What Do Rack Pulls Work?


Rack pulls are a strength-building exercise that targets the so-called posterior chain muscles that are responsible for hip and back extension. Powerlifters use rack pulls to develop their ability to achieve a strong lock out when performing deadlifts, while bodybuilders use this exercise to make their backs more muscular and thick – a process called hypertrophy. Rack pulls are normally performed with heavy weights using low repetitions and, as such, are not a suitable exercise for beginners.

Rack Pull Performance

To perform a rack pull, place a loaded barbell in a squat rack at just below knee-height. Grasp the bar with a shoulder-width overhand or mixed grip and stand with your feet directly below the bar. Bend your knees slightly, lift your chest and contract your core muscles. With straight arms, extend your hips and stand upright. Hold this uppermost position for a second before pushing your hips back, leaning forward and lowering the bar back to the rack. Make sure that you do not allow your lower back to become rounded at any point during this exercise, as this can lead to injury.

Hip Extensor Muscles

Rack pulls require and develop the muscles that extend your hip; specifically your gluteus maximus or butt muscle, and your hamstrings on the backs of your thighs. Hip extension is an essential part of many athletic movements, including lifting, running, throwing and jumping. The action of extending your hips is emphasized during the rack pull, as almost all of the movement in this exercise is due to driving the hips forward, as opposed to knee extension, which uses the quadriceps.

Back Extensor Muscles

In rack pulls, your hips act as the fulcrum, or pivot point, while your thighs and spine act as levers. The muscles of your lower back, your erector spinae, must contract very hard to ensure that your spine remains locked in position. This action keeps the stress of the exercise on your muscles and off your more passive ligaments and spine disks. Although your erector spinae generate a lot of force during rack pulls, they do not change length. This is called an isometric or static contraction.

Shoulder Retractor Muscles

It is very important that, when performing rack pulls, you keep your shoulders pulled back. Pulling your shoulders back helps to lift your chest, which promotes a strong lower back arch – essential for safe performance of this exercise. The action of pulling your shoulders back, called retraction, during this exercise will strengthen the muscles between your shoulder blades, specifically your middle trapezius and rhomboids. Strengthening these muscles can help improve your posture.

Gripping Muscles

The weakest link in the rack pull exercise if usually your hands. Some lifters work around this by using wrist straps or special training hooks. While such practices may enhance your short-term lifting performance, lifting without these aids will help increase your grip strength. A strong grip is important for many sports including wrestling, judo, football, rugby and climbing.