Have you ever heard from your coach “powerful glute muscles make for a strong, powerful athlete”? According to the experts this couldn’t be more true since weak glutes are associated with tight hip flexors, overactive hamstrings, knee pain, lower back pain, and poor range of motion. This basically means that strong glutes are important for proper pelvic alignment, drive during walking and running, and even standing on one leg. Glute muscles also help support the lower back during lifting, and help prevent knee injuries. So yes, we need strong and powerful glutes to perform better in our everyday life as well as in the gym, and also to look better!
What are the most effective glute exercises, you ask?
For athletic performance, coaches and athletes seem to agree with the following: barbell hip thrust, weighted squats and deadlifts, lunges and glute bridge. The two more frequently prescribed exercises for strengthening the gluteal muscles are the barbell hip thrust and the back squat. However, among weightlifters and powerlifters the one that is always on the top is the hip thrust, known for developing stronger lifts, bolster power, and more muscle.
In 2015, the Journal of Applied Biomechanics conducted a study with thirteen trained women to compare muscle activity when performing 10 max reps of back squats and barbell hip thrusts. The results showed that barbell hip thrusts activate the gluteus maximus and biceps femoris (part of the hamstrings muscle group) to a greater degree than barbell back squats. In addition, it was shown that if you are seeking to maximize your glute muscle mass development you should incorporate barbell hip thrusts into your workout routine. So, hip thrusts can maximize your muscle strength and give you a nicely shaped booty faster? Perfectly splendid!
Taking practitioners’ and researchers’ point of view, we grew curious about the glorious hip thrust and wanted to dig deeper on how the muscle activation works, the muscles that are engaged and the specific benefits of this movement.
Hip Thrusts vs. Glute Bridge
For the hip thrust you need your back to be resting on a bench or any padded elevated surface, this increases the exercise range of motion. Normally, athletes use a barbell crossed over of their hips, elastic resistance bands, or a combination of the two to build glute strength, hip drive and glute growth.
Glute bridges are performed off the floor with the back on the ground and therefore involve a shorter range of motion. It has similar levels of gluteal and hamstring activation but lower levels of quadriceps activation than the hip thrust.
Both are effective exercises, your choice will depend on your goals, fitness levels, and body mobility.
How to do a Hip Thrust ?
The hip thrust is a quite simple exercise. However, if you are new to this movement, we suggest starting with bodyweight hip thrust and build from there to dumbbell hip thrust or barbell hip thrusts.
This isn’t to say that hip thrusts are for every body. If you have lower back or knees issues, or simply you don’t feel comfortable doing hip thrusts and are wondering what hip thrust variations you should try. Take a look at this article and hopefully you will find alternative workouts of hip thrusts that suit you.
Classic Hip Thrust Technique:
- Starting position: Sit down on the floor with your back facing a workout bench.
- Rest your back against the edge of the bench at the level of your shoulder blades.
- Place your feet shoulder width apart, bend your knees and keep feet flat on the ground
- Push firmly through the heels, keep knees pointing out and bring your hips up until they are fully extended
- Be sure that your knees are at 90 degrees when you are at the top of the thrust.
- Slightly tilt your pelvis inwards, keep your ribs down and chin tucked.
- Pause at the top for a couple of seconds always squeezing the glutes
- Take deep breath in when going up and long breath out when coming down and don’t forget to keep your core tight before each lift.
It’s important to warm up your body before performing hip thrusts. You can start with a combination of air squats, lunges, and light deadlifts to target your entire lower body.
Hip Thrust Form
To master your form with hip thrusts, there are a few tips we would like to share with you. Luckily, they’re easy to follow and, with minor adjustments, you will be safe to do them without getting hurt and maybe go from body weight to a loaded barbell.
1. Foot placement
The distance between your feet and the bench should be enough to ensure that when you are on top of the thrust, your knees are at 90 degrees and your shins are vertical. If your feet are too close from the bench, you’ll engage your quads and not fully your glute muscles, while if they’re too far away, you’ll feel it in your hamstrings.
2. Foot flat on the ground
Keeping your feet flat on the ground will help you push through the heels instead of through the balls of your feet. This allows for muscle activation in the glutes and hamstrings and not from the quadriceps. Some people even raise their toes off the ground to make sure they are engaging the right muscles.
