Rack Pull Tidbits

The rack pull is a great exercise for developing the hamstring’s ability to withstand massive amounts of tension to improve the deadlift lockout. I prefer to program them for “intermediates”, and usually those that are more experienced in that realm. Don’t get hung up on labels like “beginner”, “intermediate”, and “advanced”; I’m merely referring to someone that’s been involved with “intermediate level” programming (typically defined by a weekly stress/adaptation cycle) for at least three to six months. They can be used with less experienced trainees if they have a severe deficiency in hamstring involvement in the deadlift. This post doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive lesson in how to do rack pulls, but highlighting some key points.

Starting Position
Whenever I use the term “rack pull”, I’m referring to one in which the bar starts below the patella (knee cap) and at the upper part of the tibial tuberosity (the bony potrusion on the tibia that is below the patella). Other people may call these “below the knee rack pulls”. This style of rack pull is much harder to do than it’s “above the knee” counter part because it is supposed to remove the quadriceps from pushing the bar up. Instead, it’s aim is to load the hamstrings and force them to extend the hips while the lumbar erectors hold the pelvis in place. I bring your attention to this picture I drew in MS Paint to illustrate this point in a Q&A in January.

Note that the lumbar will help hold the pelvis in a neutral position to allow the hamstrings to stay stretched (left side). If the lumbar fail, then the pelvis will posteriorily tilt and slackens the hamstring (right side).

The “below the knee” starting position puts a much higher demand on the hamstrings and lumbar, and that’s why it’s preferable. It’s likely that the lifter won’t be able to rack pull as much as they deadlift, and it’s often much less with these mechanics. That is okay, because the point is to train hamstrings to extend the hips while under immense tension. If a deadlift lockout is void of hamstring involvement, then the lumbar spine rounds and puts unhappy stress on the vertebrae. Injury potential increases and muscular involvement decreases. A deadlifter will pull more weight if he actually had strong hamstrings and actually used them, and that’s what the deadlift will train.

The Knee Position
A good starting position won’t guarantee a good movement pattern. The primary thing we’re trying to avoid is the knees moving forward under the bar. This knee flexion will reduce the tension on the hamstrings (because the hamstrings cross both the knee and hip joints). It occurs because the hamstrings are unable to handle the tension, and the body shifts to remove that tension. The result is that the bar doesn’t move up, yet the torso becomes more vertical. It almost always rounds the lumbar spine because the hips have to move forward since they are attached to the other end of the femur. The result is that the lifter quad pressed the weight up with a rounded lumbar spine, and then must extend that lumbar spine to finish the lockout. It’s not a good position and significantly increases the chance for injury. Here’s an example:

This is just a random video I found, and this guy might be very strong, but his hamstrings weren’t adapted to handling large amounts of tension here. He actually has a good starting position (with vertical shins), but you can see his hamstrings shaking (tut-tut-tut) and then the knees shift under the bar. Re-watch it and look at his lower back; it rounds. It’s not terrible, but it’s there. Look at the picture/diagram I drew above; he’s doing what’s on the right side. This won’t be productive for improving the hamstring strength or deadlift lockout.

Here are two videos of Mike and Chris (rack pulls start at 2:33 and :53 respectively)



You can’t see their shins, but they are vertical. You can note the care and precision they have in keeping their lumbar in neutral position. Had their lumbar rounded, their hamstrings would shorten and be removed of tension. Both of them do an excellent job of this, but I’m particularly proud of Mike’s diligence because his deadlift lockouts are pretty fugly (he has exceptionally long femurs, and this makes it hard to lock DL’s out; his lumbar is usually pretty round). Chris’ body type (long torso, short femurs) was made to deadlift. Both focus on keeping their hamstrings and lumbar tight. Note that both of them are rack pulling below their known 1RMs (at one point Chris rack pulled 700×1 at one point, but a little over a month later deadlifted 705).

If you decide to use rack pulls in your training, take care to use a vertical shin starting position and do not allow your knees to track forward underneath the bar. Remember that with this movement, knee flexion will slacken the hamstrings and reduce tension. The entire point of this exercise is to train the hamstrings to extend the hips while experiencing extremely high amounts of tension so that when they are called to do so in a deadlift lockout (say, on a third attempt), it’s not a big deal.

