The Best Way to Perform Glute Bridges & Hip Thrusters: Eccentric Isometrics
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. A majority of your posterior chain development should come from properly executed squats, hinges, and lunges. If you’re getting better posterior chain development with glute isolation movements than with squats, hinges, and lunges, it’s simply because you’re performing your squats, hinges, and lunges incorrectly. Now, this isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t use glute isolation drills. In fact I employ a variety of glute bridges, hip thrusters, and leg curl variations on a semi-consistent basis with my athletes. However, I never use them as a replacement for the basic compound movements but instead as drills to complement the larger foundational exercises. Read more on THE TRUTH ABOUT GLUTE TRAINING.
Many of you also know that I’m an ardent advocate of eccentric isometric training as I believe applying the eccentric isometric protocol to foundational movement patterns is one of, if not the most effective training modalities in existence. Read more about ECCENTRIC ISOMETRICS here. Up until the last year I had never applied the eccentric isometric protocol to hip thrusters and glute bridges primarily because I’ve always considered the sweet spot of these glute isolation movements to occur in the top fully contracted position, as that’s where the individual is actually squeezing the glutes, not to mention it's the most challenging phase of the movement.
However, all this changed roughly a year ago when I had the pleasure of receiving an incredibly unique and brilliant training tool from ATHOS in the form of an EMG wearable body suit.
I decided to experiment with the suit in a variety of ways, one of which was to apply the eccentric isometric protocol to glute bridges and hip thrusters. The results were quite amazing as in many ways the data suggest that this may be one of the most effective ways to perform glute bridges and hip thrusters. Here’s an example of what that looks like as demonstrated by NFL running back and USC superstar athlete Ronald Jones.
On the one hand I was pleasantly surprised by these findings since the descending strength curve of most glute bridges and hip thrusters would indicate that the top contracted position is where most of the magic happens during these drills. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed such phenomenal results applying eccentric isometric protocols to just about every movement variation there is it should come as no surprise that it’s also as effective a method for performing glute bridges and hip thrusters. In addition, I had begun playing around with these on myself and my athletes just a few weeks prior to performing the EMG analysis, and the intensity of muscular contractions in the posterior chain were through the roof. Therefore, I figured there would be at least something in the data to support their use.
Now, I want to go on record as saying that I only used myself and a handful of athletes to compile these results, as this was a very simple and informal quasi investigation, nothing more, nothing less. I'm not trying to hype this up to be something more than it is, nor am I suggesting that the results should be taken as the end all, be all of glute training. I'm simply highlighting my own personal results and what I've experienced in my own training and that of my athletes. Therefore, more conclusive empirical research is needed, particularly in non-biased controlled settings.
In addition, the ATHOS EMG suit, as phenomenal and amazing a tool as it is (allowing the athlete to receive real time EMG data without having to be hooked up to wires in a physiology lab), it is most likely not going to be as perfectly accurate as more traditional EMG setups. In fact, I would love to see a study performed by the Glute Master himself, the renowned Bret Contreras comparing the results of eccentric isometric glute bridges to traditional variations. Perhaps he would find similar results or maybe his findings would be entirely different. However, it would be fascinating to say the least and I would be surprised if he didn’t at least find some value in periodically incorporating these into the routines of his athletes and clients.
Before I go any further I want to highlight that these numbers simply used average readings taken from the ATHOS EMG suit and no large scale statistical analyses were performed but instead only basic calculations. Therefore, the results will be summarized as succinctly as possible without going heavily into the statistics and numbers. Additionally, the numbers and percentages are a combination of basic calculations (i.e. means) and approximations of several athletes. That’s because it’s a bit tricky to find exact numbers with the ATHOS suite since you can’t easily eliminate outliers and normalize the EMG data based on other factors such as outside noise and artifacts. In fact, this is tricky to accomplish even when conducting studies in state of the art physiology labs. However, the ATHOS suit is designed to provide user friendly, easy-to-interpret results rather than scientifically complex data. It’s this data from which I’ll be reporting my findings.
