Rack Pulls vs Deadlifts: The Differences Explained

Published by Debbie Luna
Last Updated: October 18, 2021

The deadlift is one of the fundamental powerlifting exercises along with bench press and squats. Beginners in the fitness and bodybuilding industry, however, require more experience before performing deadlifts efficiently and safely. Rack pulls make for an introductory exercise to performing deadlifts.

Deadlifts require a full range of motion and maximum knee flexion and extension while rack pulls only require a partial range of motion with minimal knee movement. The rack pull focuses only on the top-end of the deadlift movement, making it a variation of partial deadlifts like block pulls.

Rack Pulls vs Deadlift: Differences Explained

Muscle Activation

sumo deadlift muscles used
Sumo Deadlift Muscles Used - Gluteal Muscles Also Engaged, Not Shown

Rack pulls and deadlifts have distinct similarities because they are both-hip-hinge movements. This means that both these exercises recruit the gluteal and spinal muscles. While they activate an almost identical set of muscles, the emphasis on the individual muscle is different.

Rack pulls emphasize training the back and the upper shoulder area. This is composed of the muscles such as the latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, and spinal erectors. Deadlifts train the mid and lower back and the glutes. The full range of motion of deadlifts places great emphasis on the lower body for generating force to achieve lockout at the top-end of the exercise.

The deadlift is composed of a wider knee movement through flexion and extension when compared with rack pulls. This requires greater energy output from the lower body which results in greater activation of the hamstring and quad muscles.

It also engages the core muscles, specifically the traverse abdominis. This part of the core muscle is essential to prevent rounding of the back and allows the leg muscles to consistently power the movement.

Rack pulls do not train the lower body as much as deadlifts. However, it is effective at building the back muscles, traps, core muscles, and grip. The back muscles are required to maintain strength and stability when performing rack pulls.

In both exercises, however, the degree of muscle activation and engagement is related to limb length. Taller people with longer limbs perform deadlifts and rack pulls at a slightly lower angle. This results in lower muscle activation.

Range of Motion

deadlift range of motion

One of the distinct differences between deadlifts and rack pulls is the range of motion.

Rack pulls are often called partial deadlifts because the exercise resembles the top half of the deadlift. It is relatively similar to performing block pulls where the barbell is already elevated for the lifter.

The rack pull starts with the barbell at an elevated height. The height of the elevation depends on the goal of the lifter and his target muscles. It can be elevated below the knee, at knee level, or a few inches above the knees. The elevation prevents the lifter from placing the barbell on the floor.

The partial range of motion of rack pulls allows the lifter to lift heavier loads when compared with deadlifts. This results in the stronger activation and development of the hip and back muscles and extensors.

It is often used as an accessory exercise for deadlifts where the lifter focuses on the weakest part of the deadlift movement; Usually, this lies in reaching the lockout point of the deadlift. By removing the required knee extension in deadlifts. It also produces less stress on the central nervous system while encouraging the body to recruit more muscle fibers.

Functional Strength

The deadlift is considered a staple compound exercise for enhancing strength and gaining muscle for both the upper and lower body. Its full range of motion and maximal knee extension has great applicability in daily movements such as jumping and sprinting and lifting heavy objects from the ground.

In sports, the deadlift is known to improve vertical leap among athletes. It can also increase bone density, which is essential for performance in contact sports such as football and basketball. The overall improvement in musculature also helps in preventing muscle loss and bone degeneration among older individuals.

The deadlift is more focused on developing functional strength. Functional strength refers to the type of strength that is required to perform daily activities. This often requires toning and strengthening of various muscles in the entire body.

Rack pulls are intended to develop, strengthen, and build the back muscles specifically. The partial range of motion allows the lifter to add more weight and achieve hypertrophy for the back faster.

Since rack pulls do not attempt to promote functional strength similar to deadlifts, performing rack pulls often require equipment like squat racks. This assistive equipment is required because its removes the pressure on the lower body for much of the movement and places it instead on the back muscles.

Level of Difficulty

While deadlifts can be taxing due to their total muscle activation, it is one of the most efficient exercises at increasing strength. It is a type of extension exercise that strengthens the muscles through increased testosterone levels which in turn facilitates the release of growth hormones.

Beginners performing deadlifts, however, need coaching because of the various types of deadlifts and the amount of weight optimal for performing deadlifts properly and safely.

Variations of deadlifts include sumo deadlift, deficit deadlift, and Romanian deadlift. Each of these variations requires proper form to prevent the risk of injuring the back muscles and the spine.

Currently, deadlifts rank as one of the riskier exercises when not performed properly. This means that the margin of error when performing deadlifts is lower when compared with other exercises.

Rack pulls, with their reduced range of motion and elevated barbell, are easier to perform when compared with deadlifts. It is the perfect exercise for a beginner who has low fitness experience and wants to practice mechanics.

The rack pull can be performed with an elevated barbell of up to 2 inches above the knees. The lifter can simply focus on executing the top half of the deadlift until he is ready to perform the full lift.

With lesser joint movement, lifters can perform rack pulls until failure and still land the barbell safely. It also does not put the body under tremendous pressure so it is good not only for beginners but also for people under physical rehabilitation from lower back injuries.

Final Thoughts

Deadlifts and rack pulls are both effective exercises for enhancing the upper and lower body. The deadlift, however, promotes greater lower body muscle activation through full range of motion. The rack pull eliminates much of the knee flexion and extension by beginning at the top-half of the deadlift. This allows the lifter to focus more on strengthening the lower back muscles.

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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