Home Blog Squats vs. Hip Thrusts: Which is Better?

Squats vs. Hip Thrusts: Which is Better?

Written on April 16, 2014 at 2:07 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from Bret Contreras, author of the recently released 2x4: Maximum_Strength.

Many strength coaches, personal trainers, and strength athletes claim that the squat is the best exercise for promoting gluteal muscle development. Recently, the hip thrust has stumbled onto the scene, and its reputation for building impressive backsides has gained traction.

There is currently no published research examining the gluteal hypertrophic effects of squatting or hip thrusting, yet anecdotally we’re aware of their glute-building potential. While nobody can say for sure right now which is best for gluteal growth between the squat and the hip thrust, I hope that by the end of this article, you’ll be convinced that both exercises should be employed for optimal glute development.

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Hypertrophy Science

According to hypertrophy researcher, Brad Schoenfeld, there are three primary mechanisms to muscle growth. The most important mechanism appears to be mechanical tension. A close second in terms of importance appears to be metabolic stress. Finally, we have muscle damage, which appears to be of slightly lesser importance. As it currently stands, we don’t know for certain how to optimize these three stimuli in our programming in order to maximize muscle growth. The way I see it, until more is known, we should do our best to hit every base in our training. Therefore, we want to perform exercises that create the most tension in the glutes, produce the most metabolic stress in the glutes, and create reasonable amounts of damage in the glutes. How do squats and hip thrusts fare in regards to the three mechanisms of muscle growth?

Let’s take a deep look at what happens biomechanically and physiologically in the glutes when we squat and hip thrust.

Gluteal Biomechanics During the Squat

Let’s say you have the bar loaded up to around 80% of your one-rep maximum (1RM). You set up and take the bar off out of the rack. The upper glutes help stabilize your pelvis as you walk the bar backward. Once you get set, the glutes calm down. Now you start descending. Glute activation during the eccentric phase is very low – around 20-30% of maximum voluntary contraction (MVC). At the bottom position, the point where everyone thinks is so amazing for glute activation, is where the glutes actually reach their lowest activation during the rep – around 10-20% of MVC. I realize that this hasn’t been mentioned in any journal. It’s something I’ve noticed over the past year with the last fifteen or so individuals I’ve tested in EMG. These are highly experienced squatters, including several Arizona state record holders in the squat.

Now, before you call me crazy, please not that a similar phenomenon is seen in the erector spinae as they’re stretched under load; this has been deemed the lumbar flexion relaxation phenomenon. As the glutes are stretched out, their activation diminishes. This could be related to the passive-elastic force that they produce in this position, or some other reason, possibly related to the changing sarcomere length or the changing muscle moment arm length.

At this point, you explode out of the hole. This is where the glutes do their thang – during concentric actions. Glute activation will reach around 80-120% of MVC as you rise upward, peaking around halfway up, and gradually diminishing before you reach the top. You pause for a brief moment, and then resume the next repetition.

Mean activation is fairly low – around 50-70% of MVC – since the top portion of the squat is rather unloaded for the glutes, and since there is usually a considerable pause in between reps as the lifter takes a deep breath, resets, and gets tight, and since the glutes don’t fire very hard eccentrically during the lift. Because of this, you won’t feel a pump or a burn in the glutes when you squat, since blood in the gluteal region has plenty of time to escape during the set. However, you will develop glute soreness in the days following the workout, due to the fact that the glute fibers are stretched eccentrically to long muscle lengths while being activated, albeit at low levels. But this is only true for the lower gluteal fibers; the upper fibers of the glutes will generally fire at around 30-40% of MVC during a heavy squat.


 

Gluteal Biomechanics During the Hip Thrust

Now let’s discuss the hip thrust. Just as in the case of the squat, let’s say you’re using around 80% of 1RM. The bar is placed onto the hips. The body is wedged into place. Before the lift begins, the glutes are silent. The lifter then thrusts the hips upward until full hip extension is reached. During this concentric shortening, peak activation will typically reach around 120-200% of MVC, and this level of activation will be elicited in both the upper and lower gluteal fibers. The peak is reached at full hip extension, as the glutes reach their shortest muscle length. This could be due to the changing sarcomere length or the changing muscle moment arm length.

On the way down, the eccentric EMG activity mirrors the concentric activity, gradually diminishing until the bottom of the range of motion is reached. The movement is quickly reversed. Due to the rapid movements and consistent tension on the glutes, mean activation during the hip thrust is extremely high – around 100% of MVC. Due to the high levels of activation and constant pumping of repetitions, levels of metabolic stress are very high as well. Incredible “glute pumps” and burning will typically set in from multiple sets of hip thrusts. However, since the glutes are not fully stretched at the bottom of the hip thrust, muscle damage will not be very severe.


 

Theoretical Imposed Adaptations

As you can see, the squat and the hip thrust are actually quite different in biomechanics. Let’s examine some commonalities and differences.

