Every bodybuilder, from the recreational gym rat to the contest junkie, likes to train heavy.
While lighter weight, higher rep training certainly has its time and place, there’s just something about pulling up a chalky barbell loaded with way too much weight that screams bodybuilding.
The fact that it also sets off Lunk Alarms across North America? Well, that’s just an added bonus.
In this article, Dr. Nikhil Rao applies his (sometimes overly) analytical approach to the classic deadlift variation, the rack pull. If after reading this article, you’re stoked to start adding rack pulls to your routine but aren’t sure how, check out Christian Thibaudeau’s outstanding I, Bodybuilder Back Specialization routine for video demonstrations (and a kick ass program).
The rack pull is one of the most poorly understood exercises out there.
Ask three random lifters in the gym tonight about rack pulls and you’ll likely receive three different opinions. Some say it’s great for mass building, others say it’s a fantastic way to improve the deadlift. And then there are plenty of naysayers to both opinions.
The confusion stems from the fact that rack pulls are not one exercise. Rather, they’re a kind of an overarching category to which a number of similar exercises belong. You’ve got to use the right form to hit the right target, be it isolation of certain muscle groups, hoisting the heaviest load, or improving your full deadlift.
A Simple Lift?
Some exercises are relatively simple in their execution. Look at the bench press. Touch chest, press to lockout. Easy. Sure there are technical points to learn and practice if you want to excel at it, but even a newb can learn the basics of bench pressing in just a few minutes. It ain’t rocket science.
But then there’s the squat. Olympic-style ass to grass? Powerlifting-style to parallel? Somewhere in between? To a box? Front squat? There’s a lot more variation. Variation that is both understood and respected.
The rack pull is an exercise of equal diversity, emanating from subtle but significant differences in bar height, stance, and set-up. One variation isn’t necessarily “better” than the other, but rather like the squat, each form emphasizes different muscle groups. A better understanding of anatomy and technique variations will allow you to use rack pulls effectively to reach whatever goal you have in mind.
It Begins With The Deadlift
Let’s start by discussing the conventional deadlift. Whether you’re a bodybuilder, a powerlifter, or an athlete trying to find an edge in the gym, you’re going to do them the same way. Feet relatively narrow. Hands about shoulder-width apart. Grab bar. Stand. Wait for applause.
That said, there’s a lot going on during that process. At the start of the lift, your hips and shoulders should be rising at roughly the same rate, with plenty of work being done by the quads, hamstrings, and erectors. By the middle of the lift, the shins are perpendicular to the ground, your quads have mostly checked out, and as the bar rises above your knees, the glutes start to fire as your upper back screams for mercy.
Hard to believe that the simple act of standing up is so complex! That complexity is what makes the deadlift so universally useful, but also what makes the proper setup and individual maximization of the rack pull so tricky.
The Three Types of Rack Pull
The All Out Hoist
There’s something to be said for just hoisting as much weight as you can by using as many muscles as possible. For one thing, it’s a huge kick in the CNS, and it’s a great way to overload most of the muscles you use in a traditional deadlift as well.
An unsung benefit of this form of rack pull (provided the bar is set low enough to provide some carryover) is the fact that it’s a good way to train the separation phase (the part of the deadlift where you transition from pushing the floor away to pulling with your back) of the traditional form of the lift. That’s important, because you can waste quite a bit of energy just building the force to get the plates off the ground — hardly ideal.
The partial deadlift is also an actual contested event in strongman, using truck tires or the bar set 18″ off the ground. So training this way could help one prepare for that event.
But if you’re looking to use this lift to help blast up your regular deadlift, keep shopping. You’re not really going to get a ton of carryover to your conventional deadlift.
The Isolation Rack Pull
The isolation rack pull is a bit of a misnomer. It’d be better to call it the ‘second phase’ rack pull, as in second phase of the deadlift. While you can break the full deadlift down into any number of different phases, I find two phases to be the most functionally and conceptually useful.
During the first phase of a full-blown deadlift, there’s angulation at the ankle, knee, and hip. The hips and shoulders are rising at about the same rate, and the weight is mostly over the middle of your foot.
The second phase of the deadlift starts somewhere around the knee, depending on your levers, but I prefer to define it in terms of the angle of the leg joints. This phase starts when the shins are perpendicular to the ground and the hips start to move forward more than they travel upward. During this phase, the quads have essentially exited from the picture and the weight has moved backward to over your heels, with the work being done by the hamstrings, glutes, erectors, and increasingly, the mid and upper back.
Eliminating the first phase by doing an isolation rack pull is a fantastic way of really focusing as much energy as possible on the back and ‘wasting’ less gas getting the bar up to this point. As such, it’s great for a bodybuilder to use for back specialization and overall mass building, as it’s probably the closest you can get to a full-back compound movement that includes the hamstrings and glutes.
Like the good morning, this is also a great ‘chaos training’ lift that can pay big dividends in salvaging either a deadlift or a squat gone wrong on competition day. And, it’s also a good way of developing work capacity in these often overlooked muscles as important stabilizers for heavy squats.
