We need more hip thrusts in the firehall. No, I don’t mean the kind you’d see on TV or in a movie like the hose bed scene in Backdraft. I’m talking about the now-popular exercise called the hip thrust. The hip thrust has gained popularity recently with many strength coaches and athletes because it was touted as an exercise that transferred specifically to faster sprinting because of the horizontal nature of it. Unfortunately, this has been shown to be less than accurate. The hip thrust may not actually carry over as well as people thought it would, but likely because if you want to get faster you actually need to sprint, not because it doesn’t build strength in the hip extensors. Building strength is an important part of increasing power output but it’s only part of the equation. More research needs to be done on this but I still believe it is a great exercise to keep in an athlete’s program, if it fits the athlete’s needs. If people can get over the fact that it looks like you are humping the air then there are still many benefits to learning this exercise, especially for a population like firefighters.
The hip thrust is a progression of the glute bridge exercise. It is generally performed with the shoulders elevated on a bench to increase the range of motion of a glute bridge. Generally, if both the shoulders and feet are on the floor, even if there is weight involved, I will call it a glute bridge and if either the feet or shoulders are elevated in any way I will use the term hip thrust and specify which is elevated. Before using the hip thrust as a strength exercise the glute bridge should be mastered with bodyweight, both double and single leg. This will not only make the exercise more effective, but also reduce the chances of injury to almost zero. It is important to learn how to bridge properly because many people have no idea how to generate movement from their hips properly and fake it by creating an excessive arch in the low back which can lead to low back pain and the exercise will do little to increase glute function and strength. To test how much range you should be using I like to have people do the following:
- Lie on your back with your feet on the floor in a hook-lying position (as if you were going to do a sit up). Squeeze your glutes (your butt cheeks) hard and push through your heels to raise your hips off the ground. You may need to adjust how far away your feet are and try again if you feel this in your quads or your hamstrings cramp up. Take note of how high your hips are and how your hips and back feel. Do this a few times.
- From the same hook-lying position raise one leg up so your hip and knee are both at 90 degrees. Repeat the squeeze and lift process a few times, noting how high you get and how your hips and low back feel. This will be significantly harder than two legs.
- Now hug one leg into your chest and repeat the single leg bridge. This is your true hip extension. If it is almost zero then you either have some issues with stiffness in the front of the hip or some weakness in the hip and torso musculature, (probably both because these often present together).
I like to show this because it demonstrates how much extension actually came from the hips and how much compensation took place in the low back. Now that the degree of hip extension is known the glute bridge can be practiced and the range can be increased through various methods to correct the anterior stiffness and the non-functioning hip and core muscles.
Moving to the hip thrust from the glute bridge can occur quickly with most people as long as the glute bridge is understood and there is no pain. I like to introduce the two-leg version with no weight to help teach where exactly to pivot on the bench and then go directly to the single leg version if strength permits. From here I often prescribe anywhere from 6 to 20 reps with a variety of tempos before having anyone perform a weighted hip thrust. In my opinion there really is no need to use weight early on and almost everyone can benefit greatly from mastering 12 or more reps on each leg with a 3 second hold. You don’t need to get to this point before going back to two legs and adding a load but it’s not a bad place to aim for. It’s also a good idea to not completely abandon the single leg version as you get stronger to promote good low back health.
(By the way, the pivot point is the mid back, around the bottom point of your shoulder blades or where your bra strap sits. If you know where that is. I’m told it’s somewhere close to this area.)
That’s how I typically like to introduce and progress a glute bridge into a hip thrust and here is why I like the hip thrust so much.
Trains the Posterior Chain
This might be obvious because it’s also called a glute bridge and as most know, the glutes are on the backside. It’s hard to work too much on posterior chain strength in this world; most people have very little because of the sedentary lives we lead and the positions our society forces us into. We also hardly ever lift things off the ground anymore. The hip thrust provides a very significant stimulus for the glutes as well as to the lower back as it creates a rigid lever for your hips to create a hinge and finally the hamstrings as they assist in hip extension. The hip thrust is quite possibly the best glute development exercise around right now. If you or someone you love is having trouble filling out the backside of their jeans, hip thrusts should be tried as soon as possible.
