Muscles Worked in Rack Pulls
Primary muscles worked:
Secondary muscles worked:
How to Do Rack Pulls Properly
- Set the bar at desired height, using a rack or blocks.
- Step up close to the bar, so that it is over the middle of your foot.
- Inhale, lean forward and bend your knees slightly, and grip the bar.
- Hold your breath, brace your core, and lift the bar.
- Pull the bar close to your body with a straight back, until you are standing straight.
- Lower the bar back to the rack or blocks with control.
What Is the Rack Pull?
The rack pull is a variation of the regular deadlift, in which you have elevated the bar (in a rack or on a pair of blocks) in order to start the lift at a higher position. This makes the rack pull a partial deadlift with a shorter range of motion.
This generally means that you are able to pull heavier loads and it also shifts more of the work to your posterior chain muscles.
The opposite of rack pulls is deficit deadlifts, a deadlift variation in which you stand on an elevation and thus pull from a greater height.
Benefits of Rack Pulls
The rack pull has several benefits, depending on your goal.
1. Learning Tool For the Deadlift
For some people, learning the deadlift can be tricky. One way to learn it is to simply work your way down from the top:
- Begin with a barbell in a rack, placed somewhere above your knee. Practice bending forward by hinging in your hips and keeping a neutral back while you lift.
- As you gain proficiency, lower the barbell rather than adding weight, and keep practicing.
- Eventually you should be able to lower the barbell all the way to the floor. Voilà! You’re doing regular deadlifts! Now you can move on to adding weight to the bar.
2. Overload Your Deadlift
Most people can lift more weight when the barbell begins higher (more on this later). This means that traditional deadlifts off the floor mostly challenge you in the bottom position, and not so much in the top half.
Since the rack pull removes the initial part off the floor, they can be used to overload the top half of the deadlift, using weights that otherwise would have been too heavy for you.
This might be beneficial for powerlifters, weightlifters, or anyone else looking to improve their back strength.
3. Target Your Sticking Point
Do you always fail your deadlifts at a certain point in the lift? Use the rack pull to target your weak point.
Set up the racks or blocks so that the barbell rests just below your sticking point, and add extra training around this point. This might be enough to drive up your 1RM in the regular deadlift.
4. Isolate Your Posterior Chain Muscles
Because the rack pull begins at a greater height, your knees don’t need to bend and extend as much as in the conventional deadlift. This takes work off your quadriceps and shifts the remainder of the work to your posterior chain muscles: your glutes, lower back, hamstrings, and trapezius.
You can emphasize your posterior chain even further by performing the rack pull with a Romanian deadlift-style technique, meaning that you only bend your knees slightly and instead only hinge at the hips.
5. Can Be Easier on Your Back
If you currently have back issues keeping you from performing the deadlift off the floor, rack pulls can be a way to work around that. Test various heights and techniques and see if you can find something that you can perform pain-free, and the rack pull can help you not only maintain (or build) strength and mass in your deadlift muscles, but also help you rehabilitate and get back to regular deadlifts sooner.
Strength in the Rack Pull vs Deadlift
How much stronger are you in the rack pull compared to a deadlift off the floor? While this of course varies between individuals, a study from 2012 gives us a hint of the general ratio.1
The researchers recruited fourteen competitive powerlifters with a minimum deadlift 1RM of 2.5x bodyweight, and had them perform isometric (static) pulls against an immobilized barbell, at four different heights, while standing on a force plate. The objective was to measure their strength (how much force they could produce) at three different key positions of the deadlift plus in a mid-thigh pull.
Here are the four positions they tested, and the height at which the barbell was placed.
- Floor. 22.5 cm above the ground, which is the same height as a barbell loaded with standard olympic plates.
- Knee. Just above the knee cap of each lifter.
- Mid thigh. At the middle of the femur (thigh bone). Additionally, the lifters were allowed to shove their knees out in front of the barbell.
- Lockout. At the same height as in position #3, but the lifters were instructed to use a body position similar to how they would lock out a regular competition deadlift.
Here are examples of the different positions.
Each lifter completed the four tests in the order listed (1–4) with ten minutes of rest in between attempts.
Here’s the mean force they produced in each of the four positions:
What does this mean? That competitive powerlifters generate about 21% more force when the barbell is placed just above their knee caps than when it is resting on the floor. This means that as a ballpark figure, you could probably use about ~20% more weight in rack pulls done from around knee height than you use in your normal deadlifts.
Because of the heavier weight used in rack pulls, your grip strength might get challenged beyond its capacity. This makes the rack pull a great exercise for strengthening your grip, but if your goal is to strengthen the larger muscle groups of your back, hips, and legs, I would recommend using lifting straps if necessary.
What is the Difference Between Rack Pulls and Block Pulls?
Rack pulls and block pulls are the same exercise. The only difference is whether the barbell is resting on a rack or on a pair of blocks (or weight plates). Which one you use doesn’t affect you and your muscles at all.
It does, however, affect the barbell. Heavy rack pulls, that is, pulls actually performed in a power rack or squat rack, are notorious for bending barbells, and they are the gym owner’s nightmare. If you care about the barbells you use or the equipment at the gym you go to, I highly recommend you do your rack pulls off of blocks or weight plates instead of a rack.
What is the Proper Height for Rack Pulls?
How high should you place the barbell in the starting position? Should you do rack pulls above or below your knee?
The best height for you to do your rack pulls from depends on your goal.
- Do you want to strengthen your sticking point in the deadlift? Place the barbell just below it.
- Do you want to emphasize your posterior muscle groups? Set the barbell at a height which gives you great muscle contact.
- Are you trying to train around an injury? Place the barbell at a height that let’s you lift without pain or discomfort. Well, as free of discomfort as deadlifts ever get.
As a rule of thumb, somewhere from 10 cm (4 inches) up to around knee level is a good range to shoot for, for general strength and muscle building purposes.
Are Rack Pulls Bad for My Lower Back?
All forms of deadlifts can be both good and bad for your back – it all comes down to factors such as technique, load, and training volume.
Deadlifts performed with good technique, at a load and training volume which you have worked up to and which is well within your capacity is good for your back. On the contrary, doing too much, too soon, and lifting with a horrible technique can definitely be bad for your back.
If you learn how to do rack pulls properly, and gradually increase the load and training volume, they will strengthen your back, and make it healthier and more resilient.
Do Rack Pulls Build Mass?
Want to Build Strength and Mass Using Rack Pulls?
Want to try a deadlift program in which rack pulls and deficit deadlifts are the two primary drivers of strength and muscle? Check out our hypertrophy deadlift program Deadlift Builder. It is a program aimed at increasing the strength and mass in all of your most important deadlift muscles while building a back that resembles an old iron oak.
Read more about Deadlift Builder here.
Text and graphics from the StrengthLog app.