Are Single Leg Glute Exercises Inferior to Bilateral Glute Exercises?

When I tested the mean and peak glute EMG activity of various glute exercises, I was surprised to find that barbell bilateral hip thrusts activated more mean and peak activity than single leg hip thrusts (even when adding extra resistance in the form of bands or free weight). Working backward, I tried to figure out a reason as to why this was happening.

Here is my theory:

The gluteus maximus has 3 different primary roles: hip extension, hip abduction, and hip external rotation. When the hip exceeds neutral position during hip extension, it tends to externally rotate. Check out the following video. Watch the female as she squeezes her butt cheeks. Her hips externally rotate as the glutes are squeezed.

If you’ve read any of my glute articles, you’ll know that not all exercises enter into this terminal range of hip extension range of motion. Exercises like hip thrusts and quadruped donkey kicks are a couple of exercises that take the hip into hip hyperextension (the hip can hyperextend 10 degrees with bent legs and 20 degrees with straight legs in normal individuals). During an exercise like a single leg hip thrust, the gluteus maximus would want to externally rotate up top near the conclusion of the concentric phase. This would interfere with the body’s balance during a unilateral maneuver with the shoulders supported. In an attempt to avoid this phenomenon, the brain most likely wouldn’t allow the gluteus maximus to contract quite as hard as it would if balance wasn’t an issue. This explains why bilateral hip thrusts seem to be performed more explosively, with more stability, and with a little added range of motion (hip hyperextension) up top. This zone of contraction is where maximum tension is placed upon the gluteus maximus.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baTlVyx3RS8&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0&border=1]

Basically, it’s important to perform both bilateral and unilateral glute exercises. While unilateral variations might help build coordination and hip stability, bilateral variations most likely activate more muscle and lead to greater gains in strength and hypertrophy.

Furthermore, it is very important to elevate the shoulders or elevate both the shoulders and feet when bridging. Simply elevating the feet takes the glutes out of the movement and focuses more tension on the hamstrings. This is a big mistake that I see many trainers make. They believe that by elevating the feet and increasing the range of motion, they’ll activate more glute muscle. But my glute EMG research has proven that this is not true.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghn4fgRaavE&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0&border=1]

Allow me to mention a couple of other things about glute training. If you’re seeking power and you’re an advanced athlete, give the variation at the end of the video shown above a try. This method (explosive hip thrusts) exposes the glutes to very high levels of glute activation during the acceleration plase as well as during the “catch” phase where the bar lands and the glutes must absorb and decelerate the load.

Last, don’t mistake these exercises for being “sissy exercises.” If you recall during my Advanced Glute Training article on TMuscle, there are 7 different categories of hip extension exercises:

1. Axial extension
2. Axial semi-straight leg
3. Anteroposterior bent leg
4. Anteroposterior straight leg
5. Anteroposterior extension
6. Anteroposterior flexion
7. Axial/anteroposterior hybrids

The first term has to do with the direction of the load vector, the second term deals with the knee action of the hip extension exercise. My research clearly shows that anteroposterior bent leg exercises reign supreme in terms of glute activation, but if you don’t believe me here’s a study conducted by ACE (The American Council on Exercise) called Glutes to the Max that shows that a simple bodyweight quadruped hip extension activated more glute maximus muscle than a 1RM squat. This means that pushing one leg rearward while facing downward activated more glute than the heaviest squat someone could perform! I’m not saying you shouldn’t squat, I’m just saying that you should not underestimate the work that the glute has to do to raise a hip rearward or raise the body upward while lying supine, prone, or in the quadruped position. Another study linked here by Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital showed that running activated twice as much glute as the stairstepper. This jives with my whole concept of training the glutes in the horizontal (or anteroposterior) vector; the same vector trained while running.

The last thing I want to say about the glutes is that you MUST form a deep mind-muscle connection while you perform glute exercises. It may take a while but focus on squeezing the glutes as hard as you can on each rep of each set. Eventually this contraction will be grooved within your motor programming and it will become second-nature; you’re body wil engage the glutes maximally without having to think about it. It took me many years to reach this level of brain-glute relationship, but it can and will happen to you if you put forth the effort. Don’t be afraid to squeeze your glutes as hard as possible isometrically throughout the day to help build up this connection as well.

