Rack Pulls – Should You Add Them To Your Back Workout?

Rack Pulls – Should You Add Them To Your Back Workout?

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rack pulls

Sitting in front of a computer for long hours of the day sure can put a kink in your back, can’t it? No matter how you shift and adjust, you always seem to have a sore lower back.Today we will explore rack pulls.

Now, you can reduce this pain by changing the kind of chair you use and your posture, but you also need a strong lower back. You might think you’re hitting your lower back when you blast your upper body at the gym, but there’s a good chance you’re completely missing it.

This is where rack pulls come in, but are rack pulls really worth your time and should you add them to your back workout?

We have everything regarding rack pulls covered, so you’ll know whether to add it to your back workout or not. 

How to Perform the Rack Pull

Rack pulls will require some equipment you likely are only going to find at the gym.

There are some variations of the move, but we’ll cover that a bit later. With the traditional rack pulls, you need a barbell and a power rack. Adjust the rack so it is located right below your knees.

You don’t need to put much weight on the barbell starting out. As this area is not always engaged in weight training it is best to start off with light weight until the muscle group is used to it. Going right into big lifts may end up causing you to injure yourself (ranging from a pinched nerve to a Charley horse).

The general idea is to simply engage the lower back.

The 45-pound barbell should be more than enough to start out with the lift. After a few sessions of including rack pulls into the workout, you should be ready to start adding on real weight.

With the barbell in front of you, position yourself up as if you’re going to perform a deadlift (the overally movement is very similar to that of a Romanian deadlift as you are not starting with the weight on the ground.

Grab hold the bar with your knuckles facing out. Your shoulders should be straight, which gives you a slight bend in the thighs and your back and chest leaning forward. Make sure to keep a straight back throughout the entire lift.

Pull your upper back, back and push out your chest, keeping your shoulders straight the entire time. As you to this, you will more or less perform a crunch in the lower back. Think of it as a sit up for your lower back.

You’ll feel the tension right above your tailbone. Hold this for a count, then return back to the starting position.

This is one rep.

Rack Pull Muscles Worked

The lower back is the main target of rack pulls, and while this is the vast majority of the muscle work, the entire back does receive some attention.

Areas the rack pulls work include varying muscle types, including the erector spinae muscles, which are stabilizing muscles that go underneath the larger muscles in the mid to upper back.

These muscles are located in the very lower portion of the Latissimus dorsi group, which is most of your side moving from the hip bone to the spine and stretching up towards the pectoral muscles. The lower area of these muscle groups is where you’ll feel the most attention while lifting.

While the focus of the lift is on the lower back, much of the upper back is also hit, especially if you squeeze your shoulder blades as you perform the lift. Some of the secondary muscles that are hit include the rhomboid major, trapezius (the traps) hit by a shoulder shrug and the levator scapulae.

Muscles known as intermediate back muscles are also touched. These are stabilizing muscles found behind the major muscles (Teach Me Anatomy, 2017).

Alternative Lifts to Consider

The main purpose of the rack pull lifts is to target your lower back.

However, there are other options you can consider.

For starters, as mentioned above, this lift is similar to that of a Romanian deadlift. The two lifts are almost identical, although the Romanian deadlift begins just below the knee and you don’t have the rack located to hold the bar by your knees. It is also similar to a regular deadlift. When performing either the deadlift or Romanian variation, if you pull your back and push your chest out you can still head the lower back.

However, some people who perform major power lifts prefer to perform both lifts separately instead of just one or the other.

This is because they can shift the amount of weight as they may not want to put several hundred pounds of weight right onto just the lower back, although this is both a personal preference for doing both lifts instead of just a deadlift, on top of comfort levels for the amount of weight placed on the lower back.

Are Rack Pulls Just Lesser Versions of Deadlifts?

As mentioned above, rack pulls are very similar to that of deadlifts.

So, are rack pulls even worth it at all? 

That’s kinda like saying squat vs deadlift

If you already perform deadlifts and make sure to “crunch” your lower back during the lift is it even worth adding this second exercise?

In reality, the two are very similar.

However, rack pulls have a few advantages. For starters, you’ll begin the lift already off the ground and on the rack. This means, once your lower back has become accustomed to the lifting movement you can actually add more weight than what you might during a traditional deadlift program.

By eventually increasing the weight to higher amounts using rack pulls, you’ll not only begin to develop a stronger lower back, it will help improve your deadlift gains as well. 

So, while rack pulls do share many similarities, it is a secondary move you should consider adding at the tail end of your workout. If you have an abbreviated timetable for your workout though and only have time for one, take the time and focus it on a deadlift. This works more muscles (both upper and lower).

