by Bret Contreras July 10, 2014
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and some meathead on Facebook advising a lifter to “just squat” when he sees a picture or video of a woman performing a glute exercise he isn’t familiar with. I refer to these meatheads as “just squat” bros. Is their advice sound? Should women discontinue all of their other glute exercises and focus solely on the squat? In this article, I’m going to explain why the “just squat” mantra is horrendous advice for those who are trying to maximize glute development.
Before I get started, let me quickly address the squat. Does the squat build the glutes? Absolutely. Should you squat, assuming you can do so comfortably without consistently injuring yourself? Of course. Is “just squatting” the optimal way to maximize glute development? Hell no.
In this article, I’m going to ignore the fact that some bodies aren’t well-suited for squatting. I’m going to ignore the fact that muscles contain functional subdivisions which are preferentially activated via different movements, and I won’t focus on the fact that squats don’t fully activate all the motor units – especially in the upper glute region. I’m not going to focus on the fact that there are three primary mechanisms to muscle growth, whereby some exercises are better-suited for stimulating one mechanism over another. Instead, I’m going to highlight a recent research paper, then I’m going to explore the training methods of the athletes, physique competitors, and fitness models with the best gluteal muscle development.
Sounds very appealing, right? Quit blasting away on multiple exercises and just focus on a single one. Unfortunately, if something sounds to good to be true, it usually is. Though the “just do one exercise per muscle group” mantra has been championed by dozens of pseudoexperts over the past twenty years in strength & conditioning, there was never a good study that examined this question, so they were free to speculate. That is, until now.
Check out THIS paper, which was just recently published ahead of print in the JSCR. This is a well-conducted study, and the researchers had one group “just squat,” while the other group did a volume matched protocol that included squats, deadlifts, leg press, and lunges. Let me reiterate – volume was matched between groups, so they did the same total number of sets and reps. What did they find?
The variety group experienced better hypertrophic gains than the “just squat” group. This study used the quadriceps for analysis, which always elicit peak activation of over 100% of MVIC (maximum voluntary isometric contraction) during the squat. For hamstring and glute development, I surmise that “just squatting” would be much more lackluster in terms of the hypertrophic adaptations elicited compared to a variety group, since the activation relative to MVC is lower than it is for the quadriceps (see HERE for a report on glute activation in a variety of movements). At any rate, these findings imply that those individuals who advise people to just do one exercise for maximizing the hypertrophy of any muscle are muscle group are erroneous.
If maximum quad growth is the goal, do squats and also do exercises such as front squats, leg press, lunges, and leg extensions. If maximum hammie growth is the goal, do squats and also do exercises such as deadlifts, good mornings, back extensions, glute ham raises, Nordic ham curls, kneeling leg curls, lying leg curls, and seated leg curls. If maximum glute growth is the goal, do squats and also do exercises such as hip thrusts, deadlifts, back extensions, lunges, standing cable abduction, and machine seated hip abduction.
I sure don’t know of any. I can tell you that none of my clients or followers who experienced great results just squatted – not Kellie, not Marianne, not Sammie, not Erin, not Nathalia, not Brittany, not Alli, not Casey, not Sasha, not Megan, not Colleen, not Rachel, not Joy, not Sam, not Karli, not Diana, not Angie, not Lizzy, not Katie, not Chelsea, not Anne, not Alicia, not Molly, not Kate, not Kelli, and not any of the numerous other testimonials and before/after pics that you can see ON THIS PAGE.
Now, the squat happens to be the exercise that I perform most in my own training. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been a squatting fiend. However, my personal training methodology isn’t about me – it’s about my clients and their goals. All of my clients do some form of squatting, but squats aren’t usually the centerpiece of the program (keep in mind I train mostly physique clients, not pro athletes or powerlifters). My favorite exercises for female physique clients happen to include the barbell hip thrust, band hip thrust, goblet squat, kettlebell deadlift, back extension, and walking lunge.
Now, you might think this exercise list is absurd if you’re a “just squat” bro. But there’s one glaring problem here – the “just squat” bros never have any evidence of their success in transforming client’s backsides. I take great pride in my testimonials, and I feel that they’re the best in the world for glute transformations.
Guess what? Most of the ladies on my testimonials page credit hip thrusts for the majority of their glute gains, not squats. As a matter of fact, there are a few of them rarely squatted. Blasphemy, you say? The fact of the matter is, there are many great glute exercises out there, and many roads can lead to Rome. As long as you’re hammering a handful of glute exercises , including some that target the flexed-range hip extension ROM, some that target the extended-range hip extension ROM, and at least one that targets hip abduction/external rotation, you’re probably going to experience good results. But you won’t maximize your results by doing just one exercise for glutes. One consistent theme in the numerous testimonials I receive from women is that once they started incorporating more variety, their glute-building rate of progress soared.
I wrote my thoughts on hip thrusts versus squats in a guest post for Eric Cressey, and my verdict is that both should be performed for optimal results. At any rate, variety will always trump a single exercise for hypertrophic gains, and you have plenty of time throughout the week to squat and do other glute exercises. For example, after the client finishes their squats, they can easily throw in a couple of sets of one or more of the following exercises for even better results: American deadlifts, heavy kettlebell swings, band hip thrusts, barbell hip thrusts, cable pull-throughs, single leg hip thrusts, or pendulum quadruped hip extensions. I can’t see how any intelligent human being could argue against this.
