Your gluteus maximus is the largest — and most powerful — muscle in your body, and while you may think squats are enough to build your glutes, there's another move you should do instead — hip thrusts. They work many of the same muscles squats do, but the increased focus on the glutes and decreased chance of injury make it superior.
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Of course, saying hip thrusts are better than squats does come with some caveats. The most important being which muscles you're looking to target. The blanket statement that hip thrusts are a more effective exercise makes it a bit too simple (research is usually a bit more complex than that). But if you're looking to work your glutes and improve your forward motion, hip thrusts are your best bet.
When Science Says About Hip Thrusts and Squats
There's more to choosing hip thrusts than simply knowing how to do the move, especially if you like a little bit of science with your sweat. One April 2017 study led by Contreras and published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research looked at participants after a six-week resistance training program consisting of hip thrusts and squats.
The results? Both moves maximize functional performance and directly support the force vector theory, which says vertical hip extension exercises are better for improving vertical jumping, while horizontal hip extension exercises are better for improving sprints and horizontal jumping, says Contreras. "If quad growth is the goal, squats would be the better choice. If glute growth is the goal, then hip thrusts would be the better choice."
Another study, this one from the April 2019 issue of Sports, looked at the effects of a seven-week program of hip thrusts and back squat training in young female soccer players. Researchers also found that the group that did hip thrusts "obtained greater sprint performance."
Performance aside, injury prevalence, especially to the knees and lower back, during squatting is another factor. A May 2018 study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that squats were the leading cause of injury in powerlifting.
As Contreras notes, the large demand placed on the spine during squatting increases the risk of injury. He speculates this is why it's one of two moves — the other being the deadlift — that have led to the most injuries in the gym.
Read more: Want a Better Butt? 7 Tips You Need to Know
How to Do a Hip Thrust (The Right Way!)
However, no amount of hip thrusts will do you any good if you aren't performing them correctly. To help you avoid injury and get the most out of the move, "The Glute Guy" — Bret Contreras, PhD, CSCS, and author of Glute Lab — has a full breakdown of the right way to do a hip thrust. All you'll need is a weight bench and barbell.
Set It Up: The height of the weight bench can vary: using a shorter bench means you'll tap the barbell weight plates to the ground, while a taller bench means you'll reverse the reps in mid-air. Next, align your body perpendicular to the bench, with your upper back and shoulders resting on the bench and your body forming a bridge.
Your stance will vary based on your individual hip anatomy — narrow, medium and wide are all acceptable — but feet are generally pointed straight forward. "Make sure to use the same range of motion and reach full hip extension at the top of every repetition," says Contreras.
Align Your Body: Contreras stresses that you want the bottom of your shoulder blades aligned with the bench and that they should stay put; there should be no sliding up or down the bench as you do your reps.
"The head will be positioned forward throughout the set as well, so at the bottom of the movement, your head and neck will be roughly neutral, but at the top of the movement, your neck will be flexed," Contreras says. "This is important because it prevents spinal hyperextension (overarching) from occurring."
Initiate Movement: Your upper torso should remain still, and all the movement will occur from your sternum down so that your upper body doesn't hinge or curve around the bench.
Raise your hips by pushing through your heels. Your feet should stay planted, and at the top of the move, if you have proper alignment, your shins will be vertical (or close to it). "You'll be using the glutes to extend the hips, elevate the barbell and posteriorly tilt the pelvis at the top of the movement," says Contreras.
Switch Things Up: Try it first with just your body weight, then do the single-leg version or add resistance bands and/or barbells, says Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx, NY. Or to make it more challenging, Contreras suggests pausing at the top of the thrust for three to five seconds.
Avoid Common Form Mistakes
Many of the most common mistakes made during the hip thrust involve improper posture and alignment. For example, Contreras notes that if you choose a weight that's too heavy, you won't reach full hip extension, leading to hyperextension of the spine.
"Some of the more common mistakes include excessive arching of the lower back, excessive flexion or extension of the neck [and] not maintaining a flat foot," Schoenfeld says. "Also, having a bench that is not the proper height will detrimentally affect results."
Read more: 12 Weight-Training Mistakes You Don't Want to Make
There's much more to glute training than meets the eye, Contreras says. When it comes to the debate of hip thrusts versus squats, it's all about picking the exercise that works for your goals and developing a well-rounded glute training routine.
"Glute training will improve your squat and deadlift strength and mechanics in addition to sprinting, jumping, agility and rotational power," says Contreras. "Moreover, strong glutes and proper technique will decrease the likelihood of experiencing low back, knee and hip injuries, which cannot be understated."