Today’s Ask-Bret-Contreras question was forwarded to me from my friend Marianne; a fellow trainer from Ireland. Marianne felt that I’d be better suited to answer this question than her. While I probably have more biomechanics knowledge about this exercise, she definitely has the greater booty! Check it out below. She also has a much better accent than me, but I digress.
Hi Marianne, ready for one of my technical questions? I was discussing with my trainer this morning and told him that I wanted to do single-leg hip thrusts the way you demonstrate them in this video (elevated shoulder and elevated foot, on the bench). He was telling me that by doing the single-leg hip thrusts on the floor I could obtain exactly the same results. Do you agree? (I don’t, but I would like to hear your opinion). Thanks, Bianca
Hey Bianca, you show great instincts by wanting a second opinion regarding this topic. Here is my answer:
1. Proficiency in the single leg glute bridge and bilateral hip thrust should be reached before progressing to the single leg hip thrust. If you progress too quickly and jump ahead to single leg hip thrusts when you haven’t built up a base of strength on easier variations, tissues in the lumbar spine, sacroiliac joint, or anterior hips could be irritated because your form will be compromised as you try to fling and contort your body to conduct the lift. You must be able to control your body through a full ROM, which means that the tempo is smooth and the body stays in the sagittal plane, with no compensatory movement in the frontal and transverse planes. The single leg hip thrust is an advanced exercise and is not suitable for 80% of beginners. Athletes are exceptions to the rule, but even many of them aren’t able to properly perform single leg hip thrusts until they’ve gained strength and coordination from single leg glute bridges and barbell hip thrusts.
2. Range of motion increases by 250% when you elevate both the shoulders and the feet. Think about it like this. If I started doing bodyweight squats and push ups, but I only went a third of the way down, I could probably get a hundred reps of both lifts. But I wouldn’t be getting a stretch in any muscle, I wouldn’t be strenthening the initial ranges (only the end ranges), and I’d be using mostly my quads in the squat and my triceps in the push up. On the same line of reasoning, if I wanted to do bodyweight glute bridges, I could probably bust out 200-300 reps. But I’d be focusing on end range strength, the hamstrings wouldn’t receive a stretch, and I’d be using mostly the glutes.
Initial range hip extension involves a higher proportion of hamstring and adductor magnus contribution (as well as other adductors and the posterior fibers of the gluteus medius and minimus), while end range hip extension involves a higher proportion of gluteus maximus contribution. When full range of motion is used, suddenly the exercises become much more challenging. Switching from bodyweight partial squats to bodyweight full squats and from bodyweight partial push ups to bodyweight full range push ups, I’d probably struggle to get 50 reps in a row without stopping. And switching from bodyweight glute bridges to bodyweight hip thrusts… well…I actually know how many I can get. Back when I owned my training studio Lifts, one of my trainers challenged me to see if I could get 100 bodyweight hip thrusts off the Skorcher, a machine I invented that is similar to a shoulder and elevated hip thrust but let’s you use barbell and/or band resistance. I ended up getting 100 reps (he beat me and got 110 reps), but my glutes and adductor magnus were crippled for three to four days due to the fact that my muscular tissues weren’t accustomed to that rep range. I certainly won’t be doing that again anytime soon!
I could probably perform 50 single leg glute bridges, but I’ve “repped out” before on single leg hip thrusts and 20 reps absolutely destroys me. Based on my experience, highly fit individuals can often perform over 30 repetitions of single leg glute bridges but only 10-15 repetitions of single leg hip thrusts (done properly where the body is controlled through a complete ROM and no lateral or rotational energy is leaked).
3. Due to the fact that full range bodyweight lifts are more difficult than partial range bodyweight lifts, they allow most individuals (especially beginners, heavier individuals, and people who aren’t that fit) to stay in more suitable rep ranges for strength, power, and hypertrophy rather than muscular endurance.
