Today’s blog is a little bit different. It’s a dialogue between a blog reader and yours truly following a blogpost I wrote last week entitled, “Are Single Leg Glute Exercises Inferior to Bilateral Glute Exercises?” I am posting this because I believe that a lot of individuals out there share the same sentiment as the blog reader. I can tell that this reader is very intelligent, and I believe we had a great conversation. After re-reading the reader’s initial question, I realize that I misinterpreted his question and didn’t do a good job of answering him. However, it’s still a good read. I also added a few comments to my responses for accuracy/clarification purposes. Here is our dialogue:
Is it possible that EMG activity does not equal strength development or hypertrophy? From the videos I’ve seen of you doing side leg raises and such it seems that you’re the worlds biggest apologist for pilates.
Of course I’m being tongue and cheek as you weight various movements more than they ever would, but according to your research and the ACE research above it would seem that pilates should be creating “big and bulky muscle” that it so much hates with its amazing glute activation exercises.
Great questions and thank you for having the “juevos” to call me out and speak your mind.
In order to understand the glutes we must “wipe the slate clean” and clear our brains of what we think we know. We can’t be biased and we have to look at science/theory/research as well as practical evidence/anecdotes. I’ve experimented with EMG on most of the body’s major muscles/muscle groups, and the glutes are the only muscle group that the fitness industry didn’t do a really good job of “pegging.”
First, in addition to EMG I look at ranges of strength (analyze the biomechanics); squats hit the glutes from down low, hip thrusts hit the glutes up high. Training adaptations are so specific that getting good at one or the other doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll transfer over to one another.
Second, I look at practical experience. Some individuals get big, strong glutes from squatting and deadlifting, while some don’t.
Years ago, I got my ex-girlfriend extremely strong at squats, lunges, and deadlifts. She weighed 110 lbs but could deep squat 135 for 20 reps, deadlift 155 for 20 reps, and lunge with 30 lb dumbbells for 20 reps. Her form was mesmorizing…the entire gym would just stare at her. She might have had the nicest legs in Arizona (one random guy actually said that to her), but her butt was always a little too small. It wasn’t until 4 years later that I thought up these hip thrust variations. She was still training and still strong, but with the simple inclusion of hip thrusts her glutes blew up. She worked her way up to 20 single leg hip thrusts and 65 x 20 hip thrusts (not very impressive) and her glutes looked amazing…better than they ever did before when she was just squatting, deadlifting, and lunging. She actually had to buy new pants.
I’ve measured the glute activity of four different individuals and some barely use their glutes when they squat. And this is with what appears to be “picture perfect form.” Structurally some individuals are predispositioned to use mostly quads when they squat. Some individuals get only 20% of MVC glute activation when squatting heavy, and this is going low, keeping knees out, chest up, sitting back, pushing through heels, etc.
Second, I’ve prescribed glute specific exercises to strong powerlifter types and was amazed at how weak some of them were. Seriously, 400 lb raw squatters and 500 lb deadlifters who couldn’t budge a 135 lb hip thrust. They had to start with bodyweight. Bodyweight bird dogs crushed them too.
If squats and deadlifts are the end-all/be-all for glute hypertrophy and strength, where is the disconnect? What is going on in these circumstances? I am a huge fan of squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but I believe that we also need to prescribe glute exercises that move the hip into hip hyperextension and keep tension on the glutes all the way through the movement. I call these “anteroposterior” exercises because their load vector is horizontal and they are usualy performed supine, prone, and quadruped.
All I can say is give them a try and prescribe them to your clients and ask for feedback. I remember years ago hearing a couple of guys in the gym say that “lunges are a pussy exercise.” I remember thinking, “A 225 lb walking lunge is the hardest thing I do in the gym.” Clearly these guys had never tried barbell lunges. Similarly, a set of 15-20 single leg hip thrusts with a controlled tempo is brutal. A set of high rep barbell hip thrusts with 315 lbs kicks my butt too. I’ve found that heavy hip thrusts can raise your heart rate more than heavy squats or deadlifts (I actually experimented on several people in the gym) which is a rough indicator that it works a similar amount of muscle yet maybe since there are no sticky points and there are no “resting spots” in a hip thrust it is an even better conditioning movement when someone gets strong at the movement.
To provide a counterpoint to your “Pilates” reference, I don’t like the analogy. They do mostly bodyweight stuff. I am absolutely certain that bodyweight single leg glute bridges and quadruped hip extensions are better for the glutes than bodyweight squats. The EMG activity of these exercises crush bodyweight squats (usually around 30-60% mean compared to 8% mean activity), plus you can palpate (squeeze) someone’s glutes while they perform the movements and realize that bodyweight squats don’t hit the glutes hard. This is supported by journal research as well.
However, if we’re talking loaded movements, now we steer away from Pilates. Are loaded hip thrusts and pendulum donkey kicks better for the glutes than squats and deadlifts? I believe that they strengthen different ranges so they’re highly specific, but I also believe that hip thrusts and donkey kicks are better for hypertrophy and transfer better to running, while squats and deadlifts transfer better to jumping and lead to more “total body growth.”
