Resistance Training Practical: Using Pulls Effectively

Pulls -- high pulls and straight arm pulls -- are staples of the competitive weightlifter. Non-weightlifting athletes also use them to compliment things like medicine ball throws.

Over the years, I have moved away from barbell pulls, especially high pulls, for non-weightlifting athletes. This may seem like picking nits. However, my job is to bulletproof athletes. I work hard to do it with the least additional joint wear and tear possible, while keeping things simple.

First, I don't like the idea of promoting any type of arm pulling if we are going to do any power cleans or power snatches in the future. Arm pulling is the opposite of what we want with these movements. 

Second, it is a skill to hold, accelerate, decelerate and lower a barbell when doing pulls. There is a significant anterior load and traction on the upper traps and long thoracic nerve that must be controlled, particularly when you lower the bar. (Thank you Joe Pryztula for reminding me of this!) Most weightlifters choose to do multiple rep sets from the block or the floor; this allows the athlete to fully reset the start position each rep.

High hang, bilateral dumbbell high pulls can also put a a significant anterior load and traction on the shoulders. Personally, I find holding, accelerating and decelerating two heavy dumbbells with a pronated grip, in front of my torso, to be clunky and cumbersome. It is hard to keep them close to the body. There is no hard stop or start; control is with the upper extremity. And I am not sure if ballistic internal rotation and abduction are productive for the glenohumeral joint. I do not wish to add to any multi-directional instability or other shoulder issues.

If you want to emphasize arm shrug/pull action, using two dumbbells, do a more controlled high-hang, DB Muscle Snatch with the dumbbells at the side of the body; complete the movement with the implement overhead, let the scapula move through a full range. The neutral grip position will minimize anterior traction on the upper traps; athletes can lower the dumbbells under control (to the the shoulder and then back to the hang, cushion with the legs) and reset each rep.

My current go-to higher rep, ballistic pulling movements are straight arm jump shrugs with a hex bar and "Big DB Rows" a.k.a "Big Ass DB Rows." These pulls (really pushes) are rhythmic, connected, explosive movements from the ground up. I want the athletes to feel their legs move the implement. Feel the coordination of a lower body push with an upper body finish.

Both of these movements ask for a neutral grip; this minimizes anterior traction on the shoulder girdle. The legs do the majority of accelerating the implement and then they also do the majority of the deceleration, protecting the shoulder. There is no awkward stopping in the middle to the hang position.

The hex bar movement allows for larger loads and bilateral upper extremity coordination with the the legs. A straight arm shrug helps the athlete feel the legs doing the work to project implement --and  the entire body -- vertically. This isn't about the arms. But many athletes will try to use the arms preferentially at first. You can easily teach "legs first" if you constrain the movement with the straight arm shrug and neutral grip. Hex bar straight arm jump shrugs are perfect for timed sets, complexes or circuits.

The Big DB Row starts from the ground and asks the athlete to coordinate the entire body -- start low, get tall. We use a single dumbbell at the side of the body, not in front of the body. The arm bend -- high elbow, neutral grip -- is for the most part, the body absorbing the momentum of the dumbbell safely, just after the shrug. You can even sprinkle in a little torso rotation to add some transverse plane and further absorb the dumbbell's momentum.

We do not exaggerate the arm bend or focus on that aspect; in reality, the athlete is jumping the dumbbell to about shoulder height. The focus is not on pulling the dumbbell high; it is making the body tall. This is a subtle but important distinction. This movement fits nicely into complexes and circuits.

I am also using some DB Nordic Swing variations to teach total body coordination with younger athletes. Look for that topic in a future post. In the meantime, I am happy to answer any questions about teaching, programming or using these particular movements.


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