When I tested the mean and peak glute EMG activity of various glute exercises, I was suprised to find that barbell bilateral hip thrusts activated more mean and peak activity than single leg hip thrusts (even when adding extra resistance in the form of bands or free weight). Working backward, I tried to figure out a reason as to why this was happening.
Here is my theory:
The gluteus maximus has 3 different primary roles: hip extension, hip abduction, and hip external rotation. When the hip exceeds neutral position during hip extension, it tends to externally rotate. Check out the following video. Watch the girl on the left in particular as she squeezes her butt cheeks. Her hips externally rotate as the hips are pushed forward.
If you’ve read any of my glute articles, you’ll know that not all exercises enter into this terminal range of hip extension range of motion. Exercises like hip thrusts and quadruped donkey kicks are a couple of exercises that take the hip into hip hyperextension (the hip can hyperextend 10 degrees with bent legs and 20 degrees with straight legs in normal individuals). During an exercise like a single leg hip thrust, the gluteus maximus would want to externally rotate up top near the conclusion of the concentric phase. This would interfere with the body’s balance during a unilateral maneuver with the shoulders supported. In an attempt to avoid this phenomenon, the brain most likely wouldn’t allow the gluteus maximus to contract quite as hard as it would if balance wasn’t an issue. This explains why bilateral hip thrusts seem to be performed more explosively, with more stability, and with a little added range of motion (hip hyperextension) up top. This zone of contraction is where maximum tension is placed upon the gluteus maximus.
Basically, it’s important to perform both bilateral and unilateral glute exercises. While unilateral variations might help build coordination and hip stability, bilateral variations most likely activate more muscle and lead to greater gains in strength and hypertrophy.
Furthermore, it is very important to elevate the shoulders or elevate both the shoulders and feet when bridging. Simply elevating the feet takes the glutes out of the movement and focuses more tension on the hamstrings. This is a big mistake that I see many trainers make. They believe that by elevating the feet and increasing the range of motion, they’ll activate more glute muscle. But my glute EMG research has proven that this is not true.
Allow me to mention a couple of other things about glute training. If you’re seeking power and you’re an advanced athlete, give the variation at the end of the video shown above a try. This method (explosive hip thrusts) exposes the glutes to very high levels of glute activation during the acceleration plase as well as during the “catch” phase where the bar lands and the glutes must absorb and decelerate the load.
Last, don’t mistake these exercises for being “sissy exercises.” If you recall during my Advanced Glute Training article on TMuscle, there are 7 different categories of hip extension exercises:
1. Axial extension
2. Axial semi-straight leg
3. Anteroposterior bent leg
4. Anteroposterior straight leg
5. Anteroposterior extension
6. Anteroposterior flexion
7. Axial/anteroposterior hybrids
The first term has to do with the direction of the load vector, the second term deals with the knee action of the hip extension exercise. My research clearly shows that anteroposterior bent leg exercises reign supreme in terms of glute activation, but if you don’t believe me here’s a study conducted by ACE (The American Council on Exercise) called Glutes to the Max that shows that a simple bodyweight quadruped hip extension activated more glute maximus muscle than a 1RM squat. This means that pushing one leg rearward while facing downward activated more glute than the heaviest squat someone could perform! I’m not saying you shouldn’t squat, I’m just saying that you should not underestimate the work that the glute has to do to raise a hip rearward or raise the body upward while lying supine, prone, or in the quadruped position. Another study linked here by Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital showed that running activated twice as much glute as the stairstepper. This jives with my whole concept of training the glutes in the horizontal (or anteroposterior) vector; the same vector trained while running.
The last thing I want to say about the glutes is that you MUST form a deep mind-muscle connection while you perform glute exercises. It may take a while but focus on squeezing the glutes as hard as you can on each rep of each set. Eventually this contraction will be grooved within your motor programming and it will become second-nature; you’re body wil engage the glutes maximally without having to think about it. It took me many years to reach this level of brain-glute relationship, but it can and will happen to you if you put forth the effort. Don’t be afraid to squeeze your glutes as hard as possible isometrically throughout the day to help build up this connection as well.