December 04, 2021
If you are looking to strengthen and tone your lower body – particularly the glutes and hamstrings – then a cable pull through (also referred to as a standing cable hip thrust) is a wonderful addition to your lifting program. While this movement might not often be seen in a typical fitness setting, a cable pull through is a perfect accessory exercise to go along with squats, deadlifts, and lunges, just to name a few big leg day type exercises.
Today, we are going to take a look at what a cable pull through is and how to do it correctly, common mistakes that are made when attempting a cable pull through, benefits that you can achieve with this movement, the muscles worked, best rep range and total volume, and finally, different alternative exercises to do in place of a cable pull through. With all that, you will be able to determine if cable pull throughs are right for you.
Cable pull throughs are a strength movement based on hip extension that targets the posterior chain, specifically the glutes and hamstrings. Essentially with the pulley system set all the way to the bottom of the tower, you face away from the cable machine with your knees slightly bent and hands in front of your hip bones holding onto the handle of the cable, which is coming between your legs from the back. Step forward so there is some tension in this starting position. You will then push your hips back and hinge forward at the hips – maintaining a straight back – while letting your hands travel behind you through your legs holding onto the cable handle until your upper body is parallel with the floor. From here, you will engage the glutes and extend your hips forward into a tall standing position.
In essence, it is a standing hip thrust using a cable machine.
Cable pull throughs can oftentimes be done with other implements, such as a resistance band. However, at the gym, a cable machine is the most common since it's easy to set up. Most people use a rope attachment or stirrup handles attached to the cable pulley. You can also do this exercise from a standing position or a kneeling position.
For today’s purposes, we will describe how to do a cable pull through using a cable machine and a rope attachment. However, the same movement mechanics and form applies regardless of the handle, so don't worry if a rope attachment is not available, you can just use the handles or even a straight bar.
You don’t necessarily need to incorporate cable pull throughs into your lifting routine, as hip extension movements and glute/hamstring-specific strengthening exercises can be achieved in multiple ways, such as with stiff leg deadlifts, good mornings or barbell hip thrusts. However, cable pull throughs are excellent for targeting the posterior chain muscles, especially the glutes. Cable pull throughs maximize glute contraction and the cable pulley system allows for constant tension unlike free weights which have a resistance curve. Based on these two points, cable pull throughs are very effective (if done correctly, which we are going to teach you) and this is why people do it.
All in all, it's a good exercise to combine with movements like squats, deadlifts, and barbell hip thrusts, in order to build muscle and endurance in the legs, glutes, and posterior chain, as well as improve technique in regards to hip flexion and extension.
Let’s break down how to do a cable pull through correctly, and then we will go over the benefits and muscles worked in more depth.
For our purposes today, we will discuss how to properly execute a cable pull through using a rope handle attachment. Like previously stated, there are variations of this movement that you can incorporate into your training routine that don’t involve a rope handle – but since this is the most common form of the exercise that you will typically see, we will start here…. just know you can change up the dynamics a bit if desired.
Note: Putting your entire body at an angle leaning forward is actually ok, as long as your spine remains straight and the mechanics of the movement are not affected. You may find this provides you great contraction of the glutes. To do this, simply use ankle dorsiflexion (your toes come closer to your shin via your shin leaning forward, yet with your feet remain flat to the floor).
You might think that a cable pull through is a simple hinge movement; and while that may be the case, there are several different (and common) mistakes that can be made with this exercise. Let’s take a look at a few!
Hyperextending: This can happen frequently at the top of the cable pull through motion, especially if the weight is excessive. Hyperextending can also occur if the glutes are not firing correctly; with that being said, as you complete the movement and are standing with hips fully extended, ensure that your glutes are the driving force behind the extension. Start with a lower weight and work through the movement slowly if you feel as though there is no glute activation with the hip extension before adding more resistance.
Overusing the quads: Yes, the quads can be helpful during a cable pull through; however, they should not be the primary movers. This role belongs to the hamstrings and glutes, so if your quads are feeling like they are on fire, you might need to take a look at your form and technique and see where you might be compensating during the movement. Typically, you might notice more work from the quads if you are squatting too deeply as you descend into the cable pull through. Remember, there is a hip hinge here – but not a deep squat. Knees should remain soft, but not completely bent.
Rounding of the back: A very common mistake that can be made as you hinge forward to grab the rope handle attachment from the floor! One of the biggest factors to keep in mind is that your head and chest need to stay lifted, while shoulder blades stay down and back. This will help keep your back and neck in a neutral position, allowing you to pick up the rope handle attachment from the floor with an engaged core as well as a protected upper and lower back.