Safe alternative and easy to learn
Many people avoid learning the deadlift because they fear they will injure their back. It is not uncommon for this to happen if someone has not been coached well and has no feedback. It’s not impossible to learn it by yourself, however if this is a fear then the hip thrust could provide a very safe alternative to the deadlift. It is the same hinge-type exercise and can also be loaded up quite heavy once proficient but with fewer opportunities for disaster. This a great option for any older firefighters that want to lift weights but are hesitant to deadlift or are just beat up from a long career. Using the hip thrust could also lead to someone becoming more comfortable with the hinge and lead to trying other hinge-type exercises like the RDL or pull through. It’s kind of like a gate-way exercise that never gets old. It may lead to the more hard-core stuff but doesn’t necessarily have to because it doesn’t lose its effectiveness.
Good substitute during an upper body injury
For someone who does deadlift, knowing how to use the hip thrust can be beneficial if they are ever in a position where the upper body is the limiting factor due to injury. It is important to keep training what you can while injured and in many cases the hip thrust provides someone with an upper body injury enough stimulus to maintain strength in the posterior chain while recovering. It can also be useful when low back pain is an issue and even more-so when the single leg version is used. It’s also even more knee friendly than a deadlift for anyone with knee pain. Knowing that a large number of firefighters experience some type of upper body, leg or back pain in any given year it would seem imperative that the hip thrust be learned as a way to continue training to maintain strength and fitness levels and be ready for duty.
Lower CNS demand and DOMS
Any exercise that loads the spine and challenges the grip is going to have a significant impact on the central nervous system. That is one reason why single leg training tends to lead to less neural fatigue post-workout, because lighter loads can be used for the same training effect. The spine is challenged in the hip thrust but it does not experience the same kind of loading as in a deadlift. There is also no grip component to the hip thrust which also tones down the nervous system demands. The hip thrust can be used for a second posterior chain workout in the week after a deadlift session. This can help build strength in the pattern without totally beating yourself up with two deadlift sessions in a week. Most powerlifters and strongmen competitors don’t train the deadlift more than once every 7 to 10 days for this very reason. It’s just too demanding. The hip thrust fits in perfectly. I have also noticed that delayed-onset-muscle-soreness (DOMS) is less intense with the hip thrust than with other hinging exercises, which also allows more frequency. Personally, lately I tend to use either a heavy hip thrust with some volume work on the RDL or a heavy deadlift with a single leg RDL or single leg hip thrust for reps (plus some GHRs or leg curls for injury prevention). That combination seems to work well for me and I haven’t had any issues with low back pain or CNS burn out. This is important to consider for firefighters training on shift because you want to stay fresh for the shift. If you have nothing left after a workout you could either be less useful during a call or you increase your risk of injury. If deadlifts leave you feeling more than a little tired then swapping in a hip thrust while on shift might be worth trying.
There are a few points I really stress with hip thrusts.
- Generate movement from the hip and not the low back. Save your spine, keep it neutral and let your hips move the weight.
- Pause at the top. This can be a short one-second pause or it can be for 3 or 5 seconds. I recommend putting your ego aside for these and focus on getting a good contraction and keeping your form perfect. The pause allows you to use less weight and limits the amount of momentum you can use.
- Keep the bottom of your shoulder blades on the bench. One major problem I see is people setting up wrong and trying to do this with the bench set almost at their neck level. This does just doesn’t work and you will end up pushing the bench away from you rather than hinging. If you have a higher bench and need to use blocks to end up at a good starting height then do so. My bench doesn’t allow me to start from the floor and keep the bench in the right spot so I use some technique blocks to raise the bar up a few inches.
- Don’t look at the ceiling. Look forward the whole time or keep a neutral neck position. Bret Contreras (the guy who actually made the hip thrust popular, he’s called “The Glute Guy”) suggests that staring straight ahead will help activate the glutes and maintain a posterior pelvic tilt at the top. Staring at the ceiling usually results in losing tension and creating a huge arch at the bottom of the movement. We don’t want that.
Here is a great video from Eric Cressey that highlights a few technique points and shows exactly what a hip thrust looks like.
Hopefully at this point I have peaked your interest in hip thrusts. They can be very beneficial for building strength in the glutes and hamstrings, preventing injuries to the lower back and preventing a serious condition known as “flat ass”. How does a stronger backside benefit firefighters? It makes lifting heavy patients safer and easier. It makes it easier to move charged supply lines, stretch hose, climb stairs in full gear and overhaul is less demanding to name a few tasks. They also make your bunker pants fit nicer in the right places. So master that glute bridge and get going. Happy thrusting.