Rack Pulls vs. Deadlifts: Which One Is Better?

September 7, 2021

The rack pull vs. deadlift debate. There's one camp that will completely dismiss the rack pull stating it has no carry-over to the deadlift. Others will applaud the rack pull for improving the deadlift and for packing on mass.

The rack pull and deadlift are similar exercises as they are both classified as hip hinges. However, the rack pull involves a shorter range of motion and starts from the pins or supports of a power rack at the knees while the deadlift starts from the floor.

While these lifts are very similar, they both have their unique intricacies. So let’s break down exactly how each lift is performed and the benefits of each exercise.

Rack Pulls vs. Deadlifts Form

Both the rack pull and deadlift are classified as hip hinge exercises. That is the movement is mainly initiated by the movement of the hips.

Deadlift Form

The Deadlift is considered one of the ultimate tests of strength. In its purest form, it is picking a heavy weight up from the floor until you are standing upright. But there is a little more nuance to it.

  • To start, cut your feet in half with the barbell. Meaning your feet should be under the barbell approximately at the middle of your feet. Your feet should be approximately shoulder-width apart (closer or wider depending on your body size).
  • Perform a Romanian Deadlift to get down to the bar and grab it with your hands. You can use either a double overhead, mixed, or hook grip depending on what you prefer.
  • Pull yourself into the starting position by taking the slack out of the bar. That is the small movement the barbell makes before the weights are lifted off the floor. This will help you create tension through your hamstrings, glutes, and back.
  • As you pull yourself into the starting position, keep a big chest and tight lats like you are holding tennis balls under your armpits. Your head and eyes can be looking forward or down and your body weight through your full foot slightly toward your heels.
  • Push the floor away with your legs to initiate the pull. Maintain a relatively straight back.
  • Once the bar reaches your knees, thrust your hips forward as fast as possible for a strong lockout.
  • Finish by standing up tall with your legs and arms straight.

Rack Pull Form

The rack pull is performed just like the deadlift except you have a shorter range of motion. Instead of starting from the floor, you will start from the knees with the barbell resting on the pins in a power rack.

  • Set your pins or supports to approximately knee height. There is no hard and fast rule for the starting height. You can even rack pull from below or above the knees. It just depends on your reason for doing so.
  • For rack pulls, it's generally best to use straps as you'll often be working with loads close to or greater than your deadlift max.
  • Pull yourself into the starting position like you would with the Deadlift setup. However, there is no slack to pull like the deadlift. This is what makes the rack pull feel like dead weight.
  • Push with your legs to initiate the pull and thrust your hips forward while standing up tall.

Common Rack Pull Mistakes

Walk into any local gym, and you’ll see these common mistakes with the rack pull:

Bouncing The Weight Off The Pins

This is a big no-no. The rack pull is performed from a dead stop so bouncing the weight defeats the purpose of the exercise. Further, you're setting yourself up for injury. Also, do you want to know why your gym has bent barbells? It's because of people doing dumb stuff like this.

The Bar Moves Away From The Body

The barbell should ride up your legs. There should be contact all the way to lockout. If the bar drifts away from you, that places extra stress on your lower back. With the heavy loads that are used with the rack pull exercise, it won’t end well. Create a lot of tension in the lats to keep the bar close.

Leaning Back At Lockout

There is no need to lean back once you've locked out at the top. Anything further than standing vertically is placing undue stress on your back.

Pulling The Shoulder Blades Back At Lockout

You’ll often see lifters making a second movement once they’ve locked the bar out by rolling their shoulders back. There is no need to do this. It adds nothing to the movement and may set you up for an injury.

Common Deadlift Mistakes

Deadlift Benefits

Similar mistakes to the rack pull are made when Deadlifting. However, some mistakes are unique to the Deadlift:

Setting Up With The Bar Away From The Body

The bar should be against your shins in the setup position. If the barbell is too far in front of the body, that is a lot of extra stress placed on the lower back and is often how people injure themselves while Deadlifting.

Letting The Hips Shoot Up First

A common mistake that will suit a Tik Tok twerking video. Your hips and shoulders should rise together when initiating the pull. If the hips rise first, you are put into a disadvantageous position where your legs can’t contribute as much to the lift force your lower back to pick up the slack.

Rounding Your Back

While some upper back rounding is acceptable, the emphasis should be placed on maintaining the straightest back possible. As the loads get heavier, a little bit of natural rounding will occur through the thoracic spine.

Bending Your Arms

The bending of arms when deadlifting generally only happens when mixed gripping. The underhand is the arm that will usually bend putting your biceps in a risky position.


Hitching is when you kick the bar up with the thighs because you get stuck in the pull. While this is allowed in Strongman, it is not allowed in Powerlifting. Further, hitching will not develop the same strength as a smooth deadlift will.

Rack Pulls vs. Deadlifts Muscles Worked

Both the rack pull and the deadlift work most of the large muscles in the body. These being:

  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Lower, Mid, and Upper Back
  • Traps
  • Forearms

However, rack pulls place slightly less emphasis on the hamstrings and places more work on the back muscles. This is because of the increased loading and shorter range of motion.

