If you’re thinking about adding rack pulls into your workout, be sure to check out this video before you do. If you’ve looked up the exercise online you’ve probably found video after of video of guys performing rack pulls. Generally you’ll see it done one of two ways, from a position slightly below the knee as an auxiliary lift to support the deadlift, or from a much higher position above the knee typically done to overload the traps and glutes.
The latter version has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, mostly for its ability to allow the athlete to load up the weight…a lot.
When you’re using some of the largest, strongest muscles in the body for a such a short range of motion the weight can get really heavy, really fast. It’s not uncommon to see people doing rack pulls with upwards of two or three times their best deadlift. For someone with a meager deadlift that can still amount to 700-800 pounds. That’s significantly more weight than on any other exercise they’re likely performing, and therein lies the problem.
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. When the weight gets that heavy it becomes difficult to keep the shoulder blades retracted and tight. What they don’t realize is that this compressed thoracic posture under tremendous load can set you up for thoracic outlet syndrome. While thoracic outlet syndrome is commonly seen in people with repetitive overhead motion, it can still occur by improperly performing an exercise such as the rack pull.
Scapular retraction is often the weak link in this type of move, in order to accommodate the extra loads, the lifter will likely let their shoulders drop forward and hang down. This can cause the collar bone to rotate downward and put pressure on the delicate veins, arteries and nerves that are in the thoracic area.
The result is pinching, stretching and unwanted downward traction on the Subclavian artery, Subclavian vein and Brachial Plexus an already long nerve which runs from the neck to the hands. Sufferers of thoracic outlet syndrome experience a number symptoms including muscle wasting in the fleshy base of your thumb, numbness or tingling in the arm or fingers, pain or ache in your neck, shoulder or hands as well as an overall weakening grip.
The worst part is that these symptoms don’t occur instantly allowing the athlete to pin point the exact cause, but rather gradually, over time. Athletes often experience shoulder pain and attribute it to too much pressing in their workouts, not realizing the true cause.
If you’re looking to build your traps, grip and posterior chain you’d be better off performing a traditional deadlift where the sticking points of the exercise will likely limit the weight to something that your body can handle. Faults in a deadlift are easy to spot and can be quickly corrected. If you want to supplement your deadlift with an exercise that allows you to overload more you could perform the rack pull below the knee.
The greater range of motion prohibits you from making such huge weight jumps which will likely allow you to keep your shoulders back and stay in good upright position. Whichever you choose, be sure to engage the shoulder girdle, remain tight and hold strong posture.
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