3. Knees out
When you are with the knees bent at the top, don’t let them turn inward, push them out by squeezing your glutes so that your thighs are in line with the feet. Keeping the knees out increases glute activation and is healthier for the knee joints.
4. Slightly tilted pelvis at the top
In order to protect the spine, it is recommended that the lower back be in a neutral range or slightly flexed and the crease of your hips raised (posterior pelvis tilted) at the top of the hip thrust. The neck is a prolongation of the spine, so don’t forget to hold a forward flexed neck position (chin tucked) throughout the duration of the set of hip thrusts. This will reduce the chances of lower back soreness.
5. Brief pause at the top
Squeezing your glutes while holding before descending increases time under tension and the control you have over your body. Breath deeply while holding.
Muscles Worked in Hip Thrust
As mentioned before, the hip thrust primarily focuses on the gluteal muscles. These are known as the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. However, during this movement you also work your hamstrings, hip adductors, and hip flexors. Plus, in a lower degree you also work your quads and abs.
The gluteus maximus is the biggest and most important of the gluteal muscles. It’s actually one of the strongest muscles in the body, working alongside the other glute muscles to stabilize the pelvis and participate in hip rotation. If the pelvis is unstable then it will place a lot of stress on the hip joints, sacroiliac joints, lumbar facet joints and the discs. The gluteus maximus plays a principal role not only in the abduction and lateral rotation of the hips, but also in hip extension, which pulls the leg backward.
The gluteus medius is (unsurprisingly) the middle-sized gluteal muscle, and it’s located between the gluteus minimus and gluteus maximus. It is a principal mover in hip abduction, lateral rotation, and medial rotation. What’s more, it maintains the side-to-side stability of the pelvis, aiding the gluteus minimus in keeping the pelvis properly aligned during movement and single-leg balancing. Instability in the hips, especially the gluteus medius muscles, will also affect the knee.
The gluteus minimus is the smallest and deepest of the gluteal muscles. Its job is to abduct the thigh and stabilize the hips/pelvis during walking, running, or standing on one leg. In addition, its anterior portion provides internal rotation to the thigh, while its posterior portion provides external rotation to the thigh.
The hamstrings (semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and long head of the biceps femoris) are a group of biarticular muscles that cross both the knee and the hip joints. Because the hamstring muscles are shortened when doing hip thrusts (during knee flexion), their capacity for producing force is reduced and consequently, the contractile activity of the gluteus maximus musculature is increased.
The adductors are exceptional hip extensors, particularly in deep hip flexion which is the case for the hip thrust. The adductor magnus is a powerful hip extensor and it contributes significantly to the hip extension torque production during the hip thrust.
Using the abdominals in addition to the glutes during hip extension increases glute activation. Think about it, when you are in a plank position you are squeezing your glutes and tilting your pelvis inwards immediately you feel your abs engaged and activated. The glutes and abdominals are linked via a “force couple”. Even more, the abs could be seen as a hip hyper extensor since they help in pelvic tilt.
When we do hip thrusts our knees remain bent throughout the movement and the hips are extending. This deactivates the hamstrings leaving most to hip extension coming from the glutes. This helps build power, enhances performance in movements that require a strong hip drive, such as cleans and snatches, while also improving stability through your hips and core.
Besides the athletic benefits of doing hip thrusts mentioned in this article, having strong glutes also reduces the risk of certain injuries and improves balance and posture. In combination with a strong core, the increased pelvic drive and stability product of strong glutes can help reduce the risk of a range of lower body injuries, such as hamstring strains, “runner’s knee,” and shin splints.
As with everything in life, overuse is something to pay attention to. In this case, overuse and/or poor control of the glute muscles can cause gluteal tendinopathy. This means that the tendons of the gluteal muscle mass, especially the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius, can develop tiny microtears causing tendon pain. This type of overuse injury is often caused by poor control of the hip and gluteal muscles, which ends up putting unnecessary stress on the tendons. Be mindful of the loads and reps your body can take. If you feel yourself struggling and your form breaking down, then reduce the load you’re using.
Giuliana is a yoga instructor and Crossfitter from Peru who is currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand with her Crossfit Coach (and husband) Tim.