I’ve written before about the best “bang for your buck” strength exercises and the rationale for their addition into your well-rounded program. The list was a who’s who of prominent bilateral core (primary) lifts with the most transfer across disciplines, sports, and life in general. You might be surprised that even I admit that the list was incomplete.
By design, it was incomplete. The list of low-risk/ high-reward exercises and lifts that can safely and effectively be added into your program yields a list too long for anyone to tackle in a 4-week cycle. Honestly, why would you? High levels of training stimulus variety and fluctuation have never made anyone better at anything specific. Besides. a nice round even number of 4 solid exercises makes for a better article.
The new culture of lifting has placed a greater premium on these big core lifts like the squat and deadlift. While that’s a refreshing change of pace from the good ol’ days of glamour muscles and the current state of affairs of functional training, it leaves a lot to be desired from a postural perspective. Anyone that has complained about their tight hip flexors inherently understands this, even if they won’t admit it or don’t completely realize the root cause. Long story short, America has forgotten about the auxiliary lift: the pre-habilitative/ hypertrophic exercises programmed after you’ve pre-fatigued yourself on the sexy lifts.
Which finally brings us to the best lift not sexy enough to have made the list: the Hip Thrust.
The Hip Thrust packs incredible value into a small neat package. Why this exercise? Glute development is an important part of complete athlete training. Your glutes are involved in explosive hip extension that comes with sprinting, jumping, rotation, and throwing. Your gluteus maximus, along with deep stabilizing musculature (gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, etc) posteriorly stabilize your pelvis. Your glutes are both a gas pedal and a brake pedal. For all of the importance of the glutes in performance enhancement and injury prevention, they are typically woefully underdeveloped. The Hip Thrust changes things. Here’s why:
- It enhances a relatively balanced program for healthy athletes and lifters. If you’re healthy enough to deadlift and squat, further glute training will only enhance your big lifts. By promoting further gluteal activity after your pre-fatiguing core lifts, you’ll enhance your training effect and reap the rewards of the additional volume.
- Hip Thrusts balance the scales on pelvis stability and reduces the risk of injury. More and more often, specialized athletes are sidelined with hip flexor injuries. When you have an anteriorly-dominant pelvic structure (a signature trait of athletes who specialized in a single sport to early) your body exponentially relies on anterior musculature (hips flexors) to stabilize the pelvis during movement. This further develops those muscle fibers making them stiff and rigid forcing further reliance as a stabilizer. The cycle of stiffness and over-reliance continues until the bubble bursts during a movement requiring violent hip extension. By teaching your body to posteriorly stabilize your pelvis, you can reduce your risk of injury tenfold and return from mild hip flexor strains faster.
- It doesn’t require spinal loading. I’m a huge fan of loading the spinal column with an appropriate amount of weight. It teaches the body to create stiffness and stability in a way that translates to stronger movement patterns overall. For those with a risk of back injury or degenerative spine disease, the Hip Raise affords you the opportunity to continue training the posterior chain without harm. The movement is primarily isolated to your hips.
- It doesn’t require joint action at the ankle. As an ex-athlete who is no stranger to minor and major ankle injuries (some of which I still carry to this day), I can tell you that auxiliary lifts that take the stress off my ankles will always have a home in my personal program. Hip Thrusts are a must for me. Like #3, because the movement is isolated to the hips, you can continue to train pain-free.
- The Hip Thrust gets a strong stabilizing effort from your hamstrings. As part of the posterior chain, your hamstring group as a whole major in knee flexion and minor in hip extension. Because the longer hamstring muscles (biceps femoris, semimembranosus) originate at the pelvis, their importance as a pelvic stabilizer cannot be overstated. Furthermore, as the primary antagonist to your quadriceps, the excel at keeping your knees healthy. yes, this article is mostly about glute development, but nothing happens in a vacuum. try though you might, it is impossible to completely isolate one muscle from its synergists.
- It’s highly versatile. One of the biggest complaints has been that the Hip Raise doesn’t translate into sprinting speed. First, nobody cares how fast you can potentially run when you’re sidelined with a hip flexor injury. You’re no good to anyone on the shelf. Second, much of the criticism doesn’t take variation into account. I would argue that elevating the heels rather than the shoulders creates a movement pattern with more direct transfer to sprinting mechanics than GHD Back extensions. While elevated heels undoubtedly place a greater load on the spine than a more traditional variation, the increase is likely insignificant. That adjustment only affects the joint action. Modifications can be made to load the hamstrings more than the glutes. Difficulty can be varied and progressed by extending the legs, raising on a single leg, loading a barbell or placing plates over the hips, adding a stability ball/ TRX straps, adding a leg curl component, or some combination of all of these. The combinations are all but limitless and can surely be customized for anyone’s immediate needs.
- Strong glutes reduce the load on your lumbar during deadlifts or squats. Look at your pelvic complex like a lopsided seesaw with your torso being the long arm. Weak glutes force the lumbar to take on more of the load than necessary in order to stabilize the pelvis and complete the rep. Strong glutes posteriorly stabilize the pelvis thus decreasing the amount of impact on the spine. Glutes are a hell of a fulcrum and the hip thrust will help unlock them.
- You don’t have to support the weight in your hands. How many effective lower body free weight exercises can boast this? Toward the end of a workout, your forearms eventually begin to fatigue and your grip strength begins to fade. You certainly can’t blame it if you cleaned at 70% 1RM and/or deadlifted at 90% 1RM. By removing grip strength as a rate limiter, you’re maximizing the role your glutes play in finishing each rep, further enhancing its training effect
- The Hip Thrust is easy to learn and requires little to no mastery. Because of the fixed points of stability at the shoulders and heels, beginners and veterans alike can lift safely. Because of the mechanical advantage and increased stability that shorter lever arms provide, you can lift a lot heavier than you’d think.
It’s definitely not as sexy as squatting with chains and you’re definitely not going to win any cool points whipping these out at a public gym. And yes… it feels a little embarrassing due to its resemblance to some… other recreational activities. Cast all of that out of your mind because bolstering your injury defenses and enhancing performance simultaneously is about as cool as it gets. For all of the benefits the Hip Thrust brings to the table, it’s shocking how little you see it in action.
Maybe it’s because Jane Fonda got there first.