Some exercises are simple, but not easy... this is one of them.
Every great workout program should include single-leg exercises, and some serious work for the glutes. Lucky for you, the single-leg hip thrust checks both of these boxes.
Single-leg hip thrusts are a challenging exercise to work your glutes and hamstrings. They are going to help you build better glutes (dudes, you too) and improve overall strength.
A hip thrust is a powerful motion where you use your glutes to drive your hips up to the ceiling. As you might imagine, the single-leg version uses only one leg to accomplish this. Its an excellent exercise for nearly anyone to use, but as per usual, it’s really only useful when it’s performed correctly.
Your glutes and hamstrings are some seriously strong muscles. This is why people are able to deadlift or “regular” hip thrust hundreds of pounds. The single-leg hip thrust is an awkward exercise to load up heavy on (but there are some options later on in this article). Given this fact, it’s not a terribly difficult motion to push your hips up towards the ceiling, which makes it really easy to do this wrong.
The human body has a clever way to organize itself to accomplish a physical task. In the gym, if a weight is light, you can kind of use bad form and still move the weight. Doesn’t make it correct, or effective, but the weight moved. Now, when you add some resistance to it, using bad form becomes a lot more challenging because it’s biomechanically inefficient.
In the case of the single-leg hip thrust, it’s pretty easy to “do” the motion, which means that without some focus, a lot of people are just mimicking the exercise, without actually executing it properly, or effectively. This, among many reasons, is a part of why so many people seemingly workout a lot, and never progress.
Here are some of the most common mistakes with the single-leg hip thrust:
In order to get up on the bench just to get into position, you probably need to use your arms and elbows to help you. But that’s where it ends. Avoid driving your elbows into the bench and using your upper back to lift your body. It’s fine to leave your arms on the bench, but if you have the tendency to push off, then simply cross your arms over your chest so that you can’t.
This exercise should NOT hurt your neck. If it does, you’re doing it wrong. Leaning your head back, or arching your back to move your hips is simply just shifting your bodyweight around. Very few muscles are involved to make this happen, and you’re really just rocking back and forth, putting stress on your neck and low back for no reason. To avoid this, keep your chin tucked and eyes forward; The top half of your torso should never move. And remember to move as far as your glutes will move, not as far as you can rock your body.
Let’s face it, the non-working leg is really annoying during this exercise. It doesn’t provide any balance like during a split squat, or do anything useful. However, it’s very intuitive to kick this leg up as you drive up, because it makes it easier. Now you’re using the weight and momentum of this leg, instead of using the glutes on the working leg. Basically, you’re just flopping around at this point. This is efficient and powerful, but not accomplishing the goal of the exercise. There’s no good trick to avoid this, other than to be aware of it, and do your best not to move that leg.
Single-leg hip thrusts give us all of the amazing benefits of single-leg training, which David has written about here.
More specifically however, there are some unique benefits:
If you’re working out at home, in a hotel room while traveling, or even in your office for 10 minutes in the middle of the day, you can do single-leg hip thrusts. They really do not require any external load to be effective. Now, this doesn’t mean they replace exercises that use heavier loads, but they have their place in making you stronger overall.
I’m a big proponent of being present while working out. For that period of time, drop what you’re doing and focus on the exercises. As I mentioned above, it’s really easy to do single-leg hip thrusts wrong. The fact that you have to pay attention and think about what you’re doing is an underrated intangible benefit of this exercise.
This is along the same lines as above, but deserves mention. Since it’s not a very heavy exercise, it allows the opportunity to learn to contract the intended muscles on command: the glutes and hamstrings. As you improve this ability, it’s going to translate over to the bigger/heavier exercises like a deadlift, where you rely on these muscles to exert large amounts of force.
(Note: For specific tips to improve your mind-muscle connection, read this article.)
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I’ll preface this section by saying that these are not quite “variations” as much as they are simply ways to make it harder by adding weight/resistance. In addition to that, these are not very necessary, as the bodyweight version is enough, and these variations still are unable to add significantly heavy loads just due to the position of the exercise. However, they are still useful, and worth including throughout various phases of training.
Set up a barbell in a landmine attachment. The leg closest to the landmine MUST be the working leg. Yes, this means you have to switch sides of the bench and move around to do both legs. Your whole body will just be in the way if you try to use the far leg. Place the end of the barbell in the crease of your hip, and proceed as normal.
If the weight is uncomfortable on your hip, place a hip thrust pad over your hip.
Set up in the normal position, and hold a dumbbell on the working hip. You kind of have to hold it vertically, as the non-working side hip will be lower. The dumbbell won’t balance itself so you have to always hold onto it. Again, this works, but it would be quite a challenge to even hold a pretty heavy dumbbell in place in this position; holding the DB shouldn’t be the challenging part of the exercise.
This is awkward to set up, and I hope you don’t mind getting the band snapped on the back of your legs. Place the band under your heel, and around your hip on the working leg. Placing the band from heel to knee will be a lot more stable, but this doesn’t really add any actual resistance to the hips.
Note: placing the mini-band around both thighs like you’ll often see also adds absolutely nothing to this exercise. If anything, it takes away the ability to extend the hip, making it worse. So you can confidently not do that.
A sandbag is an awesome tool for a lot of reasons. For any kind of hip thrusting or glute bridging, they can be a great option because they’re simply the most comfortable. You won’t need to be worried about a weight jutting too close to your private parts.
There are endless ways to include this exercise, all of which are specific to you, your body, and your goals. There are three useful always to think about it, however, and I encourage you to apply this thought process yourself.