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December 17, 2021
The rack pull is a misunderstood exercise that's sure to garner different opinions on its merits depending on who you ask. If you ask us, the rack pull lends to some fantastic benefits in building more muscle and overall strength pulling when done correctly. In this post, we cover what rack pulls are and how to do them properly while avoiding common mistakes. We also explain the muscles used and give you 7 rack pull variations to incorporate into your training program.
A rack pull is a hip-hinge compound movement that resembles the top half of a deadlift. The rack pull doesn't have a fixed starting point as most other exercises do. Depending on the training goal, you can do a rack pull from various starting points. In some cases, it's beneficial to set up the bar at a high shin level, whereas in others, a higher starting point of just above the knees or even mid-thigh. Regardless of the starting position, the execution remains the same, lifting the weight until you’re standing upright with a neutral spine.
The rack pull and the deadlift are compound hip hinge exercises that primarily target the spinal erectors and the glutes. The significant difference is the range of motion or ROM. With a deadlift, you start with the weight on the floor, whereas the rack pull begins at an elevated height. With the rack pull, you have a shorter ROM; therefore, you'll likely lift heavier loads.
SHOULD YOU DO RACK PULLS OR DEADLIFTS?
We think that deadlifts should be one of the significant components of your training as they are one-fourth of the big four compound lifts next to squat, bench press, and overhead press. That said, rack pulls can be a great accessory exercise that you mix into your workout for specific benefits we cover below. In addition, rack pulls can always be an option for people with mobility or pain issues that prevent them from doing deadlifts that require moving through the entire ROM.
Rack pulls are a surprisingly powerful compound move requiring you to execute it perfectly to get the most benefits. Before you get started, you need to make sure you have the equipment to pull off this exercise.
You'll need the following:
Here's a step-by-step on how to do rack pulls safely and effectively:
Rack pulls can be a fantastic exercise when done right. However, people make a few common mistakes when doing rack pulls.
Try out the quick fix tips to iron out your technique if you think any of these issues might apply to you.
Lifting Too Heavy: The rack pull might be the number one exercise when it comes to lifters adding far too heavy weights than they can handle properly. Even though the rack pull has a shorter ROM than a deadlift, and the main point is to lift heavy loads, you need to be mindful of when heavy becomes too heavy.
How to Fix: Reduce the weight a bit to perform the rack pull in a controlled motion with proper form.
Rounding Back: This issue of improper form most likely stems from using a load that's too heavy for you to handle correctly. When performing rack pulls, your shoulders should be down and back to avoid putting too much tension and pressure on your neck and thoracic outlet.
How to Fix: Lower weight a bit and make sure your shoulders are retracted throughout the movement as the bar travels up your body.
Dropping Weights: Another common mistake we see is when people let the bar almost drop from the top of the movement. Once you finish locking out the lift, you should lower the bar to touch the rack, don't let it bounce up. Sometimes this bounce back creates momentum to assist with the next rep; we don't want that.
How to Fix: Lower the weight until it hits the rack but make sure you control the movement. You might need to do rest-pause sets where you pause briefly at the bottom before lifting the next rep.
Hyperextending Back: The top ROM in a rack pull is where your spine is in a neutral position, and your knees are locked out. People tend to hyperextend at the top of the rack pull where they lean back too far, thus transferring excess pressure on the lower back and erector spinae.
How to Fix: Stop the movement at the top once you're standing up straight.
Even though rack pulls involve a smaller ROM, they still require several muscles to work in unison to perform correctly. So, let's briefly look at the primary muscles used when doing rack pulls and their function within the movement.
Trapezius: AKA the traps is the large back muscle that starts at the base of the skull and travels down to the lower thoracic vertebrae, then laterally to the spine of the scapula. The primary function of the trapezius is to support head movement, shrug shoulders, and pull them down and back. The traps work hard to support and stabilize the heavy load when the rack pulls. To build massive traps, the rack pull is a perfect exercise.
Erector Spinae: This group of lower back muscles and tendons run the entire length of the back on both sides of the spine from the sacrum (lower back) up to the base of the skull. The erector spinae is also referred to as the sacrospinalis group, spinal erectors and lower back muscles. The primary functions of the erector spinae are stabilization of the upper body, side to side rotation of the trunk and lateral extension and flexion. During rack pulls the erector spinae support hip flexion, enabling you to straighten up your spine.
