There are lots of cues that make training more effective: grounding your feet, bracing your core, inhaling and exhaling at the right time. But there’s another more contentious piece of advice that has become pretty popular in recent years: squeezing.
The idea is that squeezing your glutes at the ‘top’ of an exercise, i.e. the standing phase of a squat or deadlift, or when your hips are at their highest during a hip thrust, can enhance muscle growth or improve form. But that might not be as true as some trainers make it seem.
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While the squeeze itself isn’t bad, the main problem is that it can lead to overextension of the spine. “A squat should finish with your ribs stacked over your hips. Focusing too much on squeezing your glutes can create a pelvic tuck that pushes your hips too far forwards,” explains strength and conditioning coach Pennie Varvarides. That can lead to pain or injury as you’ll be overloading the spine.
Squeezing muscles, particularly glutes, is commonly described as a way to ‘activate’ or ‘engage’ the tissue. So if you’ve ensured that your squeeze is done safely, without any curl through the spine, can it really focus the tension through your glutes?
“If you’re standing up, your glutes are activating,” says Varvarides. “People on social media will tell you that your glutes are inactive but it’s clickbait – the only people whose glutes are not active are people who can’t stand up. It’s your muscles’ job to be active - if you can move a joint, the muscles around it are engaging. Squeezing isn’t going to add any extra load or muscle building ability to an area.”
Plus, Varvarides notes that squeezing at the top of an exercise like a squat is pointless because “your butt isn’t really loaded at the top of the exercise.” Rather, the glutes take most of the load when the hips are flexed - at the bottom of your squat.
When you should squeeze your glutes
In a deadlift
“It can sometimes be useful to squeeze your glutes at the top of a deadlift. That’s where the muscles will be more loaded and so it’s important to move through the full range of motion and ‘finish’ the move,” says Varvarides. “But you still don’t want to be pushing your hips through or overextending the spine, so don’t overinterpret that advice.”
If you lack mind to muscle control or focus
“If you’re doing lunges or split squats, for example, and you’re all over the place, squeezing can help you stabilise. I often get a client to focus on squeezing a specific area because they’re not paying attention to it enough, and squeezing can help put their mind back into their body,” says Varvarides.
So does everyone need to think more about the squeeze? “If you’re someone with bad balance, who isn’t paying attention, or not moving through full range, it could be helpful. But if your training is fine, then don’t worry about it, carry on as you were. And if you’re someone whose back hurts a lot during training, check your movement patterns and be cautious of over-squeezing,” says Varvarides.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).