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The Case Against the Hip Thrust
6/14/2016 12:43:52 PM
 
In the bodybuilding and strength-coaching communities, every few years someone comes up with an exercise that will supposedly revolutionize training. In the 1970s Arthur Jones claimed that his Nautilus pullover machine was the only exercise that could effectively train the lats. That so-called innovation was followed by many others: Swiss ball crunches, single-leg deadlifts, Bulgarian lunges, suspension push-ups – and the list goes on. One exercise that is getting a lot of attention lately is the hip thrust. Knowing how susceptible this industry is to following fads, should we take the claims made about this exercise seriously? Let’s investigate.
 
I first learned about hip thrusts in 1982 from track and field coach Don Chu, PhD, when I took his weight training class at California State University, Hayward. Exercises such as these were referred to as pelvic bridges within the physical therapy community at the time, but in recent years the term hip thrusts has become more popular. (This term is also used to describe a leg exercise popular with football players; in fact, several manufacturers of exercise equipment call their machines the hip thrust.)
 
A few years later I watched an early ’80s video showing gymnasts using hip thrusts with resistance, and I also purchased a book published in 1981 featuring a dozen variations of this exercise. As such, the hip thrust is not so much a new exercise based on an original thought as it is an old exercise that has been rediscovered and repackaged.
 
In the 1980s and ’90s I used body weight hip thrusts with athletes as a general conditioning method for seven years when I was a strength coach for the Air Force Academy. I had my athletes perform a single-leg version performed in a dynamic fashion that focused on fast eccentrics, although I often finished off with isometric contractions.
 
Many who endorse the hip thrust claim that the improvements in glute strength and glute development it produces are superior to those produced by exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and lunges. They claim the hip thrust will improve running speed and jumping ability and that it will even help prevent or rehabilitate lower back injuries. They also say it will enable you to lift more weight in the squat, deadlift, and even the Olympic lifts.
 
One claim I find particularly interesting is that sprinters and Olympic-style weightlifters are using hips thrusts to improve athletic performance – could it be their secret weapon? As a fitness writer who is driven to discover the facts, I sought out two individuals I’ve known for more than 20 years who have extensive knowledge of these two sports, Dr. Michael Ripley and Andrew “Bud” Charniga.
 
Ripley is a sports medicine doctor who over the past two decades has treated and designed strength and conditioning programs for 35 Olympic medal winners in track and field. He has also been a sports medicine doctor for track and field athletes at LSU, one of the most dominant track teams in the country. Ripley is my inside man, so to speak, on track and field, so I asked him about his experience with the hip thrust.
 
Ripley told me he has never seen an international-caliber sprinter perform the hip thrust with resistance, nor has he heard of any elite track coaches promoting this exercise. Ripley also warns that there is a risk that hip thrusts could cause catastrophic injury to the spine by creating such conditions as spondylolisthesis (characterized by a displacement of a vertebra) or low-back facet syndrome. He adds that performing the exercise at high speeds (i.e., “thrusting the hips”) increases the risk of going into hyperextension and injuring the anterior longitudinal ligament, which plays a key role in spinal stability.
 
Ripley also says it is a mistake to believe that all elite athletes have sufficient core strength to perform hip thrusts properly; in fact, Ripley says he often has to spend considerable time with new athletes on developing core strength.
 
As for the opinion of Bud Charniga, a sport scientist who was also one of the best lifters in the US in the 1970s, he told me he has never seen any elite weightlifters perform hip thrusts. Charniga has a lifetime of experience to back up his judgment; he has translated numerous Russian textbooks on weightlifting, has contributed articles on weightlifting biomechanics to sport science publications, has attended international competitions every year for the past four decades as a spectator, and has interviewed countless world-class weightlifters and their coaches. Likewise, Jim Schmitz, who coached me for several years and trained weightlifters who went on to compete in seven Olympics, did not use hip thrusts with his athletes.
 
