ABC (Ask Bret Contreras) – Glute, Ham, Quad Strength Ratios

Today I’m answering one of the most important questions I’ve ever been asked in the Strength & Conditioning realm. It’s from Mike, and is in reference to lower body strength ratios for structural balance.

Hey Bret, do use a glute to ham to quad strength ratio , like you always hear about when it comes to quad to hamstring strength ratio? -Mike

Hey Mike,

Great question! I think that this is one of the most important questions that I’ve ever been asked, and is something that I’ve thought long and hard about over the last couple of years. I’ve never been a big fan of hamstring : quadricep strength ratios. First, the ratio changes depending on the speed of execution and the type of contraction, which is often overlooked. And second, neither measure takes into account hip extension strength.

An athlete could “appear” healthy based on his or her quadricep : hamstring strength ratio which measures knee extension and knee flexion strength, yet they could have totally weak, atrophied, and/or dysfunctional glutes which would predispose them to spinal, patellofemoral, and anterior hip pain, not to mention ACL tears, hamstring strains, and groin strains. I could mention more potential injuries associated with weak glutes, as truly any synergist of hip extension, hip abduction, and hip external rotation would be at risk, as would any joint that had to compensate for lack of motion that should be provided by the gluteal engine and any link up or down the chain influenced by “serial distortion patterns” caused by said weak glutes.

As I’ve said in the past, “If you got no glutes, you got no game.”

The efficacy of the quad : ham ratio has been debated in the past. Holcomb et al. (2007) developed a more “functional ratio” which compared eccentric (lengthening) hamstring strength to concentric (shortening) quadricep strength, and proposed that a ratio of 1.0 or higher could reduce the likelihood of ACL injury.

However, to be honest I’ve never in my training or coaching career given a flying crap about these ratios. What I’ve always been concerned with is looking at whether an athlete exhibits quad dominant or hip dominant behavior in the weight room and on the field. While I outlined some of the behaviors in this Wannabebig article, basically I look at the lifter’s natural Biomechanical tendencies.

Today’s athletes, even one’s trained by strength coaches employing popular methods, are almost always still “quad dominant.” I almost always find myself “fixing” athlete’s quad-dominant tendencies. What’s ironic is that I do many of the things that today’s coaches mistakenly believe is dangerous.

I teach them how to sit back in a box squat and deadlift. I get rid of any anterior weight shifting. I replace trap bar deadlifting with straight bar deadlfting.  I prescribe tons of posterior chain work in the form of hip thrusts, back extensions, and glute ham raises. I’m not afraid to use machines such as the lever squat or reverse hyper pendulum. I train their posterior chains four times per week.

I teach them how to prevent valgus collapse (knee caving) and how to stabilize their femurs during unilateral lower body exercises. While frontal and transverse plane stability is extremely important, so is sagittal plane power. Rephrased in load vector terminology, they need to be able to prevent, decelerate, and produce torsional, lateromedial, axial, and anteroposterior movement with their glutes. I get them to really feel the glutes contracting powerfully during various movements.

Magically, any knee or back pain goes away. This fact is often overlooked by medical doctors and Physical therapists, and even many coaches: Being weak is dangerous! Weak glutes are the most dangerous risk-factor in all of athletics. Full range strength (more specifically glute strength) with good form cures many of the musculoskeletal problems that ail various athletes. I’ve “fixed” many athletes that doctors and PT’s couldn’t fix. This is because I’m better-versed in plain old strength training.

To help his back pain, my old trainer at Lifts had seen a doctor, a physical therapist, and a chiropractor…to no avail. He had been to the Emergency Room several times within a couple month period and was scheduled to have spinal surgery. I convinced him to let me train him, and within two weeks his back pain vanished and has never resurfaced. This was over 3 years ago and he still performs heavy squats and deadlifts week in, week out. This is truly a remarkable story and one that many of my colleagues can relate to. Almost all of my strength coach friends and personal trainer friends who are savvy in developing posterior chain strength have similar stories.

When I wrote my glute eBook a year and a half ago, I suggested that one should be able to hip thrust more than they can squat, and deadlift more than they can hip thrust. Obviously this applies to raw lifting as geared lifting gives the squat a tremendous advantage due to the elastic recoil in the squat suits and briefs.

