Both the hip thrust and squat are used for lower body training to increase strength, power, and build muscle. Building your glutes is a goal for strength and fitness athletes, as well as the everyday gym-goer who wants to improve their physique.
So is the hip thrust or squat better for growing your glutes? The hip thrust activates the glutes greater throughout the entire range of motion compared with squat. Our research concludes:
If we had to pick between hip thrust or squats: we’d pick the hip thrust.
You have more consistent tension on the glutes while hip thrusting, whereas in the squat the tension on the glutes will be ‘off and on’ throughout the range of motion.
The hip thrust produces greater levels of metabolic stress on the glutes compared with the squat, which means you’ll get a greater “pump” in the glutes while hip thrusting vs. a more overall lower body pump while squatting.
The squat creates greater muscular damage on the glutes, which is another mechanism for muscle growth. However, muscle damage alone isn’t sufficient enough to maximize hypertrophy.
Rather than picking one exercise over another, a more practical approach is to train both the hip thrust and squat for optimal glute development. Both exercises have been shown to increase glute hypertrophy and target different parts of the glute.
There is more to the story though to maximize your glute development.
In this article, we’ll discuss the anatomy of the glute and the optimal technique for both hip thrusting and squatting so that you’re getting the most out of each exercise. We’ll also explain the science behind glute development, the pros and cons of the hip thrust versus squat, and recommend a training approach for each movement.
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How Do The Glutes Function?
Let’s take a look at the role of the glutes.
Knowing the function of the glutes will help us understand how they can be recruited through either hip thrusts or squats.
The glutes are comprised of three muscles: glute maximus, glute medius, and glute minimus.
The glute maximus (i.e. glute max) is the part of the glute that you ‘sit on’ while in a chair. It’s the ‘meaty’ part of the glute and is the biggest muscle in the human body.
The primary role is hip extension (extending the hip), but it also assists with other actions of the hip, including: hip abduction (lifting the leg sideways), external rotation (rotating the hip outward), and posterior pelvic tilt (tucking the pelvis).
The glute medius (i.e. glute med) is the side-upper part of the glute.
The primary role is hip abduction. In other words, lifting the leg sideways from the body or in exercises that require the knees to maintain an outward position. The glue med also serves as a stabilizing function for the hip and pelvis. Therefore, the glute med is also active by doing single-leg movements.
The glute minimus (i.e glute min) is the side-lower part of the glute.
The primary role is hip abduction. So just like the glute med, it can be targeted through exercises that move the leg away from the midline of the body. In addition, the glute min also assists with medial (inward) rotation of the thigh at the hip.
Now that we understand what the different parts of the glutes do, let’s look at the technique of the hip thrust and squat, and how the glutes are activated through each of these movements.
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Hip Thrust Technique
Here are 3 simple steps to follow:
Step #1: Position the barbell on the crease of the hips
Place a loaded barbell in front of a flat bench. Position yourself under the barbell with the load directly on the crease of your hip. Your upper back should be resting on the edge of the bench.
Step 2: Set your feet in the proper position
To start, you should place your feet wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes slightly flared outward.
You should place your feet in a position where at the top end range of motion your knees are at a 90-degree angle.
Step 3: Drive your legs into the floor and lift your hips
To initiate the movement, drive your heels into the floor and squeeze your glutes to raise your hips. The highest level of glute activation will occur at full hip extension, so make sure you use a weight that allows you to complete the entire range of motion.
At the top of the movement, you want to tuck your pelvis underneath of you. This is referred to as a posterior pelvic tilt, which will prevent your low back from arching. As you tuck your pelvis, you should feel your glutes activate more.
The upper back and shoulder blades should be pushing into the bench. The head can be raised up off the bench with your chin tucked.
Let’s move on to looking at the squat technique.
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Here are 4 simple steps:
Step 1: Set your grip & stance
Your hands should be placed outside of shoulder-width where your shoulders feel comfortable when the bar is on your back. Your squat stance should be just outside of shoulder-width with your toes slightly flared. This will allow you to drop your hips between your ankles comfortably.
Step 2: Activate your brace
Prior to squatting, you need to activate your core to stabilize your spine and pelvis. To do this, take a big breath into your stomach, and brace as hard as you can by expanding the muscles in your torso 360-degrees around to create stiffness and rigidity.
