Pull-throughs could be the number one exercise you aren't doing, but definitely should be.
I hear the functional dweebs scoffing. "What is this, 2002? Why bother when we can grab a kettlebell and swing away to our glutes' content?"
I like kettlebells and use them regularly in my programming. But as with any exercise or piece of equipment, they aren't a panacea, just another tool in the training toolbox.
When it comes to the pull-through, there are a number of benefits:
For some reason, pull-throughs became the redheaded stepchild after kettlebells entered the picture.
Before Pavel Tsatsouline popularized kettlebells here in the US, pull-throughs were a staple amongst a lot of strong lifters. You'd be hard pressed not to find guys who squatted 800-900 pounds in competition using pull-throughs as a staple accessory exercise to help train the hamstrings and glutes.
Pull-throughs offer a unique training stimulus because you can load the posterior chain with a fraction of the compressive and shear loading forces on the spine.
I consider pull-throughs to be a universal exercise that can be used by everyone regardless of training experience, goals, and to some extent, even injury history.
Outside of the performance incentives, pull-throughs are a fantastic way to help people learn to dissociate their hips from their lumbar spine, something that holds value whether your schtick is to hoist 400-plus pounds off the ground or be able to tie your shoes without throwing your back out.
Teaching the hip hinge pattern is crucial, not only from a joint health and performance standpoint, but also from a "doing shit correctly" standpoint, i.e., learning to deadlift and squat properly.
Kettlebells are also fantastic in this regard, but they're a little more coaching intensive compared to other modalities. The more dynamic/explosive nature doesn't bode well when you're dealing with beginner and intermediate trainees who may not move well or have limited body awareness.
While I think any good coach or trainer should be able to teach a proper KB swing within 10-15 minutes, most people don't have access to a good coach, so that throws a monkey wrench into things.
But most everyone has access to a pulley system, and the learning curve on the pull-through isn't nearly as steep as the swing. If the kettlebell swing is learning quantum physics, the pull-through is equivalent to learning basic addition.
There are a few important coaching cues and key points to consider when it comes to performing the exercise correctly:
- Use a slightly wider stance than normal and think about pushing the knees out.
- Don't revert to a squat pattern. Sit back into the "stretch" or hip hinge pattern. It's not an up and down motion, but rather a back and forth motion.
- Push your hips or hamstrings back as if you're trying to tap a wall with your butt. Keep doing so until your hands are past your knees. Many lifters make the mistake of "crowding their groin" and omit the whole reaching-through portion.
- Maintain a neutral spine at all times. That means to maintain the natural curvature of your upper and lower back by not allowing the upper back to round while the lower back stays arched.
- Your head follows the hinge. This ensures a packed or chin-tucked pattern throughout. In this way, you're less likely to hyperextend the neck and cause undue stress.
- At lockout, don't hyperextend the hips. Concentrate on "finishing with the hips" and squeezing the glutes at the top, making sure to lock out the knees.
Reps, Sets, and Frequency
Use the pull-through on lower-body training days towards the tail-end of a workout.
Pull-throughs aren't an exercise that you're going to try to move max weight on, so save the grunting, Metallica, and ammonia for your squats or deadlifts.
Most lifters should perform 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps once or twice per week.
Bring the Pull-Through Back
Don't dismiss the pull-through because it looks wimpy or awkward. It's an invaluable exercise that offers many advantages with very little drawback. And it's one of those rare movements that can be used by just about anyone.