Rack pulls can be a great exercise but some people want to do other movements. What are some alternatives to rack pulls with similar benefits?
As the name implies, this exercise involves lifting a barbell that starts on a rack around knee height. Rack pulls work muscles like your lower back, trapezius, erector spinae, glutes, hamstrings, and forearms.
In turn, that means that rack pulls can help you build muscle mass, burn calories, and offer other typical exercise benefits.
Whether you don’t enjoy rack pulls, you don’t have a good rack available at home or in the gym, or you want an alternative for any other reason, these rack pull substitutes can offer you some or all of the same benefits.
1. Romanian deadlifts
You can describe the first alternative as a rack pull without a rack with typically a slightly bigger range of motion. To do Romanian deadlifts you do still need some type of external weights, preferably a barbell.
You could also use other free weights like dumbbells and possibly even heavy resistance bands. One downside of these last options is that they may not be heavy enough for individuals more experienced with resistance training.
Take the following steps to do a Romanian deadlift:
- Set up a rack with a barbell at a height just below where your barbell is if you stand up straight with the barbell in your hands. Add the desired number of weight plates.
- Grab the barbell with a pronated grip which means with your hand palms pointing downward/backward. Unrack the barbell and take a few steps back so that you have room for the exercise. Stand up with your feet at more or less shoulder width and your knees slightly bent.
- Slightly tilt your upper body forward as far as you can without bending your back or knees or until the bar is right below knee height. The weight plates should not hit the ground.
- Slowly move back into the position of step 2.
Good technique is important in any exercise to avoid injuries but especially so for Romanian deadlifts. Before trying to deadlift the heaviest weights it is smart to improve your technique first by starting with light or no weights at all.
As mentioned before, the Romanian deadlift is very similar to rack pulls in terms of the movement.
One difference is the slightly bigger range of motion in the Romanian deadlift. This will make the exercise focus more on your hamstrings and glutes.
Additionally, your downward motion needs to be a lot more controlled in Romanian deadlifts since you don’t have a rack to catch the barbell.
2. Good mornings
The good morning exercise is usually done with a barbell but you can also other free weights, resistance bands, and gym machines like the cable machine or smith machine.
Even at home, you could use a weighted backpack to make the bodyweight version more challenging. Take the following steps to do a good morning with a barbell:
- Find a squat rack and place the barbell at about chest height. Add the desired number of weight plates. If there are any safety bars adjust them to the right height.
- Stand under the barbell, push your shoulders up so that the barbell rests on your higher back, and hold it there with your hands.
- Unrack the barbell and take a few steps back so that you have room to squat. Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width.
- Tilt your upper body forward as far as is comfortable with a good posture (but not farther than a horizontal line). At the same time bend your knees a small amount.
- Return to the position in step 3 in a controlled motion.
- Rerack the barbell after your desired number of repetitions.
The good morning may look similar to the popular back squat exercise but you go a lot less through your knees.
This makes it so you focus more on the lower back, glute, hamstring, and erector spinae training and less on leg muscles like your calves and quadriceps.
In turn, the good morning is a rack pull alternative that targets similar leg muscles.
Some potential downsides or upsides depending on your training goals and personal situation is that the good morning exercise will work your grip and trapezius muscles a lot less than rack pulls.
3. Back extensions
It is generally recommended to use a back extension machine or roman chair at your gym for this next rack pull alternative. Take the following steps to do a back extension with the dedicated machine:
- Take place in the back extension machine. Keep a straight back for now. Make sure you are locked in place safely.
- Slowly bend down as far as you can while keeping your back straight. The bending movement comes from your hips, not your lower back.
- Move up your upper body in a controlled motion until your body is in a straight line.
There are many equipment options to make back extensions weighted and in turn more challenging for your muscles. Some examples include a weight plate, dumbbell, barbell, etc.
Back extensions can be a great way to work muscles like your lower back, erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings.
This exercise is not an alternative with the exact same effects as rack pulls. You don’t work your trapezius and grip muscles as much. Additionally, you also need a back extension machine which isn’t always available.
For shrugs you need some form of resistance. Generally something of the heavier kind like a barbell. Less experienced individuals may find dumbbells, kettlebells, or similar objects challenging enough.
Once you have one of these, take the following steps to do a shrug:
- Place a barbell in front of you on the ground. Put on the desired number of weight plates.
- Grab the barbell with your hands at about shoulder width with your hand palms facing downward. Stand up straight with your feet at about shoulder width and let your arms hang down for now. Keep your arms slightly less than stretched throughout the exercise.
- Raise your shoulders as far as you can in a controlled manner.
- Slowly lower your shoulders again.
The shoulder shrug does not look like the most impressive motion but this rack pull alternative can be great to help you work your trapezius and grip muscles in the gym or at home.
For individuals who want to work the other muscles involved in rack pulls, shrugs are not the right choice.
5. Glute ham raise
For this next exercise, you need a glute-ham raise bench. This is a lower back gym machine where you can secure your feet behind two pads, rest your hips on a rounded pad, and thus hold a horizontal position.
Because of this rounded pad, you can also fold your knees instead of just doing a back extension. Take the following steps to do a glute-ham raise:
- Adjust the settings on the bench for your body proportions.
- Take place on the glute-ham raise bench facing downwards with your hips on the rouned pad and your feet behind the foot support. Make sure your ankle and hips are in a stable position and let your upper body hang downwards.
- Slowly raise your upper body until it is in a straight line with your legs. Keep your back straight throughout the exercise.
- Fold your knees until your upper body is in an upward position or until further would be unstable.
- Stretch your knees again.
- Lower your upper body in a controlled motion until it is in the position of step 2.
Because folding your knees is part of the movement you also engage your hamstrings extra compared to regular back extensions. The first part of the exercise is very similar.
As the name of this piece of fitness equipment implies, the movement above mainly works your glute, hamstring, lower back, and erector spinae muscles.
This alternative will be slightly more focused on the first two muscles and slightly less on the last two muscles compared to rack pulls. You can hold extra weights to make glute ham raises more challenging.
6. Farmer’s walk
The farmer’s walk is a strength training exercise where you simply pick up some type of weight(s) from the ground and walk a certain distance or time. Make sure you keep your posture upright and your palms facing your body.
Dumbbells or a trap bar are typical examples of weights used for the farmer’s walk but you can also use shoulder workout equipment like kettlebells, certain sandbags, certain weight plates, etc.
The farmer’s walk mainly works muscles like your trapezius and grip muscles. You also work your core and leg muscles to some extent.
This muscle engagement makes it a good substitute for rack pulls if you don’t have a rack at home or in the gym, want to work your glutes and hamstrings less, and/or do an exercise with more of a focus on your cardiovascular system.