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Squats vs. Hip Thrusts

As a training enthusiast you are well aware of the critical role that lower body training plays in your overall routine. The sweep of a strong set of hamstrings and quadriceps, capped off by a set of powerful glutes, are markers of an educated and experienced lifter. However, when it comes to two characteristic lower body exercises – the squat and the hip thrust – which is best? Which exercise will reign victorious in the showdown of squat vs. hip thrust?

Exercise Mechanics

Before you compare and critique these two exercises, it is important to know how to perform them properly. While a quick Google or Youtube search can render quite a few examples, those examples aren’t always the most reliable. If you are checking out an exercise for the first time you really have no way of knowing if you are watching top-level exercise execution, or some beginner completely butchering the entire movement.

Here are a few key notes on proper squat and hip thrust execution:

Back Squat

The squat is often heralded as the king of all exercises. In one fell swoop you can train your quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, and smaller stabilizing muscles while invoking a nice metabolic burn. Squats build both form and function – building powerful, muscular legs and hips along with improved athletic ability.

There are about as many squat variations as there are flavors of Baskin Robbins ice cream – perhaps even more. Just a handful of factors that may be varied are: squatting to parallel or below parallel, performing back squats or front squats, wide or narrow foot positioning, and using a high bar or low bar variation. Add to those factors lesser known squat variations like the Zercher squat or Jefferson squat and things can get just a bit too complicated.

For the sake of comparison, we will focus our attention on the back squat. Compared to other variations – like a front squat – the back squat is a bit more comparable to the hip thrust since it heavily targets the glutes and hamstrings. Here are a few key steps to follow to properly perform the back squat:

  1. The safest way to squat is by using a power rack. In a power rack you can set the horizontal safety pins at a height that allows you to squat to full depth while still providing protection in the case of a failed rep. Begin facing your bar. Place the bar at a height that will allow you to unrack it without having to come up onto your toes.
  2. Dip below the bar and place it securely against your upper back. The exact bar placement will vary depending on whether you prefer a low bar or high bar squat. High bar positioning allows for a more upright stance, while low bar positioning will require you to hinge forward more deeply to counterbalance the weight. Keep the bar pulled tightly to your back throughout the entire squat to increase overall stability.
  3. Once you are properly positioned with the bar at your back and your feet beneath the bar in a shallow squat, you can fully straighten (but not lock out) your legs to unrack the bar. Once you unrack take a large step back into the center of your rack to create adequate squatting space.
  4. Now it’s finally time for action. Initiate the squat by first breaking at the hips – extending your hips back as if you were trying to carefully sit in a chair that you cannot see but know is somewhere behind you. As you descend into the squat, keep your weight centered in your heels and midfoot and think of trying to spread the floor with your feet. Doing this will help to recruit the glutes, stabilize the hips, and prevent your knees from collapsing inward – this action, called a valgus movement of the knee for those of you who are fans of scientific terminology, places a great deal of shearing force on the knees and can lead to injury. As you continue to descend into the squat, also make sure to keep your shoulder blades drawn down and back, chest out and broad, core braced, and lower back either neutral or slightly arched.
  5. By now you are likely wondering how deep you should squat? This simple question evokes far more debate than you would expect. You’ll find strong advocates that advise only squatting to parallel along with advocates that preach you should go as deep as possible, even to that point where your hamstrings touch your calves. While there are valid arguments for both more recent research indicates that, as long as you are able to maintain proper form and you don’t experience pain, deep squats will allow for more well-rounded strength development. However, if your form breaks down once you drop below parallel, or you experience hip or knee pain, then stopping at parallel is just fine.
  6. Once you reach the deepest phase of your squat, it is time to reverse the movement and return to a standing position for your next rep. As you stand up, contract your glutes, hams, and quads as much as possible. Think of exploding out of the bottom position of the squat to stand up as forcefully as possible. While your actual movement may still be slow due to the weight of the bar, by standing up in this manner you’ll more effectively recruit and condition muscle fibers.
  7. Once you finally reach that top position, take a breath and repeat for your desired number of repetitions.

Hip Thrust

Even if you haven’t performed them yourself, you likely know what a squat looks like. Hip thrusts, on the other hand, are a rare find in your typical commercial gym. A hip thrust is essentially a weighted hip bridge that you perform with you back elevated on a bench. You can add weight to the hip thrust by using a barbell, dumbbell, weight plate, or even heavy bands. The hip thrust is similar to a squat in that it also recruits your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and smaller stabilizing muscles in the lower body; however, the extent to which these muscles are recruited with the squat and hip thrust does differ a bit. This topic will be addressed more further on.

