September 07, 2021 10 min read

The conventional deadlift is done in two stages: there’s the first part below the knees and then the remainder above the knees. If you don’t drop the bar, you’ll repeat the first section in reverse to put it back down on the ground. 

Lifters can focus on either stage of deadlifting with rack pulls, which are done with the barbell resting on a power rack, squat rack, or squat cage. Depending on where you set the barbell, you can run through reps of a deadlift with the bar above your knees or below the knees.

Rack pulls and deadlifts each have their own benefits. They target certain muscles and can be used in a monthly workout plan to get some serious functional strength gains. Read on to find out everything you need to know about rack pulls and deadlifts so you can use both in your long-term fitness plan.

Rack Pulls vs Deadlift: Muscles Worked

Deadlifting is a famous powerlifting move that works out muscle groups all over the body. Although the bulk of the strain is concentrated in the core and lower body, deadlifts also activate muscles in your upper body such as the shoulders, arms, and wrists.

man doing deadlifts in a gym

The entire posterior chain is worked out with deadlifting. Since your spinal erectors and lower back muscles build strength via regular deadlifts, your posture and ability to support a large amount of weight with your back.

Specifically, the following muscles and muscle groups are targeted when you perform deadlifts with the proper form:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Rectus Femoris
  • Quadriceps
  • Latissimus dorsi

Rack pulls are kind of like doing a partial deadlift. The same muscles that are activated during a regular deadlift see activation during rack pulls as well, although they go through a shorter range of motion.

But since you aren’t going through the full range of motion of a traditional deadlift, you can use heavier loads during a rack pull. And since you’re only performing a partial range of motion, you can concentrate the strain and increase hypertrophy in particular muscles.

Your inner thigh muscles, gluteus maximus, forearms, wrists, and spinal erectors will also build more muscle mass and performative strength handling heavier weight during rack pulls.

Benefits of Deadlifts

The deadlift is a compound movement that’s good for more than just building strength. It also improves posture and stability in your core and back muscles. The goal is to train your entire body to work together and direct your strength toward certain tasks, a much better result than getting flashy but functionless muscles by relying too heavily on isolation exercises like bicep curls or the bench press.

One of the most difficult parts about bodybuilding and fitness, in general, is that you have to know when you’re building unbalanced strength. One-arm or single-leg variations of popular weightlifting exercises will allow you to favor your dominant arms or muscles that your body type is better suited to perform.

But you don’t want to settle for beefed-up calves and biceps alone. A successful fitness plan will lead to ripped muscles all over your body.

Balanced functional strength throughout your entire body will ensure that your bark isn’t worse than your bite, so to speak.

If you’re having trouble completing deadlifts or you just can’t get the form exactly right, rack pulls are the exercise you want. There are two different types of rack pulls that mimic either the top half or the bottom half of a regular deadlift.

How to Perform Rack Pulls

Part 1: Knee Rack Pull

Placing the barbell on the power rack at knee level focuses all the strain around your hip flexors. The most common reason for weightlifters to start a rack pull with the barbell at knee height is because they want to focus on the muscles that lift heavy weight once the bar has been lifted off the ground. It’s also a great move for people with lower back problems because it takes the strain off the bottom half of the spine.

Follow these instructions to perform a knee rack pull:

  1. Using a power rack, insert the pins below knee height. They should be somewhere in the middle of your shin.
  1. Grab onto the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  1. Lower yourself toward the bar whiled hinged forward at the hips. Keep your back straight, your arms in at your sides, and your head looking forward with your neck neutral.
  1. Lift the bar while moving your hips forward to compensate for the load.
  1. Continue until you’re standing straight up. Don’t let your chest sink as you rise.
  1. Bend to reverse the movement back to the starting position with the barbell back on the rack.

Part 2: Above-the-Knee Rack Pull

To get the most out of this exercise, you should load up heavier weight. It has a much shorter range of motion which means you can tolerate a heavier load. Just make sure you’re only increasing the weight enough to make it more challenging and not so much that you struggle to complete the rack pull.

Here’s how you can do an above-the-knee rack pull:

  1. As the name implies, you should set the rack pins above the knee for this variation.
  1. Your starting position is the same: chest forward, feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent, and back flat.
  1. Grip the bar with your hands outside your legs.
  1. Pull the weight up against your thighs by pushing your hips forward.
  1. Straighten your posture completely and hold the weight at the top of the move. This is called lockout.
  1. Reverse the motions to get back to the starting position.

Tips for Completing Rack Pulls With Proper Form

When you lockout during an above-the-knee rack pull, you have to make sure you don’t lean back at all. Your lower back will take all the stress of this backward movement, so going too far in this direction could result in serious injury.

Lift the barbell up against your body. If it comes off your body, it could cause your back to round. That will put tons of pressure on your spinal column and wear down your posture over time. Plus, it negatively affects how your body gets used to moving together. You’re likely to wind up with rounded shoulders or potentially even unable to lift heavy weight correctly at all.

Lastly, make sure you aren’t letting go of the bar at the end of the move. It’s noisy and will probably get you a stern talking-to from the gym manager, plus if you use this bounceback correctly the momentum will make the first part of the rack pull much easier and rob you of potential gains.

Benefits of Rack Pulls

You can work on your grip strength with rack pulls in a way that you can’t with deadlifts.

Get your wrists, hands, and fingers used to heavier weight by starting with rack pulls and working your way up until you have a strong enough grip to lift that same amount of weight during a deadlift.

The hamstrings won’t work as hard during a rack pull because your glutes and hip extensors will be doing most of the heavy lifting. That’s good news for anyone who doesn’t want to risk a hamstring injury. Just remember that the hamstrings will kick into action if your hip extensors fatigue.

