The Great Rack Pull Myth

This is a classic case of an idea that works beautifully in theory  but, at least in your case, fails to pay off in the real world.

The theory behind rack pulls is that they allow you to use more weight than you normally can handle in conventional deadlifts, which helps target  certain sticking points, namely the lockout position—a real sore spot  for many lifters. Sounds good, huh? Like I said, it’s a swell theory.

The problem is, I’m not sure how effective this is for most people. I’ve  seen (and experienced) many extreme rack pulls that rarely carry over    to the actual deadlift. Personally, I’ve actually pulled over  900lbs from a rack and could barely lock out 700 in the full range deadlift.

Now, perhaps this 900lb rack pull allowed me to lock out the 700, but  I have a seriously hard time believing that.

I think part of the problem is how rack pulls are performed in training. Most  of the time these are done for sets of 1, working up to a 1RM. That’s  fine and dandy if you want to test your rack pull and see where you’re at. But all that does is test you, not build you: if training to    a 1RM was all you needed to get stronger, then all you’d have to  do is enter a meet each week and max!

Question: How many times have you seen a lifter hit the weight room  and work up to a max single on the bench press? And do this every single  workout? And where is this person a year from now?

Answer: He’s the same. Or he’s hurt, or overtrained, or worst of all, he’s sitting at home arguing on the Internet about  strength training.

The rack pull needs to be treated in the same way as we treat other  assistance work, but with an added caution: there’s a difference between rack pulls and back extensions, and doing multiple sets of 10-20  reps of back extensions isn’t nearly as stressful as doing the same thing with rack pulls.

Having said that, perhaps doing repetitions on some of the popular 1RM exercises like rack pulls will help develop and strengthen the areas that they’re designed to help. Doing some sets of 5-10 reps  certainly won’t hurt you, and will probably develop some much-needed  muscle mass.

But these need to be programmed into your training with caution, son.  So let’s say you’re running my 5/3/1 program and wish to add  rack pulls into the training. Because it’s a bigger assistance exercise,    we can easily account for it with some minor changes:


65% x 5, 75% x 5, 85% x 5 (don’t go for max reps on the  final set)

Rack Deadlifts

4 x 6-8 reps at 80% of rack dead max

Glute Ham Raises

3 sets of 10

Ab Wheel

3 sets of 20

As for setup: where the bar is positioned during the rack pull is largely  going to be determined by your power rack. Racks with large spaces  between holes obviously limit you, although you can put the bar in the rack and adjust the height of your feet with mats or plates. Truth    is though, that’s a major pain in the ass, so just pick a setting  below your knees and tug away.

Notice I said BELOW the knees. I’m not a fan of very high rack    pulls (above the knees) namely because, a) it ends up being yet another    faggity ego contest, b) the bar bends and ends up being an even shorter  rack pull and, c) the body position during the rack pull is vastly different    than when used during the full range deadlift. In other words, try  to find a position below your knees.

The most important thing to remember is this: The rack pull is not the    end itself, but a means to an end. Don’t be one of those guys that  plays for Team Rack Pull and shits the bed when it comes time to pull  from the floor. No one cares what you can tug from pin #9 (with straps); we care what you do from the floor with just a belt.

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  • Comment by Mike Beech — September 28, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

    I read something similar that you wrote a while back and took it to heart. I have never experienced any carryover from maxing out rack pulls. When I do them now it’s basically exactly what you outlined above. I’m not a fan of straps for these, so 8 reps is usually the most I’m gonna crank out.

    More generally speaking, I think your message about assistance work (even big movements like pin pulls and floor presses) being first and foremost for development is spot-on.

  • Comment by zach even - esh — September 29, 2011 @ 12:06 am

    Rack Pulls USED 2 work well for me, BUT, after a while, they sucked,,,, BAD. I strained my low back badly doing them…. I was inspired to do them watching all the westside videos of Chuck rack pulling.

    I eventually cut them out and felt full range and deficit deads felt best and worked best

    Well, lo and behold, one day I see video footage of Louie doin speed rack pulls for density work, I am inspired and again try them, and again fuck my back up

    I promised myself I will not be so stupid to try them again

    Wendler for President

  • Comment by Matt S — September 29, 2011 @ 12:29 am

    Nice read. Jim, do you prefer rack pulling with a mixed grip, like the one you would use for conventional or double overhand grip with straps?

  • Comment by Mike R — September 30, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

    “Don’t be one of those guys that plays for Team Rack Pull and shits the bed when it comes time to pull from the floor.” Well I got my laugh for the day. . . thanks Jim. lol

  • Comment by Gordon Wayne Watts — October 1, 2011 @ 6:12 pm

    Good point:

    I pulled 585-lbs http://www.youtube.com/gordonwaynewatts#p/u/23/oseUEhVPSKE in a very short ROM rack pull at a BW of 120-lbs in this vid (have since bumped it up to 4 singles at 635-lbs, that is, six and a half plates).

    But I have only pulled 285 from the floor, and 320 from the 4″ blocks. (Translation: Crappy and weak.)

    I am close to 5’10” with shoes, and so I do have to pull a long(er) distance, but you’re right:

    The rack pull is just a ‘bragging’ lift, and I am NOT as strong as I’d like here — you notice I did NOT post my 635 rack pull singles on my youtube — clearly, I’m ashamed that my ‘real’ deadlift is not where it should be, so these ‘extra’ lifts are fun, but in the end, they’re just ‘extra’ -and (as you rightly say) they don’t mean SQUAT if you can’t lift ‘for real.’

    PS: I took your advice and got into gear with conditioning: I tried out a 4.3 mil run, and did it in (a kind of slow) 50 minutes, which I hope is better than that 10 minute stuff I was going to do before you set me straight.

  • Comment by Max Thunder — February 4, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

    I think rack pulls are of the greatest helps when training the grip. Static holds are boring so rack pulls put you into a more “real” pulling situation.

    By the way, I don’t rack pull much more than I deadlift because of grip issues. I believe that the stronger my grip will be, the lighter the weight will feel in my hands and the better the deadlift. There just seems to be something that prevents you from using your strength when the weight is slipping off your hands. On the same wavelength, Pavel Tsatsouline always recommends to grip a weight as hard as possible for maximal strength (for any lift, whether they really tax the grip or not).

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