Too much resistance: While this common mistake can be made in the opposite direction as well (not having enough resistance), typically you will notice it when using a resistance band. If the band is too thick or you step too far away from the attachment point, you won’t be able to perform the movement correctly and will notice factors like your balance being off. Too much resistance can also be a problem with a cable machine weight stack as well though, and can cause injury if too much weight is applied too quickly. Start at a moderate weight (regardless of whether you are using a cable machine or a resistance band) and work your way up from there depending upon your fitness goals.
There are two main variations of cable pull throughs, which are...
Straight Leg Cable Pull Throughs
The difference between this and the soft bend in the knee version above is like a stiff-leg deadlift vs an RDL. They work the same muscles, just slightly different.
Kneeling Cable Pull Through
If you are looking to really hone in on the glutes, the kneeling cable pull through is a good variations as it takes the hamstrings and quads out of the equation a bit.
Related: Kneeling Squats Exercise Guide
Cable Pull Through with Quarter Squat
Basically this variation just involves more knee flexion, so the quads will be activated a little more, but it does take away from stretching tension on the hamstrings as there is less hip flexion.
Resistance Band Standing Hip Thrust (or Pull Through)
The same exact concept as a cable machine, meaning form and constant tension (cable machines and resistance bands both have flat resistance, no resistance curve). That said, it may be a little harder to set up and you have less options in terms of changing the amount of resistance. Be that as it may, the resistance band pull through is a great option if you are at home or the cable machine is not accessible.
You can also perform the exercise with the resistance band wrapped around your waist rather than holding onto it between your legs (as seen in the pic). This is ideal for a band since it doesn't have a handle, and overall it's the same movement dynamics.
If you want, you can even double down and use a band around your waist while doing a cable pull through!
Cable pull throughs are a wonderful way to work the posterior chain, specifically the glutes and hamstrings. Let’s look at some benefits of using cable pull throughs in your fitness training program!
Constant Tension: Being that you are using a cable machine, you will have constant tension throughout all phases of the movement. This is what separates it from exercises like barbell hip thrusts, which in theory are very similar, but don't provide even, consistent tension due to the resistance being caused by a free weight (gravity), which has a resistance curve (it's easier at certain points of the movement and harder at others). With a cable machine, your muscles will be under tension, equally, the entire time.
Glute Work: If you want an exercise that produces maximum contraction tension for the glutes, this is it. Squats are great for the glutes in terms of stretching tension, but they won't provide maximum glute contraction like a cable pull through. The only other exercise that is designed for max glute contraction is the barbell or smith machine hip thrust.
Improving Hip Flexion and Extension: Although this might seem like a common movement, getting someone to hinge forward and stand up straight can be challenging for many people. This is due to factors like poor mobility, muscle weakness, core instability, and lower back injuries, just to name a few. Sure, most of us can lean over and pick something up off of the floor – but how many stand back up correctly? Rounding of the spine is a major issue, and can lead to chronic injuries down the road. Cable pull throughs help reiterate a proper hinging motion, which can help make other lifts (and activities of daily living) safer and easier.
Easy to incorporate into a fitness program: While some other posterior chain exercises might require the use of barbells, weight plates, benches, and medicine balls, cable pull throughs require just that – a cable machine. While the handle attachment might vary, you should be able to find what you need in a local fitness center. If a cable machine isn’t available, you can also do this movement with a resistance band, which can make it even easier to do while on the go or even while in a hotel gym.
Improving Performance: If you are an athlete, then having a strong posterior chain is crucial. This is especially true in sports like football, sprinting, and volleyball, where explosive power is coming from the lower legs. Cable pull throughs can aid in strengthening the muscles that provide the power to make big, powerful movements!
Improving Functional Fitness: As stated above, a strong posterior chain is key for athletes…but what about the rest of us? Cable pull throughs are not just for advanced athletes – on the contrary, they are wonderful for improving overall functional movement. From novice exercisers to elite athletes, the cable pull through is able to be suited to fit just about any exercise program, while helping to improve the dynamics of the hip hinge as well as hip extension, while engaging the proper muscle groups needed to form a strong core and posterior chain – all essential for functional movement.
During a cable pull through, the main muscles worked are the hamstrings and glutes, and those should be the main muscles that you feel working throughout the duration of the movement. There are, however, other secondary muscles that activate and engage in order to help complete the movement, such as the adductor magnus, erector spinae, and the soleus.
Glutes: There are three different gluteal muscles (maximus, medius, and minimus), but the biggest and most powerful one, the maximus, is the one responsible for the hip extension in a cable pull through. The hip extension happens at the top of the movement, where the glutes fire and bring you back up to a standing position with the rope handle attachment between your legs. The glutes should be squeezed tightly at the top of each repetition to ensure there is full hip extension (without hypertension of the back).
Hamstrings: Similar to the quads, there are three different muscles within the hamstrings; this includes the bicep femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. These three muscles work together to support extension of the hip as well, and aid in keeping the knees slightly soft and flexed during the duration of the cable pull through.
