The hip thrust is becoming ever more popular and as usage increases the wilder the claims of its benefits become. Proponents attribute any improvement to the inclusion of the exercise. no improvement? Then you can’t be doing it enough. Hip thrusts are elevated above rational scrutiny-heads they cause the win, tails they didn’t make you lose.

Some lifters use this exercise as some form of assistance work for squatting, deadlifting, running or jumping. All require the glutes and a powerful hip extension. Alas this is where the similarities begin to end. the way you building strength usually needs to be specific to the task you intend to transfer it to.

The first glaringly obvious difference is that you are laying on your back. So the direction of the load, or the force vector, is not the same. The hip thrust has an ‘anteroposterior’ loading. This means the force is transmitted through the front to the back of the body. All of the exercises this is hoping to assist involve axial loading, which means the resistance is travelling vertically through the body, head to feet. This makes the demands on the body quite different.

By changing the direction of the load, it means even when the hip movement is the same, but the muscular moment is not. During a squat or deadlift, the glutes’ peak contraction occurs when they are around mid-length. A peak contraction is not necessarily where the muscle is at its most contracted, but it is where the muscle works hardest. Strength adaptions are often ‘angle specific’. 

The muscles work hardest in the hip thrust as the muscles approach their shortest length. This is far too late for it to assist the squat! This means the strength gains caused by increased neural drive from the hip thrust will most likely not transfer or ever be demonstrated when squatting or deadlifting. 

This is almost academic as loading the spine up in the hip thrust places the back in a vulnerable position, particularly when it is fatigued or under high loads- which makes it a bad idea to go heavy on anyway. 

Not everyone does this exercise for strength; some will do it for explosiveness. A powerful hip extension is essential when it comes to running fast or jumping far. Any exercise called the hip THRUST sounds just the ticket. The problem is, that this loaded supine position does not best place you to do all that much thrusting. However hard or fast you try to propel your hips into extension, this move will always be relatively slow and lingering, far too slow to match sprinting or bounding anyway. This means the leisurely old hip thrust could never hope to make you develop any explosive power or make you run faster.

Rapid movements like these need something much quicker to improve neural drive or increase your rate of force development. Sprint speed is notoriously difficult to improve. Progress is glacial and, any gains you have to work for, are lost extremely quickly. As a result, most of the best sprinters are near world class before they train for the sport! These sprinters were effectively born, not made. 

Those who are not natural born athletes will see the differences not only in their ability but in their physiques too. Almost everyone capable of Herculean feats will have a very well developed backside, especially relative to the rest of their physique. Because of this correlation, there is a mistaken belief that by artificially adding glutes to your frame you will then enjoy the associated benefits. In my experience, glutes are a requirement for athletic success but not a guarantee. Bolt-on pseudo-glutes will not cut it, they will be all show and no go.

Finally, we have people who feel this exercise can be used as a little livener for sleepy, inactive glutes. These tend to be the people who mock the inny-outy leg machines but merrily and ironically crab walk their way around the gym with a band wrapped around their knees as though that is all that different. You do feel the muscles in this exercise more than most but this connection lasts only as long as the exercise. Using this to fire up the glutes produces a transitory effect that will not carry over to proceeding/forthcoming tasks.

So what is the point of the hip thrust? 

The way I see it, there’s two legitimate reasons to adding in this exercise. The first is you want a bigger bum. You don’t care what you lift or how fast you run, you just want a decent rear. Nothing wrong with that. Enjoy your twerking dominance.

The hip thrust will deliver more junk in your trunk as your legs remain bent throughout the exercise, it places the hamstrings in what is known as active insufficiency. They are unable to take over the hip extension even if they wanted to. Likewise the adductor longus is at a mechanical disadvantage which leaves the glutes enjoying what is known as ’synergistic dominance’. No longer is the backside backstage, in this exercise it is the primemover. 

