A common saying amongst the gym community is that if you want a well-developed Gluteus Maximus (rear-end) you had better be doing squats, and lots of them. While there is no denying that squatting will increase muscle size and strength, there may be other exercises out there that are just as beneficial, if not more so. Bret Contreras, the man who has been at the forefront of glute research over the past ten years has made a very compelling case for alternatives to the squat. Again, nobody is saying you should stop squatting, but if that is the only thing you’re doing for glute development you may be missing out.
A research study led by Dr. Contreras compared muscle activation of the back squat and the barbell hip thrust. The results showed that the hip thrust created significantly more peak muscle activation than did the back squat in both the upper (172% vs 84.9%) and lower (216% vs 130%) Gluteus Maximus (3). This does not inherently mean that the hip thrust exercise will correlate to more strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth) as there are many factors that contribute to that. However, it does show that in terms of pure muscular activation the squat is not alone at the top of the hill. A similar study confirmed that while the squat was effective at activating the Gluteus Maximus, there are several other exercises such as single-leg squats, step-ups, lunges, and quadruped hip extensions that are equally effective at activating the glutes (1).
These studies were conducted using surface electromyography (EMG). In this procedure, electrodes are placed on the surface of the skin to measure the collective electrical signal from the muscles and the motor neurons from the nervous system that innervate the muscles and help facilitate contractions (2). While there is no current data that I am aware of directly linking an increase in muscle activation to increases in strength and size, there is clearly something going on worth considering.
I have added barbell hip thrusters, single leg hip thrusters, and thruster isometric holds into many of my programs, both with athletes and my general population clients. I personally use them and they could be a great addition to your lower body training routine. As reminder, this is for educational purposes only, and you should speak to your physician before starting any type of fitness program.
I hope you found this useful. Connect and follow me on Twitter @danielflahie
About the Author
Daniel Flahie is currently the program director and Instructor of Exercise Science & Health and a volunteer assistant track & field coach at Mount Marty College. He also works as a personal trainer at Fitness 365 in Yankton, SD, as well as a remote online trainer. This summer he will be taking over as one of the Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network mentors (BRIN) at Mount Marty College, funded by the National Institute of Health, focusing on resistance training in the elderly. Daniel holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Exercise Science and is currently pursuing a PhD in Health & Human Performance with a focus in Gerontology. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Certified Speed and Agility Coach (CSAC), Functional Movement Screen Level 1 (FMS), Y- Balance Test (YBT), and Reflexive Performance Reset Level 2 (RPR) Certified. Daniel has several years’ experience as a personal trainer and strength coach and has been published numerous times in the Nebraska Coaches Magazine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s personal training quarterly, among others. He is also the co-host of the “Die Healthier Podcast” available on ITunes and GooglePlay. You can follow and connect with him on Twitter @danielflahie.
- Anders, M. (2006). Glutes to the max: Exclusive ACE research gets to the bottom of the most effective glute exercises. Retrieved from https://www.acefitness.org/getfit/glutesstudy2006.pdf.
- Chowdhury, R.H., Reaz, M.B.I., Ali, M.A, Bakar, A.A.A., Chellappan, K., & Chang, T.G. (2013). Surface electromyography signal processing and classification techniques. Sensors, 13(9), 12431-12466.
- Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A.D., Schoenfeld, B.J., Beardsley, C., & Cronin, J. (2015). A comparison of gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, and vastuslateraliselectromyographic activity in the back squat and barbell hip thrust exercises. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 31(6), 452-458.