The 8-Week Hip Thrust / Leg Extension / Nordic Ham Curl Experiment

Update: I wrote this blogpost a month ago, but someone hacked my blog so I couldn’t post it. Over the past four weeks since performing this experiment, I’ve gone on to tie numerous squat and deadlift records despite just performing 1-2 hard sets of them per week and I’m still pain free.


Squats and deadlifts have been my bread and butter lifts for as long as I can remember. But over the past couple of years, I’ve felt myself getting beat down from them. My knees (especially my right one) were dodgy, and my low back was feeling beat up more often than not.

For this reason, I decided to embark on an experiment. Having realized that the smith machine allowed me to hip thrust pain-free and recently having received the Glute Drive, which also feels good on my knees, I wanted to see what would happen to my leg and glute size in addition to my squat and deadlift strength if I just performed hip thrusts, leg extensions, and Nordic ham curls (or leg curls) twice per week (zero squats and deadlifts – not even single-leg patterns).

What’s awesome about the smith machine and Glute Drive is that they allow me to go very deep. I get more hip flexion compared to when I use the Hip Thruster. In fact, when I perform smith machine hip thrusts, I use a taller bench than normal. I felt that going deeper would help me retain more squat and deadlift strength due to hip range of motion specificity.

During the last 8 weeks, my training has been amazing. Any low back and knee pain has vanished, and my workouts have been highly productive. Twice per week, I would perform 4 sets of either smith machine or Glute Drive hip thrusts, 4 sets of leg extensions, and 4 sets of either lying or seated leg curls or Nordic ham curls. I was performing 12 sets of lower body twice per week for a total of 24 weekly sets.

My sets were in the 6-30 rep range, with the average reps per set being 10. This is a lot more repetitions than I’m used to, but my body responded well.

RESULTS 

Today, I tested my 1RM squat and deadlift strength. I hit a 405lb full squat and a 565lb sumo deadlift. This was surprising as I hadn’t performed a single rep of squats or deadlifts in 8 weeks, nor had I performed anything with a wide stance in that same amount of time. I believe I likely could have hit a 425lb squat if I wanted, and I probably could have a hit 585lb deadlift if I allowed for more slop. This is right around what I was lifting 8 weeks ago. Interestingly, the squat and deadlift movement patterns did feel unnatural. In fact, I felt very uncoordinated and awkward – similar to how I used to feel decades ago when I was first learning them, but my strength was still there.

I also reached all-time highs in leg extension strength, Nordic ham curl strength, and smith machine and Glute Drive hip thrust strength. I believe my glutes have grown slightly during this time, and my legs don’t seem to have lost any size.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

If you are finding yourself in a lot of pain from squats and deadlifts, you can try this experiment too. Avoid them for 8 weeks, let your body heal up, and then go back to the lifts – this time without the pain. Pain inhibits muscle activation, so you’ll never experience maximum muscular gains if your body isn’t feeling good.

This experiment has taught me that hip thrusts are more effective than I ever could have imagined. There are a couple of papers showing incredible transfer from hip thrusts to squats, and one that will eventually be published showing great transfer from hip thrusts to deadlifts. These studies used beginner trainees as their subjects, however, not advanced lifters.

I don’t think leg extensions are tremendously helpful at retaining squat strength, but I do feel that Nordic ham curls are effective in helping retain deadlift strength.

Sometimes in training, we must take one step backwards in order to take two steps forwards. This 8-week program can allow you to unload your body and heal up while retaining most of your strength and muscle mass (possibly even gaining muscle).

Bear in mind this is an n=1 experiment. I look forward to hearing back from some of my followers to see if they experience similar results from this routine.

The Program

Monday and Thursday: 

  • 4 sets of hip thrust for 6-30 reps (I did them on the smith machine or Nautilus Glute Drive)

  • 4 sets of leg extensions for 10-20 reps

  • 4 sets of either Nordic ham curls (3-5 reps) or lying or seated leg curls (10-20 reps)

Video Discussion of the Blogpost

17 Comments

  • Pame vidotto says:

    Porfa puedes poner en español tu bolg y tu instagram 🙏

  • Jen Basinger says:

    Great information! It’s good to know you found alternatives that didn’t cause you to hate your workout. I’m doing your beginner Strong Curves workouts, and I’m on weeks 5-8. I’m terrible at lunges (can’t maintain good form) and didn’t feel like doing them today, so I did the leg press instead. Was that a good choice? I’m having to tweak some of the other exercises because my gym doesn’t have all of the same equipment, or I don’t think I’m strong enough. For instance, with the negative chin-up I don’t feel that I can actually pull myself up because I’m a beginner and am heavy. (Though, I haven’t actually tried it unassisted.) I do the assisted chin-up instead. Do you think that is a good replacement for now? I can do -75lbs, and today I was able to do 5 reps on my last set. That’s good for me. Anyway, I’m enjoying the workouts so far, but am nervous about what to do after all 12 weeks have been accomplished. I’m 7 weeks in, so I still have time to figure it out.

