Rack pulls are one of the many exercises you might consider a deadlift variation. It’s characterized by its much shorter range of motion, often around knee height, and allowing you to lift heavier weights than the traditional deadlift, which can help you break through plateaus.
But how do you perform rack pulls with proper form? And how much weight can you lift without putting yourself at risk of injury? We’ll discuss that as we cover rack pulls, muscles worked, benefits, variations, and more.
Rack Pull Muscles Worked
The rack pull is a compound exercise. As such, it works multiple muscle groups in the body and can technically be considered a full-body movement. But since most of the focus is on the lower body and the posterior chain, we’d only recommend you add rack pulls to a lower body split.
Here are the muscles worked by the rack pull, starting with the primary movers and then moving on to the secondary muscles worked.
The gluteus muscles, or glutes for short, are the butt muscles. And since performing rack pulls follows the usual deadlift stance but with a partial range of motion, it’s no surprise that the glutes are the primary movers here.
However, because of the reduced range of motion, most of the load is on the glutes instead of the hamstrings and lower back muscles.
Also, this partial deadlift movement allows you to load many more weight plates than you would in a conventional deadlift, so you can go with heavy loads to up the intensity on your glutes.
Hamstrings are the muscles in the back of your thigh. In a conventional deadlift, they work on hip extension and knee flexion as you get the weight off the ground. As such, they receive more activation the lower your bar is on the rack since that’s when there’s more range of motion.
But even at knee height during rack pulls, your hamstrings get a good amount of activation.
The erector spinae (or erectors) are your lower back muscles. In the conventional deadlift form, they keep your spine straight and stabilize your back while helping you lift the weight off the ground.
In the regular deadlift, most erector activation happens during the lower half of the concentric movement. But since the rack pull takes that part out of the exercise, there isn’t as much activation.
Still, your erectors keep your spine extended during rack pulls, so they get a decent pump during the lift, especially if you use a heavy load during the exercise.
The quadriceps (quads) are the muscles on the front of the thigh, and they’re responsible for knee extension. Again, they don’t get as much activation during a rack pull as a traditional deadlift, but they still work to straighten your legs until they’re fully locked.
Traps & Lats
Your trapezius muscles (traps) and latissimus dorsi (lats) are your upper back muscles. If you follow proper rack pull form with your shoulder blades retracted and back tight, your traps and lats will keep you stable during the movement.
These muscle groups are secondary movers in the rack pull. However, since you can load the barbell with more weight than in deadlifts, you can give your upper back muscles some decent activation.
Forearm muscles are smaller muscles responsible for grip strength. As a result, they play a massive role in deadlift form exercises to keep you holding the bar. And since the barbell rack pull is typically performed with even more weight than the regular deadlift, your forearms are heavily activated in the movement.
How to Perform the Rack Pull
As with any exercise, proper form is key to getting the most out of your effort while avoiding injury. And with a movement that involves heavy loads like the rack pull, you need to pay extra attention because the weight creates a high amount of intensity.
So let’s go to the squat rack, power rack, or whatever makeshift lift is at your disposal and see how to perform rack pulls.
Bar Height on the Power Rack
Rack pulls can be performed at various heights depending on your goals. You can choose whether you start a little lower than the knees, exactly at knee height, or at a higher starting position.
The lower you go with the bar, the more your rack pulls resemble the deadlift form. As such, lower lifts create more tension on the lower back muscles and the two major thigh muscle groups (hamstrings and quads). In contrast, higher starting positions are good if you want to focus on your glutes, even though the other muscles still work in the movement.
Another important point regarding intensity is the difficulty. Rack pulls from lower heights are harder, so you’ll likely do them with more moderate loads. Meanwhile, a more raised position allows you to lift much heavier.
Lastly, consider your personal sticking points with the conventional deadlift when adjusting the bar height. For instance, ask yourself which part of the deadlift you struggle with the most, and start from that position to train yourself at it.
The rack pull starting position is fairly similar to that of the traditional deadlift but with some elevation. So once you have your bar at your desired height, load it up with your weight plates and stand close to it with your feet shoulder-width apart. You can also slightly point your toes outward if it’s more comfortable.
To reach the bar, bend your knees, flex your hips, keep your head straight, and maintain a neutral spine. A natural way to maintain a good posture is to look ahead of you throughout each rep.
The most common grip for rack pulls is an overhand grip (palms facing toward your body). However, you can use a mixed grip (one underhand and one overhand) or a hook grip.
