Here's what you need to know...
- Deadlifts and other hip-hinging free weight variations maximally load the hips and glutes closer to their flexed position.
- Cable pull-throughs maximally load the hips and glutes closer to their extended position, which is also what makes them more back-friendly.
- You need to do work glutes both in their flexed position and their extended position for complete development.
- Pull-throughs work the glutes and hamstring in their shortened positions, but you're limited in how much weight you can use without getting pulled backward or off your feet.
- Luckily, there are other exercises that load the glutes and hamstrings in their shortened position that aren't as awkward as pull-throughs.
It's All About Force Angles
Most glute programs focus on deadlifts or any one of a number of hip-hinging movements done with free weights.
On one level, that makes perfect sense. With hip-hinging movements, the lever arm is at its longest – giving you the least mechanical advantage and thus forcing your muscles to work the hardest – when your torso is at a 90-degree angle to the load vector.
Let's say you're doing Romanian deadlifts. Gravity is your load vector, so the point of maximal loading is when your torso is parallel to the floor, which is when your hips and hamstrings are at their lengthened position.
However, for complete (and better) glute development, you need to do exercises that apply load to the glutes and hamstrings in a different manner, too. That's why cable pull-throughs are so popular.
When you're performing pull-throughs using a cable column, the cable itself is the load vector. The point of maximal loading, since the cable is running fairly horizontally, is when your torso is closer to perpendicular to the floor (upright). That's when your hips and hamstrings are at their shortened position.
In other words, due to the laws of physics, deadlifts and deadlift variations (using free weights) maximally load the hips and glutes closer to their flexed position, whereas cable pull-throughs maximally load the hips and glutes closer to their extended position, which is also what makes them more back-friendly.
5 Superior Glute Exercises
Pull-throughs certainly load the glutes and hamstring in their lengthened positions, but they're very low on my list due to their awkward nature, along with limited ability to continuously add progressive overload.
With the pull-through, you're not limited by the weight your hips can extend against, you're limited by how much you can hold without getting pulled backward, which has much more to do with your bodyweight than your strength level!
The following exercise applications are great for deloading the low back and creating the point of maximal loading on the hips in their shortened or extended position.
1. Two-Bench Hip Thrust + Leg Curl
You can't use big loads with this exercise, but once you try it you'll realize that you don't need to. The increased range of motion created by using the two benches and properly placing your feet gives you lots of great glute and hamstring work.
2. Hip Thrust Progression
You probably already know the value of hip thrust variations, but here's how to put them together into a logical progression.
Note that in the video, a small dumbbell is placed on the side of the non-weight bearing leg – the elevated leg – for the one-leg hip thrust. If you're using a light dumbbell, 15 pounds or less, you can place it on either side.
However, if you're using a bigger dumbbell, 20 pounds or more, it's best to place the dumbbell on the weight-bearing side.
Hold the dumbbell slightly off-center on the working hip so that it doesn't interfere with your range of motion or jab you in the belly when you go down into the bottom position.
Touch your working-side hip and use that as feedback to help drive your hip into that hand on the concentric portion of each rep.
3. Single-Leg Hip Thrust With Hip Shift
The glutes don't just extend the hip, they also abduct and externally rotate the hip, so I came up with this single-leg hip thrust with hip shift.
The video shows how to perform this tweaked version of single-leg hip thrust in order to take advantage of this physiological reality concerning abduction and rotation and potentially increasing the glute activation involved.
4. One-Leg Hip Lift with Weight Plate
This exercise is a mainstay of joint-friendly training. It's a hip lift that involves more hamstring activity than the hip thrust due to the fact that 1) the foot is elevated above the torso and 2) the knee is only bent to roughly 15 degrees.
5. Low-Cable One-Leg RDL
This exercise is very similar to the cable pull-through except you face the cable instead of away from it. Since the cable is pulling you at a 45-degree angle, your posterior chain is being loaded through the entire range of motion instead of just at the top, or just at the bottom.
The nice thing about single-leg work is that you can spend a bit more time on training your weak, less-developed side for better symmetry. That's another reason why I prefer the single leg exercise options provided above pull-throughs.