As science always moves forward, a few years after I wrote the blog post on the barbell hip thrust, a handful of new research studies on the exercise came out. Some coaches have seen barbell hip thrust use start to wane, while others made the exercise a staple of their training program. In this article I cover the exercise again, but I look at the glutes and inspect the history of training and preparing a bit more closely.
The theory of glute amnesia—a phenomenon where the muscles of the hip become turned off—is still smoldering in some circles, and I finally put to rest the idea that activation and glute training will save an athlete from knee pain and make them run faster than Usain Bolt. If you are looking for better performance, smarter rehabilitation, or just a cosmetic change, this article does the research for you and includes a few tips that make glute training just a little bit more effective.
Glute Amnesia Is a Myth
It’s pretty sad that it’s 2021, and we are still seeing the myth of glute amnesia, where the muscles of the hip turn off due to an array of theoretical causes. While I don’t disagree that glutes may not be challenged much if we spend most of our time on a couch watching Netflix, other muscles are technically lazy as well. Weak glutes have been the scapegoat for countless ailments such as back pain, knee injuries, and even hamstring pulls.
While some could say weakness is never an advantage, to assume that only one muscle of the body has a syndrome due to modern lifestyles is farfetched. The proponents of glute amnesia tend to be those who are stuck in 1990’s concepts that sounded good at first but have since been proven to be beyond hype. Glute amnesia is not a true diagnosis or pathology, and it’s time to move on from this concept, as it places too much fear and too many resources on a problem that really isn’t there.Glute amnesia is not a true diagnosis or pathology, and it’s time to move on from this concept, as it places too much fear and too many resources on a problem that really isn’t there. Click To Tweet
Gluteal inhibition, caused by a specific factor, is unlikely to show up in normal, healthy athletes, but you should not completely dismiss it, as it’s more complicated than how much electromyography activity the muscles have in motion. The increase, decrease, or sustained firing pattern isn’t really a fair judgment on how the muscles work, mainly because movement strategies are very individual and subject to influences that are prone to be confounding. Greg Lehman did a nice job summarizing the points above and included relevant links to research such as the Ghent study on hamstring injuries and glute firing patterns.
Generally speaking, the prime issue is detraining overall, not one muscle having “amnesia” or not knowing how to fire. Reducing drive or causing inhibition or over-recruitment does happen, but it’s not likely to be the cause of weak muscles overall unless surgery or major injury occurred. So, coaches should have a working mantra, “use it or lose it,” rather than being worried that their athletes will suddenly have their glutes shut down.
Barbell Hip Thrusts Still Transfer Poorly
The barbell hip thrust is a secondary supportive weight room exercise, and it will not take an average athlete and make them into a speedy pro. It does complement a comprehensive program and could help younger athletes or athletes with low training ages. It’s important to know that the hip thrust is not intrinsically dangerous, and a few studies show it has the potential to get athletes faster. While some studies showed no training effect at all from the exercise, other studies were promising, such as these relationship investigations from Brazil and Scotland.
I have always been cautious not to speak in absolutes and say an exercise fails to work at all, but you have to summarize all the research and factor in both successful and non-responsive findings. Nearly all the studies that showed barbell hip thrusts work did not compare controls to other exercises for hip extension and focused instead on the squat family of exercises as a comparison. Also, association studies show a relationship not a causation of performance, so simple explanations such as better horizontal speeds may be a product of anatomical gifts or talent, not specific exercises.
When conducting research, remember that coaches usually have a holistic solution for development, so isolating parts is risky. Also, you can’t use as proof of an exercise’s efficacy the fact that there may be a testing relationship between an exercise and an athlete getting faster from that exercise. Intervention studies reign supreme, and a control must be a great competitor exercise, or the scientific fight is fixed.
