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What Is the Rack Pulls Exercise and How Can It Benefit Runners?

One expert explains why we need this barbell move and how to do it correctly to maximize benefits.

rack pulls
Darwin Brandis

You know strength training offers many benefits for runners. For example, it helps maintain bone density, protect your joints, and increase range of motion. And research supports the idea that runners gain speedy advantages from lifting those weights. In fact, a review published in the journal Sports Medicine says that resistance training enhances a trained runner’s economy or how much oxygen you need to run a certain distance—a marker of how efficiently you can clock miles.

Whether you’ve hit the weight room countless times or you’re new to picking up weights, it’s smart to add a move called rack pulls to your routine. This move—typically performed with a barbell—is a great way for runners to gain strength and power.

To understand specifically how this exercise helps runners improve performance, and how to safely and correctly perform a rack pull, we spoke with Rena Eleazar, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a New York City-based physical therapist, strength and conditioning specialist, and founder of Match Fit Performance.

What are rack pulls and how do you do them?

A rack pull is simply a variation of a deadlift. The difference: You set the weighted barbell on supports of a power rack or on blocks, so you’re not lifting the weight from the floor. This shortens the range of motion and can allow you to lift more weight because of that shortened range of motion.

Eleazar says once you’ve set up your rack or blocks, start with an empty barbell to practice the movement. Then, slowly add weight onto the bar until you reach a proper “working weight” for the set, which should feel challenging but doable with consistent form.

Beginner Rack Pull

Advanced Rack Pull

Eleazar demonstrates the rack pull exercise above, showing a beginner version without weight on the barbell and placed on barbell racks, and an advanced version with weight added to the barbell and placed on boxes. She recommends following this how-to for maintaining proper form:

  • Stand in front of the barbell place on a rack or boxes, with the bar high enough that it’s just below the knees. Stand with feet hip-width apart, and keep feet flat on the floor with weight balanced in both feet throughout the entire move. Bend the knees softly.
  • Keeping back straight, send the butt straight back, hinging at the hips. Limit forward bending from the lower back and pull shoulders down away from ears, making sure they don’t round forward as you hinge. Grab the bar with both hands, about shoulder-width apart.
  • To do the pull, push feet into the floor and stand up tall, keeping the bar close to body.
  • Lower the bar back down toward the rack or blocks, hitting that hinge position again.
  • Repeat.

    How do runners benefit from rack pulls?

    Rack pulls are great for working on glute strength (which helps with power in your stride), lower back strength, and are especially important for endurance runners who tend to experience back pain, as a result of tackling a lot of mileage, says Eleazar.

    “The rack pull helps to improve muscular endurance of the lower back and overall can help with generalized lower back tightness and stiffness,” she says. That muscular endurance of the low back means you can withstand the work and upright posture needed on a long run, so you won’t feel aches come the finish.

    Another benefit of this exercise: For runners who have limited hamstring flexibility (as many do), a rack pull can be a smart modification over a deadlift as it shortens the range of motion needed to reach the bottom of the move.

    How should you incorporate rack pulls into your workout?

    Eleazar advises using the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) when selecting a weight. Aim for a 6 to 7 out of 10 in effort as you’re performing the move. You should feel the need to rest for about 1 to 2 minutes between sets. If you feel like you’re immediately ready to jump into the next set, you can probably increase the weight on the bar, she says.

    As for reps, start with 3 to 5 sets and 5 to 8 reps, starting on the lower end and working your way up in volume and weight as you get stronger and more comfortable with the move. Eleazar also says if your goal is to build strength, make sure to increase the weight and decrease the reps. If your goal is to build muscle mass, increase the reps, and keep the weight around a medium effort.

    “Rack pulls, when used as a main lift—a main lift is a compound movement performed after a warmup, at the beginning of a training session and usually the heaviest lift in a training session—often as a modification for deadlifts, they should be done at the beginning of a session with moderate to heavy weight,” Eleazar says.

    “A main lift, like a rack pull, can be the first movement performed after a warmup. A proper warmup elevates the heart rate, mimics the movements you will be performing in a session, and mentally gets you ready to be present in the session. Dynamic stretches are better than static stretches here,” she adds.

    Also, if you’re relatively new to strength training, Eleazar suggests incorporating rack pulls into your schedule two days a week. If you’re more experienced with lifting, add a third day. “When you’re in your running off-season it’s common to increase strength training days while running volume is lower,” she adds.

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