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Smith machine rack pull: Learn the 4 key benefits of this proven mass-builder

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

If you want to thicken your traps to Yates-like proportions, then you need to perform rack pulls during your back workouts on the Smith machine.

The Smith machine rack pull is a brilliant alternative to the free weight rack pull for those whose "gyms" don't provide power racks (is a gym even a gym unless it has a power rack?).

Similarly, Smith machine rack pulls are useful if you simply don't feel the free weight version in your traps.

Since you don't need to use your spinal erectors to stabilise the Smith machine bar, you can devote 100% of your attention to overloading your traps with the heaviest weights possible. Which is the name of the game when it comes to rack pulls.

Smith machine rack pull exercise details

  • Main muscles: Traps, lats, spinal erectors
  • Supporting muscles: Glutes, hamstrings, quads, forearms
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Lifting straps, lifting belt, hand grip trainer, Fat Gripz
  • Exercise purpose: Increase back thickness and improve the deadlift lockout
"Technically the rack pull is not an assistance exercise, it's a major pulling exercise that is used by intermediate and advanced lifters to get heavy pulling volume."
Mark Rippetoe
Strength Coach

How to do Smith machine rack pulls

  1. Set the safety stoppers to just below knee height.
  2. Stand in front of the bar with a hip-width stance and screw your feet into the ground—your toes should point straight ahead.
  3. Grab the bar with a double overhand grip so that your hands are just outside your thighs.
  4. Stick your hips back while keeping your chest up and then brace your core against your lifting belt by breathing into your diaphragm. This is the starting position.
  5. Pull the bar up your thighs by simultaneously driving your hips forwards and pushing your chest up. Keep the bar as close to your body as possible while doing this.
  6. Finish the rep by squeezing your glutes and upper back. Note that you shouldn't hyperextend your lower back as you lock out the weight.
  7. Lower the weight under control by sticking your hips back first, and bending your knees once the bar is close to the starting position.
  8. Repeat for 3-6 sets of 1-5 reps for strength, or 5-10 reps for size.

Smith machine rack pull form tips

Start below the knee

One thing's for sure. Performing rack pulls above the knee is one of the most effective ways to overload your upper traps and force them to grow.

However, since you can lift so much weight (relatively speaking) on the above-the-knee the variation, your grip is usually the limiting factor. Sure, a quality pair of lifting straps can help, but they won't compensate entirely for a weak grip—you have to train your grip with the right tools for rack pull above the knee to be effective.

In the meantime, performing your rack pulls below the knee is a reliable workaround. It's debatable whether or not pulling from below the knee will actually give your traps more stimulation than pulling from above the knee.

However, one thing we do know is this: pulling from below the knee provides your upper back with a larger range of motion, which is crucial for recruiting the maximum amount of muscle fibres.

That said, starting your pull from below the knee requires you to lighten the weight. So perhaps you are getting more of an overload for the traps by shortening your rack pull range of motion—who knows?

Frankly, I don't think any scientists care enough about building monstrous traps to tell us the answer. In my experience, I've seen both variations work wonders for the upper back.

But given that grip is the limiting factor for most people on the above-the-knee version, I'm going to recommend that you pull from below the knee to keep your points of failure to a minimum.

Don't bounce the weight

Want to know how to tell if someone has a big ego?

Ok, here's how: besides checking out their Instagram profile for shirtless selfies, you can sneak a peek at their rack pull form. If they bounce the barbell as if they were playing a game of high strike at the fairground, then they definitely have a big ego. And, most likely, their trap development is probably average at best.

While bouncing the barbell may indeed help you to lift heavier weights, you're not actually creating any more tension (and thereby muscle growth) because the machine is picking up the slack for you.

So all you're doing, really, is increasing your injury risk by lifting heavier weights than you can handle. And for what? Bragging rights?

Hardly worth it if you ask me.

Keep your shoulders back

Squeeze your shoulder blades together. What's the first muscle to contract?

If you answered, "traps" or "lats" then you're correct, and you've already nailed the basics of proper rack pull technique.

You see, when you round your shoulders, not only do you place your rotator cuffs in a very precarious position, but also, your traps can't contract.

I can't even begin to tell you how crucial the chest up cue is for rack pull (and deadlift) strength. It's true what powerlifters say: the people who master the chest up cue are the people who pull big numbers.

"For athletes who are eager to keep loading weight on the bar, it’s easy to fall into the trap of performing the exercise with rounded shoulders."
Jeff Cavaliere
ATHLEAN-X™

Those who lift the bar haphazardly are usually the ones who complain that rack pulls and deadlifts hurt their back. Or, if they're a beginner, that they only feel the movement in their spinal erectors.

The latter category of lifters can fix their form and reap the benefits of rack pulls by remembering the chest up, shoulders back cue.

Those in the former my-poor-little-back category, however, will struggle to ever see benefits from performing rack pulls (or weight lifting exercises in general) because they've put heavy weights and vanity before tangible muscle development and safety.

Learn the proper rack pull form, and you'll stay closer to the gains while avoiding common injuries.