Since then I’ve changed my mind. I now believe that all athletes should be able to hip thrust as much or more than they can deadlift, and deadlift more than they can full squat.

The three lifts involved in my “screen” – the full squat, deadlift, and hip thrust, all take into account hip extension strength, but they’re different lifts. The full squat is an axial-loaded, quad dominant hip extension exercise that involves significant knee extension. The deadlift is an axial-loaded, hamstring dominant hip extension exercise that doesn’t involve as much knee extension. And the hip thrust is an anteroposterior-loaded, glute dominant exercise that keeps the knee bent.

Basically, the posterior chain needs to be stronger than the quads, the glutes and hamstrings need to be functioning properly, and good form needs to be utilized on all three lifts. This means balanced load-distribution between the hips and knees during squatting and deadlifting, and controlling the weight all the way into locking out of the hip thrust.

To give you an example, my client Steve can hip thrust 625 lbs, sumo deadlift 500 lbs, and full squat 385 lbs. Right now I’m able to hip thrust 565 lbs, sumo deadlift 565 lbs, and full squat 345 lbs.  Shorter guys will typically hip thrust, deadlift, and squat a similar amount of weight, as they’re often better at squatting yet worse at deadlifting and hip thrusting. A shorter athlete might hip thrust 405 lbs, deadlift 405 lbs, and squat 405 lbs. I’ve found that the longer I train athletes, the stronger their posterior chains become and a larger gap forms between posterior chain and quad strength. I should also mention that I prefer the conventional deadlift to the sumo deadlift for most athletes.

Some strength coaches haven’t yet caught on to the hip thrust. Others do them but don’t go heavy enough. I can tell you that just this year alone three of my clients who suffered from back pain when they came to me saw complete elimination of pain after two months on my system. I can also tell you that every client I’ve trained in the past four years (probably 300 clients) has become very proficient in hip thrusting, and no one has ever hurt themselves by performing the movement. I’ve had 60 year old ladies doing 95 lb hip thrusts for 2 sets of 10 reps.

I believe that this rule (along with good lifting mechanics on all lifts) is the secret or “Holy Grail” to knee, spine, and hip health and should be a golden rule in the strength & conditioning profession. I hope that the day comes soon where more coaches hop on board. This rule maximizes structural balance and injury prevention and allows for the development of maximum performance, which all athletes deserve.

25 Comments

  • Tom McDonald says:

    Thanks for being the Glute Guy Bret, I am 50 years old and the hip thrust remedied my back problem, I never feel better than when I hip thrust.People in my gym are floored with how much weight I use but I tell them, until you try it you will not know just how strong you can get from this exercise. I even had one guy ask if I had meant to do that(hip thrust).He thought it was an aborted attempt at something else.

    Thanks for all your posts, it has helped me be a trainer with a difference. an important difference.

    Tom McDonald

    • Bret says:

      Haha! I can definitely relate Tom. Thanks for the post and the gratitude. I’m very thankful for trainers like you who listen to what I have to say and test it out for yourselves to see if it’s worthwhile.

  • Cory says:

    Bret,

    I recently pulled my hamstring while sprinting playing basketball. Not a real bad pull. Only hurts when doing movements such as stiff leg deadlifts. Leg Curls don’t bother it.

    I pulled it really badly about six years ago before I started weight training consistently. With all of the squatting, deadlifting, etc that I do, I figured my hamstrings were bulletproof. What would you recommend that I do to make my hammies “bulletproof”?

    I currently deadlift 450 and squat 350. I don’t hip thrust. Maybe I should start?

    • Bret says:

      Cory – start hip thrusting! You need to make your glutes more active while lifting.

      My buddy Jurdan knows a ton about the hamstrings and he’ll be the first to tell you that hamstring injuries are caused from a myriad of factors. Can be mobility, stability, motor control, anatomical, and strength related. However, my guess is that right now your hamstring is making up for a lack of glute strength, and that by doing the hip thrust you will fix this issue. You’ve got lots of muscles that can extend the hip, but none of them are as large as the gluteus maximus. Learn to maximize your glute power and your hammies will thank you.

      Of course, I could be wrong. Since I’m unable to see you in person, I’m just guessing. Hope that helps!

  • Sebastian says:

    You are a beast!

    I am very grateful with your work.