4. Muscle activation is far higher for the hamstrings and higher for the glutes in a single leg hip thrust compared to a single leg glute bridge, due to the increased ROM and increased stability demands. For example, a foot elevated single leg glute bridge and single leg glute bridge may get one’s glute activation up to 30% of MVC, whereas a shoulder elevated single leg glute bridge might bring glute activation up to 35% of MVC. But when you elevate both the shoulders and feet, now activation levels of 40% of MVC might be reached. Everyone is different regarding muscle activation, but in general elevating the feet increases hamstring activity, while elevating the shoulders increases quad activity. Elevating both the shoulders and the feet is definitely the most difficult variation, especially if you perform the “bottoms up” method shown below where you touch your butt to the ground.
5. The increased functional demands of the single leg hip thrust lead to excellent rotary stability and full range hip extension strength, which carries over to other lower body activities. The same cannot be said of the single leg glute bridge, which doesn’t challenge the rotary stability system as much and doesn’t move the hips through deep levels of hip flexion. For sports that require speed and power, full range hip extension strength is critical, which makes the single leg hip thrust a much better choice over the single leg glute bridge.
6. My guess is that the trainer has never performed the movements himself and he’s too naive to realize that the increased ROM makes the exercise much more challenging. Many times I’ve been guilty of making assumptions about exercises, only to find out that I was wrong when I finally got around to performing the exercise for the first time. This is why it’s so important for trainers to experiment and stay in good shape, so they can evaluate new exercises, methods, and programs. It’s also why trainers and coaches should not make assumptions!
I hope that answers your question! -BC
Bret – I’m curious if you’ve tried a Cook hip lift version of the single leg hip thrust? I haven’t been using hip thrusts with my clients, truthfully because I forgot about them as I have only recently had multiple benches to be able to do them. But whenever I see them, it looks to me like they finish with back extension in addition to hip extension. But maybe if it was coached to be done with the other knee brought near the chest toward the top, then this could be prevented. Just a thought. Think I’ll try it tomorrow.
Hey Elsbeth! Great to hear from you. To be honest, I do not like the Cook hip lift or Tumminello superdog (though I think Cook and Tumminello are both brilliant). The reason why is that it doesn’t feel natural. I can’t get full hip extension when I do it. I realize that the point is to get people to move solely at the hips and separate hip ext from lumbar ext, but at the end of the day you’re going to have to teach them that anyway when they resume to regular bridging. In other words, I don’t think that people automatically learn to bridge properly from those movements.
Then there’s the topic of whether or not their spines are extending and whether the movement is creating “insults” to the spine. In a perfect world I’d have sensors so I could measure the lumbar kinematics, but all I can do is eyeball it and/or place my hand on the low back to feel if it’s moving.
If there is excessive movement, then I regress and correct it. Here are some cues I use:
-feel it in the glutes up top
-squeeze the glutes up top
-brace the abs
-lock the spine and move at the hips
-don’t arch your back
I think that more research needs to be done on glute strength and back pain, because everyone I train tells me that their backs have never felt better. This year my clients Steve, Karli, and Susan all told me that during the same week.
And I haven’t had a client suffer a back injury or low back pain in a very long time. So whatever I’m doing, it seems to be working. This makes me doubt whether any noticeable insults/damage to the spine are occuring, and wonder whether some slight extension is good for the spine every once in a while (without going to end range). I wonder the same thing about slight flexion here and there.
Anyway, try it and let me know. See if it feels natural. My guess is that you won’t like it, but obviously I could be wrong.
Interesting. I do like them as well as the superdogs, so there you go! But I do think their place is limited. I now use them in the warmup for the first program where I may have the single-leg shoulder elevated hip lift as a hip-dominant strength exercise. As they get a little stronger, I ditch the Cook hip lift and move the shoulder elevated SL hip lift to the movement prep and progress to more easily-loaded hip-dominant exercises (deadlifts and such).
I’m not convinced about allowing a bit of extension. Maybe it’s that I see a lot of people who already have too much anterior pelvic tilt which seems to go hand-in-hand with a pretty sizeable hinge in their lumbar spine, which often means they are already tending toward too much movement there. I prefer to limit/stabilize it, which I think the leg-lock does. I do suspect that your natural cueing of the leg up has the same result though – even if it is for a different reason.
Bret – can you shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org)? I have a theory that I would love to run past you about battling rectus’s. 🙂
Elsbeth, another thing to consider is that I tested the EMG activity of strict pendulum quadruped hip extensions vs. more natural pqhe’s with a bit of lumbar extension. The latter got much higher glute activation. I’m not sure if it’s natural to move solely at the hips and not at the spine when extending. I realize that there are dangers to the posterior elements, I’ve read Stu’s books and his articles on spinal extension, and I don’t intend to throw caution into the wind. It’s just that in 4 1/2 years of programming these movements, no one has ever hurt their backs, and conversely everyone says their backs have never felt better. So I believe that there is definitely something to full range glute strength in protecting the spine, and I think that I may just be really good at knowing how much motion is acceptable vs. how much motion is not.
Great thougths though! Here’s my email: email@example.com. Looking forward to your theory.
I tried this version with a client today who had been doing weighted single leg shoulder elevated hip lifts for a couple of weeks. His comment about half-way through the set: “You’re cruel, trainer girl”.
Follow up – I just re-watched the video above and it actually looks pretty good on back extension. So were you cueing the other knee to stay up?
I actually wasn’t training Marianne – she’s in Ireland. I do cue the other knee to stay up as most people feel more comfortable that way as opposed to keeping the leg straight.
I’ve started using hip thrusts with my clients now as a follow on from glute bridges etc. Most clients begin by saying they feel it in the hamstrings more than the glutes. I move the foot away and raise onto the heel until this is resolved and slowly progress the foot back towards the glute. This seems to take a long time and was wondering if this is normal or if there were any cues, regressions/progressions I could try.
Great article again buddy , thanks
I’d be very interested to hear the reply to this. My right side glut has good activation on one leg glute bridges but in comparison, my left is almost totally inactive. Could you suggest a progression to get my left on par with my right? I’m reluctant to progress my glute exercises using bilateral exercises until my asymmetry is corrected so any suggestions would be brilliant. Absolutely love reading your blog by the way i check multiple times a day to see any updates! Thanks.
George, read this: http://bretcontreras.com/2011/03/abc-glute-imbalance/
Start off with prone static holds for the weak side, then move to short range oscillations, them move to dynamic movements with a scewed volume toward the weak side.
sorry to sound like an idiot but could you explain what you mean by prone static holds? By short range oscillations would you mean oscillations of those static holds? your answer is greatly appreciated this has been hindering me for years! Thanks bret, George.
George – sorry for being overly geeky/technical. Prone means lying on your stomach. Static means isometric (don’t move). Just flex the glute of the weak leg as hard as you can. Maybe ten sets of ten seconds with 30 seconds of rest in between sets. Then you can start hyperextending the hip slightly in a short range movement (oscillations). Always make sure the glute is contracting very hard. Stick with these methods for a few weeks, doing them every single day several times per day. After this time, start using more motion and moving on to exercises like single leg glute bridges, high step ups, etc. Just focus on the weaker limb. Also make sure your core is stable and that your hips are mobile, and that you have no asymmetries. You should be able to fix your problem in time.
Dan, I always start with glute briges, as nearly all clients can feel the glutes working from that position. When they’ve mastered that, then it’s time to move on to hip thrusts. Raising onto the heels can make some feel it more in hammies and less in glutes. For this reason Stuart McGill recommends to push through front of the foot to turn off some hammie. You’ll get more quad but possibly more glute too. So dorsiflexing can help some (especially those who feel it in quads), but not all. In general, the further out the feet, the more hammie, and the closer toward the butt, the more glute. Hope that helps! -Bret
McGill’s idea is to push toes forward as though doing a leg extension. This is to prevent activating the hamstrings first to do hip extension, or to start off with a posterior pelvic tilt to activate the glutes. He actually demonstrated this technique on me at a conference and had me help him with it at another conference years ago. My cue for people is to push their knee away from their hip.
People who use their hamstrings too much will often get a hamstring cramp when trying to do bent 1-leg bridging or hip thrusting. You might see this if someone’s head/shoulders are on a stability ball and they are trying do a well-controlled single-leg bridge. Because of the biarticulate attachments of the hamstrings, their active insufficiency creates this situation. I tell people to work on squeezing their butts and telling their hamstrings to STOP–mental attention to recruiting the proper muscles is the essence of motor learning.
