HIP THRUST - The Ultimate Booty Builder or an Overrated Imposter?

Written by: Christopher Barakat, MS, ATC, CISSN

Over the past 5 years, one exercise that has become exponentially more popular is the Barbell Hip Thrust. From female fitspos on Instagram saying it’s their favorite booty builder, to elite strength and conditioning coaches claiming this is going to enhance lower body strength and power, it seems like everyone is performing them in their training program. Interestingly, what seems like overnight, a lot of people are hopping off the hip thrust band wagon and are now saying it’s overrated. This is due to a recent study(1) that was just published comparing the strength and hypertrophy effects between back squats and hip thrust demonstrating the back squat is a superior exercise for glute hypertrophy. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to cover what we do know about hip thrust, examine the new scientific paper, and provide some practical applications to include hip thrust in your training, not completely neglect them because of this one study.

How & Why did Hip Thrust become so popular anyway?

Back in 2015, Brett Contreras and colleagues compared the differences in muscle activation of the gluteus maximus, biceps femoris (one hamstring muscle), and the vastus lateralis (one quad muscle) when performing the front squat (a multi-joint exercise) compared to the hip thrust (a single joint exercise)(7). They reported that the hip-thrust resulted in significantly greater peak(~87%) and mean (~40%) muscle activation for the gluteus maximus musculture. Thus, they suggested that hip thrust should be included in training regimens for those looking to maximize muscular development of the glutes. However, they never stated it was superior to the squat for overall performance and development, but suggested its use as a complementary exercise with squat variations or as a great alternative for those who can not squat safely due to injury/limitations.

A few years later, another research group (Williams and colleagues)(17) further investigated the differences in neuromuscular activity between the hip thrust, back squat and unilateral split squat. Moreover, they were seeking to understand how these exercises related to sprint performance. 

Their findings relating to muscle activation were in corroboration with The Glute Guy himself, Brett Contreras (just to a smaller magnitude) and they also reported a strong correlation between peak sprint velocity and anterior-posterior horizontal force (r=0.72) and peak ground reaction force during the barbell hip thrust (r=0.69). 

Thus, these authors suggested that performing exercises that improve horizontal force production and overloading the glutes in their shortened position with the hips extended (i.e. hip thrust) may provide superior crossover to sprint performance. Also, it’s important to note that they do not think hip thrust/horizontal movements should replace squat patterns/vertical movements.

Although these studies have demonstrated that the hip thrust produces a significant amount of muscle activation via EMG, you might be thinking “is there any direct evidence regarding its performance benefits?”

Brett Contreras investigated the effects of performing either hip-thrust or front-squats for 6-weeks on performance measures in adolescent males(8). Their findings demonstrated that the front squat was superior to improve vertical jump height and front squat strength (3RM). This is no surprise due to the specificity principle Getting stronger and using an exercise that trains movement in the vertical plane (i.e front squat), leads to greater force production in that plane, thus leading to greater jump height. Additionally, to no surprise due to specificity, the hip thrust was superior to improve sprint-performance as well as hip-thrust strength.

Taking the data from these studies ((6–8,17) in conjunction, the literature supports the inclusion of the barbell hip thrust in both physique-focused and performance-focused athletes. 

So why the sudden shift in consensus and recent lack of support for the barbell hip thrust? 

It’s due to the most recent study(1) that was just published, which was the first study to compare the barbell back squat and hip thrust to one another and their effects on muscle hypertrophy. This study demonstrated superior gains for the back squat that will be defined in detail below. However, many people are taking the findings of this new study and are ill-advisedly applying this information; suggesting the barbell hip-thrust is useless, which I strongly disagree with. Moreover, some people in the industry are claiming this study was carried out flawlessly which I simply disagree with as every single study has its flaws. 

Nonetheless, let’s dive into this new study! 

The authors wanted to compare the effects of the barbell back-squat (multi-joint) and hip-thrust (single-joint) on muscle strength and hypertrophy over a 12-week training block. The participants (24 highly-trained females) were randomly assigned to either the back-squat (BS) group or hip-thrust (HT) group. The study had these females training once per week and the protocol consisted of 6-working sets of either the back-squat or hip-thrust utilizing a non-linear periodization approach. It’s important to note, participants in the BS groups were performing full-ROM squats (~140 degree knee angle) 

Table X – Training Overview for both the BS and HT groups

WeeksSets X Rep GoalRest Interval
1, 5, 96 x 12-1530-60 (sec)
2, 6, 10 6 x 4-63-4 (min)
3, 7, 116 x 10-121-2 (min)
4, 8 ,126 x 6-82-3 (min)

 

After 12-weeks of this training, the authors demonstrated the following results.

