The ability to lift heavier weight, safely and without restrictions, is a huge selling point for those who are serious about strength training at home. Only one piece of gym equipment is able to deliver on both points, plus provide exceptional versatility for the home workout warrior: the power rack.
Power racks are frequently the centerpiece of a well-planned home gym. This is because they provide a safe environment for heavy lifting plus the flexibility to support endurance-building exercises such as pull downs and dips.
Racks come in many shapes and sizes, which can make choosing the right cage a bit overwhelming (racks are sometimes called "cages" because they resemble one). Because they can be a significant financial investment, making an informed purchase is definitely in your best interest.
In this guide to choosing and purchasing a power rack, I’ll provide the details necessary for you to make an educated decision about the best rack for you and your workout space.
Power cages are a necessity for serious strength trainers
If you’re going to take the leap to building your own home gym, or even if you’re looking to improve an existing setup, a power rack is definitely the first purchase you should consider. Although it might seem like an unnecessary investment, especially if you’re on a budget, it is the smartest purchase you can make for your gym.
Why is it the smartest purchase? Safety and results.
A power rack will provide the biggest bang for your buck because you'll get optimal results and drastically reduce your chance of injury.
What exactly is a power rack?
A power rack is a large, metal, cage-like piece of weight training equipment. It acts as a mechanical spotter for someone who is lifting without the assistance of a human spotter.
Racks are a staple is pretty much every commercial gym in the world. Smaller cages which are better suited for home gyms are gaining in popularity. These are the types of racks I'll be focusing on in this guide.
The two big reasons why you need a power rack
Every exercise that can be performed inside of a rack can be performed without a rack. So why would you pay extra for gym equipment that isn't absolutely necessary?
1. Safety is the top concern when lifting alone
Serious strength trainers use power racks because they allow you to lift heavy weight alone without the fear of the weights crushing you. Lifting heavy weight and pushing your limits is what leads to the best results when strength training.
Lifting heavy just isn't safe if you're lift alone and without a cage. Safety should be non-negotiable when working out alone.
2. Lifting weights freely is proven to produce the best results
Another reason that knowledgeable strength trainers use racks is because they provide the freedom to lift weights unrestricted. Guided machines restrict movement and don’t permit for the development of stabilization muscles that are essential to increasing strength.
A study conducted at Illinois State University proved that greater muscle activity is present during free weight training than during machine lifting. This is especially true for the deltoids (i.e. shoulder muscles).
If you want to get optimal results from your strength training (and why wouldn't you if you're already putting in the time?), a power rack a must.
Advantages and disadvantages of a power cage
When it comes to building a home gym, there are legitimate arguments for and against the purchase of a power rack. Let’s go through some pros and cons so you can make a determine if a rack is right for you.
Advantages of a power rack
By far the biggest advantage of a power rack is safety. You can perform a variety of strength exercises with racks, all alone, without the fear of hurting yourself.
As discussed previously, muscle building efficiency is another big selling point for a cage. You’ve already making a wise commitment to improving your health and physique. Why would you not invest in equipment that will consistently give you the superior results every time you life?
Here is a quick run-down of reasons why you should choose a power rack for your workout space:
- Safety – Lift heavy without the fear of injury (or death).
- Strength-building efficiency – Get the most of your workout by utilizing your stabilization muscles.
- Versatility – Cages support a wide range of both strength and aerobic exercises.
- Extensibility – Racks typically allow for attachments (like pull-up bars or weight racks) to make them even more functional.
- Confidence – Knowing that the rack is your safety mechanism, you’ll have the confidence to lift more weight and more often.
- Peace of Mind – Both you and your loved ones can rest easy that you’ll be safe when working out alone.
Disadvantages of a power rack
Although power racks are a great investment in your physical health and well-being, they do come with a few drawbacks. The most glaring drawback is cost. Compared to other pieces of home gym equipment, racks can be a bit more expensive.
Racks can also take up a significant amount of space. And as anyone who can build a home gym can attest, space is sometimes hard to come by.
Here is a full list of cons that could be associated with a power rack purchase:
- Cost – This will likely be your most expensive piece of gym equipment.
- Space – Racks can sometimes take up a lot of room, both in terms of footprint and height.
- Setup Restrictions – Most rack manufacturers suggest you anchor the unit to the floor, which can be prohibitive in some setups.
- One Safety Level – Unlike smith machines which allow you to lock the bar mid-rep at multiple positions, there is only one safety position in a rack (where you place the safety bars).
6 factors to consider when purchasing a cage
1. Physical space limitations of your gym
With the sturdiness of power cages comes physical size. Although sizes vary, a power rack will many times be the largest piece of equipment in your gym.
You need to evaluate where you plan on putting your cage so you can choose the model which works best in your gym layout. The last thing you want after purchasing a rack is to discover that it doesn’t fit into your space.
What is the maximum rack depth that you can accommodate?
Full-size racks with more accessories will obviously take up more space. These units offer the greatest versatility and flexibility, but aren’t always an option if you’re working with a limited space.
Measure your available space accurately, adding in some additional space so you can move around safely while moving plates. Bigger is usually better when it comes to power racks, so a good rule of thumb is to purchase the largest unit that you can safely accommodate in your gym.
What is the maximum rack height that you can accommodate?
Power racks are usually tall pieces of equipment. This makes them more sturdy and able to safely handle a large amount of weight. If your gym is in a basement or other room with low ceilings, a power rack probably won’t be an option.
With low ceilings, you might be better off opting for a squat stand, which in some cases is significantly shorter. With a squat stand you, won’t get the full stability or safety of a power rack. But for gyms with low ceilings, it’s the next best thing.
2. Cage strength and quality of construction
Power rack quality can vary wildly from manufacturer to manufacturer. In most cases, you almost always get what you pay for.
When evaluating the quality and strength of a rack some of the specs you might consider are:
- The metal used in its construction – Is it made of steel or some other type of metal?
- Metal thickness – Lower gauge is best (11 gauge or less preferred).
- Total weight capacity – Racks with higher capacity are usually more stable.
- Thickness, size, and shape of safety pins – Safety pins are generally 2-3 inches in circumference/length and can either be round or square.
- Type of frame base – Is the base sturdy or have customers reported some instability?
- Surface area of frame footprint – How much surface area does the base cover on the floor?
- The length of manufacturer’s warranty – Cages should last a long time, but the longer the warranty the better.
If you’re trying to decide between a couple different racks, comparing these cage strength factors would be a smart way to pick a winner.
3. Support for desired add-on accessories
Power racks by themselves would be a great addition or starter investment for your home gym. But most racks allow for add-ons which make them even more functional.
The best racks support a wide range of accessories. Some even come with a few add-ons to get you started. Here is a list of some of the most popular add-ons and accessories for cages:
- Pull-up bars – Attach to the top of the cage and allow for various types of pull-ups.
- Spotter arms – Function as spotters if you’re squatting, benching, or performing military presses outside of a cage.
- Suspension Safety Straps – Can enhance your safety system by catching the bar at heights above your safety pins.
- Dip attachments – Much like pull-up bars, attach to the cage structure to support dip exercises.
- Landmines – A Rotational device with a sleeve that accepts a bar, pivoting to allow for exercises such as rows, cleans, or deadlifts.
- Hyper attachments – Allows for core training on the inside of a rack.
- Reverse hypers extension – Great for working the glutes, lower back, and hamstrings super hard.
- Lat pull downs – A bar and pulley system for performing pull-downs to tone your lats.
Personal preferences with respect to usage
How easy a power rack is to use is largely based on personal preferences. For instance, some people prefer safety pins for spot support while others insist on using spotter arms. Others still prefer safety straps.
If you’ve never used a power cage before or are unsure about what works best, just use the standard safety pins to start. Spotter arms or straps can always be purchased later and added to your unit.
4. Rack stabilization features
Some power racks are intended to be bolted to either a floor or a lifting platform to prevent movement. This can help to keep the rack steady if you utilize attachments that apply uneven pressure to the frame (like dip attachments).
After springing for a rack, the last thing you want is to experience instability in your biggest gym investment. Luckily, most lacks can be secured to your floor to prevent movement.
Racks with stabilizer bars and/or anchor holes
Some racks come with anchor holes in the base of the unit. This allows you to bolt the rack to the floor and make the unit extraordinarily stable.
In cases where a rack does not have anchor holes, they’ll typically include a stabilizer bar along the bottom of the rack. This connects the bottom legs of the rack to provide more support and prevent movement. One drawback of stabilizer bars is that they can cause accidents if you don’t watch where you step.
Some units provide both anchor holes and a stabilizer bar. In those cases, the stabilizer is usually optional and can be removed.
5. What is required to assemble the rack?
Because of a power rack’s size and construction, some type of assembly is usually required. Depending on the manufacturer of your rack, it might come partially assembled.
Even if a unit does come partially pre-assembled, it’s wise to look at how it is broken down for shipment to ensure you’ll be able to get the various parts into your desired space. Although power racks aren’t complex units to assemble, the component pieces themselves can sometimes be quite large.
Some manufacturers offer assembly services in addition to the rack itself. This is almost always an addition cost, and usually runs around $200+. If assembling the unit seems like a daunting task, there is no shame in calling in the experts and getting it done right.
6. The cost to ship the rack
When comparing racks it’s important to consider the full cost of the unit, and that means including shipping costs. Racks are big, heavy pieces of equipment so you can expect that S/H costs will be significantly more than sending a letter.
Most manufacturers who sell on Amazon simply roll the price of shipping into the cost of the unit, which is convenient when comparing prices. For manufacturers that do charge a shipping fee, costs can vary significantly depending on the unit.
The most effective power rack alternatives
Some people simply cannot accommodate the sheer size of a power cage at home. For others, the price of a power rack is simply too steep. While there are alternatives to a power cage, none of the alternatives can match its protection, versatility, and results.
However, some level of protection when lifting is always better than no protection at all. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the alternatives to a power rack.
If you can't afford a power rack
First off, let me say that none of the alternatives I’ll cover will save you a significant amount compared to a full-featured, quality power cage. If you read around this site, you’ll find that I review some of the most durable, functional power cages on the market and all are priced very affordably.
Sure, you might be able to save 10%-15% by downgrading from a cage to one of these alternative units, but is saving a few bucks really worth what you’ll be losing in terms of results? It’s very likely that you can find a rack that will work for your budget if you just look hard enough.
Options I would consider before downgrading from a rack
If money is the only factor preventig you from investing in a power rack, I would advise you to either:
- Put off your purchase for another month or two until you can save the extra couple hundred bucks for a quality cage. In the meantime, make due with what you have. Good things come to those who wait.
- Another option is to pay for part of the cage on a credit card. Put down the money you were planning on spending on a lesser unit, then put the rest on credit.
- Look for deals and discounts. Amazon Prime members (30-Day Free Trial) can apply for a Chase credit card that will earn you 5% back on every Amazon purchase. Make the rack your first time purchase with the card and you might save even more.
Assuming for a minute that there are still some of you who still insist on finding a cheap alternative to the power rack, let's look at some alternatives.
Squat racks can sometimes be a cheaper option
One of the great selling points of a power rack is its adjustable pins that allow you to have spotting capability regardless of your height or exercise. Squat racks allow for some spotting ability, but it is not 100% fool-proof (which should be a deal-breaker in most home use scenarios).
Squat racks also frequently have a bigger footprint than cages. This means they might actually take up more real estate than a power cage while providing substantially less versatility.
Gyms with lots of open space can justify having a squat rack or two. This is because they’re a cheaper alternative to a cage and can be used if the power cages are full. But, they are definitely not the ideal option for space-conscious home gym builders.
If your gym space can't accomodate a rack's size
Because of space restrictions, some people simply can't fit a power rack into their gym space. It would have to be a very, very small space to prevent any power rack from fitting. But it's not entirely out of the question.
Squat stands can sometimes save space, but have limited spotting capability
A squat stand is simply a metal frame that allows you to rack a bar after performing exercises. Most resemble a power rack that has been cut in half.
Spotting a space considerations with a stand
Squat stands only have two vertical posts, so they cannot utilize safety pins. Your only option for a spotter with these units is a spotter bar, although I have seen some people resort to using sawhorses for extra protection.
Many people purchase squat stands because they can save a little space. But if you look closely at the specs for a variety of stands, you'll notice that they're not much smaller than a rack. Some stands actually have a larger footprint.
No full cage means less stability
Squat stands also have a reputation for being unstable. Because there are only two vertical beams to support the bar, they aren’t nearly as sturdy as a rack which is constructed specifically to distribute weight.
So if you’re considering a squat stand to save space (and maybe a little cash), just be sure to review the specs closely and ensure the savings are worth it.