Whether you are an athlete concerned about maximizing performance or focused on how you look everyone wants to pick the most effective exercises. You’ve only got so much time in the gym and a limited amount of energy. No one wants to waste either one when results are the name of the game. We know what the most commonly chosen exercises are for any given movement pattern and body part. That is no mystery, however once those choices are narrowed downed it can become more difficult to decide exactly which movement to go with.
When it comes to lower body exercises that work the glutes and hamstrings three of the most common and successful choices are the barbell deadlift, the hex bar deadlift and the barbell hip thrust. All three are frequently used and excellent exercises. While they are not the only movements used train hip extension and to target muscle activation of the posterior chain they are extremely popular choices because all three allow heavy weights to be used which force significant amounts of muscle recruitment. We know how the game works, the more muscle you can recruit, the more strength and muscle you can develop.
Today we are looking at a just published electromyographic (EMG) study that compares muscle activation in the gluteus maximus, bicep femoris and erector spinae during the barbell deadlift, hex bar deadlift and hip thrust. Measurements were taken during 1 repetition maximum efforts. While the gluteus maximus and bicep femoris are not the on the only glute and hamstring muscles that contribute to hip extension, they are the largest components of their muscle groups and superficially located allowing for easy and more accurate EMG readings. Their individual activation is extremely relevant regarding their movement patterns and contributions to developing maximal strength, power and athletic performance.
On all three movements muscle activation measurements were take for the entire range of motion as well as separated into the upper half of the movement and the lower half. Measurements were only taken for the concentric, lifting portion of the movements.
For gluteus maximus activation the hip thrust was clearly the winner. When looking at the entire range of motion the hip thrust had 8% more activation then the barbell deadlift and 16% more activation then the hex deadlift. Neither of those values reached statistical significance but they are notable. When looking at the upper portion of the movement the hip thrust showed 13% more activation then the barbell and 26% more than the hex bar. The difference on the upper portion of the movement between the hip thrust and hex bar was significant. When comparing the barbell and hex bar deadlifts there were no significant differences though the trend was in favor of the barbell deadlift showing more activation.
Bicep femoris activation showed a different trend that clearly favored the barbell deadlift. For the entire movement the barbell deadlift showed a significant difference of 20% more activation then the hip thrust and 28% more than the hex bar deadlift. When looking at only the lower portion of the movements the barbell deadlift was clearly more effective then the hex bar and had a very significant 48% more activation then the hip thrust. For the upper portion of the movement the barbell deadlift continued to be the leader with a 39% advantage over the hex bar. What was interesting is that despite the hex bar showing more activation then the hip thrust for the lower portion of the movement , on the upper portion of the movement the hip thrust had 34% more bicep femoris activity then the hex bar deadlift. Clearly biomechanical changes throughout the movements alter the muscle activation.
On all three lifts and in all three conditions erector spinae activation was similar and showed no significant differences or major trends.
Applications And Limitations
This study pretty clearly shows that for maximum muscle activation of the gluteus maximus the hip thrust is way to go. For maximum bicep femoris activity then the barbell deadlift should be the main choice. While that information is great to know and can certainly direct program design decisions, you shouldn’t walk around thinking that you shouldn’t do barbell or hex bar deadlifts for glutes or that you always need to choose barbell deadlifts over hex deadlifts or hip thrusts for hamstring involvement. All three movements still work both muscles groups significantly. Both muscle groups are significantly involved in hip extension and all three are still effective choices for hip extension loading.
The differences seen in the upper versus lower portions of the movement suggest that if you are training for a sport you might need to think more specifically about unique biomechanical demands of that sport. How much bend is there at the knee or what is the hip/torso position when you need maximum muscle recruitment and power? We saw more hamstring utilization in the lower portion of the hex bar deadlift but more in the upper portion of the hip thrust. If you have to choose only one to do which one more closely resembles the specific demands of the sport you are training for?
There are also other considerations that may come into play in choosing exercises besides maximum muscle activation. Many individuals have some history of low back injury and depending on what type of pathology they have, the loads that are placed on spinal disks and other structures may be an over-riding factor in exercise selection. The back is a longer lever arm in the barbell deadlift as compared to the hex bar deadlift. Even though the hex bar showed lower muscle activation levels, being able to align the load closer to the center of the body and enabling the lifter to find a more upright torso position may make the hex bar a far superior choice for many individuals. I frequently choose to use the hex bar over the barbell for clients that can deadlift but I have concerns over how I am loading their low backs and their individual capabilities to find the correct body positions to protect themselves.
This study was also done with 1 repetition maximum lifts which are generally associated with maximum strength. While we can expect to see similar results with higher repetition ranges and sub-maximal loads or with different speeds of movement this study does not look at those variables. There may be differences that need to be teased out in future studies.
This study does not look at quadriceps activation. When choosing a deadlift variation you may be concerned with how the quadriceps contribute to the movement and want more or less involvement from them. There are also potential issues relating to the height of the bench used in the hip thrust. A lower or higher bench could alter maximal muscle activation depending on the height and limb lengths of the lifter. There are also potential differences with populations. This study was done with a small number of experienced males. There could be differences with other populations.
Despite the limitations of this study and the other factors that need to be taken into considering when selecting an exercise this study is quite interesting and provides some useful data to help direct our programming. Now get out there and do some heavy deadlifts and hip thrusts.
Andersen, V., Fimland, M., Mo, D-A., Iversen, V., Vederhus, T., Hellebo, L, Nordaune, K. and Saeterbakken, A. (2018) Electromyographic Comparison Of Barbell Deadlift, Hex Bar Deadlift, And Hip Thrust Exercises: A Cross-Over Study. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 32(3):587-593