It’s Leg Day: Barbell Squats vs. Barbell Hip Thrusts

Written by: Colton Plunkett, PT, DPT

If you walk into any gym today, you’ll likely see two different exercises performed in someone’s leg day routine – barbell squats and barbell hip thrusts.


Many people perform barbell hip thrusts to target the glutes, but is this exercise more beneficial for glute hypertrophy, strength, or overall function compared to squats? Thankfully for you, I dug in and read some research to find out.

According to one study, the squat and hip thrust achieved statistically equivalent hypertrophy gains in the gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus after 9 weeks of training. For all of those wondering what hypertrophy is…Hypertrophy is simply known as an increase in muscle mass. If this is all you are looking for, take your pick of either exercise to meet your goals. However, if you are interested in more than just increasing muscle mass, let’s discuss what the differences are between these two exercises.


The same study also looked into thigh hypertrophy and strength outcomes. The barbell hip thrust resulted in minimal growth in the thigh musculature, whereas the barbell squat resulted in more significant thigh growth. When it came to determining strength outcomes, both hip thrusts and squats improved strength with performance. These improvements in strength were similar; thus, showing no benefit of one versus another when it comes to overall strength. 


The research findings were intriguing, but as a physical therapist, I wanted to identify which exercise is most beneficial for my patients. Believe it or not, every person has to squat multiple times per day even outside of the gym. Many physical therapists, myself included, use a squat assessment to determine where a patient’s weakness or most severe limitation may be. To perform a squat correctly, it requires a multitude of things to be controlled simultaneously including things such as adequate hip, knee, ankle mobility, proper core control, breathing rhythm, correct timing and synchronization of movements… The list goes on. While hip thrusts are good at targeting the glutes and increasing leg strength, I do believe that squats are the more functional and beneficial exercise between the two. 


So let’s talk about your goals…


There are also some ways that you can modify a squat in order to achieve different goals. If you are aiming to target the glutes with barbell hip thrusts, you would need to move your knees forward over your toes as you descend down into the squat (See bBlow). Yes, knees over toes is completely safe and now even recommended as the safer option contrary to previous beliefs.


If you have limited ankle mobility and struggle with this type of movement, place your heels on a plate or slant board to allow for a deeper squat. The deeper squat is not only more functional, but it will also elicit more activation of the hip adductors. The adductors are the muscles on the inside of your thighs and play a huge role in getting out of the “hole” at the bottom of the squat. 


If you would like to target your quads, squat down like you are sitting in a chair and don’t let your knees move forward over your toes as much (See Below). While I would not recommend this option with heavy loads, it can still be used with light to moderate weight for good quad activation.



With all of this said, I think that barbell hip thrusts are a good and sometimes useful exercise. If for some reason you are unable to perform a squat correctly or without pain, a barbell hip thrust may be a good starting point for you to work your way back to performing a squat safely. If you want to load your glutes more than allowed by your current squat strength or hip mobility, do hip thrusts. If you are rehabbing from an injury or even a surgery that is preventing you from squatting, perform hip thrusts if safe and allowed by your post operative precautions.

Just remember that either way, getting stronger will help bridge the gap to a healthier you.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to visit or contact NesinFIT @ Lincoln Mill: 256.489.1100 or NesinFIT @ Madison: 256.461.965

Denice H,
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I just finished my physical therapy with NesinFit. I cannot say enough to express how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to work on improving my physical fitness and mobility with their wonderful staff. My main therapist Jonathan was amazing! So knowledgeable and patient, he not only helped me to progress during my sessions, he gave me things to do at home to keep the improvements going! I would recommend NesinFit to anyone needing Physical Therapy!!
Brian P.
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My experience with the NesinFIT team has been great. Jonathan and Amanda are experts in their field. They developed a plan specific to my injuries and goals. I've had experiences in the past with doctors that told me to stop squatting or deadlfiting. This is not the NesinFIT approach. They work to address the issues instead of ignoring them so you can't get back to the activities you love without pain. Couldn't recommend them more.
Braden B.
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Highly recommend Nesin and NesinFit! I recently suffered a serious hamstring tear and could barely walk when I first came in. Working with Johnathan was awesome! Not only am I fully recovered, but I’m leaving stronger than when I came in. All of the staff and therapist are super friendly, professional, and easy to work with.