Rhomboids, lats, and traps get more of a workout with the rack pull because the bar stays so close to your body throughout the entire exercise. The heavier load challenges these muscles and your wrist and forearm muscles more than you’re likely to be used to, so be ready to feel some soreness there when you first start incorporating rack pulls into your deadlift routine.

Powerlifters and bodybuilders generally like the rack pull because it lets them concentrate on one part of the traditional deadlift without putting their muscles through their full range of motion. It’s a tactic they use to improve their deadlift form and make sure they’re doing everything correctly. They might also need to improve one part of their deadlift so that they can lift heavier weights.

How Often Should You Do Rack Pulls?

Here’s the one drawback of rack pulls: since you’re using heavier weight, you shouldn’t do them as often as regular deadlifts. Even though the rack pull is a shorter range of motion, the heavier weight makes it more likely to cause injury.This is doubly true because so many lifters use rack pulls to learn how to do deadlifts correctly.

If you’re preparing for your first significant deadlifting, it might be better to use the bar to practice lifts. Unless you need to make some strength gains, rack pulls might be better off replaced with something safer in your workout routine.

They’re in the category of overload exercises where the lifter takes on more weight than they normally would. It makes sense and it’s super effective at building strength, but if you’re still a novice you need to either leave rack pulls out or at least refrain from taking the overload too far.

The hip hinge movement that both rack pulls and deadlifts center on makes overloading particularly dangerous. Give yourself a hip injury and you could be forced to avoid some of the most popular lower-body strength training exercises for weeks or months.

For this reason, we’d recommend you keep rack pulls of any weight out of your routine more than once a week and possibly even less if you’re just starting out on your fitness journey.

Can I Do Both Rack Pulls and Deadlifts?

There’s no reason both of these compound exercises can’t be included in your routine. But you don’t need to do them both in the same session unless you’re concentrating on increasing your deadlift ability. Even then, you should probably choose either one or the other and then give those muscles some rest time so that hypertrophy can kick in.

Remember, both deadlifts and rack pulls work on the same muscles. Certain ones like the hamstrings see less action during rack pulls, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t seeing any stress at all.

When you’re lifting really heavy weight like you are with deadlifts and especially with rack pulls, you need to be careful about exhausting your muscles. If your muscles fail, all that weight is going to come down, most likely on your feet or knees.

The sudden release of tension is also harmful to your muscles. The descent is a great way to build strength in the opposite direction so your performance will be more well-rounded.

If you want to move your muscles to full exhaustion or get them as close as possible, go through your deadlift or rack pull reps and then move onto smaller isolation exercises where the risk of muscle failure is less severe.

Deadlift Alternatives for Building Strength

Alternating between rack pulls and deadlifts helps keep a workout routine from feeling too… routine. But there are a couple of other deadlift variations that will make them even more varied, challenge your muscles in new ways, and prevent you from getting bored. The Romanian Deadlift, Wide-Grip Deadlift, and the Sumo Deadlift are particularly good for this purpose.

In the Sumo deadlift, all you need to do is place your hands on the inside of your legs when you’re in the starting position. This stance will work the muscles in your chest more than the traditional deadlift does.

a man doing sumo deadlifts in the gym

 

A wide-grip deadlift takes the opposite approach. You grab onto the barbell with your hands far apart on the outside of your legs to give the muscles in your upper back a greater workout.

The Romanian deadlift is kind of like doing a regular deadlift in reverse. It’s great for building strength that keeps objects from falling, an important component of lifting strength.

Pepper these deadlifts throughout your long-term fitness plan along with rack pulls and the traditional deadlift and you’re sure to have tons of functional strength and cut muscles on your entire body.

Rack Pulls vs. Deadlifts: Which is Better?

While both exercises work the same muscles, the rack pull is better because it’s a rare overload exercise that’s still fairly accessible as long as you have access to a gym. They do come with a risk of injury, but you can account for that risk by increasing your weight limit little by little.

Listen to your body and if the weight becomes too much, don’t be afraid to take it back a few steps until you build the strength to lift that amount of weight.Deadlifts are a legendary move. There’s a reason why they’re included in the Olympic Games year after year.

They help your muscles work together and they help you build muscle mass to protect important parts of your body like the spine and hip joints.In the end, rack pulls are perfect for concentrating your efforts on specific muscles while the deadlift is the go-to for turning yourself into a complete powerhouse.

They both have a place in workout routines but you might prefer one over the other depending on your fitness level, injury history, or goals.Our opinion is that rack pulls prepare you so well for deadlifts that both exercises should be used together. You can also use one of the deadlift variations we mentioned earlier in this guide if you want to change things up.

Since rack pulls allow you to test out heavier weight and build grip strength that helps immensely when you’re trying to up your deadlift game, they’re an indispensable part of any routine that’s geared to increase your deadlift weight. The majority of lifters who are just trying to stay fit or sculpt their muscles can mix both rack pulls and deadlifts into their routine and get some stellar results.

Conclusion:

Rack pulls are a partial deadlift. The shorter range of motion allows lifters to take on more weight because they don’t have to support it for as long a time. You can build more grip strength and work toward full muscle exhaustion this way.

But deadlifts still have a place in your workout. Nothing beats them for increasing your overall muscle mass and stoking you up so you stay pumped for the rest of your long-term routine. Comparing the two and trying to find a winner is a bit difficult because each has its own advantages.

Lifters who want to increase their deadlift should always be deadlifting and deadlift alternatives as part of their routine.

But you can isolate parts of the exercise with rack pulls and work with heavier weight as well.

The main takeaway for lifters no matter what goals they may have is to find a way to incorporate both rack pulls and deadlifts into your workout routine. Just make sure you have enough downtime for hypertrophy to kick in so you can increase your muscle mass and functional strength. 


x