  • Jesse says:

    Hey Bret, interesting post as always! Question for you, how would you suggest programming in hip thrusts with deadlifts and squats in order to see all around improvement? I’ve tried hip thrusts several times, and worked up to 225 after several sessions, but I’m not sure how to incorporate them. Use them as a main lift as well? Thanks for all of the great information!

    • Bret says:

      Jesse – the big 3 lower body lifts are squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts.

      Usually I squat, then deadlift, then hip thrust. Occasionally I deadlift first and then usually follow it up with front squats and then hip thrusts. Sometimes I do hip thrusts on its own day as a stand alone lower body exercise if I’m feeling beat up.

      There are rules, but then there aren’t really any rules. I hope that makes sense.

  • Kane says:

    Great article! I use the hip thrust with many of my athletes and it is getting great results. I was just wondering why you prefer the conventional DL to the sumo for athletes? I generally use the sumo (or slightly elevated conventional DL) but I work with basketball players. I find this position much safer for them since they generally have long legs and limited hip mobility. Just wondering what your thoughts were on this.

    • Bret says:

      Great question Kane! There are definitely people who do better with sumo pulling. And when training basketball players, there’s even more concern for lumbar loading. Since sumo pulling reduces loading on the lumbar spine, and since taller athletes have more issues with their lumbar spine (and find sumo form easier) than shorter athletes, I would defintely go this route with basketball players. In general I prefer conventional for two reasons: First, it’s more hamstring dominant and less quadricep dominant (and since I like squats I want the deadlift to “balance out” the squat. Second, a narrower stance is more “sport specific,” meaning that when athletes jump and run their legs are usually close together (not super wide as in a sumo stance). That said, the sumo might be good in this regard as it strengthens the hip abductors and external rotators more than the conventional version, wo really I could make a strong case either way.

      • Nick Horton says:

        There really are good cases to be made for both. Usually, I have an athlete do which ever version is more “natural” to them. Basically, if their low back is an issue, it’s sumo

  • Kashka says:

    Interesting read. I’m still somewhat a novice, but lately my squat has been catching up on my deadlift. Mainly because I got small hands and my grip is weak, I can’t hold anything more than 275.

    • Bret says:

      Kashka – I suffer from WGS (weak grip syndrome) too. 🙂

      When I train at the local commercial gym, I can only hold onto around 475. The bar is smooth, I can’t use chalk, etc.

      However, in my garage gym, I have a Texas power bar, with deep knurls, and I use tons of chalk. Also, a mixed grip is essential for heavy deadlifting.

      When I combine these factors, I’m able to pull 565, which is 90 lbs more than I’m able to do at the local gym.

      This is one of the many reasons why I love garage gyms (I had a deadlift lever, good barbell, a chalk bin, and loud music – perfect deadlifting scenario).

      Don’t let your grip limit your deadlift. Train the grip with farmer’s walks, weighted static hangs, one arm rows, etc. Get in the habit of holding onto the bar at the top for several extra seconds when you deadlift to strengthen the grip too.

      Worst case scenario – wear wrist straps. Don’t deadlift less just because of your grip. Your deadlift should always be much stronger than your squat.

      Also, make sure you’re squatting deep. Many people who say this do quarter squats. Quarter squats are fine, as long as you also full squat (or at least parallel squat).

      -Bret

  • Hanna says:

    Bret. In regards to the ABC posts. I had suggested a topic months ago… that I always feel the burn in my quads and never in my glutes no matter how much I focus on technique. I feel a burn in my glutes only when I do hip-thrusts, never ever with squats or lunges, not during, not after. If the glutes are simply being lazy, what is the best way to wake them up? Is there anything one can do to activate them? No matter how much I squeeze during a squat or a lunge, its definitely my quads that do the work. Maybe there could also be a note about technique, how wide and low one should squat for ultimate glute activation, and whether it’s safe. Thank you, you’re the best!

    • Bret says:

      Hey Hanna,

      I wrote down your question and even answered it, but I wanted to put that info in my upcoming glute eBook. However, I’ve been so swamped I haven’t been able to work on it as much as I wanted to. Clearing out my house for the move to NZ has been crazy! One of these days you’ll get your answer. Sorry!!!

