Last updated on November 15th, 2022 at 04:12 pm
Have you ever thought about perhaps replacing deadlifts with rack pulls?
I think we can all agree that deadlifts are one of the best (if not “the best”) exercises for overall strength.
That being said, deadlifts may not be for everyone.
Rack pulls seem like a viable alternative, but can they replace deadlifts altogether?
Let’s find out.
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Can You Replace Deadlifts With Rack Pulls?
Deadlifts and Rack Pulls work almost identical muscle groups. The deadlift allows for a greater range of motion and provides more quad and glute involvement. However, rack pulls allow you to lift more weight. This can help to improve grip strength, upper back and trap muscle development. Rack pulls are also ideal for anyone with previous lower back injuries, or simply looking to break through a deadlift plateau.
1. The Main Difference Between Deadlifts and Rack Pulls
If you’re asking me which one is the better exercise, then I’d have to say deadlifts, hands down.
The deadlift allows for a greater range of motion and there are many more stabilizing muscles at work.
I would say that deadlifts provide more whole-body exertion and greater time-under-tension.
Just these simple facts mean that the deadlift would typically lead to better muscle and strength gains.
There is more glute, quad, and even calf stimulation with deadlifts.
Plus, let’s not forget that rack pulls are often referred to as “partial deadlifts”.
This “nickname” alone tells a story.
However, this doesn’t mean that rack pulls don’t have their place.
In fact, just to confuse matters, rack pulls can provide greater muscle and strength development in certain areas of the body.
And if you’ve hit a stalling point with your deadlift then rack pulls are the ideal way to smash through this plateau.
Depending on your anatomy, body mechanics, and injury history, rack pulls can most definitely replace deadlifts.
Whereas for the rest of you, rack pulls should certainly be included in your weekly workouts.
Rack Pulls vs. Deadlifts – Which One is Most Effective?
2. Rack Pulls Can Help to Improve Lockout
Something that many of us struggle with, especially when going extremely heavy, is to lockout at the top of the deadlift.
You put every ounce of effort in to get the bar off the floor.
You shake, rattle, and struggle to straighten yourself up.
As the bar gets just about knee level, you suddenly stop.
No matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to finish off the movement and stand up straight.
The barbell seems stuck at knee level and nothing you’re going to do now is going to shift it.
So, you drop the weight back to the ground.
It’s time to take five or maybe 3 (minutes) before you try again.
If you are struggling to lockout at the top of the movement with deadlifts then the solution is definitely rack pulls.
There are typically three different heights at which you can perform rack pulls, namely, knee level, and below or above the knee.
However, each of these variations further reduces the range of motion.
So, in effect, even though you are still using your leg muscles to some extent, you are more reliant on the upper back and traps.
Basically, you don’t have to put everything into ripping that weight off the floor.
You are simply concentrating on the “final three-quarters” of the deadlift.
You should find that you can easily lockout at the top of a rack pull with the same weight that causes you to struggle with the deadlift.
3. Rack Pulls Allow For Heavier Lifts
There’s no two ways about it, you can lift heavier weights with rack pulls.
Due to the reduced range of motion, i.e. the starting and ending point of the bar, you’ll be able to lift more weight.
Additionally, you will typically be able to perform more reps of rack pulls with a heavier weight.
Okay, you may not be going through the increased range of motion of a deadlift.
You may not be working certain muscles of the lower body to such an extent with rack pulls.
But, lifting very heavy weights will stimulate your Central Nervous System and various hormones in order to promote growth.
In layman’s terms – the heavier weights you pull, the bigger and stronger you can expect to get.
4. Improved Grip Strength With Rack Pulls
Pure and simple, lifting heavier weights with rack pulls will improve your grip strength.
In fact, for most of us it is our grip strength that limits the amount of weight that we can deadlift.
Plus, grip strength is a predictor for your overall strength and health.
Researchers have stated that a stronger grip can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
So, the health benefits of a stronger grip are plain for all to see.
And, in reality, who of us doesn’t want a stronger grip?
Increased grip strength typically translates to heavier weights in just about every lift.
And this of course leads to more muscle and more strength.
So, the increased loads that you’ll be pulling with rack pulls will definitely be more taxing on the hands and forearms.
The eventual results, a stronger grip.
5. Rack Pulls Increase Thickness in the Upper Back and Traps
I’ve mentioned that deadlifts have more of a focus on the muscles of the lower body.
And it’s true that deadlifts stimulate the mid-back, lower back, and traps to great effect.
However, there’s no contest when it comes to building thickness in the upper back and traps.
You can increase the impact on the upper back and traps by reducing the range of motion further with rack pulls.
So, a rack pull starting position of above the knee will provide greater upper back and trap stimulation than starting below the knee.
And it goes without saying that this stimulation is far greater than when you’re lifting from the floor, as you do with deadlifts.
In fact, reduced range of motion rack pulls will probably be the heaviest weight you will lift to work both the upper back and traps.
Heavy Rack Pulls – Workout to Blast Your Back
6. Rack Pulls Could Be Better If You’ve Had a Lower Back Injury
One of the main reasons you may wish to replace deadlifts with rack pulls is if you have a history of injuries.
I for one, have had my fair share of herniated and bulging discs.
So, I know just what a great exercise rack pulls can be on the road to recovery.
I would also say that if you’re new to deadlifts then rack pulls could be a safer starting point.
Deadlifts are extremely taxing on the body, and if not performed correctly, this could lead to injury.
So, if you are someone who has had previous lower back injuries, or are worried about a potential injury, then rack pulls are certainly the better option.
You still have the opportunity to lift plenty of weight, but with a lot less stress on the lower back.
7. Rack Pulls Could Help You Smash Through A Deadlift Plateau
If you’re stuck on a certain deadlift weight, rack pulls could be the ideal solution.
In fact, I will categorically state that replacing deadlifts with rack pulls for a while will help you to smash through your training plateau.
If you’ve found that your deadlift numbers just haven’t been budging for a while now, it’s time to take a step back.
I would actually recommend avoiding the traditional deadlift for 3-4 weeks.
During this time replace your usual deadlift day with rack pulls.
You’ll immediately get used to pulling more weight and holding that weight in your hands.
Work on the principle of progressive overload with rack pulls during your “deadlift sabbatical”.
Start off with your current deadlift weight on rack pulls and add 5-10lbs to the bar each subsequent training session.
You could even try rack pulls more often during the week and allocate at least one training session to lower weight, higher rep rack pulls.
There’s obviously far less stress on the lower back with rack pulls, so you can definitely perform the movement more often that you would deadlift.
By the time you go back to deadlifts a few weeks later you should find that you’ve bust through that frustrating plateau and increased your max lift.
How to Rack Pull – Increase Your Deadlift MAX
Hopefully you now have a better idea of whether you can replace deadlifts with rack pulls.
As I’ve mentioned, I view deadlifts as the better overall exercise, but rack pulls certainly have their place in your routine.
In fact, I would primarily use rack pulls to bust through a deadlift plateau.
If you want to take your deadlift (or rack pull) game to the next level there’s only one person you would turn to.
Dave Dellanave is viewed as the authority on the deadlift in the Health and Fitness industry.
Basically, if you want to know anything about deadlifts, then you listen to this record-breaker.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to review Dave’s workout program, which showcases over 30 deadlift variations and accessory lifts.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.