The Return of the Rack Pull

squats
Photo credit: bodybuilding.com

I broke a lot of my own rules this morning. But let me back up a bit.

Last night, my wife asked if I was going to the gym today. Yesterday morning, I didn’t. After my messed up experience with back squats on Wednesday, my legs, and particularly my left leg, were really sore…OK, really beat up, so I thought I’d give them a break.

But since she wanted to go to the gym with me this morning, I said “yes” and figured I’d do a little light cardio and core work.

When we got to the gym, the missus got on her cardio machine, and I got on mine. I did the usual 35 minutes dripping sweat all over everything, figuring I’d do gut work afterwards. That didn’t happen.

I got off the elliptical and recorded what I did in my exercise log. Then I noticed that the squat rack was looking pretty neglected. I’d been thinking about rack pulls off and on for a few weeks now. My current lifting schedule doesn’t allow me much flexibility to throw them in the mix.

But today I thought, “what the heck.” I wasn’t planning on lifting too aggressively, especially since I didn’t have anything for carbs before going to the gym, my legs were a little sore (but a lot better than yesterday), and I was still feeling a little groggy from (probably) insufficient sleep.

But then I surprised myself.

Rack Pulls in Squat Rack

10x 135lbs/61.235kg (warm up)
5x 205lbs/92.9864kg
5x 225lbs/102.058kg
5x 255lbs/115.666kg
3x 275lbs/124.738kg
1x 295lbs/133.81kg PR

There were a couple in the weight room…literally a couple, man and woman, working out, along with one or two of the other regulars. But everyone was doing dumbbell work or on some weight plate machines, so I had the squat rack to myself.

rack pullI started out really light just to warm up (more on that in a minute). Snapped off 10 reps at 135 pounds. Then I jacked it up to 205 and did another 5 reps. Even 205 felt heavy to pull off the rack for the first rep. After that though, it was just a matter of continuing the motion.

Same with 225 and 255. Pulling up 275 pounds, right around my 1 rep max for a deadlift, did feel pretty heavy, but I still managed 3 reps, which told me I could go heavier and seek out a single. The heaviest rack pull I’ve ever done was 290 pounds for one rep. I put 295 on the barbell and waited.

After a couple of minutes rest, I felt I was ready. Had plenty of time on the clock still, so there was no rush. No one around me even looked like they wanted to squat.

Then I took my position, tightened up everything…and pulled.

It came off the support bars but really slowly. For a couple of seconds, I thought I was going to stall. I hate that feeling when the barbell is just a little too heavy, and I’m feeling just a little too tired, so I kept on going. I kept expecting the barbell to tug me back toward the floor, but I kept on going.

I couldn’t believe it when I was fully erect and forced myself that last inch or so to do the lockout at the top of the lift.

Finally, a new PR! It’s been forever, and I didn’t even plan for this. This isn’t part of my regular routine. I just had the impulse.

After that, I did my usual Kasey the Killer Chiropractor core work stuff except for the balancing act. Before I got to that, I noticed it was nearly 10 after 6 and I had to get ready for work. My wife was on a stair master machine talking with the woman next to her, Leslie’s her name I think.

Anyway, that’s the wife’s “cool down” routine when she’s just killing time waiting for me. So I let her know I was done and home we went.

I was curious about how my performance today compared to previous rack pulls, so I looked up the last couple of times I did them. The results are below.

February 18

5/3/1+ week

5x 155lbs/70.3068kg (warm up)
5x 175lbs/79.3787kg
3x 215lbs/97.5224kg
5x 235lbs/106.594kg (1+)
3x 255lbs/115.666kg (joker)
1x 275lbs/124.738kg (joker)
1x 290lbs/131.542kg (joker) PR

rack pulls
Photo: nailsworthstrengthandfitness.co.uk

February 25

5/5/5+ week

5x 155lbs/70.3068kg (warm up)
5x 175lbs/79.3787kg
5x 205lbs/92.9864kg
8x 220lbs/99.7903kg (5+)
5x 235lbs/106.594kg (joker)
3x 260lbs/117.934kg (joker)
1x 280lbs/127.006kg (joker)
0x 295lbs/133.81kg (joker)

As you can see, my previous PR for the rack pull was a single at 290 pounds almost 2 months ago. I tried for 295 the following week and failed the rep. After that, I changed from lifting four times a week to twice a week and had to cut rack pulls from my routine for the sake of time.

Besides the new PR, the other interesting thing is that 7 weeks ago, I could only do a single at 275 pounds and today at the same weight, I did 3 reps.

So at least as far as deadlift-type work goes, I am getting marginally stronger.

My sore left thigh was fine, but then rack pulls take the legs almost completely out of the equation. Besides that though, they work the back the same way as a deadlift.

I think my grip is getting stronger. I kept using an overhand grip with both hands through 225 pounds and only switched the right hand when I went up to 255.

However, on the down side, I noticed periodic stabs of pain on the left and right side of my right kneecap. Something to talk to Kasey the Chiropractor about.

I said something before about warm ups that I want to expand upon. Yesterday, I read an article called “Our warm-up is…a warm up” written by Niki Sims for StartingStrength.com.

