For the last couple of years, the movement now known as a rack pull above the knee has gained a significant amount of controversy regarding its safety, effectiveness and aesthetics. Many lifters with respectable amounts of followers have ridiculed this exercise and those who perform it, for an amount of different arguments. These arguments include the following, sorted in no particular order:
- It does not work because of no shrugging
- It is dangerous because of heavy weights
- It is unnecessary for good trap development
- It has no carryover to other lifts
- It is ego-lifting
- It looks ridiculous
Let us dissect each and every of these arguments, one by one.
It does not work because of no shrugging:
This argument attempts to dismiss the exercise on the basis that it does not utilize a concentric or eccentric muscular contraction. The rack pull above the knee is, instead, performed through an isometric contraction of the muscle. An exercise similar in this regard is the farmer’s walk, which is generally recognized as a good, or even great, muscle-builder of the upper back. If one would take a barbell from the above the knee position, and start walking with it, the exercise would now be considered a farmer’s walk. The difference is in the fact that the legs are moving, not the upper back.
It is dangerous because of heavy weights:
The heavier a weight is, the more stress it puts upon the spine when lifting it, and there is no way to go around this. However, those who use this argument either over- or underestimate the capabilities of the human body. Those who overestimate seem to rationalize their argument by thinking that the average person can lift weights close to 500 kilograms on their first attempt. Those who underestimate seem to think that the spine will break if subjected to such forces. What they both have in common is that they seem to consider humans as stupid beings with lack of common sense. The average person, educated in training, will not max out on a lift when trying it for the first time. If common sense is practiced, there is no reason to start with any weight higher than the individuals estimated 1 RM shrug.
It is unnecessary for good trap development:
This argument may be true, but it could fit into so many contexts. The bench-press isn’t necessary for good chest development. How many practicioners of calisthenics have a terrific pair of pecs? Many of them have never done a single repetition of the bench-press. No exercise in the world is necessary. How come construction workers often have gigantic and incredibly strong forearms, despite never doing a single repetition of any exercise? The rack pull above the knee is just one of the tools in a very large toolbox, just like any other exercise in the world.
It has no carryover to other lifts:
Whether this is true or not is debatable because of the fact that this lift trains the tendons as well, and the answer could depend on who you ask. However, let us imagine that the argument is completely, without a doubt, right. There could be no carryover from this lift to any other– okay. So what? The rack pull above the knee is almost never done for carryover purposes. Those who have lifted high weights on this lift have usually never done it in order to increase their deadlift. There are much better lifts to do if improving your deadlifts is the goal.
It is ego-lifting:
It is true that many people use the rack pull above the knee as a means to satisfy their ego or pride. Lifting 500 kilograms surely fills the heart with pride and gives the ego a boost. However, ego-lifting is not exercise-exclusive. How many people do the very same with curls, dips, deadlifts, or any other lift? Some of the most recognized powerlifters in the world do touch and go deadlifts, for no other reason than to satisfy their ego. Ego-lifting is not less bad because other people are doing it. Ego-lifting is, instead, something that occurs on every exercise, and the only meaningful difference here is that this exercise allows people to do it easier.
It looks ridiculous:
There is only one thing to be said about this argument: if one is worried about how he or she looks in front of others, especially while exercising, there are other things to take care of and problems to solve than the rack pull above the knee. This is the actual ego-lifting in work: being afraid to do something that may look funny to others damages it.
How I do the rack pull above the knee, and how I suggest you do it too:
I train three times per week, and perform this lift on two of the sessions. On one, I pick a weight that I can hold for a long time, and I do exactly that. At the moment of writing this, I am up at 130 kg for 100 seconds. On the other session, I choose a heavier weight and hold it for shorter, usually between 5 and 20 seconds. 320 kilograms for 18 seconds is what I did last time. Of course, I increase either the time or the weight with each session. My heaviest record at this lift was 500 kilograms at the age of 17. However, more hypertrophy came from the way I train now.
If you have never done this lift, I suggest that you start with no more than 70% of your maximal deadlift. If you want to hold it for time, even less will do. If you want to max out, do so by adding a set amount of weight each week until you can no longer do so. It is best to do this in combination with repetitions, and then gradually lower them as progress begins to stall, while still attempting to increase the weight. Adding 5-10 kilograms each week is more than enough.