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Starting Strength in the Real World

Rack Pulls 101

by Nick Delgadillo, SSC | April 21, 2020

rack pull

The first modification to most guys’ Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression will either be a change to deadlift programming or to press programming. And no matter which comes first, the second is always close behind. The interesting thing is that the change in programming for each of these lifts becomes necessary at around the same time, but for different reasons due to the nature of the stress that each of these lifts imparts. The press slows down due to a lack of stress, while the deadlift slows down because it quickly becomes too stressful within the context of the whole program. You are a grown 200 lb man and your 145 lb press is not systemically stressful after a couple of months of doing the program, while your 315 lb deadlift starts to get quite rough, especially considering that you’re squatting three days a week as well. 

Given the short range of motion, the ability to handle significant loads, and the use of damn near every single muscle in your body to move those loads, the opposite approach to what I outline in Intermediate Programming for the Upper Body Lifts is taken for the deadlift. The mechanical problem in terms of balance is “easier” for your body to solve and therefore you are able to lift a bunch of weight, you don’t have to practice the lift heavy as often, like you would a press, and you are able to impart a huge systemic stress with relatively low frequency. So in most cases, the first change to deadlift programming involves doing less deadlifting – first alternating the deadlift with a power clean, and then deadlifting only once per week. Most guys are doing this type of programming for the pulls within 8-12 weeks of starting the program:

  • Monday: Deadlift 1x5
  • Wednesday: Chin-Ups or Weighted Chins
  • Friday: Power Clean or Light Deadlift

Just to throw some numbers out, I’d expect a normal healthy guy who started the program with a 150-180 lb deadlift to be pulling in the mid-300s at this point with a squat that’s somewhere in the high 200s to low 300s. The important thing to understand is that deadlifting once a week works well for a long time. This HLM type setup with a heavy pull on Monday, a light pull on Wednesday, and medium pull on Friday will get most people a lot of mileage. Well after your squat has gone to intermediate and into advanced programming, you may still be adding weight to your heavy pulling day every week. The way to get this accomplished is to get comfortable with pulling very heavy once a week for a set of 5. 

Completing a set of 5 deadlifts for most people is the hardest thing that can be done in the weight room. Deadlifts are particularly hard because they require that you decide to pick the bar up off the floor and to not stop pulling once it’s off the floor. Alternatively, in the squat, once you’ve started you’re committed, and the decision to quit on a squat mid-rep requires a new set of decisions that most aren’t willing to explore. 

As such, people are much more likely to grind through a tough squat while a deadlift is easy enough to just put back down on the floor, or to not go through the effort of breaking off the floor in the first place. This is especially true for the last rep of a set of 5. I’d suggest that Rippetoe add a 4th question to the First Three Questions: “Are you completing all of your deadlifts?” It’s common enough that a guy is stuck on his program for no other reason other than he’s been skipping deadlift reps here and there. 

So, let’s get to the point. I want you to pull heavy, and I want you to pull sets of 5. You need to do this every week for as long as you possibly can. When your deadlift gets sufficiently heavy that you think you may need to switch to 3s, “try deficits,” take a break from deadlifting, or some other stupid idea, instead switch to rack pulls and keep doing sets of 5. You’ll do this by setting the bar up on the pins so that the bar is right below your knees at about the tibial tuberosity and pulling from that position to the lockout. 

The thing with rack pulls is that they put you in a position that makes it fairly difficult to get the bar going if you’re doing them for the first time. The advantage is that you’ll immediately be able to set your back really well since the hamstrings aren’t as tight while you’re trying to set your back. Walk up to the bar and get really close. Close enough that your shins are nearly vertical. Reach down and take your grip while loading up your hands, arms, back, and feet with the weight. Squeeze your chest up and get your low back as tight as you can get it while taking a big breath in. Once you’re set and tight, push the floor straight down like you’re leg pressing. 

These are all things you’ve already been doing in your deadlift, but the difference is that when you rack pull you will be pushing the floor for a time in which it feels like the bar is not moving. You just have to keep pushing. Once you get this down, the rack pulls will feel easier for a short time before they get really heavy. Go for as long as you can, pulling a heavy set of 5 off the pins once a week before making any further programming changes to your pulls beyond an HLM setup: 

  • Monday - Rack Pull 1x5
  • Wednesday - Weighted Chins/Power Clean
  • Friday - Light Deadlift 

The great thing about rack pulls is that you can do them very heavy, and the reduction in range of motion makes it so that you can continue to pull heavy weekly. If you can lock out a weight that’s well in excess of what you can pull off the floor, and if you’re an intermediate or late intermediate lifter, pretty much any weight you can break off the floor can be locked out when the time comes for a meet or competition. 

The deadlift is big, giant, gross motor movement that involves heavy weight and lots of muscle mass. They are not technique dependent and are limited almost entirely by the ability to produce the requisite amount of force to move the weight. By switching to rack pulls, you are able to take advantage of the ability to keep loading the pull relatively quickly while sacrificing some range of motion. The trade-off of pulling in excess of 100 lbs over your deadlift weight with a shorter range of motion while staying with sets of 5 seems to be a good one, given the need for absolute force production and low skill necessary for the pull within the program. I’ve found this to be a much better alternative to switching to 3s or some other programming scheme for the deadlift in the long run. 

So keep it simple and keep it heavy. Pulling big weights off the pins will pay off in the long run for your deadlift and for your whole program.

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