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Step 3: Crack at the hips and knees simultaneously
To initiate the movement, crack at your hips and knees at the same time. Your knees should bend forward, while your hips bend backward. As you descend, the barbell should remain in line with the middle of your foot. Hold your breath while squatting down, continuing to maintain the brace that you activated in step two.
Step 4: Squat deep and drive out of the hole
The range of motion will be dictated by your level of hip mobility. However, you’ll want to squat as deep as you can, aiming to go just below parallel. As you drive out of the hole, the hips and barbell should rise at the same tempo. You want to avoid your hips shooting up first, which will cause your torso angle to become more horizontal to the floor. Keep your chest up, and ensure your knees are tracking over your toes, not caving inward, as you stand back to your starting position.
How to Target The Glutes While Hip Thrusting and Squatting
Let’s now take a look at how the glute functions while hip thrusting and squatting. I’ll offer tips on how to activate your glutes more effectively while performing these exercises.
The Glutes & Hip Thrusts
The hip thrust has two primary actions, hip extension and posterior pelvic tilt, which predominately target the glute max.
From a mechanics standpoint, the glute max is the most active when the hips are at full extension and the pelvis tucks forward.
This makes it important to (1) hip thrust through the full range of motion, and (2) think about ‘tucking and squeezing’ your glutes at the top of each rep. You’ll want to make sure that you don’t use a weight that’s too heavy, which limits your range of motion or ability to tuck your pelvis.
To target the glutes even more while hip thrusting, you can:
Take a wider than shoulder-width stance: while stance width can vary between individuals on hip thrusts, a stance that is outside of shoulder-width can lead to greater muscle activation in the glute max (Smidt & Rogers, 1982).
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The Glutes & Squats
The primary role of the glutes while squatting is hip extension, external hip rotation, and hip abduction, which means the squat primarily targets the glute max and glute med.
At the start of the squat, the load is directly over the hip joint. As you squat down, the hips travel behind the line of force in order to descend into the bottom position. To return to standing the hips need to travel up and forward underneath the line of force again. This ‘up and forward’ action is the hip extension portion of the movement, which is where the glute max is the most active.
What this means is that the glutes are most activate at about halfway up.
Contrary to popular belief, the glutes are not activated any more at deeper ranges of motion. Just because you squat deeper, doesn’t mean you’ll get greater glute activation. In fact, the deeper you squat, the more quad activation you’ll get (Escamilla et al., 2002).
Proper squatting mechanics also call for the knees to be in line with the toes throughout the entire range of motion. What you want to avoid is having your knees cave inward while squatting. Since the glute med is responsible for hip abduction, the upper-side part of the glute will help prevent the knees from caving inward.
To target the glutes even more in the squat, you can:
Point your toes out: This will lead to greater external hip rotation, which will activate the glute max more.
Take a wider than shoulder-width stance: This will further add to the hip abductor forces placed on the glute med (Paoli et al, 2009).
Keep the shins more vertical while squatting: This will force your hips to travel further away from the line of force when descending into the squat. As a result, it will increase the hip extension required to drive the hips up and forward, which will increase how hard the glute max needs to work to return to standing (Lynn & Noffel, 2012).
What Causes Muscle Growth (Glute Science)
Now that we have a solid understanding of how the glutes function in the hip thrusts vs. squats, and how to best activate the glutes throughout the range of motion, we must know what causes the glute muscles to grow in the first place.
In this section, we’ll cover a short overview of the three main mechanisms for muscular growth:
In order to maximize glute development, we should do our best to hit each of these mechanisms in our training.
Therefore, we need to answer:
1. Mechanical tension (Squat vs. Hip Thrust)
Mechanical tension refers to loading a muscle group through a full range of motion.
You can place tension on a muscle by stretching it passively (without letting the muscle contract). You can also place tension on a muscle actively by flexing it as hard as you can. As you move through a range of motion, you are creating both passive and active tension on the muscle, which is superior for muscle growth.
Does the hip thrust or squat create more mechanical tension in the glutes?
The hip thrust places greater tension on the glutes throughout the entire range of motion (Contreras, et. al., 2015).
