The Rack Pull: Benefits, Muscles Used, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
April 22, 2022

Taking the form of a short range of motion compound exercise that makes use of a barbell rack such as a power cage or squat rack and a heavily loaded barbell in order to induce the correct angle of resistance and training stimulus, the rack pull is considered an essential part of many powerlifting or bodybuilding training routines.

The rack pull is often seen being performed by advanced level powerlifters or exercisers of intermediate experience wishing to improve several key factors in their deadlift form such as the lockout point at the top of the repetition, making the rack pull not only a highly effective free weight resistance exercise but also a multipurpose one.

As such, not only is the rack pull an advisable addition to the majority of gymgoers exercise routines, but also an excellent tool for working on various aspects of athleticism and powerlifting training in particular.

What is the Rack Pull?

In the most concrete of definitions, the rack pull is a barbell based free weight compound exercise with a closed kinetic chain and a nearly body-wide muscular activation pattern, with a particular focus on the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, erector spinae and various other muscle groups located throughout the upper and mid back.

barbell rack pull

This particularly intense exercise is performed primarily for strengthening the back muscles of the exerciser in a low volume and high resistance repetition scheme, with secondary purposes of the exercise being as a supplementary powerlifting sticking point training exercise or one meant to induce significant muscular hypertrophy in a large number of muscle groups.

What Muscles are Trained by the Rack Pull?

The rack pull is a compound exercise with a particularly large number of muscle groups involved throughout its movement, surpassed in muscle group activation variety only by the deadlift and its variations.

Not all of these muscle groups activated by the rack pull are stimulated in an equal manner however, and as such the muscle groups receiving the brunt of the resistance and as such the largest amount of training stimulus are thereby referred to as the primary mover muscles.

Subsequently, muscles activated in a significant capacity but not as often or as intensely as the primary mover muscles are thereby known as the secondary mover muscles, and those muscle groups primarily acting in an auxiliary or supportive capacity (through isometric or static contraction) are called the stabilizer muscles.

Primary Mover Muscles

The muscle groups activated to a great extent throughout the entirety of a rack pull repetition are the trapezius atop the shoulders, the latissimus dorsi encompassing the middle and lower back, the rhomboids, the glutes that make up the buttocks, the paraspinal muscles - of which are also referred to as the erector spinae, and the quadriceps femoris at the front of the thighs.

It should be noted that the gluteal and quadriceps muscle groups are only considered primary mover muscles in the event that the rack pull is begun at a low enough elevation that the hip joint is brought into play during the exercise; a distinction that can make a rather large difference in exercise mechanics and kinetics.

Secondary Mover Muscles

Activated in a lesser capacity than the primary mover muscles but nonetheless in a significant enough capacity to create potential training results are the various muscles of the forearms, the deltoids that make up the shoulders, as well as the hamstrings - of which are activated during the concentric portion of the exercise.

The secondary mover muscles are generally only utilized during certain portions of the repetition, or otherwise activated to a lesser extent than primary mover muscles.

This does not equate to said secondary mover muscles having less muscular hypertrophy or strength gains, however, as such results are up to a wide variety of factors not solely based on whether the muscles are sufficiently activated to an intense enough extent by exercise.

Stabilizer Muscles

Utilized primarily in an isometric or static capacity so as to reduce the risk of injury, overextension of the connective and musculoskeletal tissues, or to simply aid the secondary and primary mover muscles in moving the source of resistance are the stabilizer muscle groups.

These are the biceps brachii at the front of the humerus bone, the erector spinae to some extent, the obliques that wrap around the thorax, and the various other core stabilizer muscles located throughout the abdominal cavity.

Though stabilizer muscles are generally known to receive little to no muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning from being activated in such a capacity, some small level of isometric contraction and muscular endurance improvement may be accrued.

What Equipment is Needed for the Rack Pull?

The rack pull is somewhat more equipment intensive than the standard deadlift or similar high level compound exercises, with not only a barbell and set of weight plates needed but also a power rack or squat rack so as to position the weight at an appropriate elevation.

power rack

Though not quite required as well, many exercisers find that they are unable to maintain a solid grip on the rack pull’s barbell after a certain level of resistance.

As such, one may wish to invest into barbell straps so as to continue performing rack pulls with a level of resistance that may be otherwise difficult to utilize with just their grip strength alone - with the straps providing much needed support for supramaximal weight loading of the rack pull.

How is the Rack Pull Performed?

Due to the high intensity and complexity of the rack pull and its mechanics, there is little room for error as improper usage of form or incorrect loading patterns may result in injuries or reduced training results, both of which are entirely avoidable if proper warm up, stretching routines, and form mechanics are adhered to.

rack pull mechanics

Setting Up the Rack Pull

To prepare the exerciser and their equipment for a set of rack pulls, they must first place the barbell within a power cage or squat rack at approximately three to four inches below hip height, or somewhere within close proximity to the knees of the exerciser.

Once the barbell has been positioned appropriately, the exerciser must load enough weight onto the barbell to reach a rate of perceived exertion between 7 to 9, or anywhere between 1 to 5 repetitions per set in accordance with the exerciser’s own physical strength capabilities.