    • Good questions Jen. Instead of the leg press, I would have done single leg leg press, or braced lunges where you hold onto something with either one arm or two depending on your fitness level (with the former version you can hold onto a db with the other arm). And I’d prefer for you to do eccentric chins (get a plyo box and jump yourself up over the bar) or band assisted chins just because they seem to transfer to actual chin ups better than the assisted machines, even though they feel like they’re working well. But you have the right idea here with modifying the program based on your equipment availability and preferences.

  • Tara says:

    I’m going to do this! I’ve just got my body to the point of being satisfied except glutes are so far behind. Can I still do squats and dead lifts or is this purely for someone who is swapping that for this?
    Will take some before and after pics anyway!
    Thank you for all the information you provide.

    • Good question Tara, the point is to swap lifts when they’re consistently leaving you with nagging pain. In my example, squats were hurting my knees and deadlifts were hurting my low back (squats probably were too). I swapped them out and did replacement exercises and didn’t lose much strength and kept my muscle. So it was a win win. If glutes are your priority, I’d focus on hip thrusts and still do squat and deadlift variations later in the workout.

  • Elaine rondon says:

    Awesome will be giving this a try thank you Bret !

  • Jimmy says:

    Bret – great first blog. I’ve followed your research for many years and have seen great improvement. Though I could be more consistent. The nordics are my goat. Feels like tight rubber bands ready to snap on way down and I plummet after about 30 degrees. Needless to say a life as an Ironman and runner has given me some homework. Thanks again

  • Carrie Young says:

    I’m definitely going to give this a try! Here lately my back gets worn out whether I’m using light 55lb dumbbells or pulling 245 from the bar for DL’s. I have been hesitant in not doing them because I can’t afford to lose my size and go backwards in my trainin and physique. I also need to get my hips back in order. They’re kinda twisted up from the psoas and I’m tired of paying money to get them worked on only to go lift and get messed up again. Thanks for the info!

  • Mike says:

    Thank you for your continued and sustained work in the field of S&C. Squat and Deadlift dogma is strong in some circles but need not be for everyone depending on their goals, injury history and anthropometry. I love the Hip Thrust and Nordics because I feel that the limiting factors are the muscles that you are targeting (glutes and hams) instead of grip, back and ligament strength in the more traditional lifts.

    One of my favorite articles from you dates back to 2012 – “21 Exercises for Injury Free Mass” – and I was curious if an older, wiser version of yourself would make any changes to it or perhaps write a follow up?

  • Ron says:

    I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t do squats and deadlift in the same cycle. It’s just too much for me to handle. I switched to using front squats for a main lift with hip thrusts and nordic hamstring raises for secondary lifts during one phase and alternate during the next phase by switching over to deadlift for a main lift with leg extensions and reverse lunges for secondary lifts. I’ve actually not only gotten pretty good results with this strength wise, but I also don’t feel like crap (exhausted) as much as I used to. I’ve been very happy with the results. I switch every every three weeks back and forth between these two.

  • Mike Needleman says:

    Love this article. Thank you so much for your work in the S&C field! I was thinking about doing the same thing but adding in 1-2 plyo days as well as using the jump mat before every training session to see if I can maintain my power output. The only problem is that I compete in the sport of CrossFit so it’d be hard to take into account the squatting/hinging patterns I do in conditioning pieces.

  • Frida Flores says:

    I’m definitely going to give this a try! I’m trying to increase my booty/legs muscle mass but all I know is to squat deeply and deadlift. I got two lower back herniated disc and I’m not sure if these exercises are the best for me, I don’t want to feel pain again. Do you think the 8 week experiment would help me?

  • Rui says:

    This is a great article!
    So basically, the hip thrust and nordic ham curls are the alternatives for the deadlift correct?

  • Trent says:

    What would be a good substitute for leg extensions? (as I don’t have that machine). Thanks Bret!

  • Dean says:

    Hi Brett,
    Great article! I am giving this workout a go, as I have similar knee pain issues caused by squats and deadlifts. Did it take the full 8-weeks for you to feel pain free? Or was it a gradual improvement in pain each week? I have just finished the first week of this workout (hip thrust, leg curls and leg extensions) and my knee pain has reduced slightly. Thanks

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