It’s also important to highlight the value of relying on experiential data and anecdotal evidence produced from practical application in everyday strength training settings. For instance, my perception of the effectiveness of eccentric isometric glute bridges is not based solely on the EMG findings. In fact, the EMG findings were used a means of validating what I consistently and repeatedly witnessed when applying these to my athletes. For example, most if not all of my athletes have reported identical feedback regarding eccentric isometric glute bridges and hip thrusters, suggesting that not only were these exponentially more brutal than traditional higher rep variations of their counterpart, but they also felt significantly more activation and recruitment throughout their entire posterior chain when using the eccentric isometric protocols.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for my athletes to experience extreme cramping and Charley horsing in their glutes and hamstrings even after only a few properly performed eccentric isometric glute bridges or hip thrusters. This occured just as frequently in athletes who had previously expressed to me how they could perform dozens of hip thrusters and glute bridges with heavy weight without breaking a sweat or producing high levels of local fatigue. Just a few properly performed eccentric isometric reps of the same movements with nothing more than bodyweight, however, often produces almost unbearable levels of intramuscular tension, while simultaneously producing some very entertaining facial expressions and imaginative verbal remarks to boot.
Execution of Glute Bridges and Hip Thrusters
Generally speaking the way I’ve had athletes perform traditional glute bridges and hip thrusters in the past (in regards to rep cadence) is pretty indicative of how they’re performed in mainstream fitness settings. Although the movement is performed in a controlled fashion there is no intentional slowing-down or isolation of any phase of the rep, with the exception of the top contracted position. This is where they’ll squeeze their glutes and hold for roughly 2 seconds each rep. Other than that there’s nothing remarkably unusual about the rep speed or cadence.
In contrast, the method I have my athletes use to perform eccentric isometric hip thrusters and glute bridges involves two unique components.
1. The eccentric phase is performed in a slow and controlled fashion taking approximately 4-5 seconds to complete.
2. Once the athlete reaches the full stretched position they’ll hold the eccentric isometric for an additional 4-5 seconds.
Additional Execution Cues
Besides the above components related to rep cadence and eccentric isometric duration, there are 5 other unique cues I use for all of my athletes regardless of whether or not they’re performing traditional glute bridges or eccentric isometric variations.
1. The concentric phase should be completed with as much force and power as possible while still maintaining optimal body alignment. This should all be done while attempting to contract the posterior chain as aggressively as possible.
2. During the eccentric phase of the glute bridge the athlete is instructed to actively pull themselves into the stretched position by contracting the hip flexors and core musculature rather than simply allowing gravity to pull them into the bottom position. This helps optimize eccentric co-contraction among reciprocal muscle groups, which is a critical component for maximizing reciprocal inhibition during the concentric phase of the movement. In other words, co-activation of agonist (glutes) and antagonist (hip flexors) muscles during the eccentric phase creates a slingshot effect. Once the hip flexors release, this produces maximal activation and contractile force of the glutes on the subsequent concentric phase. This is actually a critical component of all proper movement, and is simply what the process should look like during any properly performed glute bridge or hip thruster.
3. During the eccentric phase, the athlete is told to pull their stomach in and brace their core as a means of eliminating lumbar extension. This also helps to ensure that the athlete is pulling into the eccentric phase with their hip flexors, as the abdominals and hip flexors work together when performing voluntary hip flexion.
4. Throughout the duration of the set the athlete is told to maintain a neutral spine particularly at the cervical spine. One of the most common errors I see individuals make during posterior chain movements is moving into excessive forward head tilt and kyphotic posture. This should never occur, and simply degrades optimal spinal alignment while reinforcing dysfunctional postural mechanics that negatively transfer to other movements. Instead, the head should remain tall on the torso throughout and never tilt forward or back. Read more about PROPER SPINAL ALIGNMENT here.
In other words, when moving into the eccentric stretched position, as the torso is positioned at 45 degrees, the head should match it. Simply put, there should be a straight line from the hips to the shoulders, neck, and head. Similarly, in the top concentric position, the head should be perfectly parallel to the floor and inline with the rest of the body, as the natural eye gaze will be looking straight up towards the ceiling. Again this optimizes the posterior chain activation without compromising natural spinal alignment and postural mechanics.