For a crude illustration of the preceding two variations, see the sticks drawings on the right:
Sticking Point Training
Finally, there’s sticking point training. Rack pulls start from a typical sticking point in conventional deadlifts, so improving rack pull performance can help mitigate this problem. But this article is already long enough, so I’m going to assume that I don’t have to explain that one.
Ready, Set, Grow! — How to Set Up for the 3 Different Types of Rack Pulls
Set Up for the All Out Hoist
The set-up for a max effort rack pull is all about alignment. It’s about setting your body as similarly as possible to a full deadlift, as you’re essentially compressing the two phases of the deadlift into a much shorter stroke. As such, you have to maintain a similar position of the shoulder blades, knees, and feet.
This means the bar is over the middle of your foot, not toward the heel, your ankles are bent (and thus shins are not perfectly vertical), and that your shoulder blades are directly above the bar.
Another important consideration is knee angle. If your knees aren’t bent enough, you’re not going to get the quadriceps activation to make this a meaningful movement with regard to the recruitment of all the muscles involved in a full deadlift.
To figure out bar height, I did a little digging into EMG studies of quadriceps recruitment and figured out that past about 150 degrees, you’re simply not going to get enough quadriceps recruitment to make this variation worth the effort. Sure, you might be able to hoist more weight with a higher bar position, but it’s not going to translate into anything terribly meaningful. (Again, please refer to the stick drawing to the right.)
The sweet spot in this exercise for most people tends to have the bar within a couple inches of the knees in either direction. I said most because again, depending on your levers, you’re going to find that you need to set the bar higher or lower relative to your knees.
But based on the aforementioned EMG studies and an understanding of simple physics, a good range to shoot for is a knee angle of between 110 and 150 degrees. And, just to emphasize my point, keep your shoulder blades over the bar at the start.
Set Up for the Isolation or Second Phase Rack Pull
The key to setting up for a true partial deadlift is the discipline to keep from cheating by using your quads. As I implied earlier, the second phase of the deadlift is defined as the point where your hips start to travel forward more than they rise (which happens at a knee angle of 135 degrees).
At this point, your shoulders begin to rise faster than your hips, your glutes and hamstrings start to do proportionally more work in hip extension, and the quadriceps have basically been taken out of the movement.
Start with the bar over the heels of your feet, keep your shins perpendicular to the ground, and sit back until you can grab the bar. Your glenohumeral joints (not scapulae) should be approximately over the bar. Now lift.
Bar height for this exercise is easy: knee angle of 135 degrees, ankle angle of 90 degrees. Set the bar at the point where this happens in your lift.
Set Up for Sticking Point Training
If you thought I wasn’t being nerdy enough, prepare to be thoroughly disgusted. The biggest mistake I see in attempts to train past a sticking point…is starting at the sticking point. A sticking point is merely where the bar comes to a stop. While you’re self-evidently weak at that point, the weakness actually comes further down, where the bar starts to decelerate.
Allow me to illustrate. If you watch a conventional deadlift hit the sticking point, you can see that the bar doesn’t just come to an abrupt stop. Rather, it slows down over a distance before coming to a halt. Where it starts to slow down is where you stop being strong enough to resist gravity. If you only train from the point where the bar tends to stop, you’re not doing anything to stem the loss of momentum that comes before that. Weakness sucks. You should really be trying to get rid of all of it.
You should really be setting the bar height where you start to slow down, not where your lift comes to a halt. But if you can analyze a deadlift while you’re doing one, you’re probably not lifting hard enough. Digital cameras are dirt cheap. Buy one. Record yourself. And use at least 85-90% of your max.
Unfortunately, there are no simple cues I can give you to set up for this as it’s going to be different for everybody. The best advice I can give you is to just be as diligent as possible in replicating joint angles and positions as you can. That digital camera can be helpful here as well.
I hope you noticed that I didn’t spend a ton of time talking about bar height, but instead talked about joint angles. A truly precise approach to the deadlift requires this, as when it comes to body mechanics, bar height relative to shin is a pretty arbitrary thing.
Work is done by your muscles, which vary their contribution based on joint angles and lever lengths. For different people, these joint angles are going to be different at different bar heights; a longer-limbed individual is going to tend to have shallower knee and steeper ankle angles at any given bar height than a shorter-limbed individual. As such, they’ll both have to set up differently to target the same muscles and motions.
Another thing to consider is how to perform sets. Should you do cluster reps ala Christian Thibaudeau, or just do straight reps? That again, requires some individualized thought as to why you’re doing it.
Being an aspiring strength athlete, I tend to cluster on all-out hoist rack pulling as I want to get the benefit of separation phase work. On the other hand, a bodybuilder may not want to waste the energy on that aspect of the lift and choose to just touch and go.
For second phase isolation work, there’s no reason to cluster, at least that I can see. But with sticking point work, there are advantages to both. At higher percentages of max, I’m more likely to cluster, and at lower percentages, I’m more likely to do doubles and triples with a slow descent (to avoid bouncing), but no true stop and go.
If you want to get the most out of rack pulling, the message is simple: Pick your goal. Nail your setup. Reap the benefits.