      Bret

      • Joanne says:

        So glad Hanna has asked this! I’m searching the web wondering why my legs burn so bad on lunges, but only quads. I know I need to get my brain into my glutes – it’s been a journey to rehab and reactivate my glutes – which works for squats & deadlifts. Lunges just defeat me. Same thing with a step up. Bridges & hip-thrusts are fine. Help us, Glute Guy..(when you have a minute!)

      • Hanna says:

        No worries, I totally understand, I’m sure your plate is full. Take your time. I will be looking out for the new e-book. I remember you telling me that I need squats and lunges too for ultimate glute-growth, I just can’t get them to work for me (no matter the technique). Right now my quads do all the work when I do squats or lunges, and I don’t want my quads to grow larger than my glutes (just my preference). The hip-thrust is the only move where I can clearly feel a burn (once I’ve done alot of reps). Also, I have always wondered what all these moves really do for the glutes… make them grow… make them shrink.. re-shape them… I’m one of those girls who is not looking for a smaller butt if you know what I mean. 🙂 I’m positive there is a good amount of women who are looking for a rounder butt, not a smaller one…. Again, take all the time you need, I will check in periodically to see if the new ebook is in.

  • Nick Horton says:

    Great post as usual, Brett! I agree with you points about the outdated-ness of the quad-ham ratios. And using exercise ratios instead does make more sense.

    I’m one of those coaches who has not yet taken the hip thrust up to the heavy weights yet. I finally got around to buying the Hampton Bar pad! So, that’s about to change.

    My problem has been this … programing it for the Oly lifter. I’m already squatting and snatching and clean and jerking 6 days a week each! So, I’m considering just dropping the squats on 1 or 2 days and replacing it with heavy doubles or triples on the hip thrust to give it go (my goal is to find out it’s applications to Oly lifters who need big butts).

    Any suggestions for me and my guys who are rather Bulgarian?

  • joseph dees says:

    hey bro i was a wanna be body builder with anterior pelvic tilt short hard dominant quads, hip flexors and psoas and mushy weak glutes from doing to much weight angd not working thru full range of motion and doing only leg press i have mechanical low back pain and im twenty with no mri arthritis please give me some tips from nashvill tn thanks bro ive been stretching my tight hip flexors but my glutes are so weak and quads are so strong

    • Bret says:

      Joseph – 3 things. First, keep stretching the hip flexors and doing mobility drills for them. Second, do hip thrusts! And third, watch the Youtube Instructional Videos I’ve posted (I put all of them up ona blog right around the beginning of the year so you should be able to find it easily. This will teach you to use your glutes during all exercises.

  • Missy says:

    In reference to your “balanced squat,” would you consider that an Olympic style back squat? Also, with the Olympic style squat, the knees do go over the toes, so there is tibial glide during the movement. Does this stress the ACL?

    • Bret says:

      Hey Missy, yes the Olympic squat is a balanced squat. You have perfect balance between hip and knee joints, as long as you do it right. Tommy Kono used to teach it in a very quad dominant fashion, letting the knees jut out as far as possible. In this instance it’s more of a quad-dominant squat. If you just plop down and let the hips sink in between the knees then it’s fine, and it does not overstress the ACL joint. -Bret

  • Cara Hall says:

    Hi Bret,

    Very interesting article!

    We looking for the average isometric strength of the glutes comparatively to the hamstrings. We use the Primus RS to evaluate muscle weakness and would like a baseline figure to work with.

    We share your views and hope you can help. 🙂

  • Bossk says:

    Hi Brett,

    Thanks again for the great article. Since another 4 years have passed and you obviously learned much more and got more experience. Do you think there are “optimal ratios” between the lifts you mentioned in the article? I mean does it make sense for example for athletic endeavors to hip thrust 100 lbs more than you can deadlift?

    Thanks,
    bossk

  • Charlie says:

    Hip thrusts are the weakest of the three lifts for me.

    Should I do a max hip thrust, pick a lighter weight and do weighted good mornings for endurance, and a lighter weight and do squat cleans as a superset circuit as I work on building up hip thrust strength or work squats and deadlifts at max?

  • Enzo says:

    Hi Bret, do you know what could be the quads to hams ratio for bulgarian split squat and for step-up? I found on a website these references for the ratio of peak knee moment to peak hip :

    – Sumo Deadlift 1:1;
    – Trap Bar Deadlift 1:1.78;
    – Standard Deadlift 1:3.68.

    Thanks

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