Glutes: The gluteal muscles are comprised of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. The star of the show is the gluteus maximus which is the largest muscle in the body. The primary functions of the gluteus maximus are providing stability to keep our body upright and hip extension to enable movements like walking or standing up. Other functions are external hip rotation to move your legs out laterally to the side and hip adduction and abduction to open and close the legs. The gluteus maximus is the primary mover to enable hip extension when doing rack pulls.
Hamstrings: The hamstrings consist of three muscles on the backside of the upper thigh. The biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus create the hamstrings. The primary functions of the hamstrings include hip hyperextension, hip extension, and knee flexion. In addition, your hamstrings play a small role in doing rack pulls in supporting hip flexion. However, if you start with the weight at a lower height below your knees, the more your hamstrings will be engaged to lift the load up.
Quadriceps: Located opposite the hamstrings on the front of the thigh, the quads are comprised of four muscles; the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris. The major function of the quad muscles is to extend the knee while they also assist in stabilizing the patella (kneecap) and support hip flexion. The quads aren't a primary mover when performing rack pulls, but they are activated towards the top of the movement when you go to lock-out. Similarly, to hamstrings, if you do rack pulls from a lower height, the quads will be engaged to a greater degree.
Build Stronger Grip: As long as you're not using wrist straps, the rack pull can be an excellent exercise to build up your grip strength. Generally speaking, rack pulls are done with heavier weights than you would do a standard deadlift with. Holding this heavier load while performing this compound exercise will torch your forearms. You can also do rack pulls with a mixed grip to improve your grip strength.
Strengthen Back & Glutes: The rack pull is a fantastic exercise to hit the back, glutes, spinal erectors, and stabilizers. While performing this hip-hinging movement, you're relying on the glutes to produce the majority of the force needed for full hip extension. This is a great way to hit the glutes without moving through a wide range of motion. The back, mostly involving the traps to supports the load as the erector spinae provides the power to extend the spine and bring you to an upright position.
Overload Muscles Easier: One of the most vital aspects of gaining strength and muscle is through progressive overload. Rack pulls enable you to lift heavier weight, stimulating the central nervous system to release more muscle-building hormones throughout your body.
Improve Deadlift Lock-Out: The rack pull is the top portion of a deadlift; by practicing this in this shorter range of motion, you can work on locking out the weight where your spine will come into a neutral position.
Great For People with Limited Mobility: Unlike the deadlift, the rack pull doesn't move your entire body through a full range of motion. This can be beneficial for someone who has lower back, hip, or knee mobility limitations.
May Be Better for People with Back Pain: Moving through a much short ROM puts less overall stress on the back. If you have back pain, rack pulls probably aren't the best exercise to be doing, but they should be less compromising than doing full-on deadlifts.
Can Lead to Injury: You could potentially injure yourself if you do rack pull without proper technique or form. This is where one of the advantages of rack pulls can lead to a disadvantage. By using a weight that's too heavy for your body, certain regions may be at risk of injury. A common injury with rack pulls is that they put too much pressure on the thoracic outlet (nerve, arteries, and veins bundle running down neck, under clavicle to your arm).
Encouragement of Lifting Too Heavy: Performing rack pulls with more weight than you should be using can lead to injuries, incorrect form, or force you to use wrist straps. By trying to load the bar up with too much weight, you might actually be negating most of the benefits that it has to offer. Be reasonable with weight selection!
Requires Specialized Equipment: Rack pulls require a barbell or Smith machine plus a rack that elevates the loaded bar. If working out at home or in a gym without a rack, setting up this exercise properly might be challenging.
Most people might believe rack pulls are only meant to lift as heavy as possible to overload the muscles. This is somewhat true, but you can program rack pulls into your workout in a few ways to get the most from this exercise.
By making minor adjustments to body positioning and/or equipment, you can change how the rack pulls targets muscles in your body. The following rack pull variations can be mixed into your regular workout program to keep things fresh and challenging.
1. HIGH RACK PULLS
High rack pulls are when you start with the bar at mid-upper thigh level. With this variation of the rack pull, you should be able to lift to the heaviest load as the ROM is very small, in some cases just a few inches. When doing high rack pulls, you'll follow the same cues, the only difference being the starting point. This is a great variation to specifically hit your back muscles and mainly the traps as your glutes are almost removed from the equation.