These highly-trained subjects were extremely strong from the start and made exponential gains over this 12-week training period. I want to demonstrate their strength performance using a body mass/strength ratio and absolute values (for those who are not accustomed to reading scientific papers). 

Back Squat Group

Body Mass: 69.5kg = 153lbs

Hip Thrust Group

Body Mass: 67.5kg = 148.5lbs

Back SquatHip ThrustBack SquatHip Thrust
Strength-to-Mass Ratio (S-M R)
1RM PRE
1.321.441.381.46
1RM POST1.81.641.441.75
1RM PRE (LBS)203220205217
1RM POST 275 (~+35%)251 (~+14%)214 (~+4%)260 (~+20%)

Image from – mennohenselmans.com/squats-vs-hip-thrusts/

Based on these results, the BS absolutely dominated the HT from a muscle hypertrophy and strength standpoint. The ONLY variable in which HT outperformed BS was in HT 1RM from pre-to-post (+4% vs +20%), respectively. However, like all studies, it’s important to critically analyze the strengths and potential weakness and covariates at play. 

Regarding their strength assessments, the authors did not mention multiple testing sessions to familiarize the subjects. A lot of trainees do not regularly perform 1-RM assessments and from my personal experience with data collection, it takes multiple (2-3) sessions to get an accurate absolute strength value (1RM). 

Thus, their findings demonstrating a 35% increase on back-squat 1-RM in a 12-week training period in highly-trained females is much larger than what’s expected. Additionally, the authors did not mention if the subjects refrained from any additional training outside of the study. This study’s training sessions were performed once per week, but the subjects may have been performing additional training outside of the supervised sessions that could surely impact the results. It would be nice to gain 72lbs on our back squat in a 12-week block, but I personally think their baseline strength levels may have been higher and the magnitude of gains would have been lower if multiple familiarization sessions were used for the strength assessment. From my experience with chronic training studies in highly-trained subjects, I know how difficult it is to get them to hand over the control of their training to us (the researchers), and I’m not so confident these highly-trained women would train legs just once per week (likely reducing their frequency & total volume), yet still make such progress.

I read on Menno Henselemans research digest that he presumes these subjects were either competitive powerlifters and/or on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) based on their initial starting strength numbers, the amount of progress that was made (as well as the training culture in Brazil), and his personal experience there. Based on the results, I would not be surprised if this were the case as well, but it was not mentioned in the study and extrapolating these findings must be taken with caution. 

Furthermore, the subjects demonstrated a 12% increase in muscle thickness at one site of the quadriceps femoris. This magnitude of gain is much larger than what has previously been demonstrated in well-trained female subjects during similar training interventions over an even longer time-span(3).

Although muscle thickness measurements were performed by a blinded ultrasound technician that was not involved with the study, personally, I do not think this is a strength of the study. Having a blinded ultrasound technician is crucial for many reasons on many levels. However, having an ultrasound technician that may not regularly perform muscle thickness assessments can significantly increase the error rate. (Ultrasound technicians are generally using imaging to examine internal organs to help physicians diagnose patient ailments, not for research purposes to assess muscle thickness and quantify hypertrophy).

(I don’t believe this ultrasound tech is regularly assessing muscle thickness) 

When performed correctly, muscle thickness assessments can be extremely reliable via ultrasound and comparable to the gold-standard (MRI)(4,10) . However, the slightest variation in body position can significantly alter the muscle-thickness reading via ultrasound. It’s extremely sensitive and the control here needs to be spot on. For example, something that may seem minor (i.e. ~5 degree difference in hip internal/external rotation when the patient is lying on the table) can totally alter the muscle thickness recording of the quads. 

So although I think the data is clear, the BS is superior to the HT for glute hypertrophy when both exercises are performed in exclusivity, it’s important to note, most trainees do not perform just one of the two exercises in their programming. Furthermore, based on the previous research and the biomechanical differences between the two exercises, it is likely best to still include BOTH exercises in your programming. If you were taking a minimalistic approach and had to choose between the two, opting for a multi-joint exercise (BS) over a single-joint exercise (HT), has been demonstrated to be the most efficient approach in the literature for decades now(2,9,13). This isn’t groundbreaking, novel information.  