Now, tighten your core and take a deep breath before you lift the bar.
Again, the technique with concentric movement is similar to that of the deadlift. Once you’re in the correct position, hold well onto the bar (grip strength is essential here!) and raise yourself by straightening your knees and driving your hips forward.
Most of your upper body muscle groups shouldn’t play a role here, so keep the bar close to your body and focus on lower body movement and posture. And don’t let your back curve forward, as that could cause serious injury.
Once your legs are straight and you’re at the top of the movement, keep your shoulders retracted and hold it there for a second.
You don’t want to drop the bar at this stage since that can damage the rack or the bar itself. Instead, it’s better to get back into the starting position in a more controlled manner.
To do so, slowly bend your knees and flex your hips to lower the barbell until it’s stable on the rack. Again, your back and neck should stay neutral, so keep looking ahead to avoid discomfort, pain, or injury.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Knowing the common mistakes people make when performing rack pulls is always good, as it’ll help you avoid them in your workouts. So here are the most common three we’ve come across.
Using the Wrong Muscles
When you’re training rack pulls, the main focus is on your posterior chain muscles. It’s a great exercise to develop that area, especially your glutes. But some people use their arms and other upper body muscles to cheat their way to the top of the rep.
Your arms and upper body should be firm but never let them take over the work, as that defeats the purpose of rack pulls and could lead to injury if you’re lifting heavy.
Lifting Too Heavy
It’s true that rack pulls allow you to lift much heavier than most other exercises. Most people who’ve been to the gym for a while could probably lift hundreds of pounds off the bat.
However, going too heavy to the point of discomfort and poor form will negatively affect you, especially since it’ll likely be a weight that you can’t get off the ground without a rack. Not to mention the stress it’ll put on your forearm muscles, which can lead to spasms or tears.
Our advice is to start at a moderate load and gradually increase it until you find a weight that’s comfortable to handle while still being challenging.
Poor Shoulder Posture
You should retract your shoulders throughout the whole movement. Some people mistakenly protract their shoulders or elevate them in a shrug-like position, but this will strain your body over time and lead to immense discomfort.
To keep your shoulders retracted, imagine trying to make your shoulder blades touch at each end while you’re lifting, but don’t force it too hard, either.
Benefits of Rack Pulls
Here are some ways that adding rack pulls to your training program can benefit you in and out of the gym.
Complementing the Traditional Deadlift
If you struggle with deadlifts, you can work on them using rack pulls by starting with the bar at a similar height to your sticking point. That way, you train the muscles that usually struggle at that point without committing to the entire lift.
Working the Posterior Chain Muscles
Since the rack pull is a compound exercise, you can use it to stimulate multiple muscle groups simultaneously, which is always an efficient way to train. And although the primary muscles worked are the glutes, most other major groups work to an extent as well.
Improving Grip Strength
The main motif of rack pulls is lifting heavy. And since you’ll use your hands to anchor these immense weights, your forearms will experience decent muscle growth, improving your grip strength.
Rack Pull Variations & Alternatives
Before we wrap up, let’s look at some variations and alternatives of the rack pull if you’re interested in ways to incorporate a similar movement.
Isometric Rack Pull
Isometric training is underrated, most likely because it doesn’t involve lifting heavy weights as we’d expect in any strength training program. However, it’s a great tool to create muscle tension and improve endurance.
To perform an isometric rack pull, grab an empty barbell and hold it under the rack, not above it. You can also control it under the safety bars at your desired height. Next, grip it and maintain the same posture as you would in a regular barbell rack pull.
While holding firmly onto the bar, lift it with full force as if you’re trying to raise the entire rack. Keep trying to pull up for 30-60 seconds or until you reach failure.
Single Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift
The kettlebell sumo deadlift is a very similar movement to the rack pull. The main differences are that the starting position is closer to mid-shin height and the hands are closer.
So if you regularly do rack pulls in the gym, and you want to take the exercise with you on vacation, you can do so with a single large kettlebell in the trunk of your car.
You can also use the trap bar deadlift for a similar movement, but we prefer the single dumbbell sumo deadlift for its portability.
Exercises like the rack pull often get unnecessary flak from gym elitists for being “unnecessary.” In reality, the rack pull can be a powerful tool to work on weak areas in your deadlifts and shift more focus to the glutes muscles.
However, you need to pay extra attention to your technique when doing rack pulls since you’ll likely lift heavier weights than most other exercises. So get familiar with a lower weight and scale up once you’re comfortable with it.