2. SMITH MACHINE RACK PULL
This variation of the traditional rack pull can also enable you to lift heavier loads as you don't need to engage smaller stabilizing muscles to keep the bar moving in a straight path. Smith machine exercises usually won't lead to the same amount of overall muscle activation. Still, they will allow you to go to failure and lift heavy weight, which are two components that create the volume needed to realize progressive overload thus leading to strength and muscle gains. Follow the same cues as a standard rack pull.
3. ISOMETRIC RACK PULL
This exercise is incredible to work similar muscles to a standard rack pull without ROM. This isometric exercise is used to test athletes' power and strength without doing 1RM; you can see how it's used for testing purposes here. Isometric rack pulls can be an excellent alternative for rehabbing an injury or those who can't perform deadlifts of rack pulls due to pain. This version of the rack pull can also improve your deadlift by strengthening the beginning phase of the deadlift. If you start with the bar lower relative to your body, your hips should be down and back; this resembles the positioning of pulling the bar from the ground during a deadlift. Start with the barbell under the rack or safety stoppers to perform this exercise. Then pull up on the bar as if you were doing a rack pull. Hold this position for 5-10 seconds.
4. WIDE GRIP RACK PULL
Wide grip rack pulls will emphasize the traps more than the standard rack pull. Sometimes called snatch-grip rack pulls, this variation requires you to grip the bar out wide to your sides, thus increasing the ROM. The amount of weight you'll be using should be lower than a regular rack pull. Follow the same form cues except for the hand placement, which can be around 1.5 times wider than shoulder width.
5. SUMO RACK PULL
The sumo rack pull is a variation that hits the glutes and legs more than a regular rack pull as your back starts in a more neutral position. This can be an excellent exercise to help improve a sumo deadlift's top lock-out phase. To perform a sumo rack pull, simply widen your stance and point your toes outwards slightly at 20-25 degrees, then follow the same form cues of a standard rack pull.
6. ASSISTED RACK PULLS
This variation of the rack pull is the opposite of the previous exercise. You will set the bands up above head on the rack pegs to help with the lift. The reason for doing reverse band rack pulls is to help you like the at the bottom of the movement; then, as the band collects more slack, the tension of the load is transferred back to the lifter. Powerlifters and bodybuilders use this method sometimes to help them get out of the more dangerous phases of certain lifts, such as the bottom of the squat or bench press.
7. BANDED RACK PULLS
Performing rack pulls with a barbell and resistance bands can challenge you in new ways. The set-up method requires you to have a power rack, squat rack, or Smith machine to attach loop the resistance bands on pegs close to the floor. To execute resistance band deadlifts, you follow the same form cues. The biggest difference in using the resistance bands versus weight plates is that as the bands stretch, the resistance level increases, making the top part of the movement more challenging than the beginning portion. This difference in strength curve can lead to new muscle fiber recruitment, thus more gains.
Related: Resistance Band Training e-Guide
ARE RACK PULLS EFFECTIVE?
Yes, rack pulls can be an effective exercise to build muscle mass in the back and glutes while improving grip strength. However, if you can do deadlifts, you should not abandon them and replace them with rack pulls. Instead, you should switch up your training at least every macrocycle or mesocycle; this good is a good chance to throw rack pulls into the mix.
HOW LOW SHOULD RACK PULLS BE?
The height of the starting point in a rack pull will be dependent on your training goal. If you want to hit the hamstrings and glutes more, set the bar below your knees. To focus on the back and glutes set the bar just above the knees. Want to blast the traps? Set the bar at your mid-thighs.
ARE RACK PULLS BAD FOR THE LOWER BACK?
Rack pulls could be bad for your lower back if you're hyperextending your back while doing them or if you have a lower back injury before attempting them. As always, get clearance from your doctor first if you have any condition or injury before starting to work out again. On the other hand, rack pulls can be an effective way of rehabbing a lower back injury as the ROM is smaller; you could start at high rack pulls and work your way lower as your mobility and injury improve.
The rack pull has its place in a well-balanced strength and hypertrophy training program as there are many benefits from doing this hip hinge exercise. You can build some tremendous traps, a strong lower back, powerful glutes, and a giant's grip if you add proper rack pulls into your repertoire; just don't let your ego get the best of you!
Related: Best Barbell Back Exercises
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