Great article: I’ll need to try more of the single-leg stuff on my own left side to help get it working for my Weight Over Bar and Caber.
Teresa, I like how McGill’s idea of a glute bridge should be that you barely contract the hammies and get all the hip ext from the glutes. Obviously during heavy barbell bridges you want everything helping out (glutes, hammies, adductor magnus, etc.). But I like to have people who feel it in their quads too much dorsiflex and people who feel it in their hammies too much push through feet and think “push away,” like you mentioned. Good stuff!
In McGill’s demos I’ve helped at, it is amazing to see how many people fire hamstrings first. At NSCA Annual Meeting session, studly, muscular,athletic guys or not: didn’t seem to matter. Person may have to actually palpate hamstrings to get feedback enough to try to avoid firing them before glutes.
that’s great thanks for that mate.
I’m a fan of hip thrusts, but not of glute bridge. I don’t recommend glute bridges to people with history injuries of neck. Especially, I don’t like that neck flexion with loaded glute bridges. However, if perfect technique is used in hip thrusts with progressive overload, I don’t see any danger. Viva hip thrusts.
Sebastion, I’ve received a question in the past asking about the neck in relation to glute bridges. I’ve never had a client experience any neck issues and I’ve been prescribing them for 4 1/2 years. In addition, I’ve never had anyone email me saying that they hurt their neck. Have you seen anyone experience neck issues? Viva la thrusta! I appreciate the thoughts. -Bret
Yeah, some discomfort or the sound that happens in your bones like when a chiropractic does manipulation.
I have the honour of being a follower both of your blog and of Marianne’s blog (actually, I was the person who asked this question on her blog).
So thanks for this brilliant reply. And thanks also to Marianne for forwarding my question to you.
Hope you are having a great time in New Zealand.
I was wondering if that was the same Bianca!!! Great question.
This was an interesting question and a very thorough and informative answer!
Hi Bret. Love the blog!
Have you done a post on what the appropriate progressions are? I presume you start with bridges, move to single leg bridges and from there to thrusts but when do you add weight?
Also, do you think that repetitive calf strains could be attributed to weak glutes?
Michael, I started working on a comprehensive progression scheme for all exercises…squats, deads, bridges, etc. last week. But yes, first you go with bw glute bridges and quadruped hip ext, then bw hip thrusts and bb glute bridges, then bb hip thrusts and sl glute bridges, finally sl hip thrusts.
Thanks for laying out the progression. My question is when to progress to the next level? Is it after you can do so many reps. and sets? And what would that be? I’m not a body builder I’m a classically trained musician who has been sitting a lot through college and rehearsals. I’ve been told I have anterior pelvic tilt and miss firing of the glutes. So I’ve been doing bridges and quadruped h. ext. I still have lower back pain and and sore hammies. Maybe I’m not doing them correctly. Leg extensions have not helped after months of those so I stopped that. I’ve also been told I have over-all tightness of muscles and fascia of the lower back. So have you had success with clients of this nature?
You have become my Guru in all things fitness!
Because of neck issues I can only work my lower body and have been focusing on your training methods for 2 months now. I can do bridges and have started to increase weight but find that thrusts seem to aggravate my neck pain. I am leaning on a couch-any idea as to my increased pain? I have seen major improvement in my glutes that 24 years of workouts never gave me. Thank YOU! Gi
I just wanted to say how much I like hip thrusts. It’s a life saver. I found your blog when I was searching for some exercises for my mother. She has mild degree hip arthritis, low back problems, poor knee mobility and general dislike for any kind of physical activity. Hip thrusts are one of the few exercises that she enjoys doing: no low back stress, no knee stress, and it’s really easy to learn. And after three months of hip thrusting arthritis doesn’t bother her so much. She stopped taking pain medication. Great exercise!