Just like the biceps seem to grow with the back and the triceps seem to grow with the chest, the glutes seem to grow with the quads and hams. It’s rare to see someone with huge arms and a weak torso or someone with huge glutes weak legs. So this builds a case for squatting and deadlifting, which is why I recommend all types of movements for optimal glute strength and development. Furthermore, squats and lunges will get your glutes more sore than any other exercises, which may lead to maximum growth via fiber damage/inflammation/growth factor release/repair. However, hip thrusts and pendlum donkey kicks will get your glutes more pumped and “burning” than any other exercises, which may lead to maximum growth via occlusion/hypoxia/growth factor release. The different load vectors may lead to training adaptations via different mechanisms (different growth factors, cytokines, and hormones) as they have different maximum contractions positions.
I recommend palpating some of your more trustful clients’ glutes (call it research) during different movements. Seriously, I learned a lot this way before I conducted EMG. The glutes aren’t always active through a full ROM on various lifts, and you can guage their tension at various ranges. Like I mentioned earlier, I also recommend giving the new exercises a try and getting strong at them. If you’re like me and a lot of people who have emailed me over the past several months, your lower body workout won’t feel “complete” without including one of these movements in your routine.
Hope you appreciate my answer.
Wow, Bret, I definitely appreciate the answer! I didn’t expect such a long response.
I discovered your writing about a week ago and I find your ideas to be very interesting. Actually, I have taken your research to heart and begun to incorporate the exercises.
I see how weighted versions of the hips thrusts, quadruped exercises, ect. could lead to significant hypertrophy and strength gains. That’s why I contrasted you with Pilates when I said you weight the movements far more then they ever do.
However, you gave me data from a BW squat vs. BW SL glute bridge; BW quad hip extension. The ACE study used a 1RM squat and even that didn’t beat a BW bent-leg hip extension.
The data says what it says. If a 1RM squat has lower EMG activity than a BW hip extension then that’s what it says.
But I guess my confusion at that point is what exactly that means. Squats are a scientifically proven method for improving sprint performance. If a well designed study showed that BW hip extensions improves sprint performance more than weighted squats then I would be fine with that. But until that happens I can’t imagine that a BW hip extension would be better. A weighted hip extension or glute bridge I can imagine is better.
So, if my hypothesis is correct that a weighted squat is still better than BW hip extensions for improving sprint performance (assuming you added some quad work for the hip extension group), then what would that tell us about EMG? Either EMG simpliciter doesn’t suggest that an exercise is “better” or EMG tells us the potential of exercise if you weight it, or something else that I don’t know because I don’t know much about EMG.
I hope I’ve been clear. If not feel free to ignore me.
Now we’re getting into a topic that I really love; sprinting performance.
Obviously in order to sprint faster we need to sprint, but what strength training exercises transfer best to sprinting, and which muscles should be “strongest” for sprinting?
I believe that the best exercises for the sprinting are the hip thrust, deadlift, squat, reverse hyper, back extension, walking lunge, glute ham raise, and pendulum donkey kick. Obviously plyometrics, sled-towing, Oly lifts, and jump squats will help too, as well as hip flexor exercises and core/upper body exercises.
For acceleration sprinting which is characterized by a 45 degree lean and more quad contribution, I believe the squat, walking lunge, and pendulum donkey kick are best. For top speed sprinting which is characterized by an upright posture and more hamstring contribution, I believe that the hip thrust, deadlift, reverse hyper, back extension, and glute ham raise are best.
Although overall the glutes may be the most “athletic muscle” in the body since they extend, externally rotate, and abduct the hip (running, jumping, cutting, twisting), I believe that the quads are the most important muscle in acceleration sprinting and the hamstrings are the most important muscle in top speed sprinting. Many top sprinting gurus would agree with my comment about the hamstrings.
Back to your comment; I totally agree with you! If you just did bodyweight quadruped hip extensions and expected to run faster, you’d fail miserably. We need heavy, explosive exercises that challenge the body’s musculature.
The hip thrust and pendulum donkey kick will max out your body’s glute activation. Squats, walking lunges, and pendulum donkey kicks will max out your body’s quad activation. And deadlifts, reverse hypers, back extensions, and glute ham raises will max out your body’s hamstring activation.
Specific exercises will help in different ways too. For example, the glute ham raise will help the body absorb shock and prevent the knee from extending at ground contact. Squats may get your glutes stronger when the hip is flexed forward, while hip thrusts will get your glutes stronger as the hip moves toward neutral and into hip hyperextension.
And by the way, I believe that research indicates that squats transfer to jumping more than sprinting (for example a 2006 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance showed that a 21% increase in squat strength lead to a 21% increase in vertical jump performance but only a 2.3% increase in 40 meter sprint performance). This may have to do with horizontal versus vertical loading, which is why I like horizontally loaded exericses like hip thrusts and reverse hypers in addition to vertically loaded exercises like squats and deadlifts.
The goal isn’t to stick with bodyweight glute activation exercises for athletes; it’s to keep pushing the envelope and developing explosive strength, speed, and power. But getting strong glutes all starts with having flexible hip flexors and learning how to activate them via low-load exercises.
Last, fast sprinters need strong hip flexors to minimize back-side mechanics and maximize front-side mechanics. They must rapidly transfer from hip extension to hip flexion and lift the knee high to “further stretch the rubber band.” This will lead to increased utilization of the hip extensors and more time to get the foot moving rearward just prior to ground contact. These characteristics often separate elite sprinters from average sprinters.
Are we on the same page?