To the untrained eye, doing a back squat and a deadlift might look like the same movement. You're pushing your hips back and lowering your butt to the ground, right? While the squat and hip hinge both train your glutes, they are actually two different movement patterns.
"When it comes to a squat, I think about the hips going down vertically, the back staying vertical and the knees bending. With a hip hinge, I think about the hips moving back horizontally, the shoulders dropping and the back dropping parallel to the floor. There's also less bend in the knee," says Tommy Stracke, CPT, chief instructor at Barry's in San Francisco.
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These distinct movement patterns also mean the squat and hip hinge target the muscles in your lower body differently.
"The main difference between a squat pattern and a hip hinge is that a squat pattern will load up the front side of your legs, often your quads, whereas the hip hinge will make you a little more balanced and it's more in the glutes and hamstrings, in addition to the quads," says Zach Ray, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist and founder of Live Athletics.
Science backs this up: According to a small May 2021 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which compares the hip and knee kinetics of the back squat and deadlift, the deadlift showed more glute activation than the back squat. However, the back squat activated the quads more than the deadlift.
Here, we compare the squat and hip hinge, and how to do each movement pattern correctly.
Why You Should Do More Hip-Hinge Movements
When it comes to training your glutes, people can benefit from doing more hip-hinge movements, such as deadlifts and kettlebell swings, versus squats, Ray says. That's because most people tend to squat more often, which can cause excessive wear on your knees.
"I'm a physical therapist, so we spend a lot of time of our time post-injury looking at trying to reorientate people's squat and hip hinge because most people tend to be squat heavy, or quad loaded," Ray says. "Whereas if we can get people more into the glutes, more into a proper hip hinge, it tends to make people feel better and avoid some injury."
That said, you shouldn't stop squatting. Incorporating squat variations into your routine strengthens your glutes and other lower-body muscles. Plus, doing squats properly involves doing a hip hinge. When you squat, you want to push your hips back before you bend your knees and lower your butt down, Ray says.
"If you actually get your glutes to be active in a squatting type of motion, it helps you get more stability at your knee, and that's the main key for rehabbing from injuries because it provides rotational stability when the glutes fire," Ray says. "Most people just bend their knees forward first and then they go straight down and almost go forward. We want to sit the squat more behind your knees rather than jutting your knees over your toes."
If you're just feeling the load on your quads when you squat, then you're not getting a lot of knee stability from the inside, outside or rotational, he explains. But by activating your glutes when you hinge back, you'll feel more stable.
"Simply put, a hip hinge targets the glutes and posterior chain muscles (hamstrings, erectors and lower back) given the quads are taken out of the equation and more tension is placed on the glutes. A squat is also extremely beneficial for the glutes, but targets the quads instead," Stracke says.
Squat vs. Hip Hinge: What's the Difference?
When you do a squat, you want to keep your chest up and your back mostly upright while you lower your hips down.
"We actually don't want too much lumbar flexion [arching your back]. But what happens if you quad load is there's a lot of forward movement, so most times you'll arch your back to counteract that movement so you don't fall forward on your face," Ray says.
But if you properly hip hinge in a squat, then your back will feel more balanced and supported.
"I tell clients that a squat is a movement where their hips go down (act like you're sitting on a chair). A hinge is a movement where the hips go back (act like you're picking up a large box)," Stracke says.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your toes facing forward or turned out slightly. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms by your sides.
- Keeping your back straight and bracing your core, push your hips back and bend your knees, lowering your butt down toward the ground.
- Lower until your thighs are parallel to the ground (or as low as you can comfortably go with good form).
- Press your heels into the ground to stand back up.
To hip hinge correctly, you want to think about drawing a short string between your bellybutton and the bottom of your ribs, Ray says. Keeping this string short helps bring your ribs down to help with preventing arching in your lower back. The second part is to make sure that you send your hips back before you softly bend your knees.
- Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart and hold a kettlebell between your legs.
- Keeping your back flat and bracing your core, push your hips back and bend your knees slightly, lowering the kettlebell toward the floor. Think about moving your hips toward the wall behind you with your spine completely flat. Your shoulders should be above your hips and your hips over your knees.
- Drive your hips forward to stand back up.
Doing squats and hip hinges are both essential for strengthening your glutes. However, it's important to learn how to do a proper hip hinge before learning how to do a squat. That's because your glutes are the biggest muscles in your body, so you need to know how to properly engage them to avoid injury, Ray says.
"Most people have what's called glute inhibition, and that's largely because we sit a lot. We drive a lot and carry stress and tightness in our hips. So people have a hard time activating their glutes, and if you don't have good glute activation or coordination, you're going to set yourself up for back issues and lower limb leg issues."
Another thing you want to keep in mind when training your glutes is to make sure you're allowing proper recovery between your workouts. Doing too many squats or hip-hinge movements can overtrain your leg and glute muscles, Stracke says.
"During strength training, we're tearing our muscle fibers. So it's important to let that muscle group rebuild and rest the following day, as that's when our muscles are 'building,'" he says.
You also want to ensure you're balancing your workout routine with core exercises that strengthen your abs, erectors and lower back to help prevent injury, as squatting and hip-hinging exercises all involve bracing your core.