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Squats Versus Hip Thrusts Part I: EMG Activity

I’m very proud to announce that today, the first original research from my PhD thesis was published ahead of print on the Journal of Applied Biomechanics website. HERE is the link to the abstract on PubMed, and HERE is a link to the abstract on the JAB site. If you want the full paper, I’ve uploaded it into my site HERE. Published ahead of print articles usually aren’t fully-formatted, which makes for a rather annoying reading experience because there’s just a sea of writing with all the tables and figures tacked onto the end of the article.

Good Science Requires Patience

A good scientist is patient. This EMG paper is not the “nail-in-the-coffin” with regards to the “Which is superior for glute hypertrophy – squats or hip thrusts?” controversy. We need more research. EMG doesn’t measure hypertrophy; it measures muscle activation. This study is a cross-sectional study that examined mechanisms of hypertrophy. What we need are a handful of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), with each hopefully painting a similar picture with the data. Here’s a quote from the discussion portion of the study:

“Caution should be taken when interpreting the practical implications of this study. It is tempting to speculate that muscle activity can be used as a gauge to predict strength and hypertrophy gains. After all, two recent papers have linked muscle activation with hypertrophy (52, 53), and another with strength gains (54). However, at this point in time no training studies have been conducted comparing the hypertrophic effects or transfer of training in the back squat and barbell hip thrust exercises. Future research needs to be conducted to 1) test the hypothesis that the barbell hip thrust exercise leads to greater gluteus maximus and hamstrings hypertrophy than the back squat exercise, 2) discern whether adaptations transfer to sports performance, particularly in relation to sprint running, 3) verify that male and female subjects activate their hip and thigh muscles similarly during the back squat and barbell hip thrust exercises, and 4) analyze the joint range of motion, heart rate, force, velocity, power, joint power, impulse, work, and torque angle curves between the back squat and barbell hip thrust exercises.”

Much of this needed research is currently underway, so you can expect plenty of interesting data to come. EMG provides mechanistic clues with regards to training outcomes. I happen to be a supporter of EMG and I believe that surface EMG data can indeed be used to help ascertain exercise superiority for hypertrophic purposes, especially for large muscles like the gluteus maximus. However, there are three primary mechanisms of hypertrophy (click HERE for a primer on this topic), with activation influencing tension and metabolic stress to a greater degree than damage. In addition, EMG has its share of limitations (click HERE and HERE for two articles on this topic). Therefore, the “team hip thrust” camp needs to wait until more research emerges to before they do the crotch chop dance in front of the “team squat” camp.

Not there yet team hip thrusts...

Not there yet team hip thrusts…

What I Love About Science

Science hones in on the truth over time. You’ve got this vocal guy (me) who has championed hip thrusts over the past nine years (6 years online). You’ve got all sorts of trainers, coaches, athletes, bikini competitors, and physical therapists around the globe who are in agreement with the efficacy of hip thrusts. On the other hand, you’ve also got a bunch of skeptics who apparently think that the hip thrust is moronic, inefficient, and/or non-functional (I’ve noticed that these people tend to have their own forums, they tend to need to be perceived as world experts on every topic, they tend to dis on anything they didn’t think of first, and they tend to not conduct any research of their own – they just dis on research that emerges, but I digress).

Here’s what I love about science…it doesn’t matter what in the hell I say. It doesn’t matter what in the hell these other people say. The truth is the truth. Science is true whether you believe in it or not. The “truth” about hip thrusts exists. It’s up to us (humans) to discover the truth through research and experimentation.

In five years, we’re going to know much, much more about hip thrusts. I will personally publish probably a dozen papers on the topic, but I expect many other researchers and labs to take interest in the hip thrust and start conducting research (both mechanistic and training studies) on them as well.