Overall, I think this latest research study investigated an important question and provided great insight regarding the effectiveness differences between BS and HT when performed exclusively. The authors highlighted that although EMG data favors the HT(7,17), inferences can not be made that greater muscle activation will lead to great hypertrophy (15) (especially across different exercises). 

They accredited the BS hypertrophic superiority likely being due to training the glutes through a greater range of motion(5,11). The HT worked the glutes through ~45 degrees of ROM (~135-180) and overloads the glutes at short muscle lengths. On the other hand, the full-ROM BS works the glutes through a larger ROM and overloads the glutes in their lengthened position, when the hips are flexed in the hole which can result in more mechanical tension and create more muscle damage(12). This is key since mechanical tension has been proposed as the primary signaling variable for muscle hypertrophy (16)with muscle damage also being a proposed mechanism(14)

So … should YOU do Hip Thrust? 

… as always, IT DEPENDS. 

The hip-thrust exercise can still be a beneficial exercise to include in your training program. Like all exercises, they are all tools that must be used appropriately based on your specific goals, personal preferences, training-level, potential limitations (i.e. injuries), and more. 

For performance athletes looking to improve their sprinting abilities, I personally do suggest including some sort of hip-thrust in your overall resistance training program. As previously mentioned, there has been a strong correlation between peak hip thrust force and sprint velocity (17). Furthermore, Contreras and colleagues (8) demonstrated significant improvements in sprint-performance in young men when performing the HT for 6-weeks.

I also believe the Hip-Thrust exercise can be very beneficial for mixed-martial-artist, wrestlers, jiu-jitsu practitioners (any body who is on their back). These athletes would likely benefit from improving their hip extension power and strength, specifically horizontal force when their back is on the mat and they are fighting to improve their position. 

For physique athletes looking to maximize glute hypertrophy, I do think the Hip-Thrust should be included in programming. Although the BS was superior to the HT, I hypothesis that performing both exercises in conjunction would present even greater gains than just performing one exercise alone. I believe performing squats, working the glutes through a large ROM, creating a significant amount of mechanical tension and overloading them in their lengthened/mid-range while also performing HT which maximizes neuromuscular activity, and overloads the glutes in their shortened position, you will create the greatest stimulus possible and optimize the adaptation response. 

For example, this is how I’ve programmed both the squat and hip-thrust exercise in on training session in my Elite Training Program. You can download this free workout and get a snippet of my e-books explaining the programming here.

However, it’s important to note, bodybuilders of the past have never performed HT, yet still had very impressive glute development.

Would they have had even bigger glutes if they performed HT?

Potentially, but it’s clearly not necessary. Again, no ONE exercise is mandatory. One of the most impressive glutes in natural bodybuilding today comes from WNBF pro, Ben Howard. Interestingly, Ben has never performed HT in his life; he just performs squats, deadlifts and doesn’t do single-joint/isolation exercises for his glutes. 

(Ronnie Coleman (8x Mr. Olympia) , Richard Krol WNBF Pro, Ben Howard WNBF Pro) 

Furthermore, for some physique competitors in particular, specifically bikini competitors, prioritizing HT over BS may be applicable. This is due to the divisions specific criteria. I have many female bikini clients who have been told to actually reduce the size of their quads but bring-up their glutes. In this case, performing squats would just lead to additional quadricep growth which can actually reduce their competitive success. Again, this is a very specific case, however, it’s actually fairly common in this category. (This is so common, they created a whole new division for females with very muscular lower bodies – this is the “Wellness Division”)

Take-Home Messages

Before you go ditching the hip-thrust, self-audit your current training approach and see how you may be able to adjust it in order to maximize progress related to your goals.

  • The hip-thrust can be beneficial for both performance athletes as well as physique-focused trainees. 
  • Evidence suggests Hip-Thrust can improve sprint performance.
  • Hip-Thrust leads to greater peak & mean EMG values (muscle activation) compared to the squat (likely due to overloading the glutes in their fully shortened position)
  • Compound exercises (Squats) are more efficient than single-joint exercises (Hip-Thrust).
  • Squats are going to lead to greater strength and hypertrophic gains to the glutes compared to hip thrust when those exercises are performed in exclusivity. 
  • To maximize muscle hypertrophy, perform exercises that create a lot of tension at different muscle lengths. Thus, consider using both the squat and hip thrust to maximize glute growth. 
  • Like all exercises, the Hip Thrust may be an effective tool in your arsenal when used appropriately based on your goals. 

