Do Rack Pulls For More Pulling Strength and a Bigger Back

The rack pull can improve your deadlift lockout and help you build bigger and stronger traps.

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 sport of choice, some or all of those variations can have a place in your workout split. In this article, we’re covering the rack pull. 

The rack pull is a deadlift variation that can increase overall pulling strength, build more muscle in the back, strengthen the hips, and teach beginners how to deadlift. In this rack pull exercise guide, we will discuss:

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 female powerlifters (and deadlifters) on the planet — Kimberly Walford.

How to Do the Rack Pull

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

Rack Pull 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 quad

Form Tip: When progressing with the rack pull, increase the weight and not the physical rack height.

Step 2 —  Get Tight and Lift

Rack Pull Set Up

Assume your normal deadlift grip and stance. Brace the back and then pull the bar close to the body with the lats. Take a deep breath into your stomach to brace, and grip the floor with your feet by turning the toes slightly outward. Now drive the 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

Rack Pull Lift

After you’ve set the back and hit a strong hip extension, keep the lats contracted and hold the weight for a second at the top. This is essential for improving grip strength allowing the body to get used to heavier loads. 

Form Tip: If your goal is to improve your grip, then don’t use lifting straps and hold the weight for a few seconds or as long as possible at the apex of the movement. 

Benefits of the Rack Pull

Below are four benefits of adding rack pulls into your training routine. 

Increased Pulling Strength

If you’re looking to improve your traditional deadlift, then the rack pull deserves a place in your routine. The higher starting point lets the trainee lift more weight and hone in on the lockout portion of the 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) and will make neurological adaptions to lifting 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, and your CNS will actually learn that it’s capable of doing that. Of course, you need to possess the mechanical skills and strength to lift the weight, but showing your CNS you’re capable is a good first step towards pulling more weight.  

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 the lower back is necessary for developing a stronger back, deadlift, squat, and performance, the rack pull is sometimes used to decrease training volume and/or limit the amount of stress placed on the lower back. It’s also a better choice than the standard deadlift for lifters with a history of back injuries (assuming their doctor has cleared them to deadlift).

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Trapezius and Back Development

The partial range of motion and increased load makes the rack pull a great move to target the 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.

Grip Strength

The rack pull is a great exercise to increase grip strength since it allows the lifter’s ability to lift more weights from this partial range of motion lift. Increasing a lifter’s grip strength can enhance neurological engagement and readiness for heavy lifts and help them keep their back locked during deadlifts.

Muscles Worked by the Rack Pull

Below are the primary muscle groups worked during the rack pull.

Glutes

The rack pull targets the glutes (hips) to a high degree due to both the limited range of motion in the deadlift and the high amounts of loading that can be used. Limiting the range of motion minimizes the amount of lower back and hamstring involvement and focuses more on the gluteals to provide enough force for hip extension.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings, while not fully engaged in the movement, are still involved and can be trained depending on the depth at which the rack pull is from. Generally speaking, the lower the starting height, the more hamstring extension and flexion must occur.

Quadriceps

The quadriceps are slightly engaged and used to lock out the knees fully. While the amount of knee flexion is limited in this movement, rack pulls from lower depths can call on the quadriceps, especially if the hips are kept low during the pull.

Back muscles
vishstudio/Shutterstock

Erector Spinae (Lower Back)

Similar to the sumo deadlift and trap bar deadlift, the decreased range of motion results in less hip flexion needed in the pull. In doing so, you can reduce the amount of lower back stress and the demands placed upon the spinal erector muscles.

Trapezius and Back Muscles

The trapezius and upper back muscles work to maintain proper back tension. The ability to load the rack pull with very heavy weight can also help overload the upper back and trapezius muscles and stimulate new muscle growth.

Who Should Do the Rack Pull?

Below we will discuss what types of athletes can benefit from the rack pull and why.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes use the rack pull to increase overall strength, add quality muscle mass to the glutes, back, and traps, and improve sport-specific performance.

  • Powerlifters and Strongman/Strongwomen Athletes: Rack pulls can be used to increase overall pulling strength, develop stronger trapezius and back muscles, strengthen the posterior chain, and enhance grip strength. Also, 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 and/or recovery is key.
  • Weightlifters: In Olympic weightlifting, rack pulls are often called block pulls. They’re essentially 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 in the second pull, have positional issues off the floor, or simply are looking to strengthen pulls without overtaking the lower back.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Functional Fitness and Sport Athletes 

The rack pull can be used for many of the same purposes above. However, functional fitness athletes can also get similar benefits of rack pulls from performing heavy farmer’s carries or Yoke Walks.

