You like lifting heavy, right?
If so, you probably love the deadlift. There aren’t too many other exercises where you can load the plates on like you can with the deadlift.
…and per that logic, you probably really love rack pulls. If you can deadlift a ton of weight, you can rack pull one-and-a-half tons.
And if you can’t quite deadlift a ton, don’t worry; today we’re going to go into a deep dive on the on-going rack pulls vs deadlift. By the time you finish, I guarantee you that you’ll be able to deadlift (and rack pull) at least 100 percent of what you can now!
Table of Contents
Rack Pulls Overview
The rack pull exercise primarily targets the posterior chain muscles such as the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. It consists of lifting a barbell from an elevated starting position such as from squat rack safety bars within a power rack.
From a training perspective, rack pulls are very similar to block pulls, as they both involve lifting a barbell from an elevated position. However, rack pulls make the process of loading weight easier (and, if you need to bail, they’re a lot safer when dropping weights!)
How To Perform Rack Pulls
Rack pulls are performed in a pretty straight-forward manner. Here is a 7-step breakdown:
Step 1: Start by adjusting the safety bars (or, if necessary, J-cups) in the rack to around knee level. You can choose to place them a bit above the kneecaps or slightly below, depending on your personal preferences and how “long” you want your pull to be.
Step 2: Place the bar on the safety bars and load the bar.
Step 3: Position yourself in front of the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart.
Step 4: Bend at the hips and knees and grab the bar with a double overhand grip just outside the legs. Your shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar with the hips flexed while maintaining a neutral spine and activated core.
Step 5: Rise up, while simultaneously lifting the barbell, with your arms and back straight. Keep the bar as close to the body as possible at all times.
Step 6: Lower the barbell back down to the rack in a controlled manner while still maintaining a neutral spine and engaged core.
Step 7: Perform a desired number of reps.
- Due to the decrease range of motion, more weight can be used than in a traditional deadlift
- A good accessory lift to assist with deadlift lockout
- Less stress on the lower back due to the limited range of motion
- Requires a squat rack w/safety bars or power rack which makes it less accessible
- Does less to help build a strong pull from the ground
The deadlift targets multiple muscle groups, particularly the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and core. As one of the “Big 3” powerlifting movements, It is the backbone of any strength and conditioning program and is one of the competition lifts. It consists of lifting a heavy barbell from the ground to a standing position, focusing on hip and leg strength, as well as overall body stability.
How To Perform Deadlifts
Step 1: Load the desired weight onto a barbell.
Step 2: Position yourself in front of the barbell with your shins placed 1 inch (or slightly closer) from the barbell. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart (unless you opt for the sumo deadlift style), and your toes under the bar turned slightly outwards. The bar should be over the middle of your feet.
Step 3: Bend down and grab the barbell in a double overhand grip (or, if you prefer, with a mixed grip) just outside of your legs. Keep the 1-inch distance of your shins from the barbell.
Step 4: Bend your knees forward until your shins meet the barbell, dropping your hips down.
Step 5: Flatten your back by dropping your belly down. Fix your gaze in front of you. Push your knees into your forearms and then drag the barbell directly up your legs. Your hips and chest are pushed through and your shoulders are held back.
Step 6: Lower the bar in the same way as you picked it up, down your legs, and onto the floor.
- Excellent compound exercise that works multiple muscle groups which helps you build overall strength.
- It’s a functional fitness exercise that can prepare you for real-world movements such as lifting heavy objects
- Increases natural testosterone levels which increases muscle growth
- Studies showed that deadlifts increase bone density which decreases the risk of hip and vertebral fractures
- The deadlift is a foundational movement that sets up for learning exercises such as the clean.
- Not on overly technical lift
- Improper technique (most notably, excessive rounding of the back) can lead to back injuries
Rack Pulls vs Deadlift: The Showdown
Rack pulls and deadlifts are very similar in many ways. While the starting position and ending of the barbell are different, everything else is pretty much the same when it comes to technique. However, the starting and finishing height of the barbell actually make all the difference in terms of muscle activation, range of motion, and other variables.
Both rack pulls and deadlifts work your:
- Erector Spinae: muscles that straighten and rotate the back.
- Glutes: muscles in the buttocks that serve as hip extensors, keeping you upright and pushing your body forward.
- Hamstrings: Muscles of the posterior thigh that assist in hip extension and knee flexion during the lift.
- Quadriceps: Muscles of the front thigh that extend the knees.
- Adductor Magnus: Muscles of the inner thigh that serve as hip adductors, with one portion flexing the thigh and working as a medial rotator, the other extending the thigh and working as a lateral rotator and both portions adducting the thigh.
- Traps, Lats, and Rhomboids: Located in the upper back, ensuring shoulder stability during the lift.
- Core Muscles: The group of trunk and hip muscles surrounding the spine that provide stability during the lift and protect the spine.
- Hands and Forearms: Upper limb muscle groups that allow complex movements of the arm, wrist, and fingers, activated with gripping and lifting the barbell.
However, rack pulls primarily help lifters work on their lower back extension. On the other hand, deadlifts also focus on lower body development, mainly the mid and lower back and the glutes, but still work their fair share on the upper body too. Overall, the deadlift is working your full body, while rack pulls more specifically help with improving lower back extension.
Rack Pulls vs Deadlift: Range Of Motion
Rack pulls have a shorter range of motion than a deadlift since they don’t start and finish on the floor but at an elevated position. The starting position can be more or less elevated, depending on your goals.
Even though the ROM is shorter, it has its benefits. It allows you to lift heavier loads and focus on building upper body muscles more than with a deadlift. It also makes the exercise less demanding than deadlift, resulting in less fatigue and faster recovery. It’s an excellent exercise when you want to “rest” from deadlifts and work the finishing hip extension and the lockout point of the deadlift that’s in the rack pull movement.
Rack Pulls vs Deadlift: Functional Strength
A deadlift increases functional strength and is beneficial for the performance of other movements such as jumping, sprinting, and lifting heavy objects from the ground. This makes it an excellent exercise for improving your results in other sports but also in assisting with the challenges everyday life throws at you.
While rack pulls are beneficial, they build less functional strength than deadlifts. However, implementing rack pulls can boost the deadlift performance itself by strengthening improving lower back extension and lockout. Rack pulls can be very beneficial for you if you struggle with the second part of the deadlift.
Rack Pulls vs Deadlift: Weight Used
As previously stated, rack pulls involve a shorter range of motion than deadlifts do. As such, you will feel less gravitational force with rack pulls than you do with deadlifts. This allows you to lift more weight than you would with traditional deadlifts.
To get a better idea of this weight ratio, powerlifting guru Mark Rippetoe suggests using your 1RM deadlift weight for a working set of 5 rack pull reps.
Heavier loads will also increase your grip strength, which is again beneficial for deadlifts and other weightlifting exercises.
Rack Pulls vs Deadlift: Difficulty
Deadlifts can put a significant amount of stress on your lower back muscles and spine. For those unaccustomed to lifting, especially those who are unfamiliar with the correct form, the deadlift can be a difficult exercise. They can be especially tricky if you don’t have enough core strength, balance, and stability to perform the lift with the desired weight.
Since there is a shorter range of motion can be especially suitable for lifters with range of motion or mobility limitations. As such, rack pulls are oftentimes viewed as being less difficult to perform (especially when comparable weights are used) than traditional deadlifts.
Programming Rack Pulls and Deadlifts
Rack pulls and deadlifts are usually programmed as “either/or” exercises as opposed to being programmed together within a fitness program.
Many people opt for “rack pulling” after their traditional deadlifts begin to become too heavy, sets are difficult to finish, or cause too much chronic fatigue. In this case, deadlifts will be saved for powerlifting meets and the weeks leading up to them with heavier rack pulls taking their place in the fitness program.
For others, Starting Strength Coach Nick Delgadillo advocates for combining sets of halting deadlifts (essentially, the opposite of rack pulls where only the initial pull of the deadlift is performed) with rack pulls. By doing so, lifters are able to work both phases of the deadlift and at greater intensities than they would be able to work a full, traditional deadlift.
It should be noted that both the rack pull and the deadlift are extremely stressful on the central nervous system and performing both lifts at consistently heavy weights in your programming is going to get you. If you decide to perform both, be sure that you’re alternating light and heavy days/sessions with these lifts and limit the overall volume.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can’t get enough of the rack pulls vs deadlift debate? Here are a few of the top, lingering questions related to this battle.
In most cases, you should perform rack pulls or deadlifts in a session (and not in every session).
Yes, powerlifters may include rack pulls to boost their deadlift performance by focusing on factors like lockout and grip strength.
A good alternative to rack pulls are block pulls which can performed with jerk blocks instead of a rack (or, if you’re like me and don’t have jerk blocks, you can stack a bunch of bumper plates on top of each other to create “blocks”).
Like many of the “versus battles” that we’ve covered before, we suggest looking at the rack pulls vs deadlift showdown as a more “friendly” rack pulls and deadlift. The deadlift is definitely the more popular, more functional, and more “complete” lift, but the rack pull certainly has its place in the lifting world.
If you’re concerned with stalls in your deadlift progression, you may want to give rack pulls a try.
In contrast, if you’ve only ever performed rack pulls (and you have the physical capacity to perform deadlifts), pulling the bar from the floor will present stresses and movement patterns that will really boost your overall strength and functional fitness capacities.
And, if you’re still not quite sold on the deadlift, check out our article discussing the 34-plus muscles (that’s a lot!) deadlifts work. You’ll feel ashamed for not doing them (yet!)