21 thoughts on “Rack Pull Tidbits

  1. damn. Wish you had posted this Tuesday – I did rack pulls that night. I could have videoed the lifts and been able to see if it was all going well – or to crap. Will video next time.

  2. Sir Justin – as far as training frequency how often should a guy on TM or SSLP program in rack pulls?


    It depends. As harveymushman says below, you won’t rack pull on a linear progression. I would, however, have you RDL on a linear progression.

    On a TM it depends. I’ve had some people alternate between rack pulls and DLs every week, but that might require pulling the DL weight back a bit (if they are to the point where deadlifting weekly is too much stress). How rack pulls are used in a cycle is discussed in the second e-book I’m doing.


  3. This is exactly what I needed. My back is still rounding (like in the video) which I think is due to weak hamstring strength; I’ll add this into my deadlifting days. Much appreciated brah.


  4. Is there a preferred hip height for chris’ body type? I also have a longer torso than femurs, but I have short arms so I still have trouble finding the right way to deadlift, and would rather stick with conventional than sumo. I tend to notice I can get very little hamstring tension with lower hips, and can’t lift nearly as much.

    Also, what would be a good way to improve movement off the floor? having the bar at a deficit?

    Lot of questions here. What is your ht/wt and how much do you squat?

    There is no “hip height” that would indicate body type because the leg length would effect that. If you have a long torso and short arms, as you say, then you won’t be very efficient with deadlifting (I know because I’m the same way). That doesn’t mean you can’t train the lift and get it to a respectful level. I would suggest not wearing weightlifting shoes in your case (if your dimensions are actually what you say they are — some people get them confused).


  5. I’m done with 1×5 deadlifts and know that reps of 3 are next…do I stay with one work set?

    I don’t have any context of your program. Typically the answer is yes. Depending on your frequency, you could do a back off triple at like…75 to 80% of whatever you did for the heavy work set. (So if you did 405×3, that’d be a back off triple at 315×3).


  6. I’m embarrassed to have to ask this, but does this mean that if my body shakes a shitload during heavy deadlifts (it does), that it must be a hamstring weakness?

    I ask because not only is that the case, but my hamstrings are also VERY sore after nearly every squatting session, in spite of what (at least I believe) is fairly good form and consistency (2 times per week most weeks, 1 time occasionally). I should also note that I use more of a high bar position because I have NEVER been able to find the low bar position on my back.

  7. Answering your response to my earlier post Justin.

    5’9″ around 190lbs give or take. Best squat is 350 for 3×5 which was around 5 weeks ago doing SS. I’ve never pulled heavier than 275×5 though. This comes from both the shitty proportions, and just a general hate of the movement, which is why I’m asking about hip height. I can’t seem to find the right height, and I tweaked my back right after that 350 squat because I tried deadlifting with my hips at the height that most people do, and couldn’t get my hamstrings into it enough, and my low back strained. I was fine until about the next day, and had to take some time off to rehab it. It’s fine now, but I reset my weights to work on form (also to try toes more forward squatting) and would like to try and progress them evenly this time around, or with my deadlift higher than my squat.

    As far as shoes, our power racks are built on platforms, so I usually deadlift with boxes on the sides that are about 2″ high so it negates my lifting shoes. Said platform is some shitty glossy wood like a bball court, so socks slide too much and barefoot is banned. Uni gym.

  8. Do you advocate heavy singles on the rack pull like these? It seems like many coaches using the rack pull seem to think there isn’t much translation from 1RM in the rack pull to 1RM in the dead.

  9. Justin – what’s your thinking behind suggesting rack pulls for intermediates instead of RDLs? Less force on lower back? Able to handle more weight?

  10. thanks for the info Justin and harveymushman. I’m at the tail end of SS and hoping to move to TM within the next 8 weeks or less. I just want to wear big boy pants and do rack pulls.

  11. How would RDL’s fit into ss? I’m now deadlifting around 350 pounds and I like the pulling exercises. I deadlift and power clean both once a week.

  12. This is a very timely post. Been doing 5-3-1 for 3 months while trying to lose weight. Wanted to test my max deadlift, so I went for it after 531 day. I hit a 10 lb PR while weighing 10 lbs less. Only to later I realized after rewatching my video, I did a lot of rebend of my knees.

    Do you have any suggestions of incorporating rack pulls? Should I do it as assistance? Or just replace deadlift with it?


    Vid of the terrible lift.


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