Activation and potentiation of glute muscles is another area that demands a careful eye when researching. Some bodyweight and barbell exercises showed promise in performance tests afterward, but those didn’t have a fair comparison to sensible alternatives. Often, something works better than nothing, and more is indeed better with loading the body on many occasions, such as training, activation, and potentiation.
Perhaps the best review of the barbell hip thrust was from 2019, but it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the hip thrust works because of the positive outcomes. When the rubber hit the road, the intervention or training study evidence showed failure, but we can’t dismiss the exercise as doing nothing or having no value. A simple way to look at the exercise is as one movement for primarily one muscle group; just don’t view it as the magic bullet it was first reported to be. In fact, I think the recent Ken Clark study on high school acceleration is a hidden gem for hip thrust science, as the exercise was used with all of the resistance load groups. If the barbell hip thrust was so effective, the magnitude of the results after a few months of training would have been higher or the baseline would have been faster.
In summary, you should view the barbell hip thrust as an option but not a necessary part of a weight training program. If done right, it can theoretically add value to a program, especially with developing athletes. Athletes using it should treat it as part of their program, not as a complete solution to getting faster.Don’t toss out the barbell hip thrust if you see results or progress, but don’t rush to add it just because you feel like you’re missing out, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
This is not necessarily a knock on the hip thrust; it’s just the sad reality that even specific training and competition hits a ceiling and improvement comes to an end. As I have recommended in the past, single-leg band options are something I prefer, mainly due to the success I observed with it in other programs. Don’t toss out the barbell hip thrust if you see results or progress, but don’t rush to add it just because you feel like you are missing out.
Advanced Exercises, Alternatives, and Adjustments
I don’t want to criticize an exercise without sharing alternative ideas and methods that seem to have worked for the community. Personally, I like using a handful of exercises as an insurance policy, and don’t claim that the exercises listed are guaranteed to help your athletes run faster. Outside of time and sprinting, weightlifting works to keep the body healthy and to stimulate long-term growth.
Remember, my earlier blog post on the hip thrust defended the exercise, as it was under unfair attack, and that only hurts scientific progress. I even included a single-leg version as a compromise to improve its adoption so we can learn more about long-term development. So far, many of my colleagues and I are agnostic to its impact, but since it’s simple and safe, try it and see if it makes an impact in your program.
Hip extension strength you can use in sprinting is another story, as stronger glutes and hamstrings matter when everything else is up to par. Weakness below the knee, around the knee, and in front of the hip matters too. Then we have sprinting technique and training, which comprises most of the results in sport, as mentioned above.
Now for the taxonomy of the exercises, as you can use plenty of good modalities to improve the glutes and muscles that improve hip engagement. There are many exercises you can use, but make sure you determine that the specific exercise and its iteration is perfect for your situation.
I am not a huge fan of this exercise for the majority of athletes, as it becomes an equipment nightmare if you have a limited number of cable machines. Some facilities can handle the exercise in group settings, and bands are sometimes good replacements, but I generally prefer cables because their resistance is constant.
Technically, a band is better, as the end range creates a higher resistance, but usually the slack of the band is poor early, making the average resistance lower during the repetition. Peak EMG is a nice target at times, but work is a great metric for the long run. You can use isoinertial or isokinetic resistance with flywheel machines and the 1080 Quantum, but a conventional cable stack is a great standby.
Video 1. Cable pull-throughs have a reasonable skill component; thus, I like to use them with advanced athletes who can perform the exercise well or are focused to pick up quickly. It’s easy to cheat the exercise, so make sure they feel the movement and use moderate loads.
Tempo High Step-Ups
I have spent enough time promoting the step-up as a leg exercise, and the glute recruitment is surprisingly higher than I expected. Some research on step-up muscle activity is still a bit contradictory, but treat them like a combination of single-leg squat and acceleration exercises. All exercises can be coached to improve muscle activity readings on a device from conscious, volitional effort, but the goal should be to let the task naturally recruit the neuromuscular system. Neto, the researcher behind the hip thrust review earlier, found the step-up to be valuable theoretically from the collective research, but I still consider the exercise a part of the equation and not the holy grail.
