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Comparison of different exercises for hamstrings and gluteus maximus activation

by A. Manolova | 13 March 2018

hamstrings,gluteus maximus, deadlift, hex bar, hip thrust, exercises, EMG, muscles, electromyography
Illustration of hip and posterior thigh muscles.

Figure 1. Illustration of hip and posterior thigh muscles... (Click to enlarge)

The large muscles responsible for the hip extension (hamstrings and gluteus maximus) (Fig. 1) have long been studied in the context of injury prevention among athletes, and in more recent years for their leading role in speed disciplines, such as the 100m sprint. Added to this is the growing interest of fitness participants in the work and hypertrophy of these muscle groups. The interest of scientific studies often focuses on which exercises will better recruit these muscles.

The Hip Thrust has become a must in this work perspective. Several studies, conducted by Bret Contreras (aka "The Glute Guy") have compared this exercise with different squat variants (back squat, front squat), demonstrating that the Hip Thrust allowed a better recruitment of hamstrings and gluteus maximus. However, what about Hip Thrust compared to exercises that require much more the posterior muscle chain like the deadlift variations ?

The Study

To answer this question, a team of Norwegian researchers compared the Hip Thrust (Fig. 2) with the traditional deadlift (Fig. 3) and the deadlift with hex bar (Fig. 4) (see our articles on (1) kinematic differences and (2) muscular differences between these two variants of deadlift). For this, the researchers recruited 13 men with strength training experience (4.5 ± 1.9 years of practice). The protocol was simple and consisted of three sessions : two of them were for testing and familiarization and all participants performed the 3 movements and evaluated their 1RM for each exercise (1RM Hip Thrust = 176.6 ± 32.4 kg, 1RM Deadlift = 150.6 ± 24.2 kg and 1RM Deadlift with Hex Bar = 153.5 ± 22.4 kg), the third session was the experimental session where muscle activation of the hamstrings, gluteus maximus and erector spinae was evaluated by electromyography when performing the 1RM of each exercise.

Hip Thrust

Figure 2. Hip Thrust

Deadlift

Figure 3. Deadlift

Deadlift with Hex Bar

Figure 4. Deadlift with Hex Bar

Results & Analyzes

The main results of this study show that for the gluteus maximus, the Hip Thrust induces significantly higher activation (+ 16%) compared to the deadlift with hexagonal bar. No significant difference was observed between the deadlift and the Hip Thrust. For the hamstrings, the deadlift provides significantly higher activation compared to the deadlift with hexagonal bar (+ 28%) and compared to the Hip Thrust (+ 20%). No significant difference was observed between the 3 exercises for the erector spinae (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Mean electromyography activity of studied muscles during the 3 exercises. *Significant difference between Hip Thrust and Deadlift with Hex Bar (p < 0.005) ; #Significant difference between Deadlift and Hip Thrust (p < 0.001) ; §Significant difference between Deadlift and Deadlift with Hex Bar (p < 0.001).

When the results are expressed as function of the movement phase (Fig. 6), it is possible to note that the Hip Thrust allows maximal activation of the gluteus maximus at the end of the concentric phase. In addition, the difference in the biceps femoris activation between the deadlift and the Hip Thrust is mainly due to the beginning of the concentric phase. Indeed, in deadlift, at the beginning of the movement, the moment of force applied to the hips is much higher than in Hip Thrust due to the placement of the load according the body. In addition, the knees are more extended at the beginning of the deadlift than at the beginning of Hip Thrust, thus causing a greater stretching of the hamstrings and resulting in a higher electromyographic activity.

Figure 6. Mean electromyography activity of studied muscles during the 3 exercises as function of the movement phase. < *Significant difference between Hip Thrust and Deadlift with Hex Bar (p < 0.005) ; #Significant difference between Deadlift and Hip Thrust (p < 0.001) ; §Significant difference between Deadlift and Deadlift with Hex Bar (p < 0.001).

Practical Applications

This study shows that to recruit more efficiently the gluteus maximus, the Hip Thrust is a good isolation exercise that maximizes the contraction of this muscle at the end of the concentric phase. However, this study did not show any significant differences with the traditional deadlift. And this exercise is also the best of the three exercises tested for hamstring recruitment.

The Hip Thrust have its place in the specific work of the gluteus maximus. Its main advantage over the deadlift is that it does not involve significant leverage at the hips and lower back and allows it to focus only on the hip extension with maximum contraction in the end movement, not to mention the fact that it allows to load relatively heavy without a lot of technical learning as for the deadlift.

References

  1. Andersen V, Fimland MS, Mo D-A, Iversen VM, Vederhus T, Rockland Hellebo LR, Nordaune KI and Saeterbakken AH. Electromyographic comparison of barbell deadlift, hex bar deadlift, and hip thrust exercises: a cross-over study. J Strength Cond Res 32(3) : 587-593, 2018.

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