It’s been shown that the hip thrust starts to create tension on the glutes as soon as the hips begin the movement, with peak muscular activation occurring at the top of the movement.
In the squat, there are portions of the lift where the glutes don’t have any mechanical tension and are rather ‘un-loaded’. The glutes experience peak muscular activation around halfway up, but at the bottom and the top of the lift, there are relatively low levels of tension placed on the muscle.
In other words, you have more consistent tension on the glutes while hip thrusting, whereas in the squat the tension on the glutes will be ‘off and on’.
Furthermore, whereas in the hip thrust you have equal mechanical tension placed on the glutes on both the way up and down, during the squat the glutes have relatively low levels of mechanical tension on the way down.
2. Metabolic stress (Squat vs. Hip Thrust)
Metabolic stress refers to the feeling you get when the muscle is burning and you have that ‘pump’ sensation.
Metabolic stress is more a function of the programming variables, such as the sets, reps, rest, and load, as well as any special training methods, for example, drop sets, supersets, and cluster sets.
With that said, the metabolic stress of a muscle group cannot happen without high levels of mechanical tension. If you have greater tension on a muscle group, then you can manipulate the training variables accordingly to achieve metabolic stress.
Does the hip thrust or squat create more metabolic stress in the glutes?
If the right training variables are used, the hip thrust can place greater metabolic stress on the glutes (Shoenfeld, 2010).
This is the case because the starting point for metabolic stress is having high levels of mechanical tension. Since the hip thrust has greater mechanical tension compared with the squat, it has a higher potential for metabolic stress.
Practically speaking, if you performed 10 reps at a max weight of hip thrusts versus squats, you would feel a greater ‘pump’ in your glutes while hip thrusting, compared with a more overall lower body pump in your glutes, quads, and spinal erectors while squatting.
3. Muscle damage (Squat vs. Hip Thrust)
Muscle damage refers to the sore feeling you get 1-2 days post-exercise. It’s a result of localized damage to the muscle tissue. The body’s response to repairing this muscle tissue is what leads to growth.
Damage is usually caused by introducing a new training variable, such as overloading the eccentric range of motion (performing slow reps), or by stretching a muscle while it’s being activated.
Creating a high level of muscle damage is not necessarily a good thing because if you’re too sore to train, then you may be reducing the overall training frequency and volume that you otherwise would be able to get. So while muscle damage does relate to muscle growth, too much muscle damage can impact your recovery levels and ability to train harder over subsequent training days.
There’s a fine balance.
Does the hip thrust or squat create more muscle damage in the glutes?
The squat leads to greater muscular damage compared with the hip thrust (Illera-Dominguez, 2018 et al., 2018).
As I said, one of the main causes of muscular damage is whether the muscle is being stretched under tension throughout the range of motion.
When comparing the hip thrusts vs. squats, you need to know whether the glutes are being stretched while they are being activated.
In the hip thrust, the peak levels of muscular activation occur at the top of the movement, when the glutes are maximally shortened.
In the squat, the peak levels of muscular activation occur halfway up, which is when the glutes are being maximally lengthened — or stretched.
Therefore, even though the hip thrusts may have more mechanical tension and metabolic stress, your glutes may feel sorer from squats because of the greater muscular damage. This may impact your recovery time.
Programming Hip Thrusts & Squats: A Practical Approach
The practical approach for growing your glutes is to incorporate both hip thrusts and squats into your training program.
There are two reasons for this:
Different parts of the glute can be trained separately in each movement. Both the hip thrust and squat will train hip extension. However, the hip thrust will challenge the glutes to maintain a posterior pelvic tilt, whereas the squats will challenge the glutes to maintain hip abduction.
Each exercise will target different mechanisms for muscle growth. While hip thrusts have greater mechanical tension on the glutes and therefore higher potential for metabolic stress, the squat will have greater muscular damage.
How Should You Program Hip Thrusts and Squats?
For optimal glute development, you’ll want to train the glutes 2-3 times/week.
Shoenfeld (2016) demonstrated that training a muscle group with two times per week frequency is better than one time per week for muscle growth. However, Contreras (2016) stated that you can train a muscle more than two times per week when looking at the muscle length at peak tension. The idea here is that if the exercise doesn’t cause as much muscular damage, then you can recover quicker and train it more often.
