Your glutes are good for more than filling out a pair of pants. They’re the largest muscle group in your body, making them incredibly important for pretty much every physically demanding thing you do. “You build a better athlete on the backside of the body,” says Todd Durkin, strength coach and owner of Fitness Quest 10. “By training the ‘non-mirror’ muscles — the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and back — you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to performance.”
While most trainers would point to the traditional squat for building muscles below the belt, it's the hip thrust that activates your glutes and wards off some of the problems that arise from ignoring those “non-mirror” muscles. “Weak glutes are associated with tight hip flexors, sore knees, and can be associated with poor movement mechanics,” says Dr. Austin Robinson, a strength coach with a Ph.D. in exercise science. “Targeting the glutes with hip thrusts should help these issues and improve other important lifts, such as squat and deadlift.”
According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics led by “The Glute Guy” Bret Contreras, barbell hip thrusts activate the gluteus maximus and biceps femoris (part of the hamstrings muscle group) more than barbell back squats when using estimated 10-rep max loads for each exercise.
This isn’t to say squats are ineffective or shouldn’t be included in your routine, but the study emphasizes the importance of performing both exercises: Starting with compound movements, such as squats, lunges, and deadlifts to target your entire lower-body musculature, then incorporating hip thrusts or bridges to isolate your glutes and build power as you learn to effectively extend your hips.
According to Robinson, the reason the hip thrust is so good at targeting your glutes is because your knees remain bent throughout the exercise. “When the knees are bent and the hips are extending,"Robinson says, "the hamstring musculature becomes ‘inactivated,’ which leaves most of the hip extension coming from the glutes."
By isolating your glutes, you’re able to increase your power, enhancing performance in exercises that require a strong hip drive, such as cleans and snatches, while also improving stability through your hips and core. In essence, a strong, powerful butt makes for a strong, powerful athlete.
Here's how to do it: “When starting off with hip thrusts, your first exercise should always be the glute bridge,” says Richard Wilcock, a strength coach and studio owner with a master’s degree in exercise science. “This is a basic bodyweight exercise that allows you to learn the hip thrust action before loading up with weight.”
Focus on keeping your core tight as you really squeeze your glutes to powerfully extend your hips and press them toward the ceiling. Once you can easily complete three sets of 20 bridges, Wilcock suggests making the exercise more challenging by adding weight plates to load the bridge, or by progressing to a single-leg bridge with or without added weight.
When you’re ready to proceed to a full hip thrust, set up by sitting on the floor, legs extended, leaning against a padded bench with a weight plate or barbell across your hips. Bend your knees and plant your feet flat on the floor, about hip-distance apart. Press your back into the bench, and keep your eyes focused on the wall in front of you. Press through your feet and powerfully squeeze your glutes to extend your hips. At the top of the movement, your knees should be bent at 90-degree angles with your hips extended, so your body forms a tabletop. Reverse the movement and lower your butt back to the floor. Aim to perform at least three sets of eight to 10 repetitions. As you get stronger, keep loading on the weight.