A power rack lets you train hard and stay safe. On my plan, you will use it with a barbell for the bench press and the squat. You should use it even if you have spotters.
A power rack, also known as a power cage, squat cage, or some blend of these words, has four upright beams. These extend 5-7 feet but may go higher to fit a bar for exercises like pull-ups. You just need it high enough for squats though. The other beams support these while fixing the cage to the ground. Most power racks take up 4 feet in length and width, as too wide can get in the way of the weight plates when you lift.
They have holes drilled into the upright beams, allowing for two features:
- Saddles that can rest at varied heights.
These saddles hold the barbell. You can move them to find the right spot to start the exercise. You should start near the top of the range of motion.
- Bars that can go across varied heights.
These bars will catch the barbell just below the bottom of the range of motion. The holes should, at the most, spread 1-3 inches from each center. This will give you more options to find the right setting.
Some racks come fixed to platforms to do the Olympic lifts or the deadlift. You can fix handles on the power rack for dips. Some will use barbells across the bars as an overhead bar. They may use this to do inverted rows that would otherwise need suspension trainers. While creative, you will not need nor should you use these additions.
Full or half racks will both work well. A half rack may have two upright beams or may have four but has them close together. Know that you only need to use something with saddles and bars. A squat rack or just a set of stands would not work since it does not have the bars. This also shows why you should not use a bench station.
Why Use Power Racks
Without them, you would fail to get into a position to lift a heavy weight. You would have no way to stop the barbell at the bottom.
Some know the fear of getting pinned on the bench press. They may have had to roll the weight all the way down and off their body. Some will remove the collars so that they can tip to each side to end a set when alone.
On the squat, you would have to dump the weight over your head or behind you. Since the barbell that falls off your back pushes you with a force as well, this can end badly.
Most will not use these tactics by themselves and avoid training to failure. Even with a spotter or two, you can lose control as you grow tired. A spotter may not catch the weight in time from smacking your chest on the bench press. On the squat, one or more spotters can fail to help evenly or with enough strength.
Use a power rack and try these tips.
- Find the right settings.
Find your settings by using a light weight through trial and error. Look at the levels for the saddles and the bars. Make note of the number of holes from the bottom. You will need to do this if the rack does not show numbers next to each hole. Do this for the squat and the bench press and repeat this if using a new rack.
The saddles should rest just a bit lower than the top of the range of motion, so that the knees and elbows do not quite lock out when you start the exercise. The bars should rest a tad lower than the bottom for your range of motion. You should set them higher than you may like if the next lowest setting will not protect you.
Make sure to fix the bars within the holes. You may need to rotate them to lock each part in place. List these settings in a progress log or on your cue list.
- Make sure it is stable.
The power rack may need some more weight to stop it from rising off the ground. This can happen as you end a set when placing the barbell back on the saddles. By training to failure, you will end the set on the bars. This will not rock the rack as placing the barbell on the saddles could. Most racks will have spokes that you can place weight plates on to increase the weight.
Make sure the rack rests fully on the floor. You may need rubber stops at the ends of the beams touching the ground. This will keep the rack even if the beams alone do not allow for it.
Make sure to tighten the bolts. Favor metal over wood. If you have the skill to build your own rack though and choose wood for the beams, just make sure to test it before using heavy weights.
- Avoid the Smith machine.
A Smith machine does not make up for a power rack. It guides the barbell. This brings all of the problems that come with machines.
Tips for the Bench Press
- Do not set the saddles too high.
If you have to reach too far to grab the barbell, this will harm your balance. It untucks your shoulder blades, increasing the range of motion too much. It makes you use too much energy just to control the weight while moving too much at the shoulder.
- Set the bars to fail at your upper chest.
The lower chest gives you a good endpoint at the bottom of the range of motion. Using the upper chest will stop the bars from getting in the way. When you fail at the bottom, you can inch it toward your upper chest to end the set, even if it feels a bit tough to get yourself out from under the barbell. Always set the bars higher if you cannot get this setting, knowing that you do not need as much range of motion as you may think.
- Place the bench in the middle of the rack.
Use the rings on the barbell as a reference for your grip. This will take away the need for a perfectly even bench. Too much of an uneven setup though will still place harmful forces on your body. I suggest marking it off on the floor, if you can, on where to place the bench.
- Leave some room to lift the barbell from the saddles.
This stops you from hitting them on the way up.
The path of the barbell can move toward the face as you press up. Nothing can end a good set like when the barbell smacks these saddles. This often happens when a trainee feels most tired and can end a set far too early.
For most, you should line up the barbell between your eyes and neck. If you fail to do this you may have to reach too far back to grab the barbell. This brings the same issues as setting the saddles too high.
Tips for the Squat
- Do not set the saddles too high.
Many will then have to rise on their toes to reach the barbell. This harms your control. You want to lift the barbell from the rack with your knees just slightly bent.
- Set the bars so that you fail just past your lowest point.
When you fail at the bottom of the squat, push the hips back and tip forward. With the right setting for the bars, this will end the set. The other ways of failing may harm the knees or the lower back.
- If racking the weight after a set, strike the back of the saddles and then lower the barbell.
I feel you should fail at the bottom on the bars. Still though, many will not train to failure and then try to set the barbell on the edge of the saddles to end the set. If you miss them, which is more likely when you feel tired, and the barbell slides off one side, an injury could occur.
Partial Range of Motion Exercises
Some use the power rack for partial range of motion exercises. Since you can use more weight this way, fans argue you can gain more strength. They say you can build up your joints with heavier loads and focus on certain muscles throughout the range of motion.
This serves no purpose for these reasons:
- You need enough range of motion.
For good exercises, the same fibers work at all points in the range of motion. This just happens more or less strongly. The length-tension relationship shows this as a fact.
Your muscles work less hard at the endpoints, though leverage makes it feel easier, so some make the mistake of trying to overload the lockout. Your muscles work weakly here so this makes no sense.
Some use the safety bars for static holds. You should not do this as each phase of the rep has some value.
Some also use a rack to start at a dead-stop, perhaps to work on their power. This limits the pre-stretch. It also gives less time to use your full force and can harm effort.
- The load matters less than you may think.
Motor unit recruitment shows that effort means more than the load, as long as the weight does not feel too light, for bringing in the fast-twitch fibers.
- The joints have far more strength than the muscles.
You do not need to prepare your joints to build strength. Connective tissue can handle far more stress than the muscles. Trying to grow this tissue just harms muscle building.
Use a Power Rack
Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.
– Thomas Carlyle
Use a power rack at a gym or in your home. If using one in your home, you will need the money and space to get one but it should last you a lifetime. The power rack lets you to stay safe and train hard in the bench press and squat, serving as a needed tool in my plan.