As such, you c
an train hip thrusts more frequently than squats
Here is a sample 3-day training split for the glutes:
On day 1, you would do squats and include other glute exercises that stretch and lengthen the glutes while being activated. Some exercises that fall under this category are lunges and Romanian deadlifts. While this will create greater muscular damage, you’ll then have two full days off before your next glute session.
On days 4 and 6, you would do hip thrusts and include other glute exercises where the peak muscle activation occurs while the glute is being shortened. Some exercises that fall under this category are glute bridges, machine hip abductions, and clamshells. This combination of exercises will have a lower amount of muscular damage, which is why you only need one day off in between glute sessions.
Pros & Cons of Hip Thrusting and Squatting
Before wrapping up, I want to cover the pros and cons of each movement just to show you that there is no single exercise that is a ‘silver bullet’ for growing your glutes.
Hip Thrusts: Pros & Cons
Glutes are activated by hip extension and posterior pelvic tilt
Higher levels of muscular tension on glutes leading to hypertrophy
Higher potential for metabolic stress on glutes leading to hypertrophy
Glutes are activated equally on the way up and down
Can train the movement more frequently compared with squats
Easier to learn
Lower levels of muscular damage
Can be awkward to set up
Can feel uncomfortable having the barbell on the crease of the hip
Limited by glute strength, i.e. once the glutes fail you can’t perform any more reps
Squats: Pros & Cons
Glutes are activated by hip extension, external hip rotation, hip abduction
Glute max and glute med are activated
Higher levels of muscular damage leading to hypertrophy
Easier to set up, not as awkward
Greater muscular developments of the lower body overall (not just glutes)
Not as limited by glute strength to complete the movement, i.e. you can compensate with other muscle groups to complete the movement when near failure
Lower levels of mechanical tension on glutes
Lower potential for metabolic stress on glutes
Typically trained less frequently compared with hip thrusts because of enhanced recovery times
Range of motion limited by ankle and hip mobility
Potentially harder to learn because more coordination and balanced are involved
If we had to pick between the squats and hip thrust for growing your glutes, we’d pick the hip thrust. But as you can see, the answer is not so simple. There are clear strengths and limitations to both exercises, and a more practical solution to glute development would be to incorporate both exercises into your training program. The hip thrusts will have greater muscular activation, which can lead to higher levels of metabolic stress. While these are limitations for the squat, the hip thrust lacks muscular damage because the muscle contracts at its shortest length. To maximize your glute progress, both of these exercises cover the bases when it comes to hypertrophy adaptations. Additionally, each exercise targets different parts of the glute, and since the glutes are made up of three different muscles, you’ll want multiple exercises that can target these areas.
Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A., Schoenfeld, B., Beardsley, C., Cronin, J. 2015. A comparison of gluteus maximus, bicep femoris, and vastus lateralis electromyographic activity in the back squat and barbell hip thrust exercises. Journal of Applied Bio Mechanics. 31(6): 452-458.
Escamilla, R., Fleisig, G.,, Lowry, T., Barrentine, S. (2002). A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of the squat during varying stance widths. Med Sci Sports Exercise. 33(6): 984-998.
Lynn, S., Noffal, G. 2012. Lower extremity biomechanics during a regular and counterbalanced squat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 26(9), 2417-2425.
Paoli, A., Marcolin, G., Petrone, N. 2009. The effect of stance width on the electromyographical activity of eight superficial thigh muscles during back squat with different bar loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23(1): 246-250.
Shoenfeld, B. 2010. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(1): 2857-2872.
Schoenfeld B., Ogborn, D., Krieger, J. 2016. Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine Journal, 46: 1689-1607.
Illera-Dominguez, V., Nuell, S., Carmona, G., Padulles, J., Padulles, X., Lloret, M., Cusso, T., Alomar, X., Cadefau, J. 2018. Early functional and morphological muscle adaptations during short-term inertial-squat training. Front Physiology, 9(1265): 1-12.
Smidt, G., Roger, M. 1982. Factors contributing to the regulation and clinical assessment of muscular strength. Physical Therapy, 62(9): 1283-1290.&n