A Great Tool For The Job

As you all know by now, I am pretty unconventional in the way I approach weightlifting: everything from training programming to exercise selection. The way I do things is just completely different from the norm. If you have followed my blog then you know by now that I tend to do a lot of stuff that is not, let’s say, common gym practice.

Most of what I do tends to get me a few odd stares and puzzled faces every time I step foot in the gym. But that’s ok, you get used to it after a while! One of the biggest attention drawers in the gym tends to be the good old rack pulls about the knee. Although an incredibly effective exercise, it is one that is greatly misunderstood in the weightlifting world. Which is a shame because if you know its uses, it can serve as an awesome addition to your long-term size and strength training routine.

Why The Rack Pull Above The Knee Is Misunderstood

When it comes to the rack pull above the knee, there is one phrase I come across regularly: it’s simply no more than a cheating deadlift. Ok, I can understand why many might say this. After all, it does represent the very top end of a full range of motion (ROM) deadlift (the lockout). But, just because the rack pull above the knee represents a very tiny part of a deadlift, doesn’t mean I am trying to cheat it or replace it for something that’s going to allow me to show off more in the gym. In fact, in my routine, they both serve a very special and unique purpose. One does not replace the other!

“They both serve a very special and unique purpose. One does not replace the other!”

Another problem that people regularly say is that the ROM is way too small to have any positive effect. If you have ever seen a rack pull above the knee being performed, you will see that the distance the bar actually moves is almost non-existent. You might be in the gym and thinking: wait, what? All that weight and the bar has hardly moved, what’s going on! This gets the ROM police every time. If you believe that full ROM is needed for gains, then you are going to really hate this exercise with a passion. But guess what, even though the ROM is small, one thing you will quickly notice is the incredible force and stretch in your back and core when you perform it. In fact, it is the incredibly small ROM that makes the rack pull above the knee an incredibly effective exercise: it puts you in a mechanically advantaged position to pull more weight and overload more. Although you might not be performing a large ROM, it’s the intense stretch that you experience during this exercise, which stimulates the great gains you will make.

RACK PULL1.png

  • Here, “H” represents the hip joint and the “blue line” the distance of the hip joint from the line of action of the force (the weight on the bar – downwards). Due to the open joint angles (body in a vertical position) and thus the short-distance between the hips and the bar, the rotational forces that the hips need to generate to overcome the weight are incredibly small.
  • “K” represents the knee joint – again, the open joint angles of the knee, put the knee very close to the line of action of force, meaning that the knees don’t have to generate as much torque to overcome the weight.

RACK PULLS2.png

  • Here, “H” represents the hip joints. Unlike the rack pull above the knee, the more closed joint angles, put the hips further away from the line of action of force (green line), meaning that the hips now have to generate more rotational forces to overcome the weight. Making it harder to overload.

With rack pulls above the knee, you will always be able to load up the bar with a lot of weight. The body position you adopt and the short ROM means that unlike most exercises, the potential to overload with a lot of weight is high. When it comes to pure progressive overload, this is exactly what you want to make long-term progress. If you are looking to develop your back, then rack pulls above the knee are by far the best tool for this job. The great thing about the short ROM and the body position in the rack pull above the knee is that you take away the parts of the lift that are naturally your weakest (sticking points). Although the full ROM deadlift is great for your back, it’s not great enough. Why? In a deadlift, people will always tend to be weakest at the floor and around the knees and strongest above. In other words, weak legs can inhibit your true ability to overload your back. I mean you have to get past your legs to be able to reach your back, right? So guess what? Why not remove the ROM that includes the legs and go straight to isolating the back? Rack pulls above the knee!

Safety Is Number One Priority

Regularly, people say that rack pulls above the knee are a no go because they are incredibly dangerous. The short ROM, huge amounts of weight on the bar mean that you are on the way to truly hammering your central nervous system, joints, muscles and connective tissue. Ultimately, your risk of injury is high. I couldn’t disagree more. Like any exercise, you have to think about a few things. Only then, can you truly say whether an exercise is dangerous or not.

One of the main things to consider is mechanical leverage: the position your body adopts during the exercise. In a rack pull above the knee, the open joint angles and an almost vertical body position means that the forces generated around your joints are actually pretty small in comparison to most other full ROM exercises (including the deadlift). Simply put, your joints are not taxed to the same extent. In a rack pull above the knee, you are simply closer to the line of force action (the bar) meaning that high rotational forces around your joints are now not needed to allow you to overcome the weight. This is less stress on your joints. This is why it always feels easier lifting the same amount of weight on a rack pull above the knee than in a full ROM deadlift.

“It’s time to stop comparing rack pulls above the knee with full ROM deadlifts”

Even if an exercise puts you in a mechanically advanced position, it can still be dangerous if you haven’t developed the necessary size and strength foundation, work capacity, connective tissue strength and, the ability to maintain complete control of your body during an exercise. In a rack pull above the knee, the use of heavier weights and the high degree of stretch and tension generated means that you need to have a well-developed size and strength foundation, and the ability to exercise great control of your body before using this exercise. As a beginner, you should not be touching rack pulls above the knee. Why? Simply because you haven’t yet developed the muscle, joint and connective tissue strength to withstand higher overloads and also, you have not yet learned to exercise full body tightness. Rack pulls above the knee don’t injure you because they are rack pulls above the knee. They injure you because you jumped the gun with no size and strength foundation, no connective tissue strength and no ability to maintain optimal body control during exercise execution. But here is the thing: it doesn’t matter what exercise you do, if you don’t build up to it, you will risk getting injured.

They Serve Their Purpose

Although rack pulls above the knee look a lot like cheating deadlifts, the fact is, they serve a completely different purpose. It’s time to stop comparing rack pulls above the knee with full ROM deadlifts and start seeing them as an exercise for a completely different purpose. Deadlifts are great, don’t get me wrong and you need to have them in your routine. But, if you are looking to build up your back, then rack pulls above the knees are better suited for this purpose. Even though there is little to no direct transfer to other exercises with a rack pull above the knee, the back development you get from it, will definitely help you perform better on other essential compound movements. Not to mention, if you are looking to build up an awesome back, then rack pulls above the knee will never let you down.


If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below!