5. The last and final form of cueing I use with all of my athletes on any type of glute bridge or hip thruster involves the utilization of proper foot and ankle alignment. While this may not seem like an important element, proper foot and ankle alignment/activation is perhaps the single most critical yet neglected component of properly executed glute exercises. More specifically, this involves keeping the foot completely straight or even slightly inwardly rotated (2-5 degrees inward) similar to proper foot strike when running. I also instruct athletes to screw their feet into the floor by pushing more weight to the outside of the feet while pressing the base of their big toes into the floor. Read more about FOOT AND ANKLE TRAINING here.
However, this concept is not unique to glute bridges and hip thrusters as it’s something I preach and teach on any and every exercise including chest presses. And yes, all exercises including glute bridges and hip thrusters are performed in barefoot conditions, socks, or minimalist shoes. That’s because traditional shoes tend to blunt foot and ankle activation, as they act like a crutch taking on the stabilization and structural support roles that the muscles in the feet and ankles are supposed to be performing.
Now, I’ve not yet performed an EMG comparison examining hip thrusters and glute bridges with or without foot and ankle activation, or without proper postural alignment for that matter. However, from practical experience I’ve observed some phenomenal and almost unbelievable occurrences when implementing proper foot and ankle mechanics on posterior chain movements. In fact, I would go as far as saying that proper foot and ankle mechanics/activation during glute bridges is equally, if not more important, than the implementation of the eccentric isometric protocol when it comes to posterior chain activation. However, when combined, the results of performing eccentric isometric glute bridges and hip thrusters with high levels of foot and ankle activation are noteworthy to say the least.
I’ve literally seen dozens of scenarios where athletes who report little if any activation in their posterior chain, suddenly feel as though their glutes or hamstrings are about to explode simply from correcting their foot and ankle alignment. In addition, they commonly report that the level of “burn” and lactic acid/hydrogen ion buildup is almost unbearable with eccentric isometric reps. These phenomena likely occur largely because activation begins with the feet and ankles. When the feet and ankles are doing their job this enhances signaling up the kinetic chain particularly throughout the hips. In fact, I would go as far as saying that its impossible to maximize posterior chain activation without addressing foot and ankle alignment. Additionally, even the slightest bit of external rotation (toe flare) can minimize the effectiveness of the exercise on the glutes and hamstrings. When in doubt, it’s always better for the toes to be too inwardly rotated than too externally rotated, as more inward rotation helps create additional torque into the floor.
With all of the technicalities taken care of, lets dive into the results of the EMG analysis and see what this indicates regarding the effectiveness of eccentric isometric hip thrusters and glute bridges. There were 3 main findings.
1. Symmetrical muscle activation appears to be markedly improved when performing eccentric isometric variations of glute exercises in comparison to traditional reps. In other words, during traditional glute bridges and hip thrusters athletes tend to favor one side, demonstrating significantly greater neural drive and muscle activation to one hip. However, during eccentric isometrics this appeared to be minimized, and also seemed to improve the further the athlete progressed into their set. In contrast, during traditional reps, symmetrical activation appeared to worsen throughout the set. This phenomenon appeared to be similar regardless of whether the exercise was performed in a bilateral or unilateral fashion.
2. When examining the eccentric phase of the exercise, muscle activation in the posterior chain via EMG readings was not significantly different regardless of whether or not the athlete was performing normal glute bridge/hip thrusters or eccentric isometric variations. This was perhaps the single most surprising finding for me as I was expecting greater posterior chain recruitment and muscle activation in the glutes and hamstrings during the eccentric phase. However, there did appear to be slightly more muscle activation in the hip flexors during the eccentric phase of the eccentric isometric protocol in comparison to traditional repetitions. Additionally this did not appear to negatively alter posterior chain activation during the eccentric phase.
