There are plenty of ways to deadlift — conventionally, with a sumo stance, using a trap bar, with a snatch grip, standing on a weight plate, or even using a thick bar. Depending on your goals, some or all of these variations can have a place in your workout split. Regardless of your sport, if you want to get your body and mind ready to lift extremely heavy, the rack pull is a deadlift variation that you might want to put into your program.
Depending on your experience level, you can use the rack pull to teach yourself proper form or to load up extra heavy weights. The rack pull is a variation that you’ll be able to program to suit various goals. You can increase overall pulling strength, build a more muscular back, strengthen your hips, and learn how to deadlift with this move. If you’re ready to take your deadlift to the next level, grab a power rack and get ready to go hard.
- How to Do the Rack Pull
- Rack Pull Sets and Reps
- Common Rack Pull Mistakes
- Rack Pull Variations
- Rack Pull Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Rack Pull
- Benefits of the Rack Pull
- Who Should Do the Rack Pull
- Frequently Asked Questions
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
Rack Pull Video Guide
Want to perfect your rack pull? Considering you’re reading this, then we’re going to guess yes. Well, you can’t do much better than watching our rack pull video guide featuring one of the best powerlifters (and deadlifters) on the planet — Kimberly Walford.
The rack pull is typically done in a power rack (but can also be off blocks or even 45-pound bumper plates). You start the pull from about knee height (either slightly below or above the knees) and then pull the barbell to lockout. This reduced range of motion (ROM) strengthens the back half of the deadlift. It’s also a great way to acclimate to heavier loads — you can pull more due to the reduced ROM — and improve your grip strength. Here’s how to do the rack pull.
Step 1 — Set Your Rack Height
If your sticking point is below the knee, then set the power rack’s height to just below the knee. If your sticking point is above the knee, then set the rack height in-line with the bottom of your quads.
Form Tip: When progressing with the rack pull, increase the weight and not the physical rack height.
Step 2 — Get Tight and Lift
Assume your normal deadlift grip and stance. Brace your back and then pull the bar close to your body with your lats. Take a deep breath into your stomach to brace. Grip the floor with your feet by turning your toes slightly outward. Drive your feet through the floor and push your hips forward to pull the barbell from your knees to hip height. Your hips should be fully locked out.
Form Tip: When gripping the floor with your feet, you don’t want to flex your knees outward drastically. Pretend you’re standing on a piece of paper and that you’re trying to tear it in half with just your feet. Twist them outward just until you feel your hamstrings and glutes engage.
Step 3 — Stay Tight and Hold
After you’ve set your back and hit a strong hip extension, keep your lats contracted and hold the weight for a second at the top. This is essential for improving grip strength and allowing your body to get used to heavier loads.
You’ll program your rack pulls differently depending on what your goals are. To maximize the exercise’s impact, think about why you’re integrating it into your program before determining how many sets and reps you should do.
- For Muscle Mass: Try three to five sets of six to eight reps with a moderate to heavy load. You can also try two to four sets of 12 to 15 reps with moderate loads approaching failure.
- For Strength: Do three to five sets of three to five reps with heavy weight.
- For Technique: Perform three to four sets of six reps each with moderate loads and a controlled tempo.
The rack pull is essentially a deadlift from low blocks. So if you know how to deadlift pretty well, it might be tempting to think that you can’t possibly do anything wrong with rack pulls. But even experienced lifters can fall prey to a few common rack pull mistakes.
Going Too Heavy
For many lifters, the entire point of training with rack pulls is going even heavier than you can go with your deadlift. The reduced range of motion generally allows you to pull more weight, letting your grip strength and entire body acclimate to heavier loads. But it is possible to go too heavy with rack pulls. Just because your range of motion is shorter doesn’t mean your form should fall apart. If you’re going so heavy that you can’t maintain your form, you’re losing out on the major benefits of the exercise (and increasing your risk of injury). Only progress gradually to make sure you’re hitting attempts your body can handle.
Going Too Light
When you’re just learning to perform rack pulls properly, it’s a good idea to start with a weight you already know you can deadlift. Due to the reduced range of motion, it might feel pretty light. But that means you can dial in your technique safely. Then, it’ll be relatively easy to move up in weight with the rack pull.
