If you’re looking to build a home gym, there’s only one piece of equipment you need for a full-body workout. Likewise, if you’re on vacation and looking for a gym on the fly, as long as you have access to a power rack, you can do your compound lifts.
Machines and cables are great, but the power rack is king of the weights room.
In this article, we’re going to break down the basics of the power rack and explain the best way to use it to optimise your training.
Keep reading to learn about the many exercises you can do with a power rack to step up your training.
What is a Power Rack?
The power rack goes by some other names such as the power cage or squat rack (although this will lack many of the extra features a true power rack will have), and it first gained popularity in the 1960s. However, no matter what you call it, it’s one of the best pieces of equipment for your workout.
The most common form of the power rack includes four sturdy metal posts with adjustable pins and safety bars. Many of the best power racks even come with a pull-up bar attached to the frame.
The strength of this piece of equipment is its versatility. The safety bars allow you to perform until failure or near failure without worry of dropping the weight on yourself.
How Do You Use It?
How you use a power rack is only limited by your creativity. And if you spend enough time in weights rooms, you’ll see some ‘creative’ usages (doing barbell squats on a stability ball is not creative, it’s stupid).
If you’re using the rack to protect yourself if you have to drop the weight, set the safety bars slightly below your end range for the exercise.
However, you can also use the safety bars to limit your range of motion through an exercise.
Using the back squat as an example, you can adjust the rack so that you rest the bar on the safety bars when you’re at the height of your sticking point. From here, you can push off from a standstill.
Another legitmate way to use the power rack is by doing the touch and go method. For squats, you can put the safety bars near the top of the rack and perform quarter squats.
I know what you’re thinking. If you’re not going to parallel the reps don’t count. But there are some legitimate reasons for including quarter squats in your program. You can load the bar much heavier than traditional squats, which can hit your hip muscles hard.
If you’re still not sold, this blog post in defence of the quarter squat does a good job of explaining why quarter squats can be beneficial (if utilized correctly).
Lower Body Exercises
There are dozens of different squat variations you can include in your workout. Even if you don’t have a spotter, the chances that you’ll injure yourself while squatting are relatively low (as long as you have the safety bars set to an appropriate height).
Here’s a list of some of the most common squat variations you can do in a power rack:
- Front Squats
- Back Squats
- Overhead Squats
- Pause Squats
- Zercher Squats (holding the bar in the crook of your elbow)
- Bulgarian Split Squats
Time under tension is one of the most critical factors for determining how much muscle you build.
How can you increase time under tension?
Basically, there are two ways. You can increase your number of reps or you can slow down your reps.
When you squat without anything to catch the weight, it’s difficult to lift to the point of failure safely. However, squatting in a rack allows you to squeak out an extra rep or two and increase your overall volume.
If you’re looking for some serious growth, you can take things one step further and include a slow lowering phase to your squats.
Research suggests that eccentric movements cause more muscular hypertrophy than concentric movements.
If you’re not familiar with those two terms, eccentric contractions are basically when your muscle enlongate while resisting a weight and concentric contractions are when your muscles shorten while pushing a weight against gravity.
For example, if you want to increase the eccentric portion of your back squats, you could use a 4-1-2 ratio: four seconds on the way down, a one-second pause with the bar on the pins, and a two-second concentric push back to the starting position.
Another great lower body exercise you can do in a power rack is the rack pull. Basically, the rack pull is essentially a deadlift with a shortened range of motion so you can load the exercise heavier (kind of like the deadlift equivalent of a quarter squat).
This video is a good example of how to set them up.
Upper Body Exercises
The power rack gives you a way to bench press heavy without a spotter. Set the safety bars slightly lower than your sternum and bench like you normally would. Check this video for an example:
You can also include bench from an incline or decline bench.
The power rack also gives you an easy way to set up your overhead movements without having to power clean the weight to your shoulders. Set the safety bars below chest height and the pins around shoulder height.
If your power rack also includes a pull-up bar, you can even include all your hanging exercises like pull-ups and hanging ab raises.
If you’re looking for a workout program that only includes exercises that can be done with a power rack, check out these programs from Bodybuilding.com.
The great thing about the power rack is it makes your big lifts like the squat relatively safe. However, accidents still do happen. If you’re lifting near your max or doing a high volume set where you think you could fail, you may want to consider having a spotter (or a spotter on either side of the bar).
If you’re doing partial reps using the safety bars, don’t go crazy with the weight. Putting your spine and muscles under extreme loading can cause injuries if you lose control of the bar.
Power Rack Etiquette in the Gym
The same weights room etiquette applies when use the power rack as when you use most other pieces of equipment in the gym.
Always unrack the weight on your bar for the next person. Not only is leaving the weights loaded bad for the bar, but it’s annoying to have to strip an entire bar filled with plates because somebody was too lazy to be bothered.
Some exercises don’t require a power rack. If you’re doing barbell biceps curls when there’s a line of people behind you, don’t be surprised if you get some dirty looks.
Here are some exercises you’ll commonly see people hogging a power rack with even though the rack serves no purpose other than holding weights:
- Power Cleans
- Bent-over Rows
- Barbell Curls
The power racks are one of the busiest pieces of equipment at most gyms so it’s a nice gesture to let people work in with you if they’re going to be using a similar weight. In exchange, hopefully, somebody will let you work in next time you’re waiting.
Concluding Thoughts on The Power Rack
As long as you have access to a power rack, you should be able to hit all your major muscle groups. If you’re going to build your own home gym, this is definitely one of the first pieces of equipment you’re going to want to buy.
Use the power rack for any exercise where going to failure without safety bars could be dangerous. Also use the power rack for exercises where lifting the weight from the floor to the starting position may take away from your lift.