References

  1. Barbalho, M, Coswig, V, Souza, D, Serrão, JC, Campos, MH, and Gentil, P. Back Squat vs. Hip Thrust Resistance-training Programs in Well-trained Women. Int J Sports Med , 2020.Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1055/a-1082-1126
  2. Barbalho, M, Coswig, VS, Raiol, R, Steele, J, Fisher, J, Paoli, A, et al. Effects of Adding Single Joint Exercises to a Resistance Training Programme in Trained Women. Sports (Basel) 6, 2018.Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/sports6040160
  3. Barbalho, M, Coswig, VS, Steele, J, Fisher, JP, Paoli, A, and Gentil, P. Evidence for an Upper Threshold for Resistance Training Volume in Trained Women. Med Sci Sports Exerc 51: 515–522, 2019.
  4. Bemben, MG. Use of diagnostic ultrasound for assessing muscle size. J Strength Cond Res 16: 103–108, 2002.
  5. Bloomquist, K, Langberg, H, Karlsen, S, Madsgaard, S, Boesen, M, and Raastad, T. Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations. Eur J Appl Physiol 113: 2133–2142, 2013.
  6. Contreras, B, Cronin, J, and Schoenfeld, B. Barbell Hip Thrust. Strength & Conditioning Journal 33: 58, 2011.
  7. Contreras, B, Vigotsky, AD, Schoenfeld, BJ, Beardsley, C, and Cronin, J. A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises. J Appl Biomech 31: 452–458, 2015.
  8. Contreras, B, Vigotsky, AD, Schoenfeld, BJ, Beardsley, C, McMaster, DT, Reyneke, JHT, et al. Effects of a Six-Week Hip Thrust vs. Front Squat Resistance Training Program on Performance in Adolescent Males: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Strength Cond Res 31: 999–1008, 2017.
  9. França, HS de, de França, HS, Branco, PAN, Junior, DPG, Gentil, P, Steele, J, et al. The effects of adding single-joint exercises to a multi-joint exercise resistance training program on upper body muscle strength and size in trained men. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 40: 822–826, 2015.Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2015-0109
  10. Franchi, MV, Longo, S, Mallinson, J, Quinlan, JI, Taylor, T, Greenhaff, PL, et al. Muscle thickness correlates to muscle cross-sectional area in the assessment of strength training-induced hypertrophy. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 28: 846–853, 2018.Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/sms.12961
  11. McMahon, GE, Morse, CI, Burden, A, Winwood, K, and Onambélé, GL. Impact of range of motion during ecologically valid resistance training protocols on muscle size, subcutaneous fat, and strength. J Strength Cond Res 28: 245–255, 2014.
  12. Nosaka, K and Sakamoto, K. Effect of elbow joint angle on the magnitude of muscle damage to the elbow flexors. Med Sci Sports Exerc 33: 22–29, 2001.
  13. Paoli, A, Gentil, P, Moro, T, Marcolin, G, and Bianco, A. Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength. Front Physiol 8: 1105, 2017.
  14. Schoenfeld, BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 24: 2857–2872, 2010.
  15. Vigotsky, AD, Beardsley, C, Contreras, B, Steele, J, Ogborn, D, and Phillips, SM. Greater Electromyographic Responses Do Not Imply Greater Motor Unit Recruitment and “Hypertrophic Potential” Cannot Be Inferred. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31: e1–e4, 2017.Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001249
  16. Wackerhage, H, Schoenfeld, BJ, Hamilton, DL, Lehti, M, and Hulmi, JJ. Stimuli and sensors that initiate skeletal muscle hypertrophy following resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol 126: 30–43, 2019.
  17. Williams, MJ, Gibson, NV, Sorbie, GG, Ugbolue, UC, Brouner, J, and Easton, C. Activation of the gluteus maximus during performance of the back squat, split squat and barbell hip thrust and the relationship with maximal sprinting. J Strength Cond Res , 2018.Available from: https://rke.abertay.ac.uk/en/publications/activation-of-the-igluteus-maximusi-during-performance-of-the-bac

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