Hip Thrust Versus Back Squat, Who Wins?

You’re either “team squat” or “team hip thrust”, right? There’s no way you can be in both camps, surely.  

But does this mean you’re essentially missing out on bigger, stronger glutes? That’s what Bret wanted to find out through his PhD thesis.

So, what did he do?

For part of it Bret placed a pair of identical female twins under a 6-week training program. One focussed on the back squat, whilst the other focussed on the barbell hip thrust. 

The Findings

Both the squat and hip thrust led to improvements in squat strength, hip thrust strength, horizontal pushing force, and upper and lower gluteus maximus hypertrophy. And whilst the squats proved to be better for increasing squat strength, the hip thrusts proved better for increasing:

  • Hip thrust strength (1RM)
  • Maximum horizontal pushing force (squat increased by 20% and hip thrust increased 32%), and
  • Upper and lower gluteus maximus hypertrophy (at least in this experiment)

The squat twin’s upper glutes grew by 20%, and lower glutes by 21% over the 6-week period; while the hip thrust twin’s upper glutes grew by 28%, and lower glutes by 28% over the same period.

Why Was Horizontal Pushing Force Important?

This measurement was key as it put into practice Bret’s “force vector theory”. His theory relates to how well an exercise transfers into improving performance in a specific sport due to its line of resistance. For example, the line of resistance in a squat is ‘up-down’, compared to ‘front-back’ with hip thrust.

Until now, there hasn’t been a horizontal force test in the literature. So, how did Bret perform the test? Each twin: 

  • Stood on a force plate with their arms parallel to the ground
  • Held their torso at a 45-degree angle 
  • Stood on the dominant limb
  • Pushed as hard as possible for 3 seconds 

This was recorded over 3 trials and the average peak force of these trials was recorded.

Pros for Team Squat?

In this experiment, training the squat led to greater improvements in squat strength.

What About Team Hip Thrust?

Training the hip thrust led to greater hip thrust strength, maximum horizontal pushing force, and upper and lower gluteus maximus hypertrophy. Again, at least in this experiment.

Why the differences between the exercises?

Besides the obvious (they look different) both exercises train the quads, hamstrings and glutes (to a certain extent). In another study, Bret found that while the squat produced superior vastus lateralis muscle activity, it wasn’t significantly larger than the hip thrust.

In contrast, the hip thrust leads to much greater EMG in:

  • Upper gluteus maximus
  • Lower gluteus maximus
  • Biceps femoris

Although the squat feels like it’s working the hamstrings and glutes, muscle activation is far from maximal. But for the vastus lateralis? There is tons of activity in both exercises.

The squat does have an edge over the hip thrust in that it gives the knees a far greater range of motion, and activates the erector spinae muscle to a greater extent than the hip thrust (in a pause squat scenario).

What Does this Mean for Your Training?

We’ve talked all the research talk, now it’s time for the good stuff. The numbers are great, but how will it affect your training?

Contrary to what you might think, the squat doesn’t activate the glutes to their maximum, and it poorly activates the hamstrings.

In comparison the hip thrust activates the vastus lateralis, glutes and hamstrings as well as, or better, than the squat. The hip thrust also activates the glutes at greater hip extension (a more upright position), which is important for sprinting speed and horizontal ground reaction force production (the force that contributes to you jumping forwards and accelerating when sprinting).   

With that in mind we know the squat improves the squat and the hip thrust improves the hip thrust. But the hip thrust builds the squat to a better degree than the squat improves the hip thrust.

Meaning if you want more bang for your buck from one exercise, the hip thrust is your guy.   

Of course, there is a way to train both. In Bret’s twin study, each twin improved their 1RM strength half as much as the other twin in the non-trained exercise (e.g. hip thrust twin gained half as much squat 1RM than squat twin). This shows there is a transfer from one hip extension exercise to another. 

Even though a recent review of the literature (in a published meta-analysis) showed that squats improve acceleration, if your main training goals are glute size or speed, we recommend you train the squat as an accessory lift after the hip thrust. 

Rebekah Donovan Writer Bio

Rebekah is a freelance storyteller, amateur creator, and mother, with an unrelenting passion for health and wellbeing. She is currently balancing her master’s degree, at Manchester Metropolitan University, with her unhealthy relationship with all things Hip Thrust.