When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
By Carl Valle
For total body actions in sport, the barbell hip thrust is not as potent as it was promised to be. It is a movement that adds strength to the posterior hip muscles and, accordingly, we should treat it like any other exercise and use it appropriately.
Those of us who work in sports training should not worship the exercise, but we also should not attack it without solid evidence. Like most exercises outside an actual sporting movement, the barbell hip thrust was doomed to fail as a magic bullet because the strength and conditioning community overacted. Programming the barbell hip thrust is not catastrophic nor reckless. It’s also not perfect and will not change the game for every athlete.
Having tried the exercise, I know it will benefit some athletes. In our program, we use many similar exercises as well as maximal velocity sprints, so the barbell hip thrust is not necessary for our athletes. If you want to use the barbell hip thrust, I’m not telling you to stop. If you don’t use the movement, don’t feel like you are missing out.
Barbell Hip Thrusts Develop Glutes for Size and Strength
Without question, the barbell hip thrust is an exercise that engages the posterior chain, specifically the glutes. The issue on trial is who benefits the most and how exactly do they improve? If you’re trying to improve speed and you have a holistic program, it won’t have much value. For a figure competitor judged on muscle development, this exercise provides an essential advantage. It also provides general strengthening which is always good for athletes.
Specificity is the ultimate challenge to all gym exercises, and the barbell hip thrust, while potentially useful, adds little to the equation. For years, I’ve been critical of its value for sprinting. Recent research has second-guessed the proposed idea that horizontal forces and horizontal exercises matter with athletes. My article on horizontal exercises reached thousands of coaches and athletes, and unless we see new data, it’s clear that all exercises are limited for speed development.
It’s not that the barbell hip thrust isn’t effective for maximal speed or acceleration, it’s just that the research so far illustrates that its effectiveness is population-specific.
Barbell hip thrusts will improve both the strength and size of the glutes, but these two variables alone are not enough to justify it as the Holy Grail for every situation. Calf hypertrophy or hamstring strength may not guarantee speed changes; the sport science research supports these conclusions. The movement may help one muscle get bigger and stronger, but for a total body action in sport, the hip thrust is not as potent as it was promised to be.
Early-stage athletes such as high school underclassmen may benefit greatly from the hip thrust. As an athlete advances, the hip thrust becomes good for balancing the body at the beginning of the training season and as a means to ensure the muscle is solid during the latter part of the year. Whenever we see any exercise have an impact (not just the hip thrust), the reason is likely due to the athlete’s lack of development rather than the movement pattern.
Problems With the Barbell Hip Thrust
Some aggressive disagreements and a set of dire warnings, along with smart questions about the exercise by Doug Kechijian, have made noise on the Internet. I’ve read them and found many of the points fair while some were extreme and lacked credibility. For example, one writer claimed the barbell hip thrust caused massive lumbar spine injuries. I’ve yet to see emergency rooms full of “hip thrust syndrome.” Perhaps the exercise is executed wrong locally, and the problem is someone’s backyard, but to this day I have not seen anything that appears as an epidemic of injuries from barbell thrusting.
Research on the hip thrust performed by rugby players for a few months showed the exercise provided no value. On the record, I’m saying we are likely to see additional conflicting research in the future. Why? Study design and populations. If I wanted to show that the hip thrust works, I could create a protocol and population that would respond since the exercise does have strength benefits. If I wanted to sabotage the hip thrust’s effectiveness, I could do that as well with some deceitful practices.
Science is our best tool, but agendas and bias always present a problem. Researchers sometimes want to be rock stars and tour the world with their findings. And coaches want to be innovators and get paid and recognized for being ahead of the curve. We are all human, and what keeps us honest is our peers.
As of early 2018, research shows that the barbell hip thrust works with specific populations and improves specific variables, but it’s not a panacea.
The two big questions coaches have for any exercise are how effective it is and is it worth the time and risk. In the coaching world, the big difference between acceptable risk and negligent risk (meaning if you were to get sued) is how likely it is that you’ll be found not guilty of negligence.
