The rack pull is a variation of the popular deadlift, and this exercise is frequently used by a range of athletes, bodybuilders, and powerlifters.
The main difference between the deadlift and rack pull is that the rack pull is lifted from the rack at knee level, whereas the deadlift is lifted from the floor.
The range of motion is therefore shorter with the rack pull, which allows you to lift more weight.
Both exercises are hip-hinge movements however and activate the glutes and spinal erectors.
In this article, we’ll be taking you through the motions of the rack pull and deadlift, discussing the muscles recruited by each of these exercises, the differences between them, the pros and cons of each, and instructions on how to safely perform them, too.
What is a rack pull?
This deadlift variation focuses on the top-end range of motion, which is achieved by setting the barbell on the safety pins inside the squat cage, similar to a block deadlift.
This prevents you from bringing the barbell to the floor, creating a ‘partial range of motion’, which, as a result, usually allows you to lift more as you’re using less energy.
With the rack pull, the load is prioritized over the range of motion, so the goal is to lift more than you’d be able to in a deadlift, where the range of movement would be greater, as you’re lifting from the floor.
Usually, the rack pull is performed from about knee height, although some lifters may pull from just below or above the knee if they’re targeting a specific range of motion. However, for most people, knee level is a good starting point.
Muscles worked in the rack pull
The rack pull is a frequently-used variation of the deadlift and is popular for the wide range of muscles it activates, including the glutes, adductor magnus (inner thigh), spinal erectors, hamstrings, lats, traps, rhomboids, hands, and forearms.
The rack pull removes the knee extension from the normal deadlift.
This means that the rack pull revolves primarily around the hip joint. As a result, the muscles that will be targeted are the ones primarily responsible for extending the hip. These are the glutes and adductor magnus.
The spinal erectors will be activated to a greater or lesser degree depending on your torso angle at the start of the rack pull. The more bent over you are, the more spinal erectors you’ll use; the more upright you are, the fewer spinal erectors you’ll recruit.
The hamstrings are also activated to a lesser extent compared with the other muscle groups. However, they will be recruited if your other hip extensors - such as the glutes and adductor magnus - become tired.
The lats, traps, and rhomboids will be active in order to keep the barbell close to your body throughout the rack pull. Most people doing the rack pull for the first time will feel the strain on these muscles as they aren’t typically used to this extent in other exercises.
The hands and forearms will also be challenged in this exercise because you’ll be lifting a heavier load than you normally would during the deadlift, meaning your grip will be working much harder to hold onto the bar.
Benefits of the rack pull
The rack pull is ideal for developing stronger hip and back extensors, especially the glutes and spinal erectors.
It also limits the amount of load placed upon the lower back due to the slightly more vertical setup than the conventional deadlift.
While loading the lower back is necessary for building strength in these muscles, the rack pull can be used to decrease training volume at certain points in the training cycle and will limit the amount of stress placed on the lower back without reducing the amount of weight you can lift.
It’s an ideal movement for people who struggle in the top-end of the deadlift, as they can use the rack pull to focus on their weak point within the movement.
The partial range of motion (top half of a deadlift) of the rack pull activates the trapezius and back muscles for two main reasons: the first being the heavier loads lifted, and secondly, the fact that the lifter is not as bent over meaning they’re less likely to use more of their quads, hamstrings, and glutes to assist the lift.
The rack pull is therefore ideal for lifters who are looking to increase their size and strength and are looking to achieve larger, fuller traps.
Ultimately, the rack pull is used to achieve a stronger deadlift, as most people can lift more with the rack pull. It can act as an overload exercise, which is a great way of increasing strength
The rack pull will also work your grip better than most other forearm or hand exercises, and it will add variety to your strength workout, helping to drive continued adaptations.
Drawbacks of the rack pull
One thing to bear in mind with the rack pull is that people can be tempted to increase their load too quickly, and with heavier weights, there is more risk of injury if your technique isn’t right.
As we said, the rack pull is an overload exercise, and these should be used sparingly to allow adequate recovery in between overload training.