Both exercises make for excellent glute exercises due to the bent knee position, which shortens the hamstrings and places more burden on the glutes for hip extension (when the hamstrings are shortened, they cannot produce maximum force due to active insufficiency).

Both exercises require dual actions out of the glutes. In a squat, the glutes must fire to create hip extension torque, but they must also fire in order to create hip external rotation torque to prevent knee valgus (caving in of the knees). In a hip thrust, the glutes fire to create hip extension torque, but they must also fire in order to create posterior pelvic tilt torque to prevent anterior tilting of the pelvis and lumbar hyperextension.

Squats can be limited by back strength, which is not the case for hip thrusts. Squats require more balance and coordination, whereas the hip thrust is very stable and simple to perform. The hip thrust is generally limited by glute strength, meaning that the set reaches failure when the glutes can no longer raise the hips. Squats move the hips into deeper hip flexion.

Let’s see which exercise outperforms the other in various biomechanical and physiological categories in the chart below.

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As you can see in the hypothetical chart, the squat outperforms the hip thrust in 2 of the 7 categories, whereas the hip thrust outperforms the squat in 5 of the 7 categories.

The Verdict

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to imagine how combining the squat and the hip thrust would elicit greater adaptations than performing either exercise alone. In terms of imposed neural adaptations, the hip thrust requires more neural drive to the glutes, but there may be neural benefits to including squats due to the myotatic “stretch” reflex. In terms of mechanical adaptations, the two movements target different ranges of motion and therefore different gluteal muscle lengths, which likely lead to different mechanical adaptations as far as fascicle length and pennation angle are concerned. For full range gluteal strength, a more complete neurological stimulis, and full development of the upper and lower gluteal fibers, you’ll want to perform both the squat and the hip thrust. Either exercise alone won’t suffice. The good news is that we don’t have to choose between squats or hip thrusts for maximal glute development; we should perform both movements.

Squats elicit moderate levels of activation while promoting tolerable levels of gluteal muscle damage. Hip thrusts maximize tension and metabolic stress on the glutes and do a better job of hitting the upper fibers. The two exercises combine to produce one heck of a glute hypertrophy stimulus.

If you're looking for a great resource to take your strength training program to the next level, I'd highly recommend Bret's 2x4: Maximum_Strength. It's on sale this week at a great introductory price.

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  • Chris Irvine.edu

    Great insight, the only thing I would have like to see between these two movements is to equate workload and then examine the difference.

  • John

    It would be interesting to see how single leg movements like the lunge pattern, single leg deadlifts, and RFESS compare to these bilateral movements. Since a lot of us train athletes, or those with hip pathology, we may be more likely to choose one of these instead of a back squat or hip thrust. Good stuff!

  • Don

    How do hip thrusts vs. dead lifts compare?

  • Erik Hansen

    When I have athletes with back issues, squats are usually out and I immediately switch them to single leg variations to limit the load on the spine. Have you found hip thrusts to be good options for people with a history of back issues? Obviously it depends on their issues but any successes using the hip thrust with that population in terms of reducing the load on the spine but still getting load on the legs?

  • Bret’s attention to detail never ceases to amaze me. My female clients have started calling me the “butt builder” and it’s all down to Bret 🙂

  • Ken Jensen

    So in programming both, do you do them on the same day or different days of the weeks? If on the same day, which first?

  • Will Hip thrusts help someone squat deeper and if so how and why? Also is it bad to use the sissy foam pad on the bar for hip thrusts?

  • Rock Smash

    I would love to see a similar comparison between hip thrust and GHR for glute and maybe hamstring measurement. Granted, GHR won’t be performed at high percentages of 1RM, but it would interest me to see the activation profile.

    Thanks for this.

  • Ken,

    If it was me, I’d squat first…much more technical.

  • Erik,

    I can’t speak for Bret, but I will say that we’ve had quite a few folks with a history of LBP who have done fine with hip thrusts, provided they are done correctly and loaded appropriately. We usually start folks with barbell supine bridges and 1-leg hip thrusts off bench, though.

  • @Chris Irvine – good observation. However, in research, it’s more common to equate relative loads, not workload. I can squat 275 x 12 reps, and I can hip thrust 495 x 12 reps, so they’re equal that sense. They both represent 12RMs for me.

  • @John and @Don – good ideas. I’ll add these to the list of experiments I need to do. One thing I’d like to mention is that while quad EMG is predictable during lunge/BSS patterns, and while hamstring EMG is predictable during sl RLD patterns, glute EMG is quite variable depending on the lifter. Some get increased glute EMG when switching from bilateral to unilateral, and some see a marked decrease. This jives with what they’ll usually tell you if you ask them what they feel. It may be influenced by anatomy, and unilateral might improve through experience.