For most formal sports athletes, rack pulls may sometimes increase overall strength and muscle mass. However, most athletes will benefit from performing the fullest range of motion movements, such as the conventional, sumo, or trap bar deadlift. 

General Population

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, and/or improve range of motion will benefit from the rack pull.

Rack Pull Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations

Below are three sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations. Note: the below guidelines are loose recommendations for programming. Feel free to adjust these numbers as you see fit.

To Improve Technique

The rack pull can be used to develop a lifter’s basic understanding of a deadlifting movement and can be progressed to lower pulling heights until the barbell is resting on the floor. This should be done with a light to moderate load for moderate repetitions in a controlled fashion to instill proper control and coordination. Start by performing three to four sets of four to six repetitions with light to moderate loads, at a controlled tempo, resting as needed.

To Build Muscle

Training the rack pull for muscle hypertrophy should include a moderate to high volume with a moderate to high amount of loading. Try three to five sets of six to eight reps with a moderate to heavy load, OR two to four sets of 12-15 reps with moderate loads to near failure. Keep rest periods 45-90 seconds.

To Gain Strength

Rack pulls can be programmed very similarly to most deadlift variations. For strength, perform three to five sets of three to five repetitions with heavy loading, resting as needed.

Rack Pull Variations

Below are four four rack pull variations that you can program to keep your training varied and progressive.

Reverse Band Rack Pull

Reverse band rack pulls overload the rack pull and allow a lifter to increase confidence, grip strength, and get used to even more weight. In this setup, the resistance bands are stretched maximally at the beginning of the lift (fixed to overhead support) to help the lifter get the load moving upwards. As the lifter gains more acceleration in the pull, the bands decrease the amount of assistance to force the lifter to increase their rate of force production at the top half of the pull.

Rack Pulls with Accommodating Resistance

Like other deadlift movements, the rack pull can be loaded with chains and or against resistance bands. Accommodating resistance will increase the force production needed throughout the entire lift so that a lifter gains strength off the rack and throughout the entire range of motion. This is key to increase motor unit recruitment, muscle firing rates, and improve strength at specific sticking points.

Fat Bar Rack Pulls

The fat bar, or axle bar, rack pull is done identically to the rack pull above, but with a barbell or grips that increase the thickness (diameter) of the barbell. Using a thick bar challenges grip strength in the pull. Also, axle bars specifically are more rigid than standard deadlift bars, so there’s no slack or bending of the bar. 

Isometric Rack Pull

The isometric rack pull can be done inside a power rack in which the lifter sets the barbell under a pair of safety stoppers. The lifter pulls an empty barbell as hard as possible into the pins. Isometric contractions will occur, which can help increase strength at a specific sticking point, help a lifter learn how to “grind,” and even enhance motor recruitment and muscle firing patterns at specific points in the pull.

Rack Pull Alternatives

Below are two rack pull alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase overall pulling strength, address weaknesses, and build muscle.

Trap Bar Deadlift

The trap bar deadlift is a rack pull alternative due to the limited range of motion (relative to the conventional deadlift) and its dependency on lockout strength. Both movements can also be used to supra-maximally load a lifter to increase neurological development and muscle recruitment.

Sumo Deadlift

The sumo deadlift is similar to a rack pull in that the lifter has a short range of motion to deadlift with than the conventional deadlift. In both the sumo deadlift and the rack pull, the trapezius and upper back muscles are stressed to a great degree as well. Lastly, both the sumo deadlift and the rack pull can be used with lifters who may have movement and/or strength limitations are the bottom of the deadlift.

FAQs

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 the sticking points or technique considerations. 

Are rack pulls bad for my lower back?

If you have a lower back injury, adding rack pulls and any lifting is something that should be first cleared by your 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, like anything, you can lift too heavy, especially 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, which can beat up the body and add too much training stress, especially if they are also performing deadlifts and other back exercises. That said, you can use these with heavy loads, often heavier than your deadlift, to increase strength and muscle mass. Be sure to refer to the recommendations above.