But I cannot say the same about single leg hip thrusts. They are somewhat painful on the affected leg. And for some reason I also have similar issue, though my joints are still mostly healthy. I can do about 2-3 reps on my left leg, then the pain starts. Maybe it’s because sl hip thrusts aren’t stable enough? I don’t know if you encountered this particular problem, but I think you should mention it somewhere that sl hip thrusts aren’t always ok for people with hip joint problems.
Hey Anna, healthy people can work up to single leg hip thrusts and not exhibit any pain. The problem is that people progress too quickly and jump into the slht when they don’t have optimal rotary stability and full range hip strength. If you back off and work up appropriately, I believe that you could do slht’s and not have pain. As for your mother, I agree – individuals with hip joint issues would find this exercise (and many others) problematic and should stay away from them if they find them painful. -Bret
Not sure if im asking this in the right place. On the topic of single leg work, as a judo fighter, i do a lot of split squats. I’ve found its helped balance out overall strength in lifts. I recently read a study that claims you should only do split squats with the rear leg only slightly raised (approx 4″) rather than up on a bench, as the bench forces the lumbar into “extreme” hyper extension. I havent experienced any pains, and with my leg raised higher i do get a better hip extension. What are your thoughts on this?
Antonio, I think I remember reading what you’re talking about, and it wasn’t a study, it was a coaches’ blog (If we’re talking about the same article).
This is a great point to bring up, as it’s definitely something you want to be aware of, but in truth it depends on the flexibility of the individual.
The bottom line is that some individuals with superior flexibility (not necessarily a good thing) could probably do a Bulgarian split squat with a 36″ box and still not hyperextend their spines. Now, I don’t know why you’d want to go that high, I’m just making a point. And then of course there are some who would hyperextend their spines with an 18″ box due to poor hip extension mobility. I’m not sure about having to go as low as 4″, but I will concede that you need to make sure that the individual can perform the movement without overextending their lumbar spines, otherwise you need to regress to split squats or switch to lunges or step ups while you bring their psoas and rectus femoris flexibility up to speed.
If your form is good then there’s no need to switch anything. -Bret
Thanks for the speedy reply. And yes, we were talking about the same article from Poliquin i believe. After i had read that, i did try to look into it further and did find a study on it, if i can find it ill post the link. The topic was of enough interest for a few classmates and myself to do a research project for our biomechanics class here at Uni. We elicited the same results, that it was largely dependent on basic flexibility, and acquired flexibility through training. With that said, women were able to use a higher set box with less lumbar extension than males. We predicted this would be the case. However, even with the most flexible people there was still some extension and in some cases APT. I wanted to check with you for obvious reasons, small research projects never really reveal a full answer! Thanks!
Great comparison as I sometimes forget which move is which.
FYI – There has been some good research that specifcally highlights that a lack of glute strength is a predictor of occupational LBP. You should look at Erica Nelson Wong’s 2009 article in JOSPT entitled “Development of active hip abduction as a screening test for identifying occupational low back pain”. I think it gives some good evidence to back up what you noted with your clients and their back pain decreasing with improved glute strength.
As a young man with lower back issues on one side, I think this video will be quite helpful for me. Your first comment in this thread clinched the decision to try this exercise. Thanks!
I wrestled in highschool and college and have some issue with my lower back tightening up on me. When I do either glute bridges or hip thrusts, it kills my lower back after a few reps (even with just bodyweight). I suspect I am doing them wrong. How do you advise people who get pain in their lower back doing these exercises?
Hi Douglas, this is almost always due to lumbar hyperextension. See my more recent post titled, “Everything you need to know about the hip thrust” along with the posterior pelvic tilt hip thrust variation and start practicing that. This will most likely cure your problem – it’s worked for every person I’ve trained who experienced initial back pain when thrusting.
And I recommend the hip thrust over the bridge due to greater ROM.
And would you recommend hip thrusts over heavy weight glute bridges?
GREAT answer. I always learn so much from you! I was just wondering about the necessity of progressing to a “loaded” Single Leg Hip Thrust. (I just finished STRONG CURVES Glute Goddess and am ready to create my own workouts using your template). Haha! … I gather it’s simply not necessary to load this exercise. I’ll stick with the full ROM, bodyweight version, thank you very much! Whew!