Whenever you’re in a pinch for time, always focus on the multi-joint moves that target the most muscle groups possible (Arizona Central Healthy Living, 2017).

Variations of the Rack Pulls

The beauty of working with free weights is you can almost always alter a lift in order to make it work for your individual needs.

The same is true with rack pulls.

There are three basic variations of the rack pull, which you can focus on based on what you’re looking at.

For starters, there is the massive weight lift. This is where you absolutely load up the barbell with as much weight as possible. You’ll hoist it up and lift with your back as your lower back is crunched. You’ll hold it for a second and then put it back down to the rack.

This is essentially the top portion of the deadlift. It’s also why you can improve your own deadlift performance. If you struggle with the top aspect of the deadlift where you transition from a lower body lift to an upper body lift, this variation will help strengthen the upper body portion for the lift.

When you perform the deadlift do you find it difficult to transition from lower body to upper body?

Your upper body may be perfectly capable of performing the lift, you might just have a sticking point issue. This is where you reach the mid-point, right before you transition into an upper body lift but you just can’t, for whatever reason, move out of the sticking point. The rack pull helps with this. You’ll start right at where you experience the sticking point, so by working with this exercise you’ll be able to transition easier with your deadlift.

If there is one downside to the deadlift it is you put more energy into the initial phase of the lift than you do the second phase. You burn through a considerable level of energy while performing the push-up with the lower body, which leaves less for your upper body. With an isolation rack pull, you focus all of your energy on the upper body.

By pulling more with your back, you’ll be able to work more of your upper back. Beyond simply improving upon your deadlift, you’ll also strengthen your lower back.

Should you decide to go the massive weight route, you’ll also improve the size of your lower back as well. So while there are three slight variations of the lift, it really comes down to what part of your body you want to target and how you want to improve your deadlift.

If you don’t have a gym with the rack system readily available or you are working out at home, you can perform a similar move without the barbell. Instead, you can hold two dumbbells directly above your knees and make the same movement. You can also use a kettlebell if you desire and hold it in between your knees.

This is a move you can perform without the rack, so don’t let not having a rack prevent you from performing this kind of a lift (Arizana Central Healthy Living, 2017).

Who Should Add Rack Pulls to Their Workout?

Alright, so you already spend a good amount of time at the gym. Perhaps one exercise isn’t going to add much time to your workout.

But what happens when you start looking at five or six new lifts?

You might not be able to fit in everything you want.

So in reality, who should add the rack pulls to their workout? 

It is a great lift that can both strengthen your back while improving your deadlift, which in turn boosts your lower body strength. This means indirectly the rack pull is an excellent lower body lift. If you have the time, you should include it in your upper body routine.

Realistically though, this is the perfect lift if you have knee problems. While deadlifts are better for your knees than a squat, you’ll still put some strain on your knees, which can lead to injuries.

Should you need to limit your deadlifts due to the strain placed on your knees, the rack pulls are excellent alternative thanks to the upper body potential. 

Beyond knee issues, if you have a weaker lower back, you need additional lifts that target this area of your body and rack pulls is one of the few that does touch on this area of the back (ExRx Network, 2017).

Rack Pulls Workout Routine

If you are new to the world of deadlifts and rack pulls, now is the perfect time to start.

With that said, you should go lighter on the weights the for the first week or so. This way, your lower back can become accustomed to the weight engagement. Once accustomed to the lifting portion you can begin adding on more weight.

If you’re going for sheer strength gains, shoot for 1-4 lifts. It is a short lift so you can probably lift pretty heavy. If you are going for size/gains, aim to hit about 8 or 9 reps. Repeat this (for both size or strength gains) three times (Stack, 2017).

Conclusion

Having a strong core is important to nearly everything you do throughout the day. From sitting in an office meeting to performing during an open court basketball game, your strong core helps with everything.

However, you probably miss your lower back completely during your workouts.

Most upper body workouts only work the middle to upper back, while abdominal exercises often leave out the lower back as well. That is exactly why you need to include rack pulls in your workout.

The move directly targets your lower back, so you can squeeze this in at the end of your upper body workout. It might not be one of the show muscles, but it goes a long way in helping you avoid lower back pain while improving your performance in nearly anything you do.

-Terry Asher

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Terry Asher

Owner & Founder at Gym Junkies LLC
After changing his best friend’s life by helping him lose over 70lbs, dropping him down to an amazing 7% body fat, Terry was inspired to be a full-time internet trainer knowing he could do the same for many more. In 2010, Terry published his own diet and fitness e-book that can be purchased on this website. Let Terry help you change your body for the better!
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