Never round your lower back

Although you should never round your back while lifting weights, on some exercises, you can admittedly get away with some degree of spinal rounding.

However, if you carry this "I'm invincible" attitude into rack pulls—on the Smith machine or otherwise—you're in for a nasty, nasty shock. There's a big difference between curling a 30kg pre-loaded barbell with a rounded back and performing 200kg rack pulls with a flexed spine.

What's that? You've you never hurt yourself in the gym? A little spinal rounding's ok, is it?

It's cute that you think that. But to put it bluntly, the only reason why more people don't get hurt doing rounded back deadlifts and rack pulls is that they're simply too weak to injure themselves.

Try pulling 250kg with a rounded back, and the only question we'll need to answer is this: what colour will your stretcher be when you get carried out of the gym?

Recommended training gear for Smith machine rack pulls

1. Quality lifting straps

There are two ways that you can perform rack pulls: you can use them to strengthen your deadlift lockout, or you can do them to build your traps.

versa gripp demo

The latter is my main focus. Because what's cooler than having traps up to your ears? A Lamborghini? Nah, I'd rather have the traps me. Plus, it's probably easier to buy a Lambo (on finance, of course) than it is to grow huge traps naturally.

Anyway, I used to wear regular lifting straps. But I switched to Versa Gripps a while back because they provide a firm, quick-release grip on the bar while also offering superior wrist protection.

I do a lot of work on the computer, and their arch supports makes a noticeable difference in day-to-day wrist comfort. I highly recommend them if you have a desk job and want to limit the wear and tear in your hands.

2. Weightlifting belt

rdx weightlifting belt

Weightlifting belts can get pretty expensive these days. My mate has a ninety quid belt that he uses for powerlifting, and I was going to get myself one too until I decided to save money by going with the RDX Powerlifting Belt for Weight Lifting.

It might not be endorsed by any world-famous powerlifters (though I've seen Martyn Ford use it), but it's just as effective as any designer weightlifting belt that I've used—including my mate's "special" £90 belt (which I'm pretty sure he takes to bed with him on a night).

3. Hand strengthener

captins of crush gripper in its packaging

Call me old school, but I think having a strong, vice-like grip is more important than having pretty beach muscles.

That fashion model might get onlooker's attention on the catwalk, but will those same people still respect him when they find out that he's inherited his mam's grip strength?

I know I wouldn't.

Admittedly, my grip has always been crap relative to by back strength, so I've started training with the Captains of Crush hand Grip Trainers.

And I've seen excellent results.

close up of captins of crush hand grip trainers

My forearms are way more vascular but what's even cooler is that all the weights feel lighter. So when I'm doing rows, pulldowns and rack pulls, I can really focus on the working muscle because I don't have to worry about my grip giving way.

It's hilarious watching my mates try to close the Captains of Crush grippers. They thought that mastering these small little "toys" would be easy. Yet most of them couldn't even close the CoC sport, which is the 2nd lightest out of IronMind's 11 grippers!

4. Fat Gripz

I personally prefer hand grippers for developing my forearms (and impressing my mates down the pub). However, now and again, I'll throw in some Fat Gripz training to liven up my arm workouts.

close up of fat gripz on a barbell

You can use them for things like lat pulldowns. But honestly, I think that's stupid because then you're working forearms at the expense of your much bigger lat muscles—obviously your forearms will fatigue first!

For arm training, though, Fat Gripz are ironclad legit. After using my fat Gripz for a few weeks, regular barbells and dumbbells feel like baby toys. And, with enough pre-workout in me, they move like baby toys, too!

Smith machine rack pull muscles worked

Traps

Illustration of the trapezius anatomy

Even more so than during the trap bar deadlift, the upper trapezius muscles get a ridiculously deep stretch when you perform the rack pull Smith machine style. Since there's no stabilisation required, you can focus purely on the working muscle and ensure that it receives the bulk of the tension [1] [2].

Spinal erectors

Illustration of the spinal anatomy

Rack deads are great for building that "Christmas tree" lower back that separates the compound lifters from the bicep bros.

You'll need to be relatively lean to see this Christmas tree in action. However, even if you're bulking, you can slam down protein shakes and mass gainers happy in the knowledge that your hard work will come to fruition during cutting season.

Lats

Illustration of the latissimus dorsi anatomy

As with the mid-traps, your lats help to stabilise your upper back when you perform rack pulls on Smith machine stations. The key to Dorian-Esque lats is to "pack" them as if you were holding the contracted portion of a cable lat pushdown. This cue keeps the tension firmly on your lats and also prevents your shoulders from rounding forwards.

Best of all, you can see an immediate increase in your pulling strength if you've been guilty of neglecting your upper back tightness in the past.

Forearms

Illustration of the forearm anatomy

Since I'm more interested in building titanic traps than a monster deadlift, I'm using Versa Gripp Pros during my rack pulls so that my grip isn't the limiting factor.

Of course, if you're more of the powerlifter type, then pulling strapless is a sound idea because you'll get used to gripping weights that exceed your deadlift one-rep max.

