Squat, bench, and deadlift..
The three lifts that powerlifters can’t live without.
Don’t believe me?
Try telling a powerlifter that you don’t squat..or deadlift.
It won’t end well (trust me).
Are they right to be so set in their ways?
Is the deadlift really the king of all exercises?
Today, I’m going to answer this question.
I’ll be comparing the rack pull and deadlift based on the following categories:
- Strength development
- Muscles worked
Let’s get to it!
What are your goals?
Before I can answer the question of ‘which is better’ you need to determine your own goals.
Here’s the thing:
If you’re interested in powerlifting you need to incorporate deadlifts into your routine.
No ifs, no buts.
Could you build your deadlift with rack pull variations? possibly..
But you need to obey the law of specificity.
“to get better in any activity, you must precisely practice the skill that you wish to develop”.To get better in any activity, you must precisely practice the skill that you wish to develop. Click To Tweet
On the other hand, if you aren’t a strength athlete, why bother with conventional training?
Here’s what you should do right now:
- Determine your goals as a lifter: Are you interested in powerlifting? Do you want to get as strong as possible? Or are you more interested in bodybuilding?
- Next, evaluate the best way to achieve your goal in step 1.
Rack pulls vs deadlifts
It’s time to roll up my sleeves and put on my inspector monocles!
I’ll be judging both the rack pull and deadlift on two main criteria:
- Total strength development
- Muscles worked
Contestant No#1 | The Deadlift
Muscles worked in the deadlift:
- Posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes)
- Lower back
- Upper back
- Transverse abdominis (Core)
The deadlift is a big indicator of total body strength.
It involves almost the entire musculature of the human body:
If you’re a strength athlete, the deadlift will have incredible carryover to almost any lift.
In particular, the deadlift and squat seem to have a close relation; if you increase your deadlift, then your squat will likely go up automatically.
For these reasons, the deadlift has been a staple in many strength training programs, most notably Mark Rippetoes starting strength.
I strongly recommend that you at least reach 182.5kg/400lb mark with the deadlift before moving on to bigger (and better) things.
Limitations of the deadlift
So the deadlift is a great strength builder…
Nothing you didn’t already know right?
We know the deadlift is a great overall mass builder too.
But is it optimal for building the upper body?
I would argue that it isn’t.
The problem with the deadlift is that you are severely limited by your posterior chain strength.
If you can’t break the weight off the floor… you sure as shit aren’t locking it out.
Do you see the problem?
Your traps and upper back are capable of lifting hundreds of pounds more weight.
The deadlift just isn’t heavy enough to stimulate max hypertrophy for the traps and upper back.
Of course, you’ll see examples of elite pullers who have massive traps and upper backs.
What you fail to realise is that:
- They have great genetics.
- They’re lifting huge amounts of weight- upwards of 700-1000 pounds (think Eddie Hall and Pete Rubbish).
See what I mean?
Unless you’re planning on taking Vitamin S (steroids), you won’t reach these numbers.
Contestant No# 2 | Rack pulls
Muscles worked in the rack pull:
- Posterior chain (depends on height)
- Lower back
- Upper back
The rack pull is simply a partial deadlift.
There are three different heights:
- Below the knee
- At the knee
- Above the knee
The lower the pin height, the more carryover you’ll have to a traditional deadlift.
Conversely, the higher the height, the more overload you place on the traps and upper back.
This is the major benefit of rack pulls at higher pin heights.
The deep stretch you get at the top of a heavy rack pull works the main function of the trapezius muscle- Which is to stabilise and prevent your arms from being ripped out of their sockets.The deep stretch you get at the top of a heavy rack pull works the main function of the trapezius muscle- Which is to stabilise and prevent your arms from being ripped out of their sockets. Click To Tweet
If you’re looking for a real-world example- look no further!
Strongmen are notorious for having huge traps and upper backs.
They achieve this with partial deadlifts and heavy farmer walks.
You can even test this for yourself:
load two heavy shopping bags and take a long walk.. tell me how your traps feel 😉
What do you think will make your traps grow more:
Getting your deadlift up to 600lb or a 1000lb rack pull?
Limitations of the rack pull
If you want maximum strength development, the rack pull isn’t for you.
