The rack pull is a deadlift variation that is widely used among powerlifters, bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and general fitness athletes. It’s also one of the go-to exercises that I program for my athletes because of its broad-reaching benefits.
So what’s the difference between the rack pull vs deadlift? The deadlift and rack pull are both hip-hinge movements, which activate the glutes and spinal erectors. While the deadlift is lifted from the floor, the rack pull is lifted from the rack at knee height. The rack pull is a shorter range of motion vs the deadlift, so you can usually lift more weight.
In this article, I’ll cover all of the details between these two exercises so you know how, why, and when to do them. I’ll also tell you what muscles are worked, the pros and cons, common technical mistakes, and frequently asked questions.
Let’s get started!
What Are Rack Pulls?
Rack pulls are a deadlift variation that focuses on the top-end range of motion. This is accomplished by setting up the barbell on the safety pins inside the squat cage. It is very similar to a block deadlift.
The pins are set up in such a way that prevents you from bringing the barbell to the floor. This means that the rack pull is a ‘partial range of motion’.
When performing a partial range of motion, the goal is to prioritize load over range of motion. Therefore, the goal of this exercise is to use greater loads than you otherwise would be able to do from the floor.
Most lifters will perform the rack pull from about knee height. This is a good starting point for most people. However, there are instances where you’ll see lifters pull from just below or above the knee, depending on the range of motion they want to target.
People will use the rack pull to develop stronger hip and back extensors, primarily the glutes and spinal erectors.
As well, if people struggle in the top-end of the deadlift, they will use the rack pull to focus on their weak point within the movement. The goal, for powerlifters at least, is to use the rack pull to ultimately get a stronger deadlift.
Check out my other article on how to develop a stronger lockout in the deadlift.
How To Do Rack Pulls
The rack pull is easy to set up, as long as you have a squat cage with safety pins available.
- Set the safety pins inside the squat cage so that the barbell rests at about knee height
- Grab the barbell just outside your thighs and make sure the barbell is on your body
- Position your shoulders so that they are either slightly in front of the barbell or directly inline
- Prior to pulling off the rack, squeeze your hands hard and tighten your lat muscles
- Initiate the pull by thinking about forcefull driving your hips toward the bar
- As you lock-out, drive your shoulders back and squeeze your glutes
- Return to the rack, but ensure the barbell comes to a dead stop before repeating
There are a few mistakes that you need to avoid when doing the rack pull:
- The barbell should not come off your body. If it does, your mid-back will likely start to round, which compromises your spinal position.
- You should not be bouncing the barbell off the pins to gain momentum. If you do this, then you won’t be getting the benefit of the exercise. Always pull from a dead stop.
- Stand upright in the lockout but not ‘back’. You don’t want to lean back beyond the vertical plane. This will put a lot of stress on your low back.
- Don’t be tempted to put on more weight than you can handle. Yes, you’ll be able to lift more weight than a regular deadlift, but you still need to focus on proper mechanics during a rack pull.
Rack Pull Muscles Worked
The muscles worked in the rack pull are:
- Adductor Magnus (inner thigh)
- Spinal erectors
The rack pull removes the knee extension from the normal deadlift.
This means that the rack pull revolves primarily around the hip joint only. As a result, the muscles that will be targetted are the ones primarily responsible for extending the hip. These are the glutes and adductor magnus.
The spinal erectors will be activated more or less depending on your torso angle at the start of the rack pull. More bent over = more spinal erectors. Less bent over (upright) = less spinal erectors.
The hamstrings are activated to a lesser extent compared with the other muscle groups. They will recruit if your other hip extensors (glutes and adductor magnus) are getting fatigued.
The lats, traps, and rhomboids will be active in order to keep the barbell close to your body the entire time. Most people doing the rack pull for the first time will feel these muscles the most because they aren’t typically stressed to this extent in other exercises.
The hands/forearms will also be challenged because you’ll be lifting a heavier load than you normally would during the deadlift, so your grip will be working much harder to hold onto the bar.
The rack pull is one of my recommended hack squat alternatives.
Rack Pull Benefits
There are several benefits to the rack pull:
- It can act as an overload exercise, which is an effective method for increasing strength
- It can target your area of weakness if you struggle in the top-end of the deadlift
- It can be a great exercise to target your glutes and back muscles
- It can provide a different training stimulus, which will drive continued adaptations
- It can work your grip better than most forearm or hand exercises
If you struggle with grip check out my article on HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR DEADLIFT GRIP
Rack Pull Cons
The drawbacks of the rack pull are:
- With heavier weights, there is more risk that something can go wrong if you don’t have proper technique
- Overload methods like the rack pull should be used sparingly because doing too much overload training can lead to a lack of recovery (for some people).
- Lifts can have a hard time holding onto the bar because their hands aren’t strong enough to handle the overload
- Even if people can hold onto the bar, their hands will develop more calluses than a regular deadlift (not a big deal with proper hand care)
- It requires a squat rack, which some people might not have access to
What Are Deadlifts?
The deadlift is a staple exercise in the gym.
While the deadlift is one of the competitive powerlifting movements, it’s also used by bodybuilders, bikini competitors, Olympic weightlifters, and just about any athlete looking to get stronger at their sport.
This is because the deadlift has broad application to real-world activities, including jumping, sprinting, and the ability to pick up objects from a bent knee position to standing.
Compared with the rack pull, the deadlift utilizes the full range of motion. It requires more knee extension than the rack pull, which means that the quads are activated to a greater extent, especially off the floor.
