June 13, 2014 by danfisher87
When I speak to anybody and ask what exercise they think is best for glutes I can confidently say 99% people will say it’s the squat.
Since people started training in gyms, the squat has been associated with developing and building strong gluteal muscles. The backside of the human body has become an essential part of training programs. Athletes require a strong posterior chain for optimal performance in their sports.
In recent years since social media like Facebook and Instagram the obsession by society, for ladies to have firmer, tighter and rounder bum is at its highest. In light of this I regularly get asked the question
‘What is the best exercise for a better bum?’
So what is the best exercise for building the backside?
For years, the traditional back squat was the go-to movement to work the glutes and still remains a fantastic choice. Recently however the hip thrust has gained popularity and emerged as a big rival for development of the glutes. I include it into a lot of my sessions for clients who want stronger, bigger glutes because in my experience I’ve found it works brilliantly.
But how can we argue either exercise to be the best without evidence. Well no research comparing the two exercises and their effect on the glutes had been conducted until Bret Contreras, the creator of the hip thrust (machine), conducted one. Bret examined 3 key factors that impact muscle growth and development: mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage on the gluteal muscles. The majority of the next few paragraphs are based on his findings.
Gluteal Biomechanics During Squat: Glute activation during a sub-max effort on a barbell squat isn’t what most people think they are. With the loaded bar on your shoulder, the glutes are relaxed and only begin to contract during the eccentric phase. Contraction during descent is very low and lowest at the bottom of the squat. In fact, research now shows that a ‘bucket squat’ or going too deep has little to no impact on the backside. The most amount of muscle contraction and activation takes place during the concentric phase; as you drive explosively upward from the bottom of the squat. Maximal contraction takes place during the middle of the rep, and slowly dissipates as you get back to the top.
Generally speaking, gluteal activation at the lowest phase of the squat is about 10-20% of maximal contraction, 20-30% at the start of the eccentric phase and 80-120% at the start and during the concentric phase. Overall the average gluteal activation percentage is about 60% of maximal contraction.
Gluteal Biomechanics During Hip Thrust: Using a sub-max load, the barbell hip thrust challenges the gluteal muscles a bit differently to the squat. At the start of the movement, when the barbell is placed on the hip, the glutes are relaxed. The lifter thrusts the hips concentrically upwards until full hip extension is reached. Average gluteal activation during this phase is about 160% of maximal contraction. Keep in mind that full hip extension must be achieved (squeezing the buttocks as hard as possible at the top of the lift) for full benefits to be reaped. Unlike a barbell squat where the glutes are relaxed at the top, the gravity effect on the hip thrust, the barbell constantly trying to push you back down from the top, there is inevitably constant tension on the gluteal fibers.
There is little to no hamstring activation during the barbell hip thrusts. However, when the drive occurs at the balls of the feet as opposed to the heels, some may get some hamstring work. A general rule is though that it’s better to drive from the heel for maximum effect on the glutes.
Squat : Hip Thrust
Conclusion: Both the squat and hip thrust are excellent choices for building the backside. The fact that both movements keep the knees in a bent position means there is limited hamstring activation due to its shortening and therefore more involvement of the gluteal muscles. The hamstrings can only fire maximally when they’re continually lengthened. Although both exercises require hip extension which forces gluteal activation, the minimal activation during the eccentric phase and the lack of tension at the top of the squat doesn’t cause immediate burn and soreness unlike the hip thrust where there is constant tension. However because the fibers get a deeper stretch eccentrically during the squat more than the hip thrust, a lifter is highly likely to get sore in the days following a sub-max squat workout. The only small drawback is the lower back strength limits the load a lifter can use on the barbell squat and quadriceps and hamstrings activation takes away from maximal gluteal activation. The hip thrust, though easy to perform, is limited by glute strength, meaning once the glutes get tired from firing, a lifter will no longer be able to thrust thereby ending the set.
So which is the better choice for the backside?
Based on the evidence, both exercises build and develop the gluteal muscles effectively and should be incorporated in a training program. The back squat engages more of the lower gluteal fibers than upper fibers whereas the hip thrust fully activate both fibers. If you want fully developed glutes, you should be advised to routinely perform these two exercises. Performing only one and not the other will make it more difficult to get maximum results. Both can be performed during a single workout session or during separate sessions. The load should be challenging for maximum benefit and you should work as hard on these exercise as you do the other. A sub-max effort of about 70% of 1RM would be idea with a rep range of between 8 and 15 reps per set. Obviously the higher the reps the lower the weight you’ll be able to manage so try it out with different weights with your coach or a training partner as you’ll need a spot for both these exercises as they are both big weight bearers so you should be able to manage a reasonably heavy weight.
In terms of additional exercise to complement these two, the deadlift along with other gluteal isolation exercises like the reverse lunge, stiff-legged deadlift and hip abduction movements will ensure you develop the peachy bum you’ve always wanted.