3. Perhaps the most noteworthy findings of my quasi-investigation relate to the concentric phase of the exercises, which is ironic given the topic deals with the effects of eccentric isometrics on muscle activation. Results indicate that muscle activation of the glutes during the concentric phase of the exercises was approximately 25-35% greater during eccentric isometric variations of hip thrusters and glute bridges when compared to traditional hip thrusters. Additionally, hamstring activation during the concentric phase of the exercises appeared to be 15-20% greater during eccentric isometric hip thrusters and glute bridges compared to traditional variations.
The results above are quite fascinating on multiple levels.
First, it appears that the effects of eccentric isometrics, when applied to glute bridges, is quite similar to more traditional compound movements, particularly when it comes to symmetrical activation. This is in keeping with my own doctoral dissertation at UGA showing that symmetrical loading (the percentage of loading on left vs. right side limb) is also enhanced through the use of eccentric isometrics. Based on the concept of eccentric isometrics, this makes complete sense as eccentric isometrics rely on emphasizing the eccentric phase of the movement to enhance somatosensory feedback, muscle spindle activation, proprioception, kinesthetic awareness, and overall body mechanics. Similarly, it appears that this response is not simply confined to the external outcome of the movement but also displayed at the intramuscular level via enhanced motor unit recruitment and improved activation patterns.
Secondly, due to the enhanced proprioceptive feedback, the eccentric isometric protocol allowed my athletes greater ability to implement the various cues I instruct them to utilize, including proper foot alignment, proper spinal positioning, and optimal core recruitment. Simply put, the enhanced sensory feedback gives them a better sense of feel, allowing them to more easily attend to important external and internal coaching cues. This likely accounted for both the improved symmetry of activation (between sides of the body), and increased muscle activation during the concentric phase of eccentric isometric repetitions.
Third and perhaps the most unique findings of my quasi investigation relate to the lack of impact the eccentric isometric protocol had on posterior chain activation during the actual eccentric phase of the movement, while simultaneously enhancing concentric activation. There are several possible explanations for this.
1. Muscle spindle activation and intrafusal fiber recruitment doesn’t show up well on traditional EMG readings. In fact, muscle spindle activation is very difficult to analyze and examine even in traditional neuromuscular labs, particularly with in vivo testing. Essentially, EMG readings are more of a direct reflection of extrafusal muscle fiber activation.
2. EMG is more sensitive to muscle shortening and concentric activation than eccentric contractions. In fact, if you really want to light up your EMG readings simply contract a muscle in its shortened position and the numbers tend to automatically spike. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that motor unit recruitment was inordinately high or that a significant training stimulus was elicited. Similarly, just because the numbers aren’t exceptionally high during the eccentric phase of the exercise doesn’t necessarily indicate that strong straining stimulus was not present.
3. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, one of my primary hesitations when it came to applying the eccentric isometric protocol to glute bridge and hip thrusters was the unique descending strength curve involved in the movements. That is, the strength curve is most difficult in the top contracted position and easiest in the bottom stretched position. This may explain why the EMG readings for the eccentric phase were similar in both conditions. Simply put, there may not have been enough tension to elicit a greater extrafusal muscle activation response during the eccentric portion of the movement regardless of whether or not an eccentric isometric protocol was used. In contrast, most traditional compound movements such as squats, presses, hinges, lunges, and pullovers have an ascending strength curve, typically producing greater activation in the eccentric stretched position.
4. Although there was likely increased muscle spindle activation during the eccentric isometric protocol (especially during the eccentric phase of the movement), the increased muscle spindle activation may have acted more as a neural primer of sorts rather than a stimulus for triggering increased muscle activation during the actual eccentric contrition. In other words, the eccentric phase may have acted as a form of neuromuscular pre-activation, setting the lifter up for greater extrafusal muscle fiber activation on the subsequent concentric contraction. Another way to think of this is the muscle activation achieved from the eccentric isometrics (at least in terms of what showed up on the EMG analysis) was semi-delayed, demonstrating increased recruitment only later in the reps once the lifter began to concentrically shorten their pre-stretched and primed muscle fibers.