You might not be able to lift as much weight as the rack pull when deadlifting, but you’ll be utilizing more musculature to execute the movement, which makes it a great compound exercise.
The goal of the deadlift is to drive the weight from the ground to a fully locked out position where the hips, knees, and back are erect.
How To Do Deadlifts?
All you need to perform the deadlift is a barbell and plates:
- Set your feet underneath of the barbell at about shoulder-width distance
- Bend over to grab the barbell with your hands placed just outside your shins
- As you bring your hips down to the start position, move your shins to touch the barbell
- Ensure your shoulder position is either slightly in front of the barbell or directly inline
- Tighten your lats, core, and erectors prior to lifting from the floor
- To begin lifting, think about ‘pushing the floor away’ and extending from the knees first
- The hips and barbell should rise at the same tempo
- When the barbell gets to the knees, think about driving your hips forward and shoulders back
- The range of motion ends when your hips, knees, and shoulders are erect
- Return to the floor and come to a dead stop before repeating
Read why I only advocate for DEAD STOP DEADLIFTS VS. TOUCH-AND-GO
There are a few mistakes that you need to avoid when doing the deadlift:
- Avoid starting with the shins not touching the barbell. This will make the lift harder to control.
- Don’t have the hips rise up from the start position before the barbell leaves the floor. This will make it harder for your low back and glutes.
- Avoid rounding your back, as you’ll compromise the integrity of your spine. Always pick a load that allows you to maintain technical proficiency.
- Don’t bend your arms, as it will put unnecessary strain on your biceps. Keep your arms locked.
There are a lot more mistakes you’ll want to avoid. I recommend reading my article on DEADLIFT CUES to learn more.
Deadlifts Muscles Worked
The muscles worked in the deadlift are very similar to the rack pull:
- Adductor Magnus (Inner Thigh)
One important difference is that the quads are recruited to a much greater extent in the deadlift. This is because the knee is bent a lot more in the starting position, which requires the quads to work harder to extend the knee.
There is also one other consideration to make. Depending on a person’s limb lengths and mobility, a lifter may recruit glutes and spinal erectors more or less depending on how bent over their torso is when starting the deadlift.
If you’re a longer-legged lifter, you’ll likely need to start the deadlift with a back angle that’s more parallel to the floor. For these lifters, you’ll recruit more spinal erectors and glutes in the deadlift compared with someone who has a more upright position.
You can read more about the BEST BACK ANGLE FOR YOUR DEADLIFT (there are some great pictures in this article)
There are several benefits to the deadlift:
- It is is a compound exercise, making it one of your ‘big bang for your buck’ for strengthening the musculature of your hip, thigh, and back.
- It is a great exercise if you don’t have a lot of time to work out as it will recruit a lot of musculature in a short duration.
- It has been shown to improve jump performance in athletes
- It has been shown to reduce muscle loss in older adults
- It has been shown to increase bone density, which is important for contact sports
- It has been used as an effective rehabilitation exercise following lower-limb surgeries
The drawbacks of the deadlift are:
- It requires greater mobility than the rack deadlift, which for people who lack natural mobility may be a barrier to starting. You can read about how to improve your deadlift mobility HERE.
- Any compound movement is going to require high levels of motor control and body awareness. If you’re completely new to the gym, this might not be the best exercise to learn first.
How To Program Rack Pulls and Deadlifts?
There are several ways that you can program the rack pull and deadlift depending on your goals, whether you’re a powerlifter, bodybuilder, or another type of strength athlete.
However, a common way to program both of these movements is to put your deadlifts on your squat day and the rack pulls on your back day.
Here’s how I would structure it for most gym-goers:
|DAY 1 – DEADLIFT||DAY 2 – RACK PULL|
Other lower body exercises
|Rack Pull |
Other back exercises
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Do Rack Pulls Instead of Deadlifts?
Yes, you can do rack pulls instead of deadlifts. You would consider this option if you want to focus more on your glutes and back extensors. However, if you’re going to choose one movement over the other, I would do 4-6 weeks of rack pulls, then 4-6 weeks of deadlifts so that you offset the pros/cons of each movement.
Is a Rack Pull and Partial Deadlift The Same Thing?
A rack pull is a type of partial deadlift, but not all partial deadlifts are rack pulls. Partial deadlifts refer to several exercises that reduce the range of motion of the deadlift. A partial deadlift can also include: Romanian deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts, and block deadlifts,
You can read my breakdown of the ROMANIAN DEADLIFT VS DEADLIFT, which is another partial deadlift.
Are Rack Pulls For Strength or Mass?
The rack pull can be used for both strength and mass. The type of exercise doesn’t determine whether it’s for strength or mass though. The sets, reps, load, and rest used will determine the adaptation. As a general rule of thumb, if you want to build strength, focus on lower reps, and if you want to build mass, focus on higher reps. Select a load that is challenging for the rep range prescribed.
Are Rack Pulls Better Than Deadlifts?
No, rack pulls are not better than deadlifts. Neither is inherently better than the other as it will depend on your training goal. However, the deadlift is a more compounded movement, which recruits greater musculature in the thigh, hip, and back muscles. In addition, the deadlift will also have higher carryover to other sport movements vs. the rack pull.
Both the rack pull and deadlift have similar characteristics, both being hip hinge movement and recruiting multiple muscle groups throughout the entire body. Each exercise should be used in a well-rounded training program in order to offset the pros and cons of each exercise. Whether you’re doing rack pulls or deadlifts, ensure that you’re holding yourself to a high technical standard and never sacrifice technique for heavier weight.
If you’re interested in learning more, I have several articles discussing the deadlift, including: