Have you ever heard the phrase “no pain, no gain” or felt that burning sensation in your muscles during a workout and thought it was necessary for muscle growth? Well, we have news for you. The muscle burn and squeezing of the muscle do not necessarily result in more muscle growth.
The “Muscle Burn” and “Squeezing the Muscle” Does Not Result in More Muscle Growth! Summary
- Researchers compared the subjective feeling of “squeezing the muscle” or“muscle burn” during the hip thrust and squat on a set-volume equated basis. The researchers measured glute muscle hypertrophy (determined by MRI) and sought to determine how these exercises affected gluteus maximus/medius muscle excitation patterns using EMG and if EMG amplitudes could forecast muscle growth.
- Both the hip thrust and squat exercises resulted in comparable levels of muscle growth, despite the hip thrust showing higher EMG amplitudes or muscle activation, suggesting that muscle activation levels as measured by EMG are not reliable predictors of muscle growth.
- All participants reported feeling the hip thrust more or “muscle burn” more in the gluteal muscles, but this subjective sensation did not correlate with greater muscle hypertrophy, indicating that the ‘feeling’ of an exercise is not a valid indicator of its effectiveness for muscle growth.
For years, bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts have relied on the sensation of muscle burn and tools like electromyography (EMG) to determine which exercises activate muscles the most. The underlying assumption was simple: the higher the muscle activation, the greater the potential for muscle growth.
Charts showcasing EMG data for specific exercises became popular, guiding trainees to choose exercises that supposedly offered the best bang for their buck. For example, the hip thrust results in greater glute activation than the squat.(Contreras et al., 2015; Williams et al., 2021) It was assumed that if a muscle has greater “muscle activation,” this leads to greater muscle growth; however, recent research challenges this notion, suggesting that muscle burn doesn’t necessarily equate to muscle hypertrophy.
Does The Muscle Burn Result in Greater Muscle Growth?
Studies have often used EMG to quantify muscle activation, theorizing a direct correlation with muscle growth.(Boren et al., 2011) However, the relationship between EMG readings and hypertrophy is not as linear as once thought.(Hill et al., 2019) For instance, one study found that when comparing heavy-weight lifting to light weights found that heavier weights resulted in greater muscle activation, but muscle growth was the same. (Nóbrega et al., 2018)
Overall, these studies indicate that the relationship between muscle activation or EMG and muscle hypertrophy may not be straightforward and can vary depending on factors such as sex, contraction intensity, muscle location, and underlying molecular mechanisms. A landmark review by (Vigotsky et al., 2022) indicated inconsistent relationships between EMG amplitudes (i.e., muscle activation) and muscle growth.
Literature Review: The Hip Thrust and Squat Debate. Should you “Feel the Muscle Burn?”
Muscle tension is undeniably a primary driver of muscle hypertrophy. However, it’s not the only factor. Recent studies have shown that resistance training at extended muscle lengths (i.e., stretching the muscle with weight) and prolonged static stretching can enhance hypertrophic outcomes(Williams et al., 2021), suggesting other elements might influence anabolic signaling.
A previous article on Evidence Based Muscle discussed how when hip thrusts were compared to squats, there was similar muscle growth of the glutes, however, squat training resulted in superior quadriceps and adductors hypertrophy compared to hip thrust training. (Daniel et al., 2023)
Does Squeezing the Muscle Result in Muscle Growth
Since the hip thrust results in greater muscle activation than the squat, researchers wanted to examine if there was a relationship between muscle burn and muscle growth. The study involved untrained college-aged participants who were randomized into hip thrust or back squat groups. Participants underwent 9 weeks of supervised training. MRI was used to assess muscle growth before and after the training intervention. Surface electromyograms from the right gluteus maximus and medius muscles were recorded during the first training session. The researchers also asked participants which exercise they “felt more” in the gluteal muscles after testing both exercises.
After 9 weeks, both groups had similar glute growth in the squat and the hip thrust groups. Here is where it gets interesting: the hip thrust resulted in greater muscle burn than the squat and resulted in higher gluteal mean EMG amplitudes (i.e., muscle activation) during the first bout of hip thrust versus squat set. These practical applications indicate that while acute EMG measurements can provide some immediate feedback on muscle activation, they should not be the sole factor in designing resistance training programs or be used to infer muscle growth.
Does the Muscle Burn Lead to Greater Muscle Growth?