Benefits Of Rack Pulls vs. Deadlifts

Rack Pull Benefits

Both the rack pull and deadlift offer their unique benefits.

Rack Pull Benefits

  • The rack pull allows you to train specific weak points in your deadlift. For example, if you struggle to lock the bar out from the knees, performing rack pulls from the knees with heavier weight can carry over to your deadlift.
  • The overload is a great way to build tremendous strength through your entire back and glutes.
  • Overloading the back muscles can spark new muscle growth through the sheer weight it needs to support.
  • Overload your grip and forearms if you are not using straps to make your deadlifts feel easier.
  • A deadlift alternative for those that lack the mobility to pull from the floor.

Deadlift Benefits

  • An exercise that builds full-body strength. You could literally perform a workout using only this one lift and get damn strong.
  • The deadlift improves your ability to produce force from your lower body quickly which in turn, increases your vertical jump [1].
  • The deadlift has been shown to increase bone density after just 24 weeks of training [2].
  • It makes a great exercise for knee rehab due to being a closed chain (both feet on the floor) and the simultaneous muscle contractions of the quads, hamstrings, and calves which stabilize the knee [2].
  • The deadlift may also help attenuate lower back pain in those who can handle it [3].

Rack Pulls vs. Deadlifts: Which One Should You Do?

There is no right or wrong answer with what you should pick. For those competing in strength sports such as Powerlifting or Strongman, performing the deadlift is a must as it is either a competition lift or will be part of the competition.

For those competing in other sports, the deadlift may be a better option due to better transfer to sporting tasks such as jumping.

For those wanting to pack on mass, the rack pull might be a better option as you can overload the back musculature without performing a heavily fatiguing movement like the deadlift.

Rack Pulls For Back Mass

Rack Pulls Back Mass

This is where the rack pull shines in my experience. While rack pulls are great for building strength (which you'll see below), they are great mass builders for the whole back musculature. If you've seen those pictures of Chinese and old Soviet Weightlifter's backs, you'll know what I'm talking about.

You likely don’t have the same time to dedicate to training (or the same supplement schedule) as these Weightlifters but the rack pull can be the next best thing to building a big dense back.

In my experience, there’s a huge difference between a back that’s been built doing only high reps on machines (ala bodybuilding style) and a big back that’s been built supporting heavy weights.

The second looks much more dense and powerful. That doesn’t mean to exclude high rep machine-based work, but to include more heavy supporting movements like the rack pull and farmers walk.

For mass, use the rack pull from approximately knee height. 2-5 sets of 5-8 reps are a good guideline to use for building mass. I like to follow John Meadows with these and perform them after you’ve done a rowing exercise. You get a greater back activation and your back is fully warm and ready to handle heavy loads.

Rack Pulls For Strength

One really cool method for using the rack pull for strength is to use increasing the range of motion as a progressive overload strategy. This is an old-time strongman principle where you will load the barbell with 10-20 lbs greater than your current deadlift 1RM.

You will start with the barbell close to lockout. Do a few singles from this position. The following week, move the pins down one hole in your power rack. Use the same weight and do your rack pull singles from the slightly lower position.

Eventually, you will be pulling from the floor with your new deadlift max and a new personal best!

Why Are Rack Pulls Harder Than Deadlifts?

There are two main reasons rack pulls are generally harder than deadlifts:

  • The loads prescribed are usually close to or above your deadlift 1RM, and
  • You don’t have any slack to pull out of the barbell so you have no flex or whip creating a “dead weight” feeling.

How Often Should You Do Rack Pulls?

Ideally, you would not perform rack pulls more than once a week. For those that are putting up massive poundages, once every 10-14 days is even better due to the residual fatigue from handling such heavy loads.

Should Rack Pulls Be Heavier Than Deadlifts?

As the rack pull is an overload exercise, they will generally be prescribed at loads heavier than you would usually deadlift in training. However, if the goal is to pack on mass, then you will likely use loads comparable to your normal deadlift training but for higher reps.

Are Rack Pulls Better Than Deadlifts?

Rack pulls are not better than deadlifts. And deadlifts are not better than rack pulls. It just depends on what you want to get out of the exercises. For overall performance, the deadlift is a better option. For pure mass, rack pulls are likely a better option.


1. Thompson, B. J., Stock, M. S., Shields, J. E., Luera, M. J., Munayer, I. K., Mota, J. A., ... & Olinghouse, K. D. (2015). Barbell deadlift training increases the rate of torque development and vertical jump performance in novices. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(1), 1-10.

2. Vecchio, L. D., Daewoud, H., & Green, S. (2018). The health and performance benefits of the squat, deadlift. and bench press. MOJ Yoga & Physical Therapy, 3(2), 40-47.

3. Berglund, L., Aasa, B., Hellqvist, J., Michaelson, P., & Aasa, U. (2015). Which patients with low back pain benefit from deadlift training?. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(7), 1803-1811.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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