Rack Pulls vs Rows – Which Is Best for Strength?

Two movements that are know to develop back strength, raw muscle, and increase pulling performance are the rack pull and the row. While they do attack similar muscle groups, there are some distinct differences between these two exercise that coaches and athletes should be aware of. Therefore, in this article we will discuss the rack pull vs the row, and determine which is best for strength and hypertrophy goals.

Rack Pull Benefits and Exercise Demo

The rack pull is a movement that can be done for strength purposes, upper back and trap hypertrophy, and deadlifting performance. The benefits of it are discussed in depth here, which conclude that the rack pull is a highly effective means to increase pulling performance. Below is a video demonstration on the rack pull by Mark Rippetoe, in which he discussed how to properly set up and perform the rack pull.

Row Benefits and Exercise Demo

The row is a broad movement category that includes popular rowing movements such as, but not limited to: the Pendlay Row, barbell bent row, ring row, dumbbell row, Kroc row, landmine row, seal row, etc. This movement pattern is one of the two main types of back training (the other is the vertical pull, such as pull ups, lat pull downs, etc) and should be done on a regular basis to increase back strength, muscle mass, and overall movement integrity and back health. Below is an exercise demonstration on how to perform the row, in this case the Pendlay row.

Rack Pull vs Row

Below are four aspects of training and programming that coaches and athletes should be aware of as we compare and contrast the benefits and incidental differences between the rack pull and the row.

General Back Development

When programming a back regimen, coaches and athletes should look to include horizontal rows and vertical pulls (pull ups, pull downs, etc) on a regular basis. Additionally, movements like the rack pull can be done to increase general back strength as well.

Therefore, both movements are vital components to the overall development of the back and traps, however the row may slightly edge out the rack pull in that it is a foundational movement for all athletes and lifters, regardless of their deadlift performance or goal.

Back Hypertrophy

Both movements can do a wonderful job at creating dense slabs of muscle in the traps, upper back, and lats. The row is a slightly isolated movement that can allow a lifter to get a full contraction and squeeze in a lift while also allowing for increased loading and training volume, two key markers for strength and hypertrophy.

The rack pull can also work to increase strength and muscle hypertrophy, specifically due to the larger amounts of muscular demands imposed on a system when done at heavier loads in relation to the row.

Maximal Strength

When it comes to maximal strength application, the rack pull may in fact edge out the row. While the row is a strength movement, and is necessary for the development solid slabs of backside muscle, the rack pull has the ability to be loaded significantly far greater than any barbell or pendlay row.

When it comes to maximal strength, there often is a time where amount of loading plays a significant role in the overall development of the lifter’s central nervous systems and muscle mass, making the rack pull a significant training exercise, slightly more than the row.

Deadlifting Application

Both lifts can play a huge role in pulling strength, positional awareness, and performance. The rack pull can increase trap and upper back mass, grip strength, and overload the pulling movement to help intermediate and advanced lifters add quality training volume to their programs to boost their deadlifts.

Rowing, which is just as necessary, is a foundational accessory movement to increase overall back strength, positional awareness, and general pulling abilities that are often missed if one was to only perform rack pulls. Therefore, in a sound training program, both movements can be (and should be) done to maximize deadlifting performance.

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Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.