Romanian Deadlift vs. Squat vs. Hip Thrust: Comparison of Muscle Activity

Which exercise is more effective for activating your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps:

This was examined in a study from 2018.1

Eight men with at least one year of strength training experience were recruited to perform the aforementioned exercises while electrodes were attached to their vastus lateralis, biceps femoris, and gluteus maximus. All of the participants performed each exercise with two different loads: 60 kg, and their 1RM in each exercise.

The participant’s mean 1RMs in each exercise was:

  • Squat 1RM: 144.0 kg
  • Romanian deadlift 1RM: 166.9 kg
  • Barbell hip thrust 1RM: 164.1 kg

Let’s check out the results.

Muscle Activity in the Romanian Deadlift, Squat, and Barbell Hip Thrust

Here are the reported muscle activity in the different exercises.

Gluteus maximus muscle activity
Muscle activity in the gluteus maximus. * Significantly different (p < 0.05) compared to squat.
Biceps femoris muscle activity squat rdl hip thrust
Muscle activity in the biceps femoris (a hamstrings muscle).
Vastus lateralis muscle activity squat rdl hip thrust
Muscle activity in the vastus lateralis (a quadriceps muscle). * Significantly different (p < 0.05) compared to squat.

Take-Away & Practical Application

The barbell hip thrust resulted in the highest muscle activity in the glutes and hamstrings, with the Romanian deadlift coming in second, and the squat third. Conversely, the squat resulted in the highest quadriceps muscle activity, with the hip thrust coming in second, and the Romanian deadlift third.

The squat is proven effective for building bigger glutes (especially deep squats), but it seems like both the Romanian deadlift and the hip thrust can be equally good or even better alternatives.

For more information on how to train different muscle groups, check out our guides:

Or see all of our muscle group training guides here.

For more information on how to perform the exercises mentioned in this article and the muscles they work, check out:


  1. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Oct;33(10):2595-2601. Comparison Between Back Squat, Romanian Deadlift, and Barbell Hip Thrust for Leg and Hip Muscle Activities During Hip Extension.
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.