Most of the people I see at the gym, regardless of what sort of workout they plan to do, start with a 5 to 10 minute warm up session on some sort of cardio machine. Even if they plan to lift for the full time they’re at the gym, folks generally warm up doing light cardio work, sometimes just walking on a treadmill.

I remember reading somewhere that said there’s a philosophy among some bodybuilders and strength trainers to warm up on the exercise they’re planning to do. For instance, when I plan to do back squats. I warm up doing light back squats, usually starting with just the bar.

squatting to a bench
Photo: Livestrong.com’s YouTube channel

The Sims article added some vindication to that decision, but not quite as much as you might think.

So, what is the best way to get ready for your work set?

You can start with up to 5 minutes on a bike or a rowing machine, to “get the juices flowing” or if you’re feeling cold. Choose these pieces of equipment over others, such as a treadmill or elliptical, as the range of motion better mimics that of the squats you’re about to do.

Then, rather than stretching for 30 minutes, get under an empty bar and squat it for a set of 5. Foam roll or take a lacrosse ball to nagging areas for just a couple minutes if it makes you feel happier, then take the bar for another set of 5. If you are older, creakier, or more injured, repeat this for up to 3 more sets. The range of motion may not be there for these empty bar sets, but assuming you have proper form and coaching, a loaded bar will change that.

Since there is only one squat rack at my gym and timing is everything, I’d skip the 5 minutes on the bike myself, and start right away with lightweight squats. Also, since time is usually limited and I don’t want to hog the rack all day long, I only do one warm up at 45 pounds and a second at 95 before launching into my working sets.

But Sims is talking about 3 to 5 warm up sets just with the bar before moving into heavier warm ups, and then finally into the working sets. I wish I had the luxury. Of course in the example she gives, the working sets are with a 275 pound barbell, which is well beyond my current abilities:

Erg for 3 minutes
EB (Empty Bar) x5
Foam roll legs because it feels nice
EBx5
95×5
145×3
190×2
235×2
Work set – 275x5x3

personal trainer squat
Photo: pinterest.com

Notice the warm up sets, once you get past the empty bar, start modestly and then the weight increases pretty aggressively (at least for me). My PR for the back squat is a single at 195 pounds, and with my left leg being what it is, I can’t get past a single at 180 pounds this week.

190×2 is looking somewhat “doable” in the more or less near future, but the rest of it…forget it.

But there’s a method to all this according to Sims:

Notice that the jumps in weight between the earlier warm-up sets are slightly higher than at the end. The difference between 275lbs and 45lbs is 230, and across 5 jumps, that’s 46lbs. We’ve slightly front-loaded the weight distribution between the difference of the work weight and that of the empty bar so that you’re not taking a large jump between your last warm-up and first work set.

But like I said, I can afford only 2 warm up sets before launching into my working sets and then the jokers.

Sims recommends multiple warm up sets with an empty bar for all main lifts except the deadlift:

However, the deadlift will be a little different because we don’t start with an empty bar. At this point in your session you are already warm and do not need multiple sets to get you ready. Also, we want to warm the deadlift up with plates on the bar. If you use an empty bar, you are effectively doing a different exercise by changing the range of motion to something too much or too little, and instead of pulling from a dead stop, like you do with plates on, you are starting with an eccentric contraction in the primary movers.

If your work set is less than 135×5, your first warm-up should be 65×5. When your work set is 185×5, make your first warm-up 95×5. In both of these cases, you will need full-diameter plates lighter than the 45lb/20kg plates, like bumper plates or plastic training plates. When you are pulling above 225 for your work set, start with 135×5.

No need to do multiple sets of our “empty bar” here. Make even jumps with tapered reps up to your work set. For example, say you are deadlifting 335×5 today, your warm-up would look like this:

135×5
185×5
235×3
285×2
335×5

My warm up set for deadlifts is 135 pounds doing 10 reps. Historically, I warm up with a 155 pound barbell for rack pulls but only do 5 reps. Today, I mimicked my warm up for deadlifts just for giggles, and aggressively increased the weight from there.

snatch deadlift
Photo credit: crossfittidalwave.com

Of course doing 5 reps with a 335 pound barbell for either deadlifts or rack pulls is only a dream right now. I’d be happy if I could do either at 300. Nearly made that with rack pulls today, but 295 felt astonishingly heavy and it came up ever so slowly. I had a lot of time to think during that one rep.

So it really isn’t crazy to warm up at the exercise you plan on doing right off the bat. Just go really light and, if you have the time and sustained access to the equipment, do multiple lightweight warm up sets to get your body ready for the real work.

Today, I broke all the rules I have for myself. I did cardio before lifting, which is usually the kiss of death if you want to have max strength and endurance in lifting heavy. I lifted only 2 days after my previous lift day, and the day after tomorrow, I have deadlifts scheduled, which is substantially similar to rack pulls.

And I lifted on impulse and outside my plan…

…but it felt so good.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to do is on the other side of fear.

George Addair

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2 thoughts on “The Return of the Rack Pull

  1. Yes that Niki is one strong lady and her warm up routine is similar to what I do, alas not so much weight at the end. Glad you got good results with the rack pulls . Sometimes you have to do what you feel like doing and get a good workout.

    Like

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