When I spoke to Charniga about hip thrusts, he was adamant about how ineffective this exercise is for weightlifters. Charniga says the primary role of the glutes during the classical lifts is as postural muscles. Unlike the trapezius, which powerfully contracts for only a fraction of a second during the pulling movements, the glutes are continually firing during the pull. Charniga also says it would be counterproductive for weightlifters to focus on contracting the glutes during the pull for the snatch or clean because this would delay their descent under the bar, thus reducing the amount of weight they could lift. 
 
With all the evidence pointing to the limited value of the hip thrust for improving performance, the notion that the best sprinting and weightlifting coaches rely strongly on this exercise is not credible. Experience says otherwise. This begs the question “What exercise is better than a hip thrust for weightlifters?”
 
The late sports scientist Mel Siff, PhD, told me that during weightlifting the erector spinae muscles are constantly working isometrically. Tommy Kono also wrote an article about this topic in 1974 in his “ABC’s of Weightlifting” series published in Strength and Health magazine. Rather than adding an exercise such as the hip thrust that continues to work the erector spinae muscles in a shortened state, Charniga says it would be better to perform variations of good morning exercises that stretch these muscles. As an analogy, Charniga says if your hands are cramping from typing all day, it would make no sense to try to release the tension by performing a grip strengthening exercise that could cause your hands to cramp more.
 
Over the past four decades, I’ve interviewed hundreds of head strength coaches and football coaches at the high school, college, and professional levels, but I haven’t come across a single one who has mentioned the hip thrust as an essential exercise in their programs. It is highly unlikely that the hip thrust is having the type of impact on athletic fitness training that the proponents of this exercise claim it has. Testimonials and marketing strategies aside, here are five reasons that the hip thrust with resistance may not be a good exercise to add to your workout:
 
1. It presents a significant risk of abdominal, hip flexor, and lower back injury. Paul Gagné is a rehab specialist and strength coach who has trained Olympic medal winners in winter Olympic sports and numerous pro athletes. Gagné told me he uses hip thrust exercises as a warm-up for strength and conditioning programs. He warns, however, that performing the exercise so that the top of the pelvis is parallel to the floor should not be done by those who have excessive anterior pelvic tilt, a posture quite common in the US. He says doing so may create excessive compression on the lumbar spine, as well as shearing forces on the psoas (a muscle that flexes the hips) and subumbilical (below the belly button) abdominal fibers.
 
Among the types of athletes who should probably avoid hip thrusts are competitive ice skaters. As a strength coach, I worked with many of these athletes, including several ice dancers and singles skaters who competed in the Olympic Games. Gagné, in fact, trains the current world champions in ice dancing. Gagné and I have found that these athletes often have valgus feet (i.e., fallen arches), a condition that commonly causes internal rotation of the lower limbs, which in turn increases the curvature of the lower back. This condition is called lumbar hyperlordosis.
 
A strength coach may conclude that because ice skaters often have exceptional glute development they could benefit from hip thrusts. However, if these athletes perform them without first correcting their postural problems, they may end up suffering from lower back pain and injury.
 
2. It disrupts the fascial system. When you perform a barbell hip thrust, even with a padded bar, the prolonged pressure of the bar resting directly over the pelvis compresses the fascia. The body reacts to this stress by laying down more fascia, which makes this connective tissue less pliable. The eventual result is disruption of the fascial system.
 
Jess Banda, LMT, a trainer and soft-tissue specialist I’ve worked with, says the most common problems he sees among those who perform hip thrusts include knee pain, tightness in the rectus femoris and piriformis, and excessive anterior pelvic tilt. In fact, one proponent of the hip thrust who performs this exercise with more weight than he can squat and deadlift says he had to significantly reduce his volume of training on the hip thrust due to pain in his quadriceps tendon incurred from performing the exercise.
 
Ella Dobrinina, a pro physique competitor to watch out for in the 2016 Ms. Olympia Physique Competition, tried hip thrusts to improve her glute development but was getting little benefit from them or, for that matter, from other exercises that worked the glutes. While focusing on hip thrusts she complained of knee and lower back pain, and she also failed the Modified Thomas Test, which assesses lower body length-tension relationships. Banda treated Dobrinina’s fascia, which not only resolved her lower back and knee pain but also enabled her to feel her glutes in more conventional exercises such as squats and deadlifts.
 
