Lower Body Pulling

CrowReaders, I’ve always been a bit confused as to why hip hinges (such as the deadlift and its variants) are considered lower body pulling movements. As I see it, the legs aren’t really doing any pulling. They’re pushing. Pretty much how they push in a squat.

(Yeah, settle down, I know there are myriad technical nuances that distinguish squatting from hip hinging, but hear me out.)

Think about the barbell deadlift for a second. It looks a whole lot like a barbell back squat. The only glaring difference is where the bar is. In the squat, you’re holding the bar across your chiseled, rippling upper back. In the deadlift, what has changed is that you’re now hanging it off of your meaty gorilla arms. Sure, your arms now have a huge pulling load to deal with, but your lower body is having an experience that is not all that different from the back squat (hip and knee extension). What a deadlift looks like, to me, is a lower body push combined with an upper body pull.

That’s not say I don’t think deadlifting is useful (*cough* Naudi Aguilar *cough*), or that I don’t think it’s useful to train both the squat and deadlift. I just don’t think you can really call it lower body pulling.

So what would I consider to be lower body pulling movements?

Thank you for asking, readers. In my opinion, a true lower body pull would be those movements that draw one into a more compressed position. This could include gymnastics skills like the L-sit, yoga poses like Bakasana, CrossFit’s toes-to-bar, or common exercises like leg raises. These are movements that are heavy on the hip and knee flexion, but I would consider active ankle dorsiflexion to be in this category as well, like the bat hang in bouldering. (Plantar flexion, it seems to me, is an obvious expression of pushing.)

When you think about it, loaded hip and knee flexion are movements often missing in the context of strength and conditioning (which, again, considers hip hinging to be the functional expression of lower body pulling). It makes sense, since athletes need explosive hip extension much more often for field sports (for movements like running and jumping), but I wonder what the potential impact of this strength imbalance might be on an athlete’s movement ability and longevity.

(I can see hip flexion being emphasized in sports like gymnastics, since it is critical for many skill progressions, like the manna. I would be very interested to hear from coaches in these disciplines concerning their definition of lower body pulling.)

Knee flexion comes up more often than hip flexion in typical training, I think. Hamstring curls and glute-ham raises are established mainstays of hammie development; but there always seems to be this debate raging on about whether it’s useful to train knee flexion, or whether efforts should focus on the hip extension and knee stabilization roles of the hamstrings. My own opinion would be that, in the context of complete human movement, you should be able to express competency in loaded knee flexion. I think it makes sense in the context of natural movement. If you think about climbing, the isometric version of a hamstring curl comes in really handy when heel hooking (as in the sport of climbing) or hanging from a tree by your legs (as in being an ape). Not only that, but any BJJ athlete can tell you how important a strong hammie curl is for locking down certain positions when grappling. What it comes down to is that you should probably be competent in pulling at the knee to have a well-rounded movement foundation, and if it’s important to your sport or activity give it more focus. (Typical message, right?)

It’s extraordinarily unlikely that I’m the first person to voice this opinion, but it’s been a satisfying revelation nonetheless. The definition of lower body pushing and pulling as it stands in strength and conditioning is the paradigm I’ve subscribed to for some time, but it now seems obviously inaccurate to me. Prior to now, I’ve always found it difficult to classify those movements like the L-sit which I listed above, but now they have such an obvious designation. For someone like me who thrives off of systems thinking, this is excellent, because now I can more clearly understand how to effectively fit my programming framework.

Please comment below, readers. I’d love to know what you think about this.

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3 thoughts on “Lower Body Pulling

  1. lexilife says:

    I think I’d agree with you in that a deadlift involves more pushing than pulling. I think pulling is related to your upper body and in a deadlift, you’re using 0% of your upper body (except to hold the bar) am I right? I thought the power came from your hams and glutes in pushing yourself upright again…I could be wrong..


    • Mitch Tate says:

      That’s correct, except I would be hesitant to undervalue the role of the upper body in the deadlift. Even though the arms aren’t moving, they still have to channel all of the force to connect the bar to the body. You’re still engaging a lot of upper body musculature to do that, and for some people it will be upper body factors (like upper back extension and grip strength) that limit their deadlift.

  2. Mitch Tate says:

    One of my classmates asked me a question today that I think is worth posting, and that was whether I would consider the lowering phase of the deadlift, for instance, which involves hip and knee flexion as pulling based on what I’ve written above.

    This would not be classified as pulling, as it is simply the lowering (eccentric) phase of the lower body press. Just as lowering down into a push-up isn’t pulling.

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