Personally, I think if you want to build up the glutes you should spend most your time squatting and deadlifting, neither will give you the thicker waist you hear people warn you about (yet another correlation, not causation) but the hip thrust will help add volume which can only help change your glutes aesthetics for the better.

The glutes are best served with moderate loading and moderate rep ranges. Considering the position, this all works out rather nicely as you can avoid the heavy loads or too much fatigue from higher reps.

The other good reason to include the hip thrust (or its close relative the glute bridge) is to develop core stability. though the glutes do all the moving, hidden muscles work quietly behind the scenes. At the deepest level, the multifidus and transverse abdominals (TVA) will be providing a low level, anticipatory contraction followed by each layer sequentially joining in. Unnoticed, but the effects can be profound.

The TVA produce little joint movement but play key role in lumbopelvic stability. A delay in this muscles involvement has been associated with low back pain and reduced transfer of force. This delay can be corrected with exercises such as low level glute bridging and encouragingly, with lasting effect.

The hip thrust is performed with your shoulders on a bench or raised surface and barbell on your hips (there is no dishonour in wrapping a towel around the bar as there is during the squat, only bruise avoidance). This would be my choice if glute development was the motive behind the exercise.

For core stability, I would opt for the glute bridge. This exercise will see your head and shoulders on the floor and can be conveniently done without additional load. It is the more subtle of the two and so I have included a description to help you squeeze as much from this one as you can.

Glute bridge

Starting position

Lay supine (facing up), keep a natural S shape in the spine (neutral position), legs bent, feet hip distance apart and flat on the floor. 

Arms rest by your sides, palms can be facing up, down or to the body. 

Gently draw the stomach in (without flattening the lower back into the floor). 

The exercise

Push through the heels and gently squeeze the glutes to lift the hips. 

Avoid maximally contracting the glutes, use only the effort required to create the movement 

Ensure the hip extends, not the pelvis or lower back. The natural lumbar curve should be maintained.

Extend your hips only as far as the shoulder blades and avoid coming up onto the neck.

Return to the starting position and repeat 5-8 times

During this exercise people will often try to force their legs apart against bands wrapped around their thighs. Despite fitness fanatics thinking otherwise, it’s no big secret that the glutes are fairly weak external hip rotators, what is even less well known is when the hips are in a flexed position, the glute minimus and medius are actually INTERNAL hip rotators, which along with poor motor control is more likely why knees like to cave in as you come up from a squat. Not because your glutes aren’t strong enough to prevent the knee valgus. This glute action can be emphasised best not by forcing the knees apart but squeezing them together. By performing the exercise with feet set shoulder distance apart and knees together or by squeezing a ball or towel between your legs you will have a much better effect.

Stability is improved when it is challenged, not strengthened. To take this exercise further you do not do more reps or add weight, you increase the difficulty.

Glute bridge with leg lift

Starting position

Lay supine (facing up), keep a natural S shape in the spine (neutral position), legs bent, feet hip distance apart and flat on the floor. 

Arms can rest on your abdomen or by your sides. 

Gently draw the stomach in (without flattening the lower back into the floor). 

The exercise

Gently squeeze the glutes to lift the hips. 

Use only the effort required to create the movement, so avoid maximally contracting the glutes.

Ensure the hip extends and the natural lumbar curve is maintained.

Extend hips only as far as the shoulder blades, avoid coming up to the neck.

Hold this position and without allowing any side bending or the pelvis to rotate, lift one foot off the floor by a few inches. 

Return the foot then lower the hips back to the start position.

Alternate legs and repeat 3-6 repetitions on each side

To further increase the challenge, the lifted leg can be outstretched and lowered to a long diagonal or one leg can already lifted into the start position. The goal is not to work the hardest modification you can, it is to use the one that allows a low level contraction to occur so you develop stability.

References/ Further reading

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A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises. Contreras B, Vigotsky AD, Schoenfeld BJ, Beardsley C, Cronin J. J Appl Biomech. 2015 Dec;31(6):452-8. doi: 10.1123/jab.2014-0301. Epub 2015 Jul 24.

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