  • @Erik Hansen – I’ve personally had great success with LBP clients. Sometimes you get clients who initially have issues with the hip thrust, but you teach them how to avoid hyperextension by locking hip extension with a big glute squeeze at the top (which posteriorly tilts the pelvis slightly) and ensuring that the distance between their anterior ribcage and pelvis doesn’t increase throughout the ROM (think “ribs down). Sometimes folks who have struggled for years due to back pain absolutely thrive on the hip thrust when they learn proper mechanics, and I’ve received many reports from lifters over the last few years claiming that hip thrusts helped “solve” their LBP. I don’t know how it does this since there are psychosocial elements to pain and it’s not just about biomechanics, but nevertheless I hear it a lot and see it as a personal trainer.

  • @Ken – great question. That depends. With my “glute aesthetic” clients, I have them hip thrust first. With athletes and powerlifters, I have them squat first. Some of my powerlifting friends like to do a couple of band hip thrust sets before they squat as they’ve found that it helps their hips feel better (probably due to Shirley Sahrmman’s theory about glutes preventing anterior femoral glide). Hope that helps!

  • @Nathan – excellent questions. Yes, it can improve squat depth through increased gluteal recruitment which alters the way the head of the femur articulates in the acetabulum. I talked about it in this video on buttwink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fN3NhZ5Ifc
    As for your second question, absolutely not – it’s good. In fact, you’ll need even thicker bar padding to protect the hips as you gain strength. My favorite is the “squat sponge” which should really be called the “hip thrust sponge.” This can be found on Amazon for $25 I think.

  • @Rock – I would love to do this so that people could realize that a GHR is very hamstring dominant and a hip thrust is glute dominant. A GHR is much better suited for creating knee flexion torque rather than hip extension torque. I wrote about this in an article here: http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/gutting_the_gluteham_raise

  • Crystal

    thanks for all of your articles and products! They have helped me to become a much better trainer and I really appreciate that!

  • box

    You mention myotatic “stretch” reflex as a good thing. This means the box squat is an inferiour exercise to regular squat because of this?

  • Andy P

    As far as quad activation, what is the average percentage in relation to squats vs thrusts? I know the quads carry some load in the thrusts, but I’d be interested to know how it compares to squats (on average).

  • @Box – not exactly. Each lift has its place. The box squat is very well-suited for producing massive amounts of rate of force development (I wrote about it here: http://bretcontreras.com/traditional-squat-vs-powerlifting-squat-vs-box-squat). Something about sitting on the box and relaxing, then “turning everything on” leads to very high levels of RFD, which may enhance power production nicely. But again, every lift has its advantages and disadvantages. While there aren’t any training studies to my knowledge comparing the transfer of training of different types of full ROM squats, I suspect that the effects would be very similar from one to the next. Therefore, you should go with the variation that feels safest and agrees most with your body. However, a deep squat, assuming that you can go there without buttwinking, might indeed induce neural improvements throughout the entire ROM – full ROM movements have been shown to increase muscle activation throughout the entire ROM, whereas partials do not.

  • Andy,

    If the quads are doing much, it’d likely be very trivial. I’ll defer to Bret on this one, though.

  • Dan

    Very cool article. For the goal of gaining total body strength, do you believe the hip thrust is the best alternative to the squat? My wife suffers from knee issues and is hesitant to squat heavy. Thanks!

  • Christian

    I injured my back at work a few months ago and hip thrusts without weights is one of the exercises I do as part of my rehab. I have learned more from fitness websites to rehab my lower back. I am wondering if I do hip thrusts with weights will it improve my back strength? It seems that MD’s and physical therapists just don’t know and just hand out medications.

  • Christian,

    It’s impossible to say without knowing more about your health history and how you move. I’ll defer to your physical therapist 100% on this one. Sorry!

  • Cyndi

    Good info. I’ve had several knee surgeries, ACL replaced, torn menisus and a lateral release. Needless to say, squats have been difficult for me. What amount of strain is placed on the knee during the hip thrust? Thanks!

  • Walter

    Hello eric and sorry about asking another injury question.

    Im also in rehab for a bad lower back (been out for a very long time)

    I do alot of core stuff that you and mr robertson has taught me.
    My question is that the only loaded bilateral lower body movements i can do are front squats and hip thrusts.
    Can i expect to get any balance issues from just doing these or am i good to go?

    My daily rehab consists of a bunch of movements inbolving my back and hammies, also i do bw rdl’s etc for endurance.

  • Hi Cyndi,

    There should be very little stress on the knee during hip thrusts, in most cases.

  • Walter,
    It’s really hard to say without evaluating you in person. I’d encourage you to collaborate with your physical therapist on this.

  • Dan,

    I’d probably go with deadlift variations over hip thrusts, if I had to pick – and assuming she can do those pain-free.

  • moss

    for glute hypertrophy, which is better: Hip Thrust or ATG paused Zercher Squat for multiple reps.

    Personally, I find that zerchers are better than HTs, and also doing BB supine glute squeezes with “a fast, dynamic impulse” (to quote Dalton Oliver) is so much better than the HT.

  • Moss,

    If I had to pick, I’d say the hip thrusts.

  • David

    Hey
    do I hip thrust on a squat day or on a deadlift day?


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