There is a plethora of lower body exercises that can be used to build muscle, strength, power, and endurance. Two exercises that are most commonly used as staples of strength programs are the front squat and the hip thrust. When implemented correctly, these two exercises produce very different results in terms of changes in athletic performance. Choosing which exercise you want to implement as a staple of your program depends on the improvements you want to see in your athletes, as well as the VECTOR in which your athletes need improvement or is needed to perform at a high level in their sport.
The front squat is a variation of the squat that puts more stress on the quads as compared to the back squat, which puts more stress on the glutes and hamstrings. Because of the straight up-and-down vector path of a front squat, this exercise is great for improving vertical jump numbers. Therefore, the front squat is a good exercise for athletes looking to improve their jumping ability and should be a staple of any basketball or volleyball strength program.
The hip thrust is an exercise in which the barbell is placed on top of the hip joint and the hips are “thrust” into a hip bridge position with the feet flat on the floor and the upper back resting on a bench. The hip thrust exercise works the glutes and hamstrings directly. Even though the motion of the exercise is up-and-down just like the front squat, the hips are really pushing forward-and-back, which means the body is working in the same vector as running/sprinting. Therefore, the hip thrust improves the athletes ability to run/sprint instead of improve the athlete’s vertical jump like the front squat does. Furthermore, the hip thrust should be an emphasis for athletes looking to improve their speed and for any running-dominant sport where speed is important.
It is also important to recognize the muscles that each lift works as well as the muscles used in the movement that the lift improves. The front squat works the quads and improves vertical jump, which needs a fast and powerful quad contraction. The hip thrust works the glutes and hamstrings and improves sprinting, which needs strong and powerful glutes and thighs. I am not by any means saying that the front squat does not involve meaningful contractions of the glutes and hamstrings. I am saying that the FORCE of each contraction is much greater in the hip thrust as compared to the front squat. Front squats can improve one’s speed just as the hip thrust can improve vertical jump, however more gains will be seen in the vertical jump when utilizing the front squat and a faster athlete will be more quickly developed when using the hip thrust.
As a coach, I believe that it is important to find a way to implement BOTH of these exercises in you training program. The front squat and hip thrust can be included in any program as accessory lifts to a power movement, such as cleans or snatches. Decide what your athlete’s needs are and decided which exercise should be emphasized in your program and find an effective and efficient way to implement it in to your lifts.
For more information on this topic, read this great article by Eric Cressey: http://ericcressey.com/squats-vs-hip-thrusts-which-is-better