In cases where you’re using the rack pull to make deadlifts easier on your low back, let your potential pain levels dictate your weight selection. However, if your back is doing just fine, you likely want to rack pull heavier than you deadlift. Perform these weight increases responsibly, but you also don’t necessarily want to rack pull lighter than you’re deadlifting. Going too light may cancel out some of the major benefits of rack pulls, which include being able to overload your hinge pattern while avoiding undue strain to your low back.
Incorrect Starting Position
You don’t want to start a rack pull too low, because it might wind up being too similar to your deadlift’s range of motion to see any noticeable differences. Similarly, you don’t want to set the pins or blocks too high. If you do, you risk not going deep enough to really gain benefits. Start the rack pull just under your knees if you’re looking to improve your strength off the ground. If your hip lockout needs more assistance, set the pins just above your knees. Stay in that range, and stay consistent in your placement, for best results.
Just like there’s more than one way to pull off a deadlift, there are many ways to dive into rack pulls. Whether you’re changing your tempo, mode of resistance, or using slightly different equipment, you can take advantage of rack pull variations to dial into specific gains.
Isometric Rack Pull
Holding the bar to the pins with such tension will produce some serious isometric contractions. This hold helps you increase strength at a specific sticking point. It’ll also help you learn how to “grind” while enhancing motor recruitment and muscle firing patterns at specific points in the pull.
Banded Rack Pull
Like other deadlift movements, the rack pull can be loaded with chains and or against resistance bands. Adding these tools increases the resistance you face toward the top of the lift, meaning that you have a pretty consistent level of resistance throughout the lift. This is called accommodating resistance.
This way, you’ll develop strength off the rack and maintain it throughout the entire range of motion. That development is key to increasing motor unit recruitment, muscle firing rates, and improve strength at specific sticking points.
Reverse Banded Rack Pull
Reverse banded rack pulls overload the rack pull and allow you to increase confidence, grip strength, and get used to moving even more weight. In this setup, you’ll attach resistance bands to your bar, but they’ll be anchor from above.
This means that the bands will be stretched maximally at the beginning of the lift, since they’re fixed to overhead support. This will help you get the load moving upwards. As you gain more acceleration in the pull, the bands decrease the amount of assistance they provide. This forces you to increase your rate of force production at the top half of the pull.
Axle Bar Rack Pulls
You can also use a fat bar, or axle bar, to perform your rack pull. You’ll do this move identically to the barbell rack pull. However, you’ll use an axle bar or fat grips secured to your barbell.
The axle bar is thicker than a regular barbell, which will really boost the challenge to your grip strength. Also, axle bars specifically are more rigid than standard deadlift bars, so there’s no slack or bending of the bar.
Don’t have access to a power rack or blocks? If you’re uncomfortable using bumper plates to support your rack pull, or just want to vary your training even more, check out these rack pull alternatives.
Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift is a solid rack pull alternative because it also has a limited range of motion relative to the conventional deadlift. As with rack pulls, you can really load this move up to practice getting the feel for very heavy loads and improving your deadlift lockout.
Whether you’re rack pulling or trap bar deadlifting, you can supra-maximally load your lift to increase neurological development, muscle recruitment, and grip strength.
In both the sumo deadlift and the rack pull, you’ll stress your traps and upper back muscles to a great degree. Both these lifts are also great options for lifters who may need to modify their deadlift workouts to accommodate lower back pain from the bottom of the deadlift.
Given its relationship to one of the biggest strength-building moves out there, it’s no surprise that the rack pull taxes muscles all across your body.
The rack pull targets your glutes pretty seriously. That’s because of the limited range of motion and the high amounts of loading. Limiting the range of motion minimizes the amount of lower back and hamstring involvement (even though those muscles are still involved). In that way, this move focuses more on your glutes to provide enough force for hip extension.
Your hamstrings may not be as engaged as they are in the full deadlift, but they’re still a big part of the movement here. Generally speaking, the lower your starting height, the more hamstring extension and flexion must occur.
You’ll also slightly engage your quads to fully lock out your knees. While rack pulls limit the amount of knee flexion overall, performing them from lower depths can call on your quadriceps. This is especially true if you keep your hips low during the pull.
Erector Spinae (Lower Back)
In doing so, you can reduce the amount of lower back stress and the demands placed on your spinal erector muscles. That said, your low back still helps out during rack pulls.
Trapezius and Back Muscles
Your traps and upper back muscles work to maintain proper back tension during rack pulls. The ability to load the rack pull with very heavy weight can also help overload these muscles to stimulate new muscle growth.
Not convinced you should add rack pulls into your training routine? Check out these benefits before dismissing the pull and denying yourself some big gains.