3. It offers little transfer to compound movements or sports. I would be interested in seeing future studies on athletic performance conducted by those who do not have a financial interest in the results, but from my investigations I doubt this exercise will be presented favorably.
 
One reason a hip thrust will probably do little to increase performance in the squat is that its resistance curve is highest at the point of the squat where the lifter is the strongest. An analogy would be trying to improve the initial drive off the chest for a bench press only by performing heavy supports. For more information on why the hip thrust has little carryover to exercises such as the squat, I recommend an article written by sports coach James Jowsey: “Why Doing Glute Bridges Will Never Help Your Squat.”
 
As for the prevention of hamstring injuries, research suggests that exercises that emphasize eccentric loading, such as the Nordic curl, are more effective than exercises that emphasize a shortening of the hamstrings, such as hip thrusts. In one study of 942 Danish soccer players, the control group experienced 52 hamstring injuries, whereas the group performing the Nordic curl only had 15 injuries.
 
Proponents of the hip thrust claim it is the best exercise to restore glute function for glutes that “don’t fire.” However, Dr. Marco Cardinale, PhD, writing in his sports and fitness science blog, says the idea that an individual’s glutes are not firing is “absolute nonsense.” He says if your glutes didn’t fire you wouldn’t be able to walk and your condition might suggest a spinal cord injury or neurodegenerative disease. However, if the glutes are inhibited in their ability to contract, it’s most likely because the antagonistic muscles are tight.
 
The medical term that applies to this condition of nonfiring is Sherrington’s law of reciprocal inhibition. John Gibbons, author of The Vital Glutes: Connecting the Gait Cycle of Pain and Dysfunction, recommends that those with inhibited glute muscles should perform two weeks of stretches for the hip flexor muscles before trying specific glute exercises. As for what exercise would be best, I saw one study using non-weighted hip thrusts and reverse hypers, and the reverse hyper had superior glute activation. The same researcher performed these two exercises under load and said the hip thrust was superior for glute activation. However, he admitted that he did not use a maximal weight in the reverse hyper, so it’s difficult to infer information from his results.
 
4. Its short range of motion limits glute development. According to Dr. Paulo Gentil, an outspoken fitness professional from Brazil, the limited range of motion of the hip thrust compared to the squat makes the hip thrust a less effective exercise for glute development. Further, it’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of the hip thrust as a glute developer because those who perform the exercise are often performing other exercises that also work the glutes.
 
5. Its proponents often use controversial research to support their claims. Many of the proponents of hip thrusts, including one individual in particular who sells an apparatus to perform the exercise, support their claims by citing EMG studies. The studies I’ve seen use only surface EMGs, which have many limitations, one being that a high EMG measurement doesn’t necessarily mean that that muscle is contributing the most to an athletic movement. Fitness professional Suneet Sebastian has an interesting YouTube video in which he discusses these limitations in detail.
 
Sebastian says the most accurate EMG testing for the glutes would involve inserting needles into the glute muscles of subjects who then perform maximal muscle contractions, a procedure that may cause nerve damage. According to Jowsey, EMG results of the hip thrust can be misleading because the nervous system is less active during that movement than when the body is in a standing position. As a result, when the pelvis is lifted in a hip thrust, Jowsey says, “…the only neurological drive goes to the glutes, hence the high EMG reading for the bridge.”
 
Respected sports scientist Dr. William Sands said the following about EMGs: “I did my dissertation on EMG. EMG is extremely useful for: 1. Knowing which muscle(s) are active. 2. Knowing when muscle(s) are active. However, after that it gets a little dicey. There is a nice linear relationship between magnitude of EMG and muscle force, but the relationship is only valid for isometric tension.” The bottom line is that an EMG may be a good tool for determining the effectiveness of an exercise, but it should not be the only tool.
 
Now that I’ve made my case about the risks associated with performing hip thrusts and pointed out some of the questionable hype behind this movement, you can make an informed decision to include it in your exercise program or pass on it. However, based upon my investigation of this exercise, I’ll leave you with the insight of Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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