Whether you’re setting up a home gym, or wanting to get the most out of your gym membership, there’s one piece of equipment that is absolutely essential. Its versatility is unparalleled. It is used for many of the most effective practical strength-building exercises. For a home gym, it should be the first piece of equipment you buy. The indispensable power rack or power cage!
This one piece of equipment has so many uses, that with just a few simple additions, it can be a complete bodybuilding and strength-training gym all on its own. Add a bar, a few plates, and an adjustable bench and you have the ability to effectively train every major muscle group in the human body!
It's For More Than Just Squats!
Often incorrectly called ‘squat racks’, a power rack is far more than just that. Originally invented in the 1950s when bodybuilding was just starting to come into the public eye and more and more people were taking up the sport, the power rack received a huge boost in the 60s when Terry Todd and Dr. Craig Whitehead published research on their ‘theory of maximum fatigue’. This theory was popularized by Peary Radar (1909 – 1991), a founding bodybuilder and Olympic lifter, in his magazine Iron Man. Sadly neither Todd & Whitehead’s research or Peary Radar’s original 1964 article is available online.
The essentials of Todd and Whitehead’s theory were that maximum strength and muscle growth was achieved through absolutely exhausting the muscles – maximum fatigue. They were right, and while the training techniques their theory laid out have been improved and expanded upon since, the basic principles remain sound. See our previous article on Physiology 101: How We Build Muscle for more information.
Since 1964 the power cage has grown in popularity as even regular Janes and Joes have discovered the huge versatility of the rack. Today, the power rack is often the most high-demand piece of equipment in gyms. During peak times, lineups are not unusual.
What all of this tells us is that if you’re not using a power cage, you should be!
Not Just Effective But Safe!
Arguably the most vital piece of the power rack is the safety bars. These simple devices have prevented thousands of gruesome injuries since their inception. Whether you’re squatting, benching, pressing or deadlifting, setting the safety bars at a height where they’ll catch the bar if you have to put it down may just save you from months of recovery.
This means more than you might think. In the old days before power racks, if you wanted to train heavy, you needed spotters. Now, you can simply set the safety bars and go for it! If the bar turns out to be too heavy, just let the safeties catch it. This means the ability to train heavier and harder, and that translates directly into better results.
Getting the Most: 5 Great Power Cage Exercises
Of course, we’ll start with the staple. There’s a reason power racks are often called squat racks. Squats are the most commonly performed exercise on a power cage. The safety bars mean the ability to stop the weight before you spring your knees at the bottom of the lift, and the lift-offs or j-cups let you set the bar at exactly the right height for starting out. Before power racks, there really was no easy way to maximize squat training weight. You needed yourself and a couple of strong buddies just to get the bar onto your shoulders!
Sure, deadlifts can (and should) be done from the floor, but some people have back issues that prevent them from dropping that far. The power rack to the rescue! Simply set the safety bars at a height that’s comfortable and safe for you to lift from. You can now deadlift or stiff-leg deadlift without fear of popping vertebrae.
Whether flat, incline or reverse-incline, combine an adjustable bench with your power rack and you’ve got a safe and effective bench setup. No need for a dedicated press bench. Once again, the safety bars can simply be set at just above your chest so there's zero risk of dropping a loaded bar on yourself.
Military or Shoulder Press
Same as above. Just set your bench to the upright position. In this case, a greater range of motion can be achieved by setting the bar at the right lift-off height on the j-cups, then set the safety bars just below that. This will allow a full range of motion with no fear of injury on that last rep when you’ve dropped below the j-cups and bar says ‘Nope’ to going back up.
Almost all power racks are equipped with a pull-up bar or bars. You can do these with just bodyweight, but if you really want to push it simply add a weight belt and a short piece of rope or chain. You can hang plates from the belt with the chain. Set the chain to the right length and you can brace the plates between your knees to keep them from bumping against your legs. You can add an unlimited amount of weight this way. Combined with your body weight, there’s no need for a dedicated lat pulldown machine. And after all, while training lats is the best way to get that coveted V-shape, lat machines only do one thing. Expensive and unnecessary for a home gym if you have a power rack.
IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: If doing pullups with a weight belt and attached weights, start by standing on a box or platform that’s high enough that you can reach the bars. Lift your feet, then do the pull-ups. This is important so you won’t be dropping from the bar to the floor with weights attached to you when you’re done. Doing that could easily result in injury.
Extending Power Rack Functionality
While some deluxe power racks come with a wide range of attachments or additions, most basic models can be extended with add-ons such as parallel dip bars or a pulley system for rows or tricep extensions.
Whether you stick with the basics or go for the full meal deal, a power rack remains the single most effective and essential piece of gym equipment you will ever use. Make the most of it and you’re guaranteed to see impressive results.