5. Although the ATHOS EMG suit is an incredible invention it’s likely not quite as accurate as more traditional EMG tests. Additionally, it may not have been as sensitive to eccentric contractions.
6. The increased muscle spindle activation produced from the eccentric isometric protocol simply increased gamma motor neuron activity during the eccentric phase without actually enhancing alpha motor neuron activity. As a result, the alpha gamma co-activation may have not taken effect until the subsequent concentric phase. This gamma motor neuron activity does not directly show up on traditional EMG analysis.
7. EMG noise is a common source of frustration for researchers and physiologists as it can oftentimes make it difficult to accurately evaluate data. It’s typically thought that faster movements with more rapid motions produce more noise and artifacts, sometimes even causing EMG readings to spike higher simply as a result of the exaggerated noise. Perhaps, if we could have minimized the noise and accompanying artifacts from the faster reps during the traditional glute bridge we would have found that the EMG activation readings during the eccentric phase of these movements were less when compared to the slower and more controlled eccentric isometrics which likely had less noise. Simply put, if noise was more easily accounted for it may have given a greater edge to the eccentric isometric reps particularly during the eccentric phase of movement.
8. EMG is not the end all be all when it comes to telling us what’s happening at the deeper neuromuscular and physiological levels. It’s simply an estimation of what we think may be occurring based on electrical signaling, nothing more nothing less. In reality, EMG likely only tells us a fraction of the story, albeit it's probably the best we currently have at our disposal.
1. Eccentric isometrics glute bridges and hip thrusters appear to eliminate or minimize asymmetrical activation patterns more so than traditional glute bridges and hip thrusters
2. When applied to glute bridges and hip thrusters, eccentric isometrics appear to have little impact on the eccentric portion of the repetition in terms of EMG muscle recruitment data.
3. When compared to traditional hip thrusters and glute bridges, the eccentric isometric variations produce greater muscle activation of the posterior chain during the concentric portion of the movements.
4. Based on this information it appears that performing glute bridges and hip thrusters with an eccentric isometric protocol may, in many ways, be superior to performing them with traditional rep cadences.
Note On Eccentric Isometric Glute Bridge Setup
To properly perform eccentric isometric glute bridges (with the feet and torso at the same height) requires the athlete to anchor their body onto 2 benches as shown here by one of my NFL quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke.
This allows the eccentric portion of the repetition to be emphasized while achieving a full stretch in the bottom position.
Note on Neutral Foot Position Vs. Ankle Dorsiflexion
Based on my preliminary data, I’ve found that incorporating a dorsiflexion position during glute bridges slightly increases hamstring activation, while a neutral foot position (gripping the foot flat on the floor) produces slightly greater glute activation. With that said, I employ both variations with my athletes.
Note On Rep Ranges
Because the time under tension for eccentric isometrics reps is 3-4x greater than traditional repetitions I typically recommend reducing the reps by at least half. For instance, rather than using 10-15 reps I typically have my athletes use 4-6 eccentric isometric reps. Additionally, for the same relative load I’ve repeatedly found that my athletes find 4-6 eccentric isometric reps exponentially more difficult than 10-15 traditional repetitions.
Note About ATHOS
I want to give a special thanks to ATHOS company for providing the EMG body suit. Their equipment and gear is a true breakthrough in the field of practically applied kinesiology, as this represents one of the first times strength coaches and trainers can gather EMG data in practical training scenarios. This is an invaluable training tool that I have every bit of confidence will greatly accelerate the field of performance training on multiple levels. Whether you’re a strength coach, physical therapist, high level athlete, or fitness enthusiast, the ATHOS EMG suit can provide incredibly insightful data that’s sure to be a game changer for your training and that of your athletes.
I also plan on doing much more EMG analysis and investigation in the future, particularly on variations of eccentric isometric protocols as well as foot and ankle training techniques. Additionally, my large book on eccentric isometrics and advanced training methodologies will be released in the coming months so stay tuned for that as well.
To learn more about applying unique posterior chain exercises to your training routine check out my Complete Templates.