The added weight can also be difficult for some lifters to handle as they lack strength in their hands to handle the overload.
In addition to this, the hands are far more likely to develop calluses and become rough than with the deadlift, though this can be treated with the use of hand cream and other products.
Lastly, this variation requires a squat rack, and if you’re not training at a commercial gym, you may not have one at home, making the rack pull less accessible than the deadlift.
There are a few common mistakes associated with the rack pull that you should be conscious of when performing this movement:
The barbell coming off your body
This should be avoided as if the barbell comes off the body your mid-back will start to round, compromising your spinal position.
Bouncing the barbell off the pins to gain momentum
By doing this, you might gain momentum but you won’t reap the benefits of the rack pull. Always pull from a dead stop.
Standing ‘back’ in the lockout
You should stand upright in the lockout position, however not to the extent where you’re leaning back beyond the vertical plane as this will increase stress on your lumbar region.
Lifting more weight than you can handle
It’s tempting to try to lift as much weight as possible, and, while it’s true that you’ll be able to lift more weight than with a regular deadlift, it’s still essential to focus on maintaining the correct form.
Rack pull: how-to
To perform a rack pull you’ll need a squat cage and safety pins.
- Start by setting the safety pins inside the squat cage so that the barbell is about knee-height.
- Place your hands on the barbell, positioning your hands just outside of your thighs and ensuring the barbell is on your body.
- Your shoulders should be positioned either slightly in front of the barbell or directly in line with it.
- Before you remove the barbell from the rack, squeeze your hands hard and tighten your lat muscles.
- To pull, forcefully drive your hips toward the bar.
- As you lock-out, push the shoulders back and squeeze your glutes.
- To finish, return the barbell to the rack, ensuring it comes to a dead stop before you repeat the movement.
What is a deadlift?
The deadlift is an extremely popular strength-building exercise and you’ll see it performed at every commercial gym, not just by competitive powerlifters but by any athlete looking to build strength.
The deadlift is especially popular because it can be applied to many real-world activities and sports, such as sprinting, jumping, and simply lifting heavy items from a bent-knee position to standing.
Unlike the rack pull, the deadlift makes use of a full range of motion, and due to this, it requires more knee extension, meaning the quads are activated to a greater extent.
Most people will lift less with a deadlift than with a rack pull, however, due to the greater range of motion, you’ll also be using more muscles to perform the action, which makes it a great compound exercise.
With the deadlift, weight is driven from the ground all the way to a fully locked out position so that the hips, back, and knees are all erect.
Muscles worked by the deadlift
As we said, the deadlift is a popular strength builder thanks to it being a top compound (multi-joint) exercise due to the number of muscles it works at once.
The deadlift is a great movement for targeting prime muscles such as the glutes, hamstrings, and lats, which are responsible for taking the brunt of the movement.
However, it also utilizes a range of synergistic and stabilizer muscles, which promote joint stability, prime mover strength, and control activation throughout various ranges of motion.
These muscles include gastrocnemius, soleus, obliques, rectus abdominis, spinal erectors, quads, traps, rhomboids, and the forearms.
How it differs from the rack pull
One of the key differences between the rack pull and the deadlift is the extent to which the quads are recruited. The quads are used much more in the deadlift as the knees are bent more to begin with, meaning the quads are forced to work harder to extend the knee.
However, a person’s limb lengths and mobility can also impact the extent to which the glutes and spinal erectors are recruited, depending on how bent over their torso is when starting the deadlift.
A longer-legged lifter is more likely to start the deadlift with a back angle that’s more parallel to the floor, causing them to recruit more spinal erectors and glutes as opposed to a lifter who has a more upright position.
Benefits of the deadlift
The deadlift is popular due to its being a compound exercise, meaning it targets multiple muscles, strengthening the musculature of your hip, thigh, and back.
As with other compound movements, this exercise is associated with several health benefits; for example, it’s been shown to reduce muscle loss in older adults, as well as increase bone density - something that’s important for those who perform contact-sports. As long as performed correctly, you can do compound exercises everyday to maximize their benefits.