19 Comments

  • Neal W. says:

    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.

  • Neal,

    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 and practical evidence.

    First, in addition to EMG I look at ranges of strength (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. 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. 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 were the end-all/be-all for glute hypertrophy and strength, where was the disconnect? What was going on? I am a huge fan of squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but I believe that we also need to prescribe glute exercises that moved 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.

    I recommend palpating some of your more trustful clients’ glutes (call it research) during differnt 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.

    -Bret

  • Neal W. says:

    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. 🙂

  • Neal,

    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.

    Are we on the same page?

    Bret

  • Wade says:

    Hi Bret,

    This was a really impressive read. Thank you for your contribution. I’ll try to incorporate some of these into my routines for myself and others.

    I already to hip raises but with the feet elevated in order to hit the hamstrings. If we raise our shoulders though, you’re saying we can hit the glutes more effectively?

    Also, do you know how much we work our glutes when bicycling? I’ve tried putting my feet on different areas of the pedals to activate different muscles but not sure what the effects are. I’ve only noticed my shin muscles have become much more sore when putting only the balls of my feet on the pedals.

  • Wade –

    Exactly; elevate the shoulders for more glute activity.

    Haven’t measured glute activity when cycling but I don’t think it would be pretty high considering the hips don’t move through an entire ROM. I believe that pushing through the heels would lead to more glute activity than pushing through the forefeet.

    Bret

  • Paul O Brien says:

    Hey Bret,
    Very interesting piece. Im currently trying to rehab a “sports hernia” and one of the things i have addressed is some anterior pelvic tilt caused by lower cross syndrome, im a soccer player but do alot of weightlifting so im sure ive some entrenched imbalances tight hip flexors and poor glute activation as well as some obvious overuse being the probable cause. ive targeted my glutes as one of the major areas of focus in my strength rehab regime and was wondering if just using barbell hip thrust would be sufficient to address this. I like training with weights and can never really appreciate a body weight workout with the same satisfaction as a barbell dumbell or kb workout so was hoping this would address this concern.

    • Out of curiosity did you ever read Mike Boyle’s article about Sports Hernias? I believe that the bb hip thrust would be of great benefit but of course you’d need a few other movements in your routine as well.

  • Paul O'Brien says:

    Yeh Ive read Mike Boyle’s stuff on sports hernia, Ive come up with my own routine taking alot of the stuff from Mikes protocol. In a nutshell i start my routine with soft tissue work, mostly self management using a foam roller, med ball and tennis ball followed by static stretching. I then use Arron Brooks pelvic rotation protocol before going onto strength work. In general pre injury my strength work consisted of squats,deadlifts, weighted chins, Military presses and Oly lifts which i had assumed made me bullet proof 🙂 Since ive had the injury ive learned alot and have focused on Core work and highlighted my glutes, abdominals and obliques as the primary focus to help with what i assume is anterior pelvic tilt. The injury has improved alot with conservative management but i am still not able to sprint pain free. I was wondering if i do barbell hip thrusts am i automatically and preferentially using my glutes or can there be compensations even with this focused work. Oh ya class site by the way, ur stuff is on point and would prob be a useful adjunct to a focused sports hernia rehab protocol

    • Paul, you still have to practice on making the glutes do the work as even a focused-movement like hip thrusts can allow the synergists to take over. You must prevent the lumbar spine from extending and make sure all the movement comes from the hips. I filmed a hip thrust instructional video and wrote a blog about hip thrust form, check it out if you have time. Thanks for the kind words!!!

  • Paul O'Brien says:

    Cheers for the reply. I assume if i feel it in the glutes the most thats its the prime mover in the excercise, Last question, ive been using bands around my knees for squatting to ensure i forcefully hip abduct throughout the movement, a wide stanch etc, and just to try to relearn the technique ive read where you say this will not significantly activate the glutes, when i do this without bands during the hip thrust it helps me focus on the glutes, will this just target the glute medius or will it help overall glute activation.

  • Tyciol says:

    Excellent choice for the first video sir.

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