This is especially true if you plan on competing in a powerlifting meet.
This isn’t to say you can’t include rack pull variations…
But it shouldn’t be the focus of your training.
If you want more transference to pulls off the floor, you’d be better off sticking to deficit deadlifts and block pulls (2 to 6 inches).
The ultimate guide to overloading rack pulls
Below is a quick start guide to the rack pull.
I’ll be going into detail on the various pin heights and giving injury prevention tips.
Below the knee rack pulls
The below the knee rack pull has the largest range of motion (of the three variations).
If you want a replacement for the squat or deadlift- the below the knee rack pull is perfect.
You’ll strengthen the posterior chain and take some of the load off the lower back.
This is great if you have long femurs because it reduces the risk of a lower back injury compared to the deadlift.
Most of you will find this variation tougher than the standard deadlift.
You may be wondering how:
The body produces the most amount of force at the knee and above…
Because the bar is placed below the knee, you aren’t able to get a stretch reflex from the hamstrings (aka use leg drive).
Therefore, you aren’t able to use as much weight.
At the knee rack pulls
If you want the best of both worlds…
Strength development AND overload…
The ‘at the knee’ variation is perfect for you.
You’ll get slightly less hamstring recruitment in favour of being able to lift heavier weight.
Due to the more upright torso, the lower back is also less involved.
Above the knee rack pulls (the holy grail)
*If you haven’t checked out Eric Bugenhagen’s channel you really should!
The above the knee rack pull is the ULTIMATE overloading exercise for the traps and upper back.
You’re able to lift hundreds of pounds more vs the traditional deadlift.
This can be attributed to the vertical position of the torso which gives you optimal leverages for pulling.
You won’t see much (if any) carry over to the deadlift with the ABT rack pull.
Rack pull variations
If you want to maximise your numbers with the rack pull, you need to use different variations.
Variation #1 Snatch grip rack pulls
The wider grip increases ROM for the rack pull.
You’ll also build grip strength faster using the wide hand placement.
Naturally, you won’t be able to go as heavy using a snatch-grip so you might want to consider using lifting straps.
Variation #2 Behind the back rack pulls
The hack rack pull recruits the quads more due to the centre of gravity being pushed behind the body.
Variation #3 Zercher rack pulls
The Zercher rack pull is a more quad dominant variation.
You’ll get great carry over to high bar squats, at the expense of lifting less weight.
Variation #4 Jefferson rack pulls
The Jefferson rack pull hits the obliques HARD.
Remember to alternate sides between sets!
Variation #5 Using mats to increase ROM (range of motion)
If you’re especially tall you might need to extend your range of motion.
You can stack up mats to squeeze a little extra ROM out of the rack pull.
I recommend 1 to 2 inches max.
Variation #6 Doubled bands
The bands deload the weight at the bottom and make the top of the rep much harder.
This is known as accommodating resistance.
*If you want to learn more about bands, check out this article.
Variation #7 Reverse band rack pulls
The reverse bands are easier to set up.
Form tips and injury prevention
Tip #1 Pull the slack out the bar
Pulling the slack out of the bar teaches tightness and makes for a more optimal pull.
Tony Gentilcore describes this perfectly in his article.
Tip #2 Use your hips to drive the weight up
The rack pull is essentially a deadlift lockout.
Use your hips and glutes to ‘hump’ the bar and you’ll be able to lift maximum poundages.
Tip# 3 Brace HARD
Use the Valsalva manoeuvre to protect your spine and create full body tightness.
Follow these steps:
- First, exhale and empty your lungs.
- Next, take a deep breath and tense your stomach (as if you’re about to be punched in the gut).
- Hold it until you reach the top of the rep and forcefully exhale.
Tip# 4 Use a high-quality pair of lifting straps
I don’t care how strong you think your grip is, you won’t be setting rack pull PRs without them.
Don’t be a penny pincher when it comes to selecting a pair of straps either!
The iron mind brand is the best quality out there (or so I’ve heard).
BONUS: Free rack pull progression guide
Rack pulls are an absolutely awesome lift if you do not plan to compete then don’t let your ego stop you from trying them out.
You will thank me for the gains you make…TRUST ME
Have you tried rack pulls? Let me know what you think of them in the comments!