The Truth About Glute Training: The Best Way To Build Your Butt
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
If you want to maximize your glute and backside development, the key lies in heavy squats, heavy hinges, and heavy lunges. Lately in the fitness industry most gym-goers, trainers, and coaches are gravitating towards glute bridges and hip thrusters for building their backside. However, the effect these have on posterior chain development is actually quite minimal when compared to the results of performing proper squats, hinges and lunges.
Now I know what you’re thinking; most EMG investigations conclude the opposite right? Yes, but here’s the catch.
EMG is not the be all end all when it comes determining the best exercises for inducing hypertrophy in the glutes, or any muscle for that matter. In fact, it only portrays a very small portion of a much larger and more complex picture. That’s because EMG tells us very little about muscle damage, micro-trauma, protein synthesis, satellite cell signaling, neural adaptations, structural overload, systemic responses, and hormonal effects of training all of which are critically important for maximizing functional hypertrophy and muscle growth.
However to accrue the benefits of these hypertrophy-inducing mechanisms requires the emphasis of eccentric overload. Unfortunately, most anteroposterior loaded movements such as glute bridges and hip thrusters involve relatively little eccentric stress. And while these movements are excellent for inducing sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and metabolic stress, they leave quite a bit on the table in terms of maximizing the other more important mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy such as muscle damage and intramuscular tension.
Now there is quite a bit of mechanical tension during glute bridges and hip thrusters, however mechanical tension is relatively inconsequential in the absence of other growth-inducing elements such as eccentric muscle damage and micro-trauma. If this were not the case then simply holding prolonged isometric contractions with minimal resistance would produce phenomenal results. However, we know this is far from accurate.
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t perform glute bridges and hip thrusters, nor am I saying they’re totally useless. In fact, I have many of my figure and bodybuilder clients as well as professional athletes incorporate them periodically in their routines. However, the degree of muscular development these provide represents only small additional improvements to what a lifter will experience if in fact they’re already performing heavy squats, hinges, and lunges.
And yes, many individuals swear by glute bridges and hip thrusters expressing how they’re the only exercises that build their backside while simultaneously expressing how squats, deadlifts, and lunges do very little for them.
Well here’s the deal. Their squat, hinge, and lunge form sucks!!!!
Simply put, if glute bridges, hip thrusters, and other posterior chain isolation movements produce greater results to your backside than heavy lower body compound movements that simply means that your form during squats, hinges and lunges is incorrect as these movements should and will provide ample backside stimulation when properly performed.
And yes, that means that a majority of lifters and coaches perform squats, hinges, and lunges incorrectly (read more about proper lunges form) with aberrations and dysfunctional mechanics that make it impossible to tax the posterior chain. So what’s the solution?
Learn to perform squats, hinges, and lunges with proper technique. And no that doesn’t mean performing ass-to grass squats like most coaches are blindly suggesting (read more about proper squat depth here). Instead it means you need to incorporate a natural range of motion by setting your hips back on each movement and maintaining full body tension rather than collapsing at the bottom. In addition focus on achieving body positions that involve approximately 90-degree angles, parallel joint segments, and perpendicular positions. Furthermore, focus on maintaining proper spinal alignment, performing controlled eccentric motions (preferably eccentric isometrics) and dialing in your foot and ankle mechanics. Each of these plays a pivotal role in hip and glute activation. If even one of these pieces of the puzzle is missing it will be impossible to optimally develop your backside.
In addition, the topic of technique is also related to EMG. As previously mentioned EMG is not the be-all end-all for indicating the effectiveness of a particular movement. However, it’s still one of many possible factors to consider and should not be entirely dismissed. With that said, few if any studies are ever conducted with proper coaching, cueing, and execution of compound exercises. When the squat, hinge, and lunge pattern are performed with aberrant mechanics EMG readings are greatly amiss particularly in the posterior chain as activation of the glutes and hamstrings is largely dependent on form and mechanics.
Unfortunately proper mechanics are rarely employed during these studies thereby skewing results and appearing to highlight the ineffectiveness of movements such as squats, hinges, and lunges in terms of activating the glutes in comparison to other glute isolation movements. So yes, bridges and hip thrusters will almost always demonstrate significantly higher EMG readings in the posterior chain compared to improperly executed squats, hinges, and lunges. However, when squats, hinges, and lunges are correctly executed, the findings are quite different.
It should also be pointed out that while improving the ability to shorten the glutes can slightly help with postural deficits (although not nearly to the same extent as performing proper squats, hinges, and lunges), glute bridges and hip thrusters contribute very little to the improvement of overall hip function, body alignment, and movement mechanics. That’s because there is very little eccentric emphasis involved suggesting that proprioceptive feedback from muscle spindles and other somatosensory mechanisms is relatively low in comparison to squats, hinges, and lunges that involve substantial eccentric emphasis.
Simply put, if you’re performing an inordinate amount of glute bridges and hip thrusters with the hopes of improving performance, body mechanics, muscle function, and athletic capabilities, your time would be better spent focusing on more basic foundational movements such as squats, hinges, and lunges while emphasizing the eccentric phase of the movements with proper technique.
On a final note, it’s not uncommon to have a lifter who can perform glute bridges with inordinately large amounts of weight while their squats, deadlifts, and lunges are quite weak not to mention they have little to show for in terms of posterior chain development. In contrast, take an athlete or lifter who’s strong and proficient at the basic compound movements and even with little to no practice they can load up hundreds of pounds on hip thrusters and glute bridges. That’s because properly executed squats, hinges, and deadlifts optimally strengthen the glutes and entire lower body enabling the individual to perform any manner of intense posterior chain activities with relatively few issues.
On the flip side just because you’re able to handle massive loads on bridges and hip thrusters tells me absolutely nothing about your functional ability to perform foundational lower body movements. In summary, squats, hinges, and lunges represent the foundation, while glute bridges and hip thrusters represent tools that provide additional finishing touches.
Note: this is not intended as a personal attack on any particular coach or trainer including the “Glute Expert”, Bret Contreras. We may not see eye to eye on every facet of this topic but if you follow Bret, you’ll realize that much of what is expressed in this article reiterates what Bret himself advocates such as the importance of heavy squats, deadlifts, and hinges for glute development. This article is intended to clear up much of the misinformation spread by “self appointed” Instagram/internet coaches and trainers who misinterpret the research findings, including Bret’s work, and focus solely on hip thrusts and glute bridges for posterior chain development.