Video 2. Sometimes tempo prescriptions can be more finite than the duration of the concentric, isometric, eccentric, and between rep periods. Within the concentric or eccentric range of motion, you can manipulate the lifts, and this is why isokinetics is compelling for step-up exercises.
Rhythm Hammer Swings
Anyone who has read my articles in the past will know that I’m not a fan of conventional single arm snatches, as they are poor choices for leg power. Hip-dominant kettlebell swings are useful for improving glute recruitment, but I would rather use the heavy loads for other extension exercises such as reverse leg presses. Powerball hammers are similar to lumberjack swings, and I have seen woodchopper combinations (different movement) be combined in an alternating sequence, but the main goal is to get transition speed in and out without letting a load guide the rhythm too much.
Going light and adding reps is a good warm-up and motor skill, but this is just something we use before throwing medicine balls vertically if we have the optional equipment. I am a fan of the PowerMax grip balls or a very light kettlebell. The reason I don’t use kettlebells that much is that heavy sets are not easy to bring outside, and the groundskeepers don’t allow them. To me, all of the exercises (hammers, lumberjack and kettlebells swings) are general preparation exercises.
Video 3. You can swing with various emphases on pushing and hinging, but keep in mind that transfer of force is unlikely regardless of load, as I shared in the kettlebell article. I treat this exercise as part of a warm-up and not a primary training tool.
Auburn Flutter Kicks
Before you say I’m a hypocrite or that I contradict myself with this exercise, know that I’m not claiming that an “aquatic bird dog” is the solution to spinal rehab. I do think the glutes help the big picture, and some biomechanical benefits from strengthening the posterior chain matter. Right now, with pool access being limited, the idea of high-frequency, short-range hip extension on dry land sounds good on paper, but it’s easy to get sloppy without water resistance.
I have used flutters for athletes who are not swimmers by using a low-profile kickboard or even the edge of the pool. The main purpose is to experiment with hip extension so that reverse leg presses and other exercises are more effective later.
Video 4. The video doesn’t show the use of external loading, but you can use blood flow restriction, electrical muscle stimulation, and Exogen wearable resistance. Keep in mind that on dry land the resistance is vertical, as water resistance on the down beat isn’t really there, and the flutter won’t have the leg frequency I prefer.
Create Your Own Exercise List
Build your own inventory, please. The exercise list above is part of my own exercise library as it fits my demeanor and, more importantly, the needs of the athlete. Keep in mind that my current specialization is off-season rehabilitation of speed athletes, and most of the exercises above are intended for those still dealing with lingering problems after surgery or botched return to play programs.
Create a matrix or rubric of exercises you think are excellent. Go beyond the EMG and science side of things and focus on the practical components like equipment, coaching demands, and athlete perspective. After factoring in those elements, I am sure your inventory will be just fine.
Remember: Muscles Don’t Forget
A few coaches and sport scientists made some good points about the muscle memory myth, and we are still learning how the body works and adapts to training. Old ideas stay around not because of biology, but because of business. Let’s face it, the glutes are a huge factor in fitness today, and I feel that having glute amnesia is a great opportunity for training theories and more and more commercial products.The barbell hip thrust is still a pragmatic solution to ensure an area that conventionally doesn’t get the correct attention receives a stimulus, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
It’s perfectly fine to train in any way that is safe and effective, but the barbell hip thrust is at best an option, and the reality is that it doesn’t make the impact in sprinting that it appears to on paper. On the other hand, the barbell hip thrust is still a pragmatic solution to ensure an area that conventionally doesn’t get the correct attention receives a stimulus. Incorporating hip extension exercises rounds out a comprehensive program, and I am curious to see more research showing what populations seem to respond to this now common exercise. The barbell hip thrust is not perfect, but it can help some neophytes and beginner athletes.
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