No, they don’t. I’ve never heard of one bikini, figure competitor, or fitness model who just squatted – literally never. Every single one of them performs a variety of glute exercises. This is true for Jamie Eason, Vida Guerra, Nathalia Melo, Ashley Kaltwasser, and Michelle Lewin. Each of them employ a variety of gluteal exercises, including squats, RDL’s, hip thrusts, reverse hypers, back extensions, lunges, cable donkey kicks, cable standing hip abduction, and more.
You know who else doesn’t “just squat”? The Victoria Secret models. They enjoy their specialized glute workouts consisting of a variety of movements. If the “just squat bros” started training Victoria Secret models, they’d quickly be fired for throwing off their proportions.
No, they don’t. For example, HERE and HERE are videos of Kai Greene training glutes, and HERE is a video of Johnnie Jackson training his posterior chain. You’ll note the Jefferson deadlifts, pendulum quadruped donkey kicks, seated abduction machine, Dimel deadlifts, deadlifts, hip thrusts, back extensions, and glute ham raises.
No, they don’t – and hypertrophy isn’t their primary goal, strength is. Nevertheless, they also deadlift (in concordance with their sport), and the vast majority also perform lower body assistance lifts, such as back extensions, reverse hypers, pull-throughs, Dimel deadlifts, leg presses, and/or swings. HERE and HERE are videos of Pete Rubish doing some accessory glute work for his deadlift. Note the hip thrusts, barbell glute bridges, Bulgarian split squats, and heavy back extensions.
This tendancy is true for all strength and power athletes. Olympic lifters do squats and front squats, along with clean and snatch variations, and many also do back extensions. Hip thrusts are gaining popularity in the Olympic lifting world, which is difficult considering it’s a sport dictated largely by tradition. Strongmen do squats, along with deadlifts, stone lifts, yoke walks, farmer’s carries, Zercher and good morning movements, sledwork, and more. Some strongmen are adding hip thrusts into their training as well.
The Brazilian women prioritize glute development in their training. If just squatting was the best way to go about building glutes, they’d go down this route. But they don’t just squat – they’ve found that variety expedites results.
HERE is former Ms. Bikini Olympia Nathalia Melo discussing glute training in Brazil. As you’ll see, the squat is just one of the many glute exercises they employ, and they have a very large arsenal of free weight, ankle weight, band, cable, and machine exercises to hit their glutes. In fact, their gyms tend to have separate portions of the gym dedicated to glute training.
No, they don’t. In fact, I don’t know of a single pro strength coach who has his athletes just squat. Every high-level strength coach I know employs a variety of hip and leg strengthening exercises. For example, Arizona Cardinals strength coach Buddy Morris, Carolina Panthers strength coach Joe Kenn, and Cincinnati Bengals strength coach Chip Morton all have their guys do a ton of bilateral and unilateral squat, deadlift, hip thrust, reverse hyper, and back extension variations.
As you can see, the “just squat” bro is advising you to do something that no bikini competitor, no fitness model, no pro bodybuilder, no elite powerlifter, and no pro athlete actually does. He’s advising you to do something that is refuted by the literature, and he’s recommending something that doesn’t make logical sense.
Moreover, the “just squat” bro typically doesn’t train any clients. If he did, he’d quickly expand his arsenal, as I’ve never seen a successful personal trainer who has his clients just squat for lower body development.
If the “just squat” bro feels that you should prioritize the squat and focus on progressive overload, then this could be very good advice depending on the person. But if this were the case, it would be ideal for him to rephrase his statement as, “that looks like a cool exercise – I recommend that you also do your squats and try to put some more weight on the bar or do another rep or two every couple of weeks.” Unfortunately, the “just squat” bro usually isn’t considerate enough to word his statements tactfully.
Something tells me that if the “just squat” bro were told that he’d be given a million dollars if he added two inches of glute mass to his hips in a month, he’d do more than just squat. Something also tells me that if the “just squat” bro spent a few days reading the literature on metabolic stress in relation to muscle hypertrophy, or if he spent some time studying the regimens of those who successfully achieved glute transformations, he’d recommend to do more than just squat. Finally, something tells me that if the “just squat” bro spent a few months attaining mastery of the various glute exercises he shuns, he’d end up liking them, he’d keep them in his programming, and he’d recommend them to others.
Speaking from personal experience, my glute workouts feel much more complete if when I follow squats or deadlifts up with hip thrusts or high rep back extensions. Squats can get my glutes very sore, and deadlifts can make my glutes feel like they’re going to rip off of the femur, but for a complete workout, you also want to achieve a deep burn in the glutes and attain a glute pump (HERE are some ideas on this topic). The latter goal is best achieved through targeted movements that keep more constant tension on the glutes. If you want your glutes to thrive, do more than just squat. In addition, if you want your hammies to thrive, do more than just squat.
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