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Why The Squat vs Hip Thrust Debate Misses the Point

Dec 07, 2023

Last week, a new study comparing the effects of the squat and the hip thrust on glute growth was released.

The study was funded by the self-proclaimed “Glute Guy”, Bret Contreras, who popularised the hip thrust.

It follows another study that compared these two exercises — by a Brazilian researcher named Matheus Barbalho in 2020.

While Contreras’s study found similar gains when using either the squat or the hip thrust, Barbalho’s results significantly favoured the squat.

But both studies are problematic.

Contreras’s methods are full of confounding variables (not to mention a conflict of interest). Barbalho’s results might be fabricated entirely.

I’m not going to dive into the shortcomings here, though.

That’s because the main problem isn’t the studies themselves.

It’s asking the question in the first place.

Here’s what I mean.

 

The first problem with the squat versus hip thrust debate is the underlying idea that exercise selection has a huge impact on your progress.

The amplification of this debate is likely to further confuse people who aren’t seeing the glute growth they want and assume it’s because they’re doing the wrong exercise.

While exercise selection matters, it’s probably not the reason you’re not seeing results.

Most people would make better progress not by choosing to squat instead of hip thrust (or vice versa) but by following a program and training close to failure.

Secondly, positioning the argument as squats versus hip thrusts implies that these two exercises lay at either end of the same spectrum.

If you want to grow your glutes, you can squat or hip thrust.

But when it comes to training in real life, that’s not the case.

Both exercises can easily be woven into the same training program.

But they both have different functions, advantages, and disadvantages.

Let me explain.

Difference #1: Muscle Length

At the risk of stating the obvious, the hip thrust and the squat are completely different exercises.

While both exercises provide a solid stimulus to the glute max, the length at which the muscle is trained differs between the two.

The hip thrust biases shortened glutes, while the squat trains the glutes in a more lengthened position.

This is important for a couple of reasons.

More and more research points to training muscles at length as a greater driver of muscle growth than a shortened position. This is known as Stretch Mediated Hypertrophy.

Consider this statement from Greg Nuckols in Monthly Applications in Strength Sport Volume 4, Issue 3 - The Effects of Range of Motion on Muscle Growth: The Current State of the Literature:

"While active contractile tension of a muscle tends to be highest at around resting length, passive tension…increases as muscle length increases, such that total muscular tension is generally highest when muscles are in a stretched position."

Let me repeat.

Total muscular tension is generally highest when muscles are in a stretched position.

As we know, mechanical tension is the number one driver of muscle growth. More tension equals more growth. Hence why training the muscles in a stretched position is so important.

With that in mind, you might be wondering — why not always train every muscle exclusively in a stretched position?

There are a couple of reasons.

Training through a bigger range of motion requires greater mobility — so it might not be possible for everyone.

As Nuckols puts it, if you can’t reach the bottom of a squat without significant spinal flexion, the injury risk of full ROM squatting might outweigh the benefits.

Training muscles at length also increases the occurrence of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

DOMS is thought to occur mainly due to the eccentric (lowering) portion of a lift — when a muscle is lengthening.

That means always training at long muscle lengths might not be possible, as recovery becomes compromised and it becomes difficult to train to your full potential repeatedly.

Difference #2: Technical Difficulty

The second difference between the squat and the hip thrust is the element of technical difficulty.

With a large base of support and fewer technical demands, most beginners can hip thrust with competence relatively quickly.

The barbell back squat, on the other hand, is not so forgiving.

The base of support is smaller, and the technical demands are higher. It requires a greater understanding of your body in space and a higher degree of motor control.

If you’re a beginner trainee trying to grow your glutes, the time it takes to learn the skill of squatting means time spent missing maximal tension on your muscles.

In which case a hip thrust might come in handy in the meantime.

Difference #3: Setup

Finally, there’s the setup.

While the squat is quick and easy to set up, the hip thrust is a different story.

Unless you have access to a hip thrust machine, you have to find a hip pad, bring a barbell and plates over to a bench, load the bar up, and then contort your legs underneath the thing while you wiggle your way up to the starting position.

That might seem silly to some, but I’m just not sure all that effort is worth it.

So it’s clear that both exercises have their own advantages, disadvantages, and applications.

If you’ve never stepped foot in a gym, you probably won’t go straight to barbell back squatting.

But you probably shouldn’t only use hip thrusts if you want to get the most out of your glute growth.

However, both can be useful. And unlike these studies, you don’t have to choose one or the other.

Instead of agonising over what the research says, pick the one you like most, or use both, and move on.

If you’d like to chat about this article, feel free to send me a DM.