All participants indicated they felt the hip thrust more in the gluteal region. However, these anecdotal sensations of feeling greater contraction along with higher EMG scores of muscle activation indicating more gluteus muscle excitation during the hip thrust did not translate into greater muscle growth. Both the hip thrust and squat resistance training elicited similar hypertrophy outcomes. This finding underscores the importance of longitudinal investigations to understand the effects of resistance training, as acute sensations of feeling an exercise more and higher muscle activation readings may not be reliable predictors of hypertrophic results.
This subjective feedback from participants is significant because it highlights the disconnect that can occur between perceived exertion or muscle burn and actual muscle growth. It suggests that while individuals may feel an exercise more intensely, this does not necessarily mean that the exercise is more effective for muscle hypertrophy.
Exercise Selection: While EMG can provide insights into muscle activation, it shouldn’t be the sole determinant for exercise selection. Both the squat and hip thrust can lead to significant gluteal hypertrophy.
Listening to the Body: Anecdotal evidence, such as feeling the burn or squeezing the muscle, can be valuable. However, it’s crucial to combine this with evidence-based practices for optimal results. Feeling a muscle more as found in this study does not always translate into greater muscle growth.
The belief that higher muscle activation leads to greater muscle growth is being challenged by recent research. While EMG provides valuable data on muscle activity, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Trainees should focus on a combination of evidence-based practices, individual preferences, and feedback from their bodies to optimize muscle growth.
Boren, K., Conrey, C., Le Coguic, J., Paprocki, L., Voight, M., & Robinson, T. K. (2011). Electromyographic analysis of gluteus medius and gluteus maximus during rehabilitation exercises. Int J Sports Phys Ther, 6(3), 206-223.
Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A. D., Schoenfeld, B. J., Beardsley, C., & Cronin, J. (2015). A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises. J Appl Biomech, 31(6), 452-458. https://doi.org/10.1123/jab.2014-0301
Daniel, L. P., Merlina, A. R., Andrew, D. V., Mason, C. M., Emma, B., Rachel, U., Cole, R., Anthony, A.-B., Madison, L. M., Michel, J. M., Nicholas, J. K., Andrew, D. F., Christopher, M. W., Wendi, H. W., Adil, B., Ronald, J. B., Menno, H., Bret, M. C., & Michael, D. R. (2023). Hip thrust and back squat training elicit similar gluteus muscle hypertrophy and transfer similarly to the deadlift. bioRxiv, 2023.2006.2021.545949. https://doi.org/10.1101/2023.06.21.545949
Hill, E. C., Housh, T. J., Keller, J. L., Smith, C. M., Schmidt, R. J., & Johnson, G. O. (2019). The validity of the EMG and MMG techniques to examine muscle hypertrophy. Physiol Meas, 40(2), 025009. https://doi.org/10.1088/1361-6579/ab057e
Nóbrega, S. R., Ugrinowitsch, C., Pintanel, L., Barcelos, C., & Libardi, C. A. (2018). Effect of Resistance Training to Muscle Failure vs. Volitional Interruption at High- and Low-Intensities on Muscle Mass and Strength. J Strength Cond Res, 32(1), 162-169. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001787
Vigotsky, A. D., Halperin, I., Trajano, G. S., & Vieira, T. M. (2022). Longing for a Longitudinal Proxy: Acutely Measured Surface EMG Amplitude is not a Validated Predictor of Muscle Hypertrophy. Sports Med, 52(2), 193-199. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01619-2
Williams, M. J., Gibson, N. V., Sorbie, G. G., Ugbolue, U. C., Brouner, J., & Easton, C. (2021). Activation of the Gluteus Maximus During Performance of the Back Squat, Split Squat, and Barbell Hip Thrust and the Relationship With Maximal Sprinting. J Strength Cond Res, 35(1), 16-24. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000002651
Hip thrusts and squats both target the lower body. Squats involve a wider range of motion, recruiting the entire body and promoting mobility, while hip thrusts, an isolation exercise, focus on the glutes, offering constant tension for muscle contraction. The best way to utilize these exercises depends on the specific muscle development and mindset; squats build overall endurance and strength, and hip thrusts enhance posterior chain muscles.
After analyzing the available literature and conducting multiple studies, it has been determined that the popular notion of “muscle burn” and “squeezing the muscle” as a means to achieve more muscle growth is not supported by scientific evidence. While these sensations may indicate muscle fatigue, they do not directly translate to increased muscle hypertrophy. It is essential to focus on progressive overload, proper form, and adequate rest and recovery to stimulate muscle growth effectively.
This conclusion challenges the commonly held beliefs and emphasizes the importance of evidence-based practices in the fitness industry. To maximize your muscle-building potential, consult with a qualified fitness professional who can guide you through an individualized training program based on proven principles.