The deadlift has even been used as an effective rehabilitation exercise for lower-limb surgeries and injuries.
Due to the recruitment of the quads, it’s been shown to improve jump performance in athletes.
It’s also a great exercise if you have a limited amount of time to work out. This is mainly because it targets many different muscles in one movement.
Drawbacks of the deadlift
The deadlift uses a greater range of movement than the rack pull, making it harder for those who lack mobility.
Like any compound movement, the deadlift requires a high level of motor control and awareness, meaning it’s not always an ideal movement for those who are new to the gym and weight lifting in general - this is where the rack pull can come in very handy.
Deadlift: how to
- To perform a deadlift your feet should be positioned underneath the barbell, about shoulder-width distance apart.
- When you bend over to grab the barbell, place your hands just outside of your shins.
- Bring your hips down to the start position, and as you do this, move your shins so that they touch the barbell
- Your shoulders should be either slightly in front of the barbell or positioned directly in line with it.
- Before you lift, tighten your lats, core, and erectors.
- Start lifting by extending the knees first and imagining that you’re ‘pushing the floor away.’
- The hips and barbell should rise at the same tempo.
- When the barbell is knee-height, drive your hips forward and push the shoulders back
- When your hips, knees, and shoulders are erect, the range of motion ends.
- Return the barbell to the floor and come to a dead stop. Then repeat!
As with the rack pull, there are a few common mistakes to avoid when performing the deadlift.
Starting with the shins not touching the barbell.
This should be avoided as it makes the lift harder to control.
Allowing the hips to rise up from the start position before the barbell leaves the floor.
This puts added pressure on your lower back and glutes.
Rounding your back
This compromises the integrity of your spine, which is why you should always pick a load that allows you to maintain the correct technical form.
Bending your arms
This puts unnecessary strain on your biceps, so try to keep your arms locked.
Now that we’ve taken you through the motions of both the rack pull and the deadlift, let’s once again revisit the similarities and differences between these two movements:
- Both are hip-hinge movements
- Both activate the glutes and spinal erectors
- Both are strength-building and mass-building exercises
- You can usually lift more weight with the rack pull rather than the deadlift
- The range of motion is shorter on the rack pull
- The deadlift is a more compounded movement, recruiting greater musculature in the thigh, hip, and back muscles
- Rack pull requires a squat cage and safety pins
- Hands are more likely to form calluses with the rack pull
- Quads are used much more in the deadlift as the knees are bent more to begin with
- Rack pull positions the lifter in a more vertical setup which limits the amount of loading placed upon the spinal erectors
- The deadlift has greater relevance to more real-world activities (jumping, sprinting, etc)
Which is best: deadlift or rack pull?
Neither one of these movements is better than the other, as they can both be used for different reasons and a mixture of the two can be beneficial for your training program.
Rack pulls can help increase your load due to the lower range of mobility, which means you can build up strength and eventually lift more with the regular deadlift.
Rack pulls can also be useful for people who haven’t quite mastered the deadlift, and they’re also a good way of increasing strength while limiting the range of mobility and the strain on the lower back.
However, the deadlift is a more compounded movement, so it recruits greater musculature in the thigh, hip, and back muscles, making it a popular exercise among many different athletes.
The deadlift also has a higher carryover to other sports movements as opposed to the rack lift, as the bending of the knees mimics many sports and real-world activities, from sprinting to jumping or lifting.
Both of these movements can help you build strength and increase your mass, and ideally, a combination of the two is useful, as this will mix up your routine and allow you to reap the benefits of both.
Programming the deadlift and rack pull into your training routine
One of the most common ways of programming both of these movements into your training is to perform deadlifts on your squat day and rack pulls on your back day.
Day 1: deadlift, squat, and other lower body exercises
Day 2: rack pull, pull-ups, and other back exercises
If you want to focus more on your glutes and back extensors, you can do rack pulls instead of deadlifts. However, if you choose to do this, it’s still a good idea to alternate between the movements to ensure you balance out the pros and cons of each.
For example, you could do 4-6 weeks of rack pulls, then switch to 4-6 weeks of deadlifts.
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