3 Highly Effective Rack Pull Alternatives (With Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 30, 2022

The rack pull is a highly intense upper body exercise often compared to other large scale compound exercises such as the barbell row and the deadlift wherein a significant number of the body’s muscle groups are activated to a rather major extent.

However, due to this rather high intensity or because of a variety of other reasons such as equipment damage or risk of injury, many exercisers may wish to alternate out the rack pull in their workout routine with another exercise of similar effectiveness and function.

It is fortunate, then, that exercises like the block pull or the deadlift may all act as perfect substitutes to the rack pull, most of which do not present the same drawbacks that the rack pull itself is characterized by and thereby allowing the exerciser to still achieve their goals despite not performing the rack pull itself.

Characteristics of a Good Rack Pull Alternative

While quite a few exercises possess a muscular activation pattern similar to the same muscle groups utilized throughout a repetition of the rack pull, the similarity between said exercises and the rack pull itself end there, with other characteristics required for a proper alternative exercise found to be lacking.

Among these characteristics is that of the low range of motion or ROM involved in the rack pull, allowing for such significant amounts of weight to be moved and reducing the chance of injury due to a lack of muscle overextension.

barbell rack pull

By extension of this, the intensity of the exercise being used as an alternative to the rack pull must also be of a sufficiently similar enough level - save for the instance wherein the exerciser is choosing to substitute out the rack pulls in their workout routine for an exercise that requires less physical exertion.

And finally, the last factor to consider is the complexity of the alternative exercise in comparison to that of the rack pulls, with such matters like proper form cues, unique exerciser biomechanics and difficulty of usage in regards to any additional exercise equipment needed.

Generally, when substituting out the rack pull with an alternative exercise for an exerciser of novice or intermediate training experience, it is best to retain the same level of complexity or, in the ideal case, one of lesser complexity so as to reduce the incidence of injury and allow the exerciser to develop better muscle memory for other resistance exercises.

In conclusion, the ideal rack pull exercise is generally that which may reproduce a similar level and type of training stimulus as the rack pull itself, as well as one that utilizes the same type of equipment - though none of these characteristics apply if they themselves are the reason behind such a substitution in the first place.

How to Change a Workout Program when Alternating Out Rack Pulls

Being considered a primary compound exercise that acts as the main source of training stimulus during most workout sessions, any alternating out of the rack pull exercise should come with its own subsequent reprogramming of the workout routine, especially if substituting with an exercise of lesser similarity.

In the event that the rack pull is programmed into the back muscle or pull day of a workout routine, any potential alternative exercise must also activate the same muscle groups in a similar manner - with additional exercises being added if said alternative exercise leaves out certain muscles in its activation pattern.

rack pull mechanics

This is also applicable in the case of the alternative exercise utilizing more muscle groups than the rack pull originally would, requiring that any exercises targeting these extra muscle groups be reduced in volume or resistance so as to retain the workload and recovery capacity of the workout routine.

In line with more advanced athletic training such as the concepts of periodization and muscular fatigue management, it is important to not only take into account the relative intensity and muscle group utilization of any alternative exercise to the rack pull, but also its rate of perceived exertion according to the exerciser themselves.

This is especially useful in cases of personalized workout routines geared towards the specific abilities and goals of an exerciser, wherein the alternative’s relative volume and resistance may be modified depending on what periodization phase the exerciser is currently participating in.

Lastly, one must also take into account the complexity or difficulty of whatever exercise is used as an alternative to the rack pull, with individuals possessing less experience in free weight resistance exercises being better off performing movements of an easier form than the rack pull, and experienced athletes being able to receive the benefits of more structurally intense exercises than the rack pull.

Who Should Alternate Out Rack Pulls?

While just about any exerciser finding themselves uncomfortable or bored with the rack pull exercise may choose to substitute it with another exercise, certain circumstances necessitate such a substitution whether it be to spare the exerciser the risk of injury or to aid them in achieving their training goals.

The most common concern and also the main reason why many exercisers choose to switch out the rack pull exercise is its rather high weight loading of the spinal column, wherein even individuals with no history of back issues may develop overuse injuries and strains from repetitive use of improper or unstable form.

This is all the more so in cases of high weight rack pulls, which place even further strain on the various connective tissues and bone structures of the upper body, exacerbating any injuries or causing new ones in certain cases.

Other reasons exercisers may wish to alternate out the rack pull is due to a lack of available equipment - wherein a squat rack or similar lifting stand is required in order to properly perform a rack pull - or in the event that insufficient weight plates are available, as the rack pull utilizes quite a significant amount of weight at even a novice level.

Generally, the sort of exerciser that can benefit from a substitution of the rack pull are either those who are too inexperienced to perform the exercise without risk, or athletes that have reached a high enough level that their training requirements have surpassed what the rack pull can offer in terms of specificity or intensity.

Naturally, individuals who are also at risk of injury or overtraining from the performance of the rack pull must also make use of other exercises - though it is important for these individuals to first consult with licensed medical professionals prior to choosing another exercise so as to avoid repeating the situation.

