What is a Power Rack? Insights into the Ideal Home Gym Centerpiece

Are you trying to gain size and strength in your home gym?   Have you been afraid to go all out with a heavy barbell across your shoulders or hovering over your chest?

If this sounds like you, incorporating a power rack into your workout space could be the key to achieving your goal of increased muscle mass.  

But what is a power rack and how can it fast track your muscle gains?  

Today I’m going to teach you about the power rack's origin as well as its design features, popular uses, and strength training benefits.  

A Brief History of the Power Rack

Old Classic Weightlifter

Gym equipment manufacturers developed and produced the first versions of a power rack back in the 1950s.  However, its use was popularized in the 1960s by Dr. Craig Whitehead and Terry Todd.  

They used the rack to develop their theory of maximum fatigue.

In those days, the massive strength athletes at the infamous York Barbell used a power rack (and a healthy helping of steroids) to pioneer new strength training methods utilizing a limited range of motion and isometrics

By the 1970s, every hardcore gym had power racks.  To this day, racks are a fixture just about every gym in existence.

Design and Features of Power Racks

If you’ve ever been in a commercial gym, then you may have spotted a power rack without even realizing it. Power racks are typically set up in the back of the gym, far away from the hustle and bustle of the rowing machines and treadmills. 

Most gym members steer clear of power racks.  Is it for fear of killing themselves?  Or perhaps because they thought it was part of the gym’s architecture holding up the roof? 

The truth is, a power rack is one of the most versatile (and safest) piece of exercise equipment you'll encounter. 

A heavy-duty cage-like frame maintains stability

Old Power Rack

A power rack very similar to a gutted, hollowed-out phone booth with no pay phone, no glass, and no door.  It's just an empty, metal-framed box.

Power racks are sometimes referred to as power cages because their construction closely resembles a cage, completely surrounding the lifter.  

The vertical struts of a rack have holes from top to bottom (usually having a 1-inch diameter), making it look like parts of an old Erector set.

This cage-like construction is necessary to support heavy weight and prevent the power rack from swaying during use.

Different barbell supports allow for adjustable racking 

The multitude of strut holes on a power rack will enable you to rack a barbell at varying heights.  Metal rods with flat surfaces (sometimes called "lift-offs" or "J-cups") are inserted into the holes and provide a space to store your barbell between sets.

J-Cups sold by Rep Fitness

Below your barbell supports you typically place horizontal safety pins or safety bars, heavy-duty rods with extendable ends that stretch from the front to the rear struts.  They catch the barbell if it slips from your grip or if you cannot push the bar back up to the barbell supports.

Safety Pins from Titan Fitness

Safety bars from Titan Fitness for their T-2 Rack

Safety pins will save your life, and the floor of your home gym, many times over.

Extend your power rack functionality with attachments

BD-7 from Valor Fitness

You can attach add-ons like a pull-up bar, dipping station, and in some cases a pulley system extension to the frame of a power rack.  Power rack attachments can turn a standard cage into a multi-functional workout space.

The latest power racks are designed to be the core of your home gym.  However, more and more racks are being developed to support attachments (frequently referred to as add-ons or extensions).

Manufacturers of power cages sometimes sell them as bare-bones, standard racks (with no attachments).  Other times they package cages with a few extra attachments.

The power rack pictured here is the BD7 from Valor Fitness. It comes extended with a lat pull attachment, weight storage pegs, and an extra pair of bar supports.

The 3 Most Practical Benefits of a Power Rack

So far you've learned that power racks, with their scary, industrial look, are indeed one of the most functional pieces of gym equipment.  Racks are especially valuable to strength trainers.

Heck, using a power rack in your local gym can even help you earn instant respect in your gym's meat-head circles.

But here are three of the more practical advantages of using a power rack.

1. Decreased risk of injury during failed lifts

Lifters who work out alone at home can quickly get into trouble when attempting a one-rep maximum bench press with too much weight.  Trying to squeeze out an extra rep at the end of a hard set of bench press or squats is also very dangerous when lifting solo.

Attempt that rep and fail, and you could end up pinned under the bar.  I don't need to tell you that this can lead to severe injury and even death.

But with a properly-configured power rack, you won't have to worry about failing a rep. You can slide on that extra plate or attempt that one extra rep to push your gains to new heights.   

Without the fear of getting stuck under the bar, or having it fall to the ground and damage your floor, you can focus all of your attention on getting stronger and testing your limits.

Preventing potential injuries when racking or un-racking a bar

When lifting with heavy weights, removing or replacing the barbell on the J-cups can be tricky.  If you miss that target by a fraction of an inch, hundreds of pounds can come crashing down around you.

Again, having those safety bars in place can and will save your ass when this happens. 

2. An adjustable range allows for advanced lifting techniques

As mentioned briefly above, power racks were used to significant effect by the lifters at the York Barbell gym back in the sixties.

By setting the safety pins and J-hooks only a few holes apart, they were able to limit the range of motion to help eliminate specific sticking points in the various lifts. This technique helped them improve their lockouts on the bench press, driving out of the hole on the squat, and lifting off the floor in the deadlift. 

The ability to customize your range within a rack opens the doors to many different lifting techniques.

3. Racks offer fast size and strength gains for home lifters

While safety is easily the most critical feature of a power cage, results are what we are all after. If building strength and power are your primary goals, a power rack can help you achieve them faster than traditional exercise machines.

The ability to consistently lift heavier weights at home, without a spotter, means you can get stronger faster.  And with those strength gains will come increased muscle mass.

Best Power Rack Exercises for Building Muscle and Strength

There are many different exercises that you can perform in a power rack.  Here are some exercises that you typically see performed within a rack:

  • Bench Press
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Power Clean
  • Military Press
  • Pull-up
  • Upright Row
  • Barbell Shrug
  • Guided Dumbbell Flyes

If you are serious about building out a home gym with the best strength training equipment available, while reducing your chance of injury when lifting by yourself, then the power rack will help you reach those goals.

About the Author Brad Pinch

I started building a home gym out of necessity following my divorce. I quickly learned that I could build-out a complete workout space for cheaper than it would cost me for a multi-year gym membership. I enjoy trying out new equipment and evaluating different products to expand