Concentric Portion of the Repetition

In order to begin performing the concentric portion of a rack pull repetition, the exerciser must grip the barbell with both hands approximately shoulder width apart as they bend the hips and knees in preparation to push downwards - thereby drawing the barbell towards their torso and raising it off the rack.

As the barbell is cleared off the pins of the rack, the exerciser will push their chest outwards and maintain a neutral spine position, thereby forming a nearly straight torso and lower body, taking care not to overextend the spinal column by beginning to bend backwards.

Once the exerciser has reached near full extension with their hips and knees, they have achieved the apex of the rack pull repetition, and thereby completed the concentric portion of the exercise - leaving the eccentric or negative portion.

Eccentric Portion of the Repetition

In order to fully complete a repetition of the rack pull exercise, the exerciser must then begin to bend their knees and hips as the barbell lowers, all by hinging at the hips and contracting the gluteus muscles so as to prevent overloading of the spinal column.

If subsequent repetitions are to be performed in the set, the exerciser will instead raise the barbell once more and repeat the concentric portion of the rack pull’s form instead of allowing it to rest on the rack - of which is how the eccentric portion of the repetition is completed, once no more repetitions are left in the set.

Benefits of the Rack Pull

Like practically all other free weight resistance exercises, the rack pull is capable of inducing a large variety of positive effects into the exerciser when combined with a proper diet and appropriate amounts of rest - with such things like strengthened bodily tissues and improved endocrinological function being native to every form of exercise possible.

However, certain characteristics and benefits of the rack pull are rather difficult to achieve with the performance of exercises of a different nature, and as such it is these particular benefits that we have elected to enumerate so as to aid individuals seeking to further develop these aspects of their training program.

Significant Hypertrophic and Strength Developments

Due to the high intensity and wide range of muscle groups activated by the rack pull, it is capable of inducing muscular hypertrophy and strength gains at a level unseen in other exercises save for similarly intense compound exercises.

As such, the rack pull is known as both an excellent muscle mass builder for bodybuilders, as well as a suitable exercise for training the majority of the muscle groups in the capacity of developing physical strength - especially those muscle groups involved in the pulling motion.

Lower Risk of Injury

Though the rack pull does still present some level of injury and overtraining risk due to its high intensity and the fact that it is a free weight exercise, it is still comparatively safer than certain other exercises similar in nature to itself.

This is especially true when compared to such exercises as the deadlift or the barbell hack squat - both of which do not possess the shortened range of motion and enclosed nature that is characteristic of the rack pull.

Thus, the rack pull is occasionally used in athletic injury rehabilitation programs in order to gradually reintroduce the deadlift and similar exercises to the recovering athlete’s training routine.

Shorter Range of Motion

As the rack pull involves placing the barbell at approximately knee or above-knee height, its range of motion in comparison to the deadlift and similar exercises is significantly shorter - resulting in less overextension related injuries as well as allowing the exerciser to achieve a higher level of resistance via additional weight loading of the barbell.

Another key benefit of a shorter range of motion is the reduced time under tension the muscles are placed under during the exercise, thereby requiring less aerobic endurance and allowing for more fast twitch muscle fibers to be recruited.

Higher Resistance Loading

Due to the relatively short range of motion the rack pull utilizes throughout each repetition, the exerciser will find that they can easily surpass their deadlift weight maximum, both in terms of volume and in total weight moved itself.

This will allow for supramaximal loading of the exerciser’s musculature, thereby inducing a level of intensity and resistance otherwise difficult to achieve safely with other kinds of free weight exercises.

Such a kind of resistance loading will not only allow for exercisers to become psychologically conditioned to moving such large amounts of weight, but also allow their central nervous system to become accustomed to such wide spread and intense levels of muscle group activation.

How is the Rack Pull Used in a Training Program?

The rack pull generally either takes the place of the primary compound movement in a back or pull mechanic training program, or as a secondary compound exercise meant to be performed after a similar compound exercise has already been completed, such as the deadlift or barbell row.

In certain athletic or powerlifting training programs, rack pulls may be utilized during the basic strength phase of basic periodization programming within lower rep ranges - so long as the athlete accounts for total accumulated fatigue and muscle group activation patterns.

Who Should Avoid Performing the Rack Pull?

While the rack pull is generally considered to be less complex and safer than the majority of its alternative exercises, individuals with certain conditions or athletes with particular training goals are better off left avoiding the rack pull in favor of other exercises that can meet their specific needs.

These are primarily individuals with a history of shoulder or spinal column injuries, or those with certain health conditions that bar them from raising their blood pressure or heart rate too high, as the rack pull places great strain on practically every organ of the circulatory system - both due to aerobic exertion and metabolic demands.

For athletes with training goals that are not entirely met by the rack pull, they may instead utilize the many squat variations in order to achieve greater lower body development, or the traditional deadlift for a greater range of motion.

References

1. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Van Every DW, Plotkin DL. Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum. Sports (Basel). 2021 Feb 22;9(2):32. doi: 10.3390/sports9020032. PMID: 33671664; PMCID: PMC7927075.

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

3. Schellenberg F, Taylor WR, Lorenzetti S. Towards evidence based strength training: a comparison of muscle forces during deadlifts, goodmornings and split squats. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2017 Jul 17;9:13. doi: 10.1186/s13102-017-0077-x. PMID: 28725437; PMCID: PMC5513080.

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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