- If a not guilty finding is likely, the risk is acceptable since accidents do happen.
- Negligence occurs when something happens from an action that a layperson, including judge and jury, would say that anyone with a right mind would not have suggested doing.
- Effectiveness means that investing the time and energy provides a return that is competitive with other options.
Research is very useful when looking at the current impact of any intervention. Not be confused with impact factor, the magnitude (or effect size) of research simply indicates how much bang for the buck a variable has. With some smart statistical analysis, sport science informs coaches about what is showing up on the stopwatch and similar evaluation measures.
Is the Barbell Hip Thrust Dangerous?
Coaches worry about a direct injury when doing the exercise correctly and an indirect injury when doing the exercise incorrectly or due to an accident. The fear of direct injury focuses on the muscles near the hip and low back, and some worry about the neck and upper torso. Other fears, such as crush injuries when the bar goes into a very exposed area of the body, are brought up as well, so let’s look at them.
Hyperextension of the lumbar spine is possible with barbell hip thrusts. But ironically, the load and athlete egos can reduce the problem.
- When inexperienced athletes “lockout” of the movement, they may cause excessive extension. This is common with inexperienced athletes.
- Bridging and thrusting with two legs is more likely to occur than with a single leg, but anything is possible with variations.
- Most of the lift’s action occurs at the end of the movement range, meaning most of the stress happens when the movement is nearly completed. Terminal hip extension, where the femur completes movement, may create stress on the lumbar spine.
Although the concepts of possible and probable are similar, they are not the same. After ten years of hip thrusting, a rash of injuries has not shown up in the lumbar spine.
Padding exposed areas of the body remedies the fears concerning compression of nerves and vascular regions, but again there is not much investigation here. Anatomically, I see some risk, but we can mitigate load compression with padding and change in absolute weight reduction. Accidents like slipping off a bench scare me, especially when athletes are in large groups, are sweaty, and are doing heavy loads. Because I find the position compromising, I choose not to program a maximal barbell lift.
Is the Barbell Hip Thrust Effective for Athletes?
How much time and energy one invests in an intervention is always a hot topic. For example, the technical demands of Olympic lifting are always discussed. It’s much harder to determine carryover or transfer with non-specific or general exercises. A study by Bishop and colleagues demonstrated that results in sprint performance from doing hip thrusts were too little to be valuable, causing a stir in the strength and conditioning community.Barbell #hipthrusts don’t have a valuable impact on sprint performance, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Many smug coaches were happy to be proven right about the exercise’s limitations. Any intervention, however, that fails to help an athlete improve is a loss for everybody in the field. It’s good to know when something fails to be as effective as believed so we can move on, but it’s also disappointing because we need to evolve.
A good question is, if the barbell hip thrust exercise works in potentiation, why doesn’t it show up later with longitudinal training? While the fact that an exercise potentiates a body (or a specific muscle group) isn’t a cardinal sign of evidence of training effectiveness, it is a clue that there is value. Value to whom and how much is the question. A direct transfer may not happen with a strength exercise, but there may be other possible benefits, such as an increased distribution of work to the hamstrings as an injury reduction intervention.
On paper, stronger muscles have a chance to help. And while improvements in acceleration and top speed are never likely to occur, or may be too small to be meaningful, I don’t see how having weaker glutes is a good idea. A few minutes at the end of a workout a few times a week is not something to worry about. Having a stronger set of glutes may help out the hamstrings. It’s difficult to prove either way, but I always favor creating a strength reserve.The barbell #hipthrust is valuable for athletes early in their career development, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If an athlete is early in their development and they don’t do sprinting, the hip thrust is likely to add immediate value. Advanced athletes still can do loaded bridges. As with any movement, a transfer becomes harder as specificity becomes more important. The barbell hip thrust is a viable option for early career development or early in the training season, but as the athlete advances, it’s likely to have less of an impact (like all modalities).
