Strength coaches like complex movements that recruit multiple muscle groups. These movements are closer to athletic skills and may transfer to the playing field better than isolation exercises. So when an athlete wants to focus on his or her glutes, they are often advised to perform kettlebell swings, deadlifts, and low bar back squats.
But is there a case for a dedicated glute exercise?
When Isolation Makes Sense
Greg Dea wrote a recent article arguing against using isolation exercises, specifically the calf machine. He argues that our calves are built to act as springs to absorb shock and propel us forward, and that performing slow calf raises can decrease reactive abilities over time. His thought process against using specialized equipment is shared by many strength coaches, whose ultimate goal is to create high-performing athletes.
But Charles Staley makes the case that isolation machines can sometimes be beneficial to athletes if the exercise has these two qualities:
- Efficiency – the exercise does not divert resources away from movements more beneficial to sports performance.
- Positive Transfer – the exercise improves the sport-specific skill or activity by improving strength.
For quad-dominant athletes, isolation training of the glutes might provide that positive transfer. Research has shown that explosive movements and heavier weights activate the glutes well.1 In slower movements, such as squats, the glutes are also prime movers, but not for everyone. Athletes who lift in a more upright position (with less hip hinge) recruit their thighs to do the bulk of the work, while their glutes remain less active. For these athletes, it might be helpful to do more specific training to learn how to turn on their glutes.
A Test and a Solution for Sleeping Glutes
With a partner, lay down flat on your stomach. Lift your heel toward your butt and raise your leg off the ground. Have your partner press your hamstring toward the ground. If you can resist your partner pressing down, then you can activate your glutes well. If your partner can press your leg back down, you might have a problem waking up your glutes, otherwise known as gluteal amnesia.
The hip thruster is an excellent movement to combat glute activation issues because it isolates the hip joint so that there is little knee movement. It is usually done with the feet planted on the floor and the knees bent and thrusting your hips into the air by contracting your glutes.
One method for adding weight to this movement is to place a barbell on your hip bone and put your back on a bench. By raising the upper body, you prevent the bar from rolling down onto your face. When using a barbell, wrap a squat pad or towel around the bar to protect your hip bones. Over time, you should be able to lift 1.2 to 2 times your body weight, so protecting the hip bones is important.
A traditional bench is often too high and unstable for this exercise. It can be difficult to get up onto the bench using heavier weights. Recently, I tested a machine built specifically for hip thrusters. The bench is shorter and it is connected to the platform. This unit also has pins so that bands can be used to place more demand on the top of the movement where you squeeze the glutes (i.e., Compensatory Acceleration Training).
Is the Hip Thruster Worth Your Time?
Does the hip thruster fulfill Charles Staley’s requirements for usefulness, namely efficiency and positive transfer? Yes. It is an efficient use of time as it is working multiple glute muscles at once. Adding this movement to your training routine will create positive transfer for your squat and deadlift. Many newer athletes would benefit from this machine to learn how to use their glutes properly, and it patterns the proper movement needed in deadlifts and kettlebell swings.
The hip thruster is also a tool that might have uses beyond specific glute training. I have heard of someone using the hip thruster for rehabilitation after a knee injury because they could not do squats. Once he returned to squatting, he found that he had not lost much strength and had new power in his glutes.
A Place for Isolation in Athletic Training
I do not have a great deal of space for unnecessary equipment, but the hip thruster is important enough to make room. Deadlifts and kettlebell swings are great movements for building strong glute muscles, but the hip thruster isolates the glutes in a way that can teach athletes how to hinge properly, and with weight. Complex movements are generally the most efficient and transfer to athletic endeavors, but the hip thruster is one isolation exercise that I would recommend for athletes at all levels.
1. Beardsley, Chris, and Bret Contreras. “The Increasing Role of the Hip Extensor Musculature With Heavier Compound Lower-Body Movements and More Explosive Sport Actions.” Strength and Conditioning Journal 36, no. 2 (2014): 49-55. doi:10.1519/ssc.0000000000000047.