Glutes

Illustration of the gluteus maximus anatomy

As a hip extension exercise, rack deads provide a decent amount of glute activation. However, unless you have a pancake butt (in which case I recommend checking out the hip circle), your glutes won't be the limiting factor because they're a much stronger muscle than your traps.

Obviously, you can limit glute involvement even more by pulling from above the knee. However, as we've discussed already, this pulling position makes it hard to overload your traps unless you take grip training seriously.

Hamstrings

Illustration of the hamstring anatomy

Personally, I don't feel rack deads a lot in my hamstrings. But then again, I'm not pulling from way below the knee. If, however, your deadlift sticking point is off the floor—rather than at lockout—then mixing in some full range of motion racks pulls is likely a sound idea for breaking plateaus [3].

Quadriceps

Illustration of the quadriceps anatomy

As I've said previously, the rack pull is primarily a hip hinge and back exercise. As such, you won't feel much quad activation even though you do have to bend your knees to get close to the bar.

Smith machine rack pull benefits

Stronger deadlift

close up of a strength athlete attempting to lift a heavy weight

Doing the rack pull on Smith machine stations increases your deadlift strength in two ways.

First, and most importantly, in my opinion, racks pulls are simply awesome for building your lockout strength (after all, they're called rack deads for a reason). Anyway, this benefit is crucial because, if like most people, you pull conventional rather than sumo, then it's highly likely that your sticking point is close to lockout.

No other assistance exercise to my knowledge lets you work on your lockout with as much specificity and as much weight as rack pulls. Which brings me nicely onto the second benefit...

Rack pulls get your hands dirty.

Specifically, they get your hands used to handling weights that exceed your deadlift one-rep max. As a result, when it comes time to attempt a new 1RM, the weight doesn't feel so intimidating because you've already had it (and more) in your hands before.

Thicker traps

bodybuilder doing the most muscular pose

Who doesn't want thick, towering traps that cause people to think you're a rugby player?

Heck, even someone lasses that I know want to beef up their trapezius.

I wouldn't recommend building massive traps to them like—but each to their own.

Anyhow, it's a well known-fact that rack deads absolutely destroy your traps. And it's no surprise, either. If you perform rack pulls the right way, then you can probably shift twice as much weight as you can on a barbell shrug. You practically leave your traps no choice but to get bigger [4].

I personally use Versa Gripps to protect my wrists and overload my upper back without worrying about my forearms giving way. They're definitely not the cheapest liting straps around. But I'd say they're worth the investment if you lift at least three times a week.

Healthier lower back

woman with her hands on her back because she is in pain

Letting your hips shoot up is a common spine-wrecking mistake that far too many people make during deadlifts.

However, due to the much shorter range of motion, it's virtually impossible to mess up your hip position during rack pulls. You literally just have to thrust your hips forwards while pushing your chest up. Then you're done.

As a result, your lower back is naturally under far less stress while performing a rack deadlift Smith machine style than it is while doing a conventional deadlift [5].

Intimidating grip strength

Two arm wrestlers prepares for the battle at the table

There are many fancy forearm exercises out there that'll bulk up your forearms nicely.

However, unless you use something like Captin's of Crush, then the size gain is usually at the expense of wrist health.

You could have the biggest forearms in the gym, but if your wrists are hurting all the time, then you're still going to have a weak, child-like grip that leaves people wondering where your strength went when they shake your hand.

Obviously, using a quality hand gripper is the fastest way to build intimidating grip strength.

However, if you're short on time, then going strapless during rack pulls is an efficient way to sneak in some forearm work while building your traps [6].

Smith machine rack pull alternatives

Smith machine deadlift

woman working out on a smith machine

Did you know that doing a deadlift on the Smith machine is effectively like doing a rack pull?

Since most Smith machines don't bottom out completely, you're always pulling from an elevated position. Now, if building big traps is your goal, then this is fine. However, don't expect Smith deads to carry over to free weight deadlifts. Because they simply don't train the stabiliser muscles required for brute barbell strength.

Smith machine Shrug

man performing a shrug exercise

Performing a behind the back Smith machine shrug has been scientifically-proven to activate more of your mid-traps than the regular front variation. This is because the hand position enables you to retract your scapula, which is the primary function of the hard-to-train mid-traps.

It's also much better than the barbell behind-the-back shug because the bar won't hit your glutes every time you shrug the weight up. You can easily keep your muscly arse out of the bar's way by leaning away from the machine.

Smith machine bent over row

man training his back muscles with a barbell

Conventional wisdom says that barbell rows are the ultimate exercise for back thickness.

However, I tend to find that past a certain point (about 90kg for me), my lower back tends to become the limiting factor. As a result, I have to end the set with my traps feeling understimulated, which is no good for muscle growth.

The Smith machine row, on the other hand, removes virtually all of the stabilisation from the equation. Naturally, this linear bar path enables me to focus 100% of my attention on thickening my traps and widening my lats. And, after seeing the difference in muscle growth for myself, I made it my go-to back builder.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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