EMG Readings: Let’s Be Honest About Activity and Recruitment
When coaches love an exercise, EMG offers airtight evidence. When they don’t, they call EMG data “limited” and “subject to interpretation.” The promise of the barbell hip thrust came from great EMG readings. Both the mean and peak values, two crude but important indices in science, are nearly off the charts with the exercise.
With great data supporting muscle activation patterns, the barbell hip thrust was hyped to be a potent exercise. Squats, lunges, and even deadlifts looked pale in comparison due to EMG readings. In all fairness, this was good evidence upon which to make decisions. But challenges with barbell hip thrusts surfaced: the eccentric and end range dilemmas.
Many coaches like the barbell hip thrust because they can load it quickly, similar to the hex barbell deadlifts that plague high school football. It’s not the fault of the exercise, its baggage carried by all barbell movements. Ego infected the barbell hip thrust just as it did squats and other exercises. Athletes seem to concentrically blast the movement in the early range and let it drop like a horizontal-style deadlift.
It’s possible to lower the hip thrust movement slowly; the issue is that time under tension during the lowering is not true supramaximal eccentric overload. I’ve seen only one movement and one machine that incorporates assisted overload, meaning the machine created additional force demand on the legs’ hip extensors during the eccentric phase. As for barbell hip thrusts, the exercise becomes less demanding as the load descends.
I made my way into modified Nordic hamstring exercises by trying them and reading the research. Doing my homework, I learned the limitations of alternative exercises and how to modify the tried and true to improve them.
The barbell hip thrust’s main weakness is that mechanically, true eccentric overload is very hard to create in the gym. Some coaches have used flywheels, attempting to create overload, but this approach does not actually do what it looks like it does. While supramaximal eccentric overload is not easy, constant tension is enough to take advantage of the eccentric portion of the rep instead of dropping it like many hexagonal barbell lifts we see at gyms.
It’s up to the coaches to ensure athletes do the lift correctly on the decent with traditional bridge or hip thrust actions and to find ways to overload during peak ranges in the finishing zone.
Other Options for Hip Development I Like
I love plyometrics and sprinting. I also realize that these two options are not possible for everyone. Still, it’s worth noting that specific training transfers. Sometimes general or alternative options have surprising value; acceleration benefits from maximal speed training, for example.
For years, athletes were shocked to see their acceleration improve greatly after doing summers or winters of speed work. Upright running does influence acceleration with glutes and hamstrings working to improve output, and we need to research why this happens. Maximal sprinting does overload the hip extensors of the body, but it’s also risky for athletes who are unprepared to sprint at high speeds. Just as an athlete has to earn the right to load heavy with barbells, athletes must earn their right to sprint all-out with preparation.
Outside of sprinting and jumping, I do think exercises similar to the barbell hip thrust may help. I’ve learned that a general program with sprinting, jumping, lifting, and throwing will likely cover the bases in speed development. And a direct shot to the glutes from time to time does make sense. Many readers will gravitate to this section and think that these weight room options are superior. I don’t think they are. I think they are more palatable to many and just as convenient.
The intent of the barbell hip thrust is a good one–hip extension strength. It’s a fine movement for some, but for a sprint and jump program like mine, I prefer very similar movements and accessory exercises in the gym. Here is a sample of the exercises I use.
1. Single Leg Band Eccentrics
The barbell hip thrust directed the ship of strength and conditioning greatly from bodyweight bridges, but I find one leg with band-based resistance works best for my situation. In the future, I think we’ll see more equipment mimic the barbell hip thrust because it has a great connection to glute activity, and capitalizing on the eccentric movement is difficult.
Using a band will not overload the hips as resistance decreases during the decent, but when it’s paired with other gravity-based loads (sometimes a barbell), it is a nice hybrid. Bionic resistance is likely to be a future option when using the right waist harness, but bands are starting points. Although peak and average EMG values may not be better than the barbell scores, when we combine band work with other movements, it is more than sufficient.
It’s important to note that eccentric overload with bands is not truly possible with most movements as the resistance decreases, but two legs up and one leg down and other tweaks can create an overload.
