This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
Strong glutes aren’t just for show. Vital for optimal movement and athletic performance, the gluteus maximus is the largest, most powerful muscle in the human body. Together, the gluteal muscles help to stabilize the upper body and pelvis and assist in hip flexion and locomotion movements like walking, swimming, jumping, and my sport of choice, running.
For a few years, I was just a runner. I logged 35–40 miles each week and regularly participated in half-marathons. Although I’d previously lifted weights regularly for over a decade, I decided to drop my strength workouts altogether in favor of yoga a couple of times a week because being sore after weightlifting hurt my pace. All I cared about was running. But that was a mistake.
The lack of resistance training rendered my gluteal muscles almost nonexistent; the muscles were technically there, but not strong enough to support my heavy mileage. I developed chronic lower-back issues. Twice-a-week chiropractor visits and massage sessions kept me going, but it wasn’t sustainable. I was over being in pain.
When I finally saw a physical therapist, he suggested a strength-training routine with an emphasis on the glutes. So I hired a personal trainer. As part of a full-body weight training routine, my trainer introduced me to a new move: the hip thrust. Sitting on the ground with my back against a flat bench, I put a light barbell over my hips. Then, with my chin tucked and my feet flat on the floor (and in line with my knees), I squeezed my glutes, raising my hips to full extension. It wasn’t easy. At first, I could only do 40 pounds.
Five years later though, my personal record is 300 pounds. The best part? Those glute gains have eradicated my back pain.
Strong glutes give you a firm base of support on which the rest of your body can function, says Jordan Syatt, a personal trainer, certified nutrition coach, and founder of Syatt Fitness in New York. “Imagine trying to shoot a cannon off a canoe–there’s nothing there to stabilize the cannon. But if you can put that cannon onto a stable surface, you can aim properly and use it correctly,” says Syatt. Glutes work in much the same way, he says—by stabilizing your pelvis and spine, they allow other structures to function appropriately (and painlessly), including when you’re doing other activities like jogging.
Invented by Bret Contreras, Ph.D., a strength and conditioning specialist, researcher, and author of “Glute Lab” in 2006, the hip thrust has become a staple in strength-training routines worldwide. When Contreras came up with the hip thrust, the top glute-building movements were squats, lunges, and deadlifts.
The idea for the hip thrust came to Contreras on a Saturday night. He was watching an Ultimate Fighting Championship fight—a brutal mashup of boxing and wrestling—between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, both award-winning mixed martial artists. Ortiz won the Oct. 10, 2006, fight in 1 minute and 18 seconds, and Contreras wondered why Shamrock didn’t try harder to “buck” Ortiz off with his hips as he was pinned to the ground. Contreras concluded that if Shamrock, already a very muscly man, had stronger glutes, the fight might have lasted longer. Contreras headed out to his garage to try to come up with an exercise using that same range of motion.
For the original version of the hip thrust, he positioned his body between a glute-ham machine (popular in CrossFit circles) and something called a reverse hyper machine. “I suspended four 45 pound plates underneath me with a dip belt,” says Contreras.
It was cumbersome and tough to get in the correct position. After doing a set of 15 reps, he had to stop—and for the first time ever, it was because he had specifically exhausted his glutes, pushing them to the brink of what they were capable of. At that moment, Contreras recalls knowing he was going to spend the rest of his life popularizing the hip thrust, which he’s evolved over time to involve less equipment.
In contrast to exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts, the hip thrust targets the gluteus maximus through its full range of motion. In fact, a 2019 systematic review showed it’s a better way to activate the glutes than those conventional exercises. Because it’s more of an isolation exercise, the hip thrust really fires the glutes, and that sets them up for maximum growth, says Contreras.
The beauty of the move is that anyone can do it—and anyone can benefit from a stronger butt, no matter whether you’re an athlete or just want to move through your life more easily. Beginners can start with just their body weight, and more advanced lifters can load up a barbell with weights, says Contreras. But he recommends mastering the movement with your body weight first; once you can do 3 x 20 repetitions, you can start adding resistance with a dumbbell, kettlebell, resistance band, or barbell.
Here’s how to do the bodyweight hip thrust, according to Syatt (though if you’re new to weightlifting, Syatt recommends hiring a personal trainer for a month to learn basic techniques):
Find a bench or flat surface that’s 12–16 inches off the ground.
In a seated position, scoot your back against the bench so that it’s right beneath your shoulder blades (horizontally). Keep your hands at your sides in loose fists (or holding the barbell).
Position your knees directly in line with your heels, with your butt touching the ground.
Make sure your lower back is straight, not arched—you want a flat, neutral spine.
Drive through your heels (not your toes!). Squeeze your glutes together at the top of the movement.
The key to executing the hip thrust correctly is not to rush it—use your glutes, not momentum, says Syatt. If you’re feeling it too much in your quadriceps (the front of the legs), then your feet are probably too close to your butt; if you’re feeling it too much in your hamstrings (the back of the legs), then your heels are too far away, he says. The single-leg variation is done the same way, except you’ll keep the non-working leg bent at 90 degrees throughout the movement.
If you’re ready to try out a barbell, be sure to use padding over the bar to prevent it from digging into you hips, advises Contreras. But Syatt, whose clientele ranges from professional athletes to novice lifters, prefers the bodyweight hip thrust regardless of experience level. He says that’s because it’s easy and accessible. For example, if you only have 30 minutes to spend at the gym, spending 15 minutes to load up a barbell with weights isn’t time-efficient, he says, adding that you can make it more challenging by doing a single-leg variation. If you belong to a gym, it might have a machine designed specifically for this movement, like the Booty Builder or Nautilus Glute Drive.
Today, I’d rather lift weights than do cardio—the exact opposite of my 20s to mid-30s, when I preferred spin class, hot yoga, and distance running. I still run to support my cardiovascular health, but strength training is my primary focus. As a woman in my 40s, I know it’s vital for maintaining muscle mass and preserving mobility. But it also makes me feel strong, capable, and confident. It’s addictive. And whether you’re a beginner looking to strengthen your glutes or an advanced lifter trying to take your program to the next level, the hip thrust can help you reach your goals.
In the last five years, my weekly lifting regimen has morphed into three leg/glute workouts (barbell hip thrusts are always included) and two upper body days where I hit all the major muscles (shoulders, back, biceps, triceps, and chest). I also try to get 15–20 miles in each week. I run when I feel like it, or walk if that’s what my body is calling for. But most importantly, my body is strong enough to sustain all of the movement I crave.