primary muscle responsible for hip extension (4).  However, in comparison to multi-joint loaded squats and their derivatives, the hip thrust is a single-joint exercise that is claimed to be a more biomechanically efficient method to exercise the gluteal musculature (7). This is understandable when you consider that the gluteus maximus’ role in hip extension is greatly amplified during loaded exercises that do not substantially activate the hamstrings (4). As the horizontal, bent legged position of the hip thrust decreases the contribution of the hamstrings’ role in hip extension through a condition termed active insufficiency (17), it would follow that the muscular recruitment requirements of the gluteal musculature are consequently increased. Not only that, with evidence demonstrating that gluteus maximus activation is greatest in full hip extension (18) it would stand to reason that exercises such as the hip thrust would naturally be superior in the recruitment of the gluteal musculature.

Evidence suggests the hip thrust has the potential to be the new ‘King of the booty builders’

Muscle activation studies involving the hip thrust appear to be popular with researchers investigating the electromyographic (EMG) activity compared to various other common hypertrophy and strength exercises (4). These studies have demonstrated greater activation of the gluteus maximus in comparison to split squats (8), the barbell and hex-bar deadlifts (19), and of course, repeatedly demonstrated its superiority against the squat (8,11,20). However, EMG studies are certainly not definitive, as muscle activity does not directly equate to muscle hypertrophy. Nonetheless, they do go some way to back up the biomechanical data. All of which points towards the hip thrust’s potential as the new ‘king of the booty builders!’

What about the hypertrophy study?

Earlier I mentioned a recent study where actual gluteal hypertrophy was measured when comparing the squat to the hip thrust (12). The participants in this study were well-trained females, which is good news for us, as this potentially helps to answer the question I posed earlier in this article. However, the results of this study contradict those which most researchers have demonstrated, in that this study showed the back squat to be superior to the hip thrust for hypertrophy. Obviously, a single study should not be sufficient to change the stance of the majority. Especially as in this case, nothing is quite what it seems, and this paper has caused some controversy within the scientific community. Although the critique of this research is beyond the scope of this article, there is plenty of criticism available online, including a report penned by some well-respected authors (21) calling into question the work of the lead author, Barbalho, leading to the retraction of at least one of his studies. For us, this means the results of this study should certainly be treated with caution.

My thoughts

I have always been a big advocate of the squat, as is apparent from the number of squat racks present in my gym. Despite the comfort issues and awkwardness of the exercise for beginners, I have also been a long-time supporter of the hip thrust. What is worth remembering is that maximum gains in muscle hypertrophy occur when multiple exercises are used, targeting different planes, angles and muscle lengths thus targeting greater numbers of muscle fibres (22). We all know that full range squats are superior to partial squats, not only do they work the gluteal musculature over a greater range of movement (ROM), they also provide a greater relative contribution (23), targeting the muscles in a lengthened state. Hip thrusts, in contrast, have a short ROM thus targeting the muscle in the shortened state


Should you thrust or should you squat? I say do both!

In conclusion, both hip thrusts and squats are great glute exercises. But so are Romanian deadlifts and lunges. Incidentally, another of my favourite exercises, the step-up scores even higher for glute activation than the hip thrust or the squat (4). The biggest takeaway should be, as ever, you should always use multiple exercises to target a muscle group. My view is that a combination of squats, hip thrusts plus any of the other aforementioned exercises and their derivatives, hitting the glutes from multiple angles and lengths will help to provide the optimum stimulus to hypertrophy the muscle. So, in answer to the question as to whether to thrust or to squat, I say do both!

Rererences (click to expand)
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