Video 1. True eccentric work with bands isn’t possible, but training in specific joint angles increases the exposure time of the hip musculature. Slowly lowering during near end range decreases tension of the bands, but it’s better than dropping quickly as many do with barbells.
2. Single Leg Reverse Leg Presses
Good luck finding a good reverse leg press. If you do, buy it from the facility or gym. The reverse leg press is an endangered species because most of the attention now is on glute-hamstring machines. Similar to a conventional “butt blaster,” the equipment can use a weight stack but some use plate loading. You can use reverse hypers as workarounds since more of them exist now thanks to Louie Simmons, but I am not a fan of using a machine for what it was not intended. Those who don’t have access to a reverse leg press, rethink what equipment you need. You can mitigate the loss with higher-rep cable work.
Video 2. Cable loading is not ideal, but if you use a good attachment, super strict form, and higher reps at the end of a workout, hip extensions with a pulley system are a good option. Reverse leg presses are eventually needed if you truly want to get more loading and push the lower repetition ranges.
3. Single Leg Back Extensions
An earlier article on the Nordic hamstring exercise briefly explored the idea of using back extensions and RDLs (reverse deadlifts). Eccentric lengthening and hamstring recruitment occur with single leg back extensions, and they also work wonders for the glutes. Twenty years ago, we saw a decline in using single leg back extensions based on a misinterpretation of Stu McGill’s back rehabilitation materials. I left this exercise for a few years and came back to it with a fresh outlook. Adding a few sets a week is enough to change the posterior chain’s “strength and length.”
Video 3. Moderate loads and higher repetitions are great for extensions because you use one leg at a time. I give this exercise to any athlete who has a history of hamstring pulls, placing it into their program.
As you can see, all of these glute exercises are single leg movements, of which I’m a big fan. But not as a primary exercise. I like global systemic bilateral power and then isolating one leg at a time with strength movements using rep ranges near 6-8 reps. My approach is to attack leg development from both ends–not force dogma or trends onto an athlete’s body.
I like single leg exercises with medium loads so the athlete is focused on technique and not tempted to use other muscle groups to compensate. We often hear discussions about dissociation, but unless you train single leg exercises with great technique and a full range of motion, it’s just talk.
What We Learned from the Barbell Hip Thrust
I don’t dismiss the possibility that barbell hip thrusts help performance; a strong muscle is always an asset. History, though, has shown no radical advancement in sprinting since Bolt’s 2008 coming-out party in New York and Beijing. If the exercise were amazing, we would see legions of 9.6 sprinters coming out of college thanks to the availability of the exercise and simplicity of the intervention.
Usain Bolt has retired now, and it’s safe to say his improvements and success were a culmination of many things, not one exercise. Yet, the notion of one exercise having an impact on performance drove us to a better understanding of glute function, and we’ve all benefited from the attempt to improve performance with this exercise.
We need additional research, not just on the transfer of the barbell hip thrust but on other details like how the exercise interacts with other movements. Time will tell but after ten years, I am confident that we can make the barbell hip thrust a small part of the equation; it’s not a magic bullet. I’ve often chosen to take a specific side of an argument to balance out the absolutes of trends. With the barbell hip thrust, we need to treat it fairly like all exercises.
Coaches who defend the movement likely feel pressure to explain themselves after the research came out in the summer of 2017. While it’s a good idea to fight back against pendulum swings when there’s merit to do so, intellectually covering your tracks is frankly dishonest.
Choose What’s Best for You and Your Athletes
I don’t include the barbell hip thrust in my programs because I like other options better, and I prefer single leg options for glute work. Don’t listen to me or anyone else. Listen to your brain and what you read in the research. Trial and error, experimentation, deductive reasoning, and talking to other coaches are helpful when deciding what is right for you and your athletes.
Don’t ever feel pressured to take something out of your toolbox or to put something back in because of trends and popularity. Not everyone should do what I do, as my program surely has errors and mistakes I will write about later as I learn more. The barbell hip thrust is an option, and we should include or dismiss it based on the program’s purpose.