Fitness

Rack Pulls vs Deadlift: Which is a Better Exercise?

Rack pulls and regular deadlifts are two popular compound movements used by bodybuilders and powerlifters. The rack pull is actually a partial range variation of the deadlift that offers unique benefits to the lifter. A lot of guys are confused as to which deadlift movement delivers more bang for the buck. In this article, I put rack pulls and deadlifts head to head to see which one you should use to achieve the training goals that you are after.

Rack Pulls

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius
  • Gluteus Maximus
  • Hamstrings
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Rhomboids
  • Rectus Femoris
  • Quadriceps

Pros

  • Targets weak points in deadlift movement
  • Overloads the upper back and trapezius muscles
  • Allows for heavier weight to be lifted
  • Better for people with lower spinal issues
  • Strengthens the lockout portion of the deadlift.

Cons

  • More potential for improper form resulting in injury
  • May encourage the user to go too heavy
  • Requires a power rack or squat rack
  • Shorter range of motion
  • Harder to maintain a strong grip

How to Do It

There are two versions of the rack pull, each of which focuses on a different partial range of motion of the deadlift: the rack pull below the knees and the rack pull above the knees. Here is the technique for each of these partial deadlift variations. 

Knee Rack Pull 

  • In a power rack, place safety pins below knee level near the middle of your shins. 
  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and grab the bar with an alternate grip.
  • Squat down to the bar, chest up, arms straight, back flat, and your head and eyes straight ahead. 
  • Inhale and begin pulling the weight straight up close to the body, pushing your thighs forward as the bar passes the knees. Keep your chest up, straightening your legs as you pull the weight to the completion. 
  • Lower the weight by bending, retracing the path the bar traveled up. 

Training Tips: Keep your hips down. Pull the weight up rather than jerking it. Keep a flat back; do not round it. To make the exercise more intense, you can add bands or chains to the bar. This is a great extra exercise for deadlifters who struggle to get the weight off the floor.

Rack Pull Above the Knees

  • In a power rack, place safety pins above the knees. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, chest up, back flat and knees bent. 
  • Using an alternate grip, grab the bar at arm’s length outside the legs. Keep your head and eyes straight ahead.
  • Inhale and pull the weight up against the thighs. Keep your chest up. Straighten your legs to complete the lift. When standing erect, your arms should be straight. 
  • Lower the weight, bending the knees, keeping your chest up, and exhaling as the weight returns to the rack. 

Training Tips: This movement is short, so your load should be heavier than your deadlift but not to the point at which you cannot lift the weight for repetitions. You can add bands or chains to make the exercise harder. 

Mistakes to Avoid

The biggest mistake that people make on the rack pull is to load the weight beyond what they are capable of using with proper form. You can use heavier loads because of the shorter range of motion but should not go so heavy that the proper body mechanics are compromised.

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The weight should travel up your body through the movement. Do not allow it to move away from the body as this will indicate rounding of the back, which you definitely do not want. 

Make sure that the barbell comes to a dead stop between each rep. You must not bounce the bar off the pins as this will bring in momentum and rob your body of the exercise’s benefits.

When doing the rack pull above the knees, lockout in the top of the exercise but do not lean back. Doing so is bad news for your spinal column!

Deadlifts

https://youtube.com/watch?v=hCDzSR6bW10%3Ft%3D12s

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius
  • Gluteus Maximus
  • Hamstrings
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Rhomboids
  • Rectus Femoris
  • Quadriceps

Pros

  • Works entire body
  • Functional strength development
  • More suitable for beginners
  • No power rack needed
  • Develops grip strength
  • Burns a lot of calories

Cons

  • Physically exhausting
  • Requires greater hip mobility
  • Does not allow focus on sticking points

How to Do It

Starting Position:

  • Place a loaded Olympic bar on the floor in front of you.
  • Position yourself in front of the bar by placing the balls of your feet under the bar. Your toes should be pointed straight ahead or slightly out. Your shins should be close to the bar or touching it. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, so that the outside of your leg is at the smooth part where the bar and knurling meet.
  • Get into the downward position. Your head should be straight, chest up with a flat back and arms stretched down and reaching for the bar.
  • At the initial pull, the hips should be higher than the knees.
  • Grab the bar just outside your legs, or grab where the knurling begins and the smooth part of the bar ends.
  • Use an alternate grip in which one palm faces forward toward the body and the other faces away. This stabilizes the bar, keeping it close to the body and preventing it from rolling out of your hands.

Beginning the Pull:

  • Before starting the pull, take the slack out of the bar by pulling on it through your arms, chest, and shoulders. Remember that the legs and hips, not the arms, are doing the pulling.
  • Inhale. Squeeze the bar and push your feet and legs against the floor.
  • Raise your hips, shoulders, and chest at the same time as the bar leaves the floor.
  • The bar should travel in a straight line. The closer the bar is to the body, the easier the lift.
  • Once the bar passes over the knees, push the thighs forward and pull the shoulders up and back until the legs are straight; knees are locked. Arms are straight and shoulders are slightly back. In the top position, you are standing erect.