1. Block Pulls

Considered one of the best possible alternative exercises to the rack pulls due to the versatility in the height of the barbell as well as the reduced equipment requirement found therein, the block pull is structurally and visually similar to the rack pull with the primary difference being the use of an elevated surface as opposed to a weight rack or squat rack to carry the barbell.

sumo deadlift from blocks

Certain benefits are found in the block pull that are not present in the rack pull, and as such may be used to rectify certain drawbacks of the latter exercise that necessitate its substitution.

Benefits of Substituting Rack Pulls with Block Pulls

The primary benefit to substituting the rack pulls with block pulls is in the fact that the exerciser can often elevate the barbell to a distance that is most comfortable with their own particular biomechanics, creating an easier and less dangerous position to lift such a heavy barbell from.

This, apart from improving the relative safety of the exercise, also allows the exerciser to perform a variation of the rack pull without the availability of additional equipment save for a barbell, weight plates, and a suitably durable elevated surface.

By extension of this versatile barbell elevation, the exerciser may also utilize a more efficient range of motion than what they could achieve with the traditional rack pull, allowing them to induce a modicum of more effective training stimulus at an angle of resistance more natural to their bodily proportions.

Cons of Substituting Rack Pulls with Block Pulls

Block pulls are generally as intense (if not more intense) than rack pulls due to the similarity in their angle of resistance and form, and as such are not suitable for exercisers who wish to find a less intense alternative to the rack pull.

In addition to this, block pulls place much the same type of tension and stress on the various connective and osseous structures of the body as the rack pulls do, occasionally resulting in lumbar spinal column injuries, impinged nerves and meniscus tears if performed improperly or unsupervised. 

2. The Deadlift

Considered the king of exercises, the deadlift is functionally similar to the rack pull in the fact that it places great amounts of resistance on a large number of muscle groups throughout the body - though this is also where the largest difference between the two exercises is found, wherein the deadlift also activates the lower body’s musculature to a significant degree.

barbell deadlift movement

As such, the deadlift may be seen as less of an alternative exercise as it is a lateral substitution, best utilized by exercisers training beneath the programming of a full body routine or athletic training program focused on full body explosiveness.

Benefits of Substituting Rack Pulls with Deadlifts

Though debatable whether it is a benefit or a drawback, the deadlift’s primary difference over the rack pull is in its far larger spread of muscle groups activated during a repetition, including practically every muscle group in the human body to some degree.

As such, athletes desiring to find a suitable alternative of higher intensity than the rack pull may easily substitute it out with the deadlift - of which is considerably more difficult in practically every characteristic.

By extension of this, another benefit found in the deadlift as a substitute exercise is the great deal of similarity in the nature of both exercises, with both being highly intense compound movements performed at low repetitions with high levels of resistance primarily for the purposes of strength training.

Knowing this, though the deadlift utilizes considerably more exertion due to its capacity as a full body exercise, it may substitute the rack pull in a direct one to one ratio in terms of repetition volume; provided a suitable amount of weight is translated between the two.

Cons of Substituting Rack Pulls with Deadlifts

Due to the more complex form of the deadlift as well as the significantly increased range of motion involved, the risk of injury is distinctly higher than in the rack pull, especially in concerns to the lower back and biceps brachii if using a supinated type of grip.

This is mitigated somewhat by the reduced amount of weight that may be utilized in the deadlift, as the larger range of motion and higher amount of exertion needed with each repetition will necessitate a lower weight be used despite retaining the same intensity.

In essence, the deadlift is best used by exercisers as an alternative to the rack pull if they are of relatively good health and possess a fundamental understanding of proper form and training concepts, excluding novices and individuals with a history of injuries from performing the deadlift as an alternative.

3. Barbell Rows

Another free weight compound exercise primarily targeting the various muscles of the back, the barbell row is an exercise of somewhat lower intensity and better safety than the rack pull, making it an excellent choice for individuals wishing to retain the same muscle activation pattern and training stimulus without excessive strain on their joints.

bent over row

Benefits of Substituting Rack Pulls with Barbell Rows

Barbell rows provide significantly more intense activation of the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, biceps brachii and posterior deltoid heads than what would be possible beneath the rack pull, though this comes at the expense of trapezius muscle activation as the angle of resistance is altered to a more horizontal pulling motion.

Apart from this shifting of muscle resistance loading, the barbell row and some of its variants are also somewhat less complex in form than the rack pull, making it an excellent alternative for lifters of lesser experience that nonetheless wish to train their back muscles with a free weight compound exercise.

Cons of Substituting Rack Pulls with Barbell Rows

Because of the difference in form mechanics and intensity, the barbell row may result in a less efficient accruement of training stimulus in certain muscle groups, and as such may result in the primary mover muscles becoming fatigued far before other muscle groups would be.

This, in turn, will require subsequent alteration of the workout routine’s programming so as to retain the same training stimulus needed by the exerciser in order to achieve their goals.

In conclusion, the barbell row - while not being the most similar of exercises to the rack pull - is nonetheless a suitable alternative in terms of back muscle training and equipment needed, being beaten out by the deadlift in terms of intensity and the block pull in terms of form mechanic similarity.

References

1. Bengtsson V, Berglund L, Aasa U. Narrative review of injuries in powerlifting with special reference to their association to the squat, bench press and deadlift. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2018 Jul 17;4(1):e000382. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000382. PMID: 30057777; PMCID: PMC6059276.

2. Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM (2020) Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLoS ONE 15(2): e0229507. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229507

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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