People often say that doing squats works your hamstrings and your glutes. This way of framing the concept, though, is problematic; I prefer to say you use your glutes and hamstrings to do squats.
What's the difference? The difference is intention. With the former approach, you perform squats with the hope that your body will activate and engage the proper muscle groups along the way. But the latter implies an active approach to proper muscle recruitment: making the correct muscles turn on.
This distinction is critical because of how good our bodies are at survival. When you drop into an unfamiliar position (like, off the top of my head, a squat…), your body doesn't automatically know which muscles to fire to get you back up with perfect form; instead, it engages its “Oh shit, fix it” response and activate muscles it knows how to use really well to get the job done quickly (which, for most of us, means turning on the quadriceps).
Luckily, our bodies are also really good at forming habits and honing skills. The more often you repeat a movement, the easier it becomes (or, more to the point, the better your brain becomes at communicating with the right muscles in the right order to perform the movement). So when it comes to performing movements we’re not accustomed to or recruiting muscles we don't use very often, it will take a little added effort in the beginning to ensure everything is firing the right way.
In order to properly engage the glutes and hamstrings during a squat, we must first understand how to turn them on in “isolation.”
(I say that in quotes because, while there is no way to only use the glutes or only use the hamstrings, there are movements you can perform that force them to turn on.)
Enter: The Hip Thrust
The hip thrust is one of my go-to movements to help people learn to activate the glutes and hamstrings. Unlike the squat, which is a compound, whole-body exercise with a lot of moving parts, the hip thrust is concentrated enough to really focus on a few key muscle groups.
Lay down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor (parallel to one another, about 5-6” apart, and your heels about 12-18” from your butt).
From this position, push through your heels to raise your hips off the ground. Continue pushing until your thigh and torso form a straight line (as if your were standing up straight).
Hold for this for a second and slowly lower yourself back down.
Special Focus: all movement should be relegated strictly to the hip joint (where the thigh meets the pelvis); there should be no movement in the lower spine. To check this, place the tip of your middle finger on hip bone and your thumb on your lower ribs. If at any point your fingers get closer together or farther apart, your spine is moving. Stop that.
[Caveat: there will technically be some movement in your upper spine unless you want to bridge up onto your head instead of your shoulders…]
- Place a small resistance band around your lower thigh (just above the knees) and drive your knees out slightly wider than your feet throughout the movement. This will help to activate the glutes even more.
- Place a weight on your hips to increase the resistance.
- Perform the movement one leg at a time.
- Place your upper back on a bench for a greater range of motion.
To really feel how this applies to the squat, do several sets of hip thrusts (until you “feel the burn,” to use a turn of phrase I don't like very much) and follow up with a set of specially-focused squats:
Lower yourself into a squat slowly and pause at the bottom. Now instead of thinking “push” to get back up, try to do a hip thrust. It won't be exactly the same motion and your body will compensate as needed for balance, but you’ll start learning what it feels like to use your glutes and hamstrings rather than just hoping or assuming they’ll get used.