Erector spinae: Another muscle group aiding in extension (except this time, extension of the lower back) during a cable pull through. The erector spinae are a group of muscles that essentially run the length of the spine, and are located deep within the back. While they primarily work on extension in a cable pull through, the erector spinae are also responsible for maintaining proper posture, which is also essential during the movement.
Soleus: While most of the time we consider the soleus to be part of the calf muscle, it does have its own role to play, especially in a cable pull through. As part of the posterior chain, the soleus muscle aids in plantar flexion, which allows us to have a stable base of support through our feet when standing in proper position for the cable pull through. This muscle goes from the heel up to the knee, and aids in us staying up straight through the duration of the pull through.
Adductor magnus: The adductor magnus is essentially a muscle of the thigh, and aside from the main duty of adducting, this muscle also helps with the extension and flexion of the upper legs as well as supporting and stabilizing the hip complex – both of which are necessary during a cable pull through!
Essentially, the ideal range of sets, reps, and intensity is going to be different for each athlete (regardless if they are beginner status or elite). These factors will also vary based on health history, current/prior injury status, fitness goals, and time available to workout. However, there are some general guidelines you can follow in regards to training variabilities for the cable pull through.
If your goal is to build more muscle endurance within the lower body, aiming for higher reps is ideal. This can look something like 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps, with a short period of rest in between sets. On the flip side, if you are looking to build muscle mass, then fewer reps with more sets will be more appropriate. This can look something like 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps, with a longer period of rest between sets.
One of the biggest things to note with a cable pull through is that this movement is not typically done for a one rep max – so while you can increase loading and workout at a higher intensity, loading should be appropriate for your fitness goals and training ability.
If you are wanting a different movement or needing to add some other exercises to a training program that work muscle groups similar to the cable pull through, there are several to choose from – just ensure that they fit properly into your lifting routine, and that you can do them with proper form and technique!
Kettlebell (or Dumbbell) Swings: A functional movement that almost anyone can do, kettlebell swings work on power and explosiveness from the hip complex. Before adding swings into a routine, ensure that you have the movement dynamics down correctly – this exercise, if done incorrectly, can place strain on the lower back, so starting with a light kettlebell and progressing appropriately is crucial. Kettlebell swings are perfect for strengthening the posterior chain and focusing on hip extension, so add them in as desired. The same can be done with dumbbells as seen pictured below.
Romanian Deadlifts: A wonderful exercise for targeting the posterior chain, Romanian deadlifts aid in strengthening the hamstrings and glutes while protecting the lower back from excess strain (when done correctly). Romanian deadlifts also help to increase the focus on core engagement, since shoulder blades need to stay retracted and the back neutral – same as a cable pull through. With a hip hinge and extension to complete the movement, Romanian deadlifts are a perfect exercise to improve strength and stability within the lower body.
Glute Bridges: iI you are really wanting to target the glutes without the forward hip hinge like with a cable pull through, glute bridges are your go to! Not only do they fire the glutes, but they also target the hamstrings as well – all while laying down on the floor. The core also plays a large part in completing a glute bridge correctly, and you can make the movement more challenging by adding a weight plate, a resistance band around the legs, or even moving to a bench and performing the exercise that way.
Back Extensions: you might be wondering what the correlation is between a cable pull through and a back extension – and although the back extension might not focus as much on the power through the glutes and hamstrings, it does focus on the strength and stability of the core muscles…. which is imperative in order to do a movement like a cable pull through correctly. Not only do back extensions help improve overall posture, but they can aid in strengthening the muscles needed to bend forward and lift objects off of the floor – just like the rope handle attachment in the cable pull through. Back extensions have several variations (using a back extension machine, adding weight for resistance, on a stability ball, or even performing them on the floor with no added accessories) and can be worked into programming for almost anyone looking to specifically target and strengthen the lower back and core.
Single Leg Deadlifts: a wonderful exercise for focusing on unilateral lower body strengthening, single leg deadlifts give you a chance to see if there are any asymmetries within the lower body – specifically in terms of strength, balance, mobility, and coordination. While the hip extension in a single leg deadlift won’t be as powerful as it is in a cable pull through, the hamstrings and glutes will still be targeted! Variability can be added into this exercise as well (using a dumbbell, a resistance band, lowering to a depth, etc.) and can be a complementary exercise to the cable pull through or the other exercises listed above.
...and, of course, barbell hip thrusts!
If cable pull throughs are not currently a part of your training program (but you are interested in adding another exercise to round out your lower body strength training) then add some sets into your workout routine! Not only will you see strength and power increase within the hamstrings and glutes, but you might notice that you stand a bit straighter and your core is stronger – a total well-rounded win!
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