Lowering the Weight:

  • Lower the weight in a controlled manner.
  • Flex at the knees and hips, letting the bar travel down the same path it came up.
  • Keep the bar close to your body.
  • Keep your back flat and keep your head up.
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Mistakes to Avoid

Of all the errors in deadlift form I see with the conventional deadlift, rounding of the back as you pull the weight from the floor is the biggest. When you round the back, you severely compromise the integrity of your lower spine and overload the erector spinae muscles. The reason for this back rounding is usually because the weight is too heavy. Heavy weights have their place, but not at the expense of proper form with deadlifts. 

Another common problem with the traditional deadlift is bending of the arms as you perform the first third of the upward pull. Your arms should remain locked out throughout the entire movement. If you bend at the elbow you will be placing way too much stress on your biceps. A lot of people end up tearing their biceps muscle off the bone while deadlifting because they do not lock out the arms!

Poor form is also seen on the conventional deadlift when guys bring the hips up before the bar comes off the floor. This will compromise the natural movement of the gluteus maximus and erector spinae muscles. A final problem I see with the conventional deadlift is the lack of full range of motion where the person stops short of full body extension. 

Rack Pulls vs Deadlift: Which Exercise is Better?

When it comes to the deadlift and the rack pull it shouldn’t really be a choice between one and the other. You should consider the traditional bench press to be your go-to deadlift variation with the rack pull being added as an accessory exercise if you need to work on a weak point on the traditional deadlift, whether that be the initial pull from the floor (in which case you will add the rack pull below the knees) or the final third of the exercise (in which case you will ad the rack pull above the knees).

If you are a bodybuilder who wants to focus on the target muscles of the gluteus maximus and erector spinae muscles, you should use the rack pull in preference to the traditional deadlift. However, for overall muscle development, muscle size, and muscle strength, the standard deadlift is the more effective exercise. The full range of motion deadlift will also create more of an anabolic effect, promoting an increase in the muscle-building hormones testosterone and human growth hormone.

If you do choose to prioritize one of these deadlift versions over the other, my recommendation is to follow a 6-week training program with that version and then go to the other version.

In addition to these regular deadlifts and rack pulls, you should also include the following types of deadlifts in your overall training routine:

  • Romanian Deadlifts
  • Stiff Leg Deadlifts
  • Block Pull
  • Trap Bar Deadlift

It is impossible to state which of these two exercises is better. That’s because it all depends on what your goal is when training. Too often, guys forget about what their goals are. As a result, they choose exercises and weight loads that are not appropriate for what they are actually trying to achieve. 

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If your goal is muscular development, the deadlift should be part of your workout routine. It has been time-tested to be a superior mass and strength builder. If you are a competitive powerlifter who is primarily interested in building strength then you need to be doing a lot of deadlifting as this exercise is one of the 3 that you will be doing in competition. The rack pull should be a supplementary exercise in your training routine.

Which is Better for Strength Gains?

When it comes to the question of strength gains, the actual exercise takes secondary importance to your set and rep range. Both of these exercises will allow you to build strength when performed for multiple sets of between 4 and 6 reps. Give yourself 2-3 minutes between sets to allow for full strength recovery between sets. 

Conclusion

The Rack Pull vs Deadlift debate comes out as a draw. Rather than viewing them as competitors, you should view these two exercises as being complementary to each other. Use the standard deadlift as your main compound exercise for the back and glutes, with the rack pull version being added as a supplementary exercise to work on your weak points or to better target the erector spinae and glutes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you do rack pulls instead of deadlifts?

Yes, rack pulls can be done instead of deadlifts. You should choose the rack pull if you are specifically training to develop your glutes and erector spinae muscles. However, I recommend alternating back and forth between the two exercises, every 6-8 weeks. 

You can also do the rack pull to bring up your deadlift weaknesses. However, if you are doing this, you should also be doing the standard deadlift at least once every two weeks. I recommend doing supplementary rack pulls twice per week.

Are rack pulls and Romanian deadlifts the same?

No, the rack pull and Romanian deadlift are not the same things. With the Romanian deadlift, your feet are closer together, and you are using an overhand grip. You start the movement by pushing your hips back and flexing at the hips. You start in a standing position and slide the bar down your legs until mid-shin level. Like the rack pull, the Romanian deadlift targets the glutes and spinal erectors but it places more emphasis on the hamstrings. 

Should you rack pull more than you deadlift?

Yes, you should be able to rack pull more than you deadlift. That is because you are moving through a shorter range of motion. You also cut out the hardest part of the exercise, which is pulling the bar off the floor. A mistake many people make, however, is using too much weight on the rack pull. This forces them to use bad form, which can lead to injury. As a general guide, you should be using between 10-15 percent more on the rack pull than the conventional deadlift. Always make sure that your heavier lifts are under control and done with perfect form.

Steve Theunissen

Steve Theunissen is a former gym owner and personal trainer based in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness, and fat loss.

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