My thesis is just the start. I have examined 1) the EMG activity between squats and hip thrusts, 2) the EMG activity of 3 different squat variations, 3) the EMG activity of 3 different hip thrust variations, 4) the force, power, work, and impulse between squats and hip thrusts, 5) the transfer to vertical and horizontal jump, 10 and 20m acceleration, 1RM front squat and hip thrust, and max isometric mid-thigh-pull between front squats and hip thrusts, and 6) the transfer to upper and lower gluteus maximus muscle thickness, 1RM squat and hip thrust, and max horizontal force between squats and hip thrusts in a pair of identical twins. This will provide a great foundation for future research and will generate many hypotheses that require testing.

Even after my thesis is published, we still won’t know much. We’ll definitely know a lot more than we previously did, but we need 50-100 quality studies on the hip thrust before we can confidently discuss its efficacy across the board for varying purposes and populations. The truth will emerge over time, and no guru (not me and not the naysayers) can effectively suppress the truth in the long run. Charismatic leaders can definitely distract people and lead them in the wrong directions, but in the end, science always prevails. Maybe I’ve led people in the wrong direction, and maybe the skeptics have led people in the wrong direction. Maybe the converse is true is well. The truth shall prevail.

In the End

In the end, what I can already say with MUCH confidence is that athletes should perform both squats and hip thrusts. Squats appear to outperform hip thrusts in certain very important outcomes and hip thrusts appear to outperform squats in certain very important outcomes. Most of you reading this are probably nodding your heads like, “no shit,” but there are indeed people that think you shouldn’t squat or shouldn’t hip thrust…hopefully their minds will be changed when they see my findings and future findings of others.

I would think that my TESTIMONIALS would have changed their minds, but apparently that doesn’t matter to them. Anecdotes are cool, but they’re not the be-all-end-all since variables are not controlled which prevents us from pinpointing the mechanisms responsible for improvements.

And Now, the EMG Study Findings

Again, click HERE to download the full paper. There isn’t much more I have to add that’s not included in the paper. The study examined 13 trained women. Here is a chart from the study:

chart

As you can see, hip thrusts appear to be superior to squats in terms of upper gluteus maximus, lower gluteus maximus, and biceps femoris activity. Interestingly, vastus lateralis activity wasn’t far superior in squats compared to hip thrusts – this is something I noticed many years ago. Hip thrusts heavily activate the quads, but squats indeed have the edge considering that they move the knees through a much greater ROM and have slightly higher quad activation.

Here are some graphs that we made that didn’t make it into the article (I never agree with this practice, but peer reviewers want either a chart or a graph, but not both as they believe them to be redundant…I prefer both for numerical and visual puproses).

Mean

This shows mean activation for squats and hip thrusts

Peak

This shows peak activation for squats and hip thrusts

Isoholds: Bottom of the Squat Versus Top of the Hip Thrust

Here is some fascinating data. When I do a pause squat, I feel my glutes working very well. I’m sure that many of you do too. My glutes can get rather sore the next day as well if I do a high volume pause squat session – you can probably relate to this as well. However, the glutes (and the hamstrings for that matter) barely activate at the bottom of a squat. Vasti and the erector spinae activation is through the roof, but it seems that the hip extensors provide force mostly through stretch, not activation. This EMG data jives with the findings of Worrell et al. 2015 and Robertson et al. 2008. The gluteus maximus activates to a much greater degree in full hip extension compared to hip flexion, hence why the barbell hip thrust isohold is so high.

Battle of the Isoholds: Bottom Squat versus Top Hip Thrust in Muscle Activation

Battle of the Isoholds: Bottom Squat versus Top Hip Thrust in Muscle Activation

Iso Mean

This is average muscle activation in the isoholds (bottom of the squat and top of the hip thrust)

Iso Peak

This is the highest muscle activation in the isoholds (bottom of the squat and top of the hip thrust)

Conclusion

There will be much more research to come. We need a high quality training study that looks at actual muscle hypertrophy before confidently claiming that hip thrusts are superior to squats for gluteus maximus growth and development. Better yet, we need a dozen. In the meantime, we should certainly consider these EMG findings along with other forms of evidence such as anecdotes, tradition, logic, and expert opinion. However, we should properly frame these lesser forms of evidence (click HERE to read about the hierarchy of knowledge) and eagerly await the arrival of RCTs.

Team squat camp: You don’t need to dismiss surface EMG evidence and call this research idiotic; it provides good clues. These clues can be useful in predicting the transfer to various activities, which will emerge in time. You should, however, open your mind to the possibility that hip thrusts are indeed highly effective for glute growth

Team hip thrust camp: Don’t be jerks and claim that hip thrusts are superior to squats for glute growth; we don’t know that yet. They might or they might not be, but you don’t want to look like an idiot if the experimental data (actual hypertrophy) doesn’t jive with theoretical findings (EMG). It’s better to be cautious and reserved.

In summary, we’ll know more in time.

(and, of course, the hip thruster is the most effective way to do your hip thrusts)

Hip Thruster barbell band

The Hip Thruster is the best way to do the hip thrust – stable and versatile!

45 Comments

  • Jeff says:

    You should set up a squats only group and a Hip thrust only group and see which does work the best for glute development.

    Also it would be interesting to see which, if any, has a greater effect on overall body comp and testosterone levels.

    For me I’d rather squat all day long than thrust regardless of results just because I love that exercise but my wife never had a butt till she did thrusts so I’m glad you invented this exercise.

  • Linden Ellefson says:

    Hi Bret, my name is Linden Ellefson, and I am a undergrad student at the university of Calgary, along with a personal trainer.

    I have followed your study for a while, and I have serious interest in creating a follow up study. I would love to talk to you about how you went about your study, what considerations you would have for future studies etc.
    My email is linden.ellefson@gmail.com, and I would love to start a conversation about this with you.
    Thanks so much and have a great day!

  • Rich says:

    Bret,
    As always, much appreciative of your efforts. Do you think similar conclusions might be reached under unilateral conditions?

  • Jun says:

    Journal of Biomechanics is different than Journal of Applied Biomechanics. Congratulations on your first published manuscript!

    • Bret says:

      Thanks Jun, I’m amazed that I made this mistake…I know both journals very well and yes they’re very different. Clearly I need more sleep! Mistake is fixed, thanks for the heads-up.

  • Anna says:

    Bravo! So proud of your publication and research, Bret! Keep gong! Do you think that the greater activation degree from the hip thrusts would also ultimately potentiate glute implication in other excerises like squats, deadlifts, so on… ?

  • Rocky Steele says:

    Outstanding
    I haven’t been exclusive with hip thrusts and also incorporate hex deads, ghm plus heavy kettlebell swings, my 54 year old back side is restructured.
    Two years ago at a Senior track meet, I completed 3 standing long jumps: 8’10”, 9’00″& 9’02”.
    Context; Jamieus Winston did 8’10” at the NFL combine.
    Science translating into performance!
    Thanks for your thoughtfulness and willingness to always share.
    Regards
    Rocky Steele

  • James says:

    Hi Bret,
    I have always been a fan of the hip thrust during my hypertrophy phases. No other exercise gives you a glute burn like it. However, I tend to avoid it during strength and power phases, because I don’t think it is that specific a movement for my sport (rugby). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on using it in a non-hypertrophy way. I believe you have spoken to an MSc coursemate of mine (Natasha) and given her some advice for her study to see if 5×5 hip thrusts helps sprint performance. I’ll be quite eager to see her results in a few weeks when we have to submit our dissertations!

    • Adam says:

      This is also a question I have. You can only put so much in your cup, especially during high intensity phases, so I tend to stay away from non sport specific movements.

    • Bret says:

      James (and Adam) – I think you both need to revise the way you think about hip thrusts…
      My data indicates that hip thrusts are superior for horizontal performance (both pushing maximally into a wall and measuring force, and with acceleration) when compared to squats. So you need to do both movements (or variations that build both qualities).

  • Chris says:

    Hi Bret! Fantastic work and congrats for the publication. The variance in the data is very high; did you find any interesting relationships within a participant: For example, if someone shows low MVIC in squats – does she
    a) also show low MVIC in HT (positive correlation), or
    b) low in HT, high in squats or vice versa (negative correlation) or
    c) no correlation?

    Thanks

    • Bret says:

      Hi Chris, not really. But there were some interesting anecdotes, for example there was one subject who got higher low glute max EMG with squats compared to hip thrusts. Generally subjects who activated their glutes well with squats also did with hip thrusts and vice versa.

  • John Smith says:

    Congratulations, Bret!
    And thank you!
    Can you tell us which parameters have the strongest degree of evidence to establish exercise effectiveness or comparison? With hypertrophy as a primary outcome, at least.
    (ex: emg, increase in 1rm, increase in measures, usg or mri of the muscle, and so on)
    And what is your next step for this reasearch?
    Sorry if I’m not clear. Writing about research is not as easy as reading for me as a brazilian.

    ps:
    Unfortunately this is a trending SC doctor in brazil lately who bashes lots of stuff and, in this post, the hip thrust. He uses a poorly executed HP video.
    https://instagram.com/p/5p_uFlmaWi/
    1) because of low ROM, 45 degree, according to him. (squat and leg press, 3x more rom)
    2) low position of HP has too low stretch on muscle and almost no work of glutes. stretch causes more microlesions….. , according to him.
    3) research on the topic emphasize the action of the erector spinae and multifidus in the HP, according to him.

    I hate how he became popular. People are so naive believing in everything. And it all gets worst when is from a SC graduated professional (In Brazil there is a “SC”/ physical education degree) or mislead/misinterpreted results of research.

    Waiting for updates on IG about your research so I can spread the science.

    I’m very glad I found you as a guide for SC info.
    Thank you.

    • Chris says:

      Im not Bret, but:
      ad 1) compare the true ROM of a proper HT and SQ, theyre not that different. What is completely different are the force curves: highest activity in stretched position with the SQ, with the contracted position with the HT. Bret has written about that several times.
      ad 2) Yes, the SQ may cause more micro trauma/muscle damage for the above mentioned reason. The HT on the other hand, as we see, produces much more EMG activity. Both are factors of hypertrophy. Thats why Bret wrote that longitudinal studies must determine the efficacy in terms of end markers like hypertrophy and strength with the HT and SQ. My guess is that for those reasons both exercises combined trump either one (also a thing Bret keeps on writing).
      ad 3) a properly executed HT probably has less erector spinae activity. This is a good thing if your goal is hypertrophy of the gluteus while not taxing the spine too much.

      • Bret says:

        Yep, I agree Chris, ROM isn’t vastly different, squat = more damage, hip thrust = more tension and metabolic stress (tension and metabolic stress are more important than damage for hypertrophy IMO). Hell, just look at my testimonials…many of these ladies’ glutes blew up when they started hip thrusting. Yes, you’d want to do both to maximize hypertrohy, strength, and function. And yes, it had less erector activity. And yes, we need longitudinal studies to be sure. Kudos for being astute!

    • Bret says:

      Hi John, EMG has been correlated with hypertrophy and strength. But obviously specificity is king with regards to strength transfer. And with hypertrophy, there’s mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage…activation influences each of these to varying degrees.

      Thank you very much for sending me this Instagram post by Paul. Very, very disappointing. He’s a published researcher and I’ve followed his work over the past several years. I might post a blog addressing his claims as he’s off-base. I wish he’d actually conduct a study on this…if he did I can guarantee he’d change his mind.

      Regards, BC

  • Rick Pack says:

    Great stuff and congratulations! Thank you for including the graph because it helped me make faster sense of the results. I am curious to learn your thoughts, possibly in future articles, as to why pause squats cause glute DOMS but the EMG found shockingly low activation.

  • Erin R. says:

    The study was a fantastic read and I am on “Team Hip-Thrust” for sure. I do love squats as well, however, I feel as though I have done more after I hip thrust (this could be psychological too). I added them into my programming using your “Strong Curves, Gluteal Goddess” program and I saw a 2% drop in body fat percentage and an increase in gluteal size that was evident 😀
    I am really interested to know if more activation could mean more hypertrophy in the end. I very much look forward to and am in anticipation to read future research and works on the subject!

  • Jamie says:

    Congratulations on the publication, Bret! I know you must be thrilled to finally see it in (e-) print.

    I really liked that you had your study participants perform MVICs in 2 postures for EMG normalization. As I read that I wondered why I hadn’t thought to do that before. I am going to suggest that we start doing that in the lab I work in, so thank you for that!

    I did have a quick question about the differences that you observed. Do you think that any of the difference that you saw in the EMG activity was at all influenced by the loads that were used? Based on the mean loads that you stated in the methods section do you think that the heavier load used on the hip thrusts had anything to do with the increased activation or do you think that because both loads were approximately the participant’s 10 RM that the activations should be comparable? Just curious!

    Really enjoyed reading the manuscript. I look forward to reading more in the future. If you would prefer to discuss via e-mail please feel free- hibbertj12@students.ecu.edu.

  • Zach says:

    Bret,
    I know with squats there can be over/under active muscles and anthropometry that have an effect on one’s ability to squat. Have you found that there is a need to do a movement screen on an individual before or take into account any movement disfunctions (i.e. poor ankle mobility) before recommending hip thrusts?

  • Steve Ligon says:

    Hey Bret , where are you doing your PH.D ?

  • Anoop says:

    Just saw this on Bra’d Facebook feed.

    Congratulation Bret, and hope to see more good research from you!

  • josh says:

    Quick question. I’ve tried the hip thrusts before and they seem to just put a lot more tension and stress on my lumbars. Do you think that the reward outweighs the risk with putting more horizontal stress on the vertebrae and the discs as opposed to compression forces when squatting?

    • Bret says:

      Josh, you’re most likely doing them wrong…you can’t hyperextend your lumbar spine at the top of the movement. Need to learn how to posterior pelvic tilt, how to keep the ribs down, how to tuck the head/neck and keep it flexed, etc. I might make a video on this.

    • Vinicius says:

      Bret, why have you compared on the isoholds the squat at the bottom and the hip thrust at the top? it doenst seem fair considering gluteus maximus is in a stretched position in a full squat position. In this part of this study seems to be already known the difference. What matters in the squat is the ROM.

    • Renato says:

      It definitely stresses/puts pressure on the low back.
      If one gets away with it is another story.

      It’s like with the barbell squat or deadlift.
      Too many have gotten joint (knees , hip , spine) trouble due to those exercises.
      I think the squat is fine, when doing it with moderate weights (relatively).
      But going into the more and more modus, will bring too many people into joint trouble.

      Probably same for the hip thrust/raise..

    • John says:

      I have a bulging L5 that has been symptomatic on and off for several years and my L4 is degenerated, so i have been forced to stop doing squats, deads, hypers, bilateral overhead pressing and shrugs.
      So a couple of days ago i tryed doing this exercise because i’ve read that it’s apparently a safe exercise for us with bad backs, and i really miss having a bilateral compound lower body exercise that’s easy to progressively overload in.
      The form was perfect, i.e. i did not hyperextend my spine and i did not go to far up,, but still this exercise somehow irritated my disc so bad that i had to cancel my whole workout, ask the staff at the gym to help me put my shoes on and limp home :p
      It took me 2 days and a shitload of Mckenzie extensions to get that fucker back in place >_<

  • Alex Prather says:

    Bret,

    I am quite the minimalist and would like to try using hip thrusts as my main lower body exercise. I am not a fan of squatting as both meniscus in my knees are bad from soccer. Do you feel that I could get a decent enough quadricep response from hip thrusting to use it as my main/only lower body movement? I play soccer and it would be very advantageous to focus on the thrust I think. I am a male however, and want quad development as well. Don’t need to be Quadzilla, but also don’t want a huge ass and no legs. What are your thoughts?

  • mark says:

    John, you disc does not ‘come out of place’ and ‘go back in’ as it seems you understand. More comprehension of disc pathology and your symptoms may help you overcome some of your limitations.

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