Here are a few steps to follow when properly performing a hip thrust:

  1. Begin seated on the floor directly in front of a flat bench. Place your back against the bench so it hits your lower shoulder blade area. This is the contact point that your body will hinge around as you perform the weighted hip thrust.
  2. Next, position your barbell (or dumbbell, weight plate, etc) directly across your hips. If you are using a barbell you will definitely want to place some form of padding between the bar and your body. When lifting heavier weights, a failure to use some additional padding can lead to pain and bruising. At this bottom position of the exercise, your feet should be flat on the floor about hip width apart and knees bent.
  3. To initiate the movement, press forcefully through your heels by contracting your glutes. As your hips raise off of the floor your mid-back will press firmly into, and hinge around, the bench positioned behind you. Continue to press through your heels until you reach full extension. At this point your shins should be vertical and your body should be straight from shoulders to knees.
  4. Hold for a moment at the peak of this movement, focusing on squeezing your glutes even more. Be cautious that you do not arch your lower back in an attempt to lift your hips. Your lower back should remain neutral throughout the entire movement. To help achieve this position keep your abs tight and hips tucked under very slightly.
  5. Return to the starting position for your next rep by slowly lowering your hips. You can either bring your hips back down to the floor, or keep them hovering slightly above the floor to maintain constant tension on your muscles throughout the entire set.

Clear Goals as Your Guide

Now that any lingering confusion over proper exercise execution is cleared, it’s time to delve a bit deeper to determine whether the squat or hip thrust will most effectively and efficiently help you to reach your goals. Ah, goals. Clearly defined goals are utterly necessary. If you lack clearly defined goals, there really is no way for you to know how to map out the journey you will follow to reach them.

We all know that guy at the gym who moves haphazardly from one exercise to another. One moment he is on the leg press blowing out partial reps for what feels like forever and the next moment he is performing a rather sloppy set of bicep curls – relying on momentum, and not muscle, to lift dumbbells that are obviously far too heavy. If you can’t identify this stereotypical gym member, it may be time to take a look in the mirror.

With training goals front and center in your mind, you’ll be able to select the best exercises, set and rep schemes, and training splits to set off along the proper path in your training journey. Taking an even closer look: most trainees select goals that are centered around either appearance or performance. With appearance in mind, a lifter may wish to build larger, more dense muscles or drop a bit of extra body fat. If performance is top priority, a lifter may seek to increase his squat 1 rep max or decrease his 100m sprint time.

When evaluating the squat and the hip thrust, we must keep both appearance and performance in mind. Even those who are primarily focused on appearance care a bit about performance. After all, absolutely no one wants to be “all show and no go”. You’re bound to feel as though something is missing if you look fantastic, but lack any ability to put that muscle to use.

What The Science Says

When you are looking to comprehensively examine and evaluate an exercise, asking the biggest guy at your gym for advice is far from reliable. Reaching valid conclusions about the efficacy of an exercise demands real science, not “broscience”.

Take a moment and allow your mind to travel back to your most recent – or perhaps not so recent – science course. What do you recall? Hopefully you remember that scientific research involves the interplay between dependent and independent variables. Independent variables are selected or set by those conducting the research so that their impact on dependent variables may be measured and evaluated.

For our scientific pursuit, the squat and hip hinge are our independent variables. In order to take both appearance and performance into account, we will select change in muscle size (an indicator of muscle hypertrophy), change in amount of weight lifted, and skill transfer as our dependent variables. The best exercise will build muscle size and strength, while also improving your ability to perform related athletic tasks and meet the demands of daily life.

Recently Bret Contreras – a well-known trainer, researcher, and glute enthusiast – conducted a formal research study looking at these exact variables of interest. His findings were reported in a multi-part blog series and a related research study published in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics and titled “A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises”.

The study reported the following results and observations:

  • Both exercises improved squat and hip thrust strength, increased horizontal pushing force, and built muscle tissue in the lower portion of the glutes.
  • Squats were more effective at improving squat strength, while hip thrusts were more effective at improving hip thrust strength. (A bit of an obvious conclusion, but important nonetheless).
  • Both exercises increased the size of the glutes, however hip thrusts increased glute size approximately 8 percentage points more than did squats.
  • Lastly, hip thrusts were more effective at increasing maximal horizontal pushing force than were squats.

Remember, You Are a “Unique Snowflake”

Congratulations! You have reached the final step in determining which exercise wins in the squat vs. hip thrust showdown. You now know how to properly perform both exercises; as well as what the science says about the ability of these exercises to assist you in reaching performance and appearance-focused goals.

There is one final factor that you must take into consideration to reach a conclusion, a factor that is arguably the most important of all. That factor is you – more specifically, your own unique goals, training history, physical capabilities, propensity for injury, and even personal preferences. You must review the data for yourself and decide which exercise will suit you best. After all, when it comes to training, you truly are a “unique snowflake”.

If you are looking to increase your squat 1 rep max, focus on the back squat. On the other hand, if you are looking to effectively build your glutes, focus your attention on the hip thrust. Lastly, if you have the time and the desire, you can perform both exercises. You will truly have the best of both worlds.

Remember, training is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to building muscle and improving performance. Without the right nutrition and supplementation, you’ll fail to fully benefit from the hours you spend training in the gym. Supplementing with branched chain amino acids – like Sheer BCAA – helps to stimulate protein synthesis and foster recovery so you can get back to the gym more quickly.



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