Increased Pulling Strength
If you’re looking to improve your traditional deadlift, the rack pull deserves a place in your routine. The higher starting point lets you lift more weight and hone in on the lockout portion of your deadlift. This improved lockout — which comes from a stronger hip drive — will carry over to your standard deadlift.
You’ll also have a better grip from handling heavier loads (assuming you don’t use straps). This will make the neurological adaptions you need to lift more weight. Your central nervous system (CNS) is the internal network that connects your brain to your muscles. Your body can’t do what it doesn’t know, so by handling a heavier weight, your CNS can learn that it’s capable of doing that.
Decreased Lumbar Stress
The raised position of the rack pull means that you pull from a more vertical position. This is easier on your lower back. While loading your lower back is necessary for building up your strength and lifting performance, you can use the rack pull to limit the amount of stress placed directly on your lower back. It also may be a better choice than the standard deadlift for lifters with a history of back injuries (assuming that a doctor has cleared them to deadlift).
Upper Back Development
The partial range of motion and increased load makes the rack pull a great move to target your upper back muscles. This can be key for lifters who lack size and strength or are looking for the aesthetic appeal of larger, fuller traps.
The rack pull is a great exercise to increase grip strength since it allows you to lift more weight than you can with the conventional deadlift. Increasing your grip strength can enhance neurological engagement and readiness for heavy lifts. It can also help you keep your back locked during deadlifts.
If you’re cleared to pull heavy weight and know how to hip hinge properly, get your power rack ready.
Strength and Power Athletes
- Powerlifters and Strongman/Strongwoman Athletes: Rack pulls help you increase overall pulling strength, develop stronger traps and back muscles, strengthen your posterior chain, and enhance grip strength. That’s a hefty list of benefits that these strength athletes need for their competitions. The rack pull can increase lockout strength for lifters who have issues above the knee. Lastly, the rack pull can be programmed to maintain pulling volumes during periods where lower back stress management or recovery is especially important.
- Weightlifters: In Olympic weightlifting, rack pulls are often called block pulls. They’re largely the same thing. Lifters will perform block pulls from various heights to increase strength and speed at specific segments of their pulls. This can help lifters who lack explosive strength, have positional issues off the floor, or simply are looking to strengthen pulls without overtaking the lower back.
Functional Fitness and Sport Athletes
Functional fitness athletes may not be trying to build up to a one-rep max. Still, rack pulls can develop immense grip strength that can supplement functional moves like heavy farmer’s carries or yoke walks. Similarly, rack pulls may increase overall strength and muscle mass. This can be helpful to athletes who want to get stronger for their sport but need to avoid overtaxing their low back.
Rack pulls can be used to increase muscle hypertrophy, fundemental pulling strength, and as a teaching progression for the deadlift. Lifters looking to increase upper back strength, glute development, or improve range of motion will benefit from the rack pull.
Maybe you’re just learning to deadlift and need to lock in your form without going to the full range of motion just yet. Or maybe you’re coming back from a low back injury and are ready to start pulling again, but not quite from the floor. You may also be a very experienced deadlifter looking to acclimate your body to pulling extremely heavy weights. Whatever you circumstance, rack pulls may be just what you’re looking for to get stronger while perfecting your deadlift form and sparing your low back some strain.
Should I do rack pulls above or below the knee?
You can perform rack pulls from nearly anywhere. However, most of the time rack pulls are performed from just below the knee to mid-shin. That said, this can be individualized based on your personal sticking points or technique considerations.
Are rack pulls bad for my lower back?
If you have a lower back injury or are coming back from surgery, adding rack pulls and any lifting is something that should be first cleared by a doctor. If you are cleared to lift and are looking to get back to pulling from the floor, using rack pulls at a progressively lower pulling height can be a good way to improve the strength of the back, glutes, and hamstrings while also improving pulling technique.
Can I train too heavy during rack pulls?
Yes. Much as you might not want to admit it, you can lift too heavy. This is specially true if your form degrades as you do this. Too often, individuals will use the rack pull as a way to lift as heavy as possible. But if you don’t use this overloading technique strategically, you can beat up your body and add too much training stress. This is a risk especially if you are also performing deadlifts and other heavy back exercises in your program. That said, you can use these with heavy loads. Rack pulls will often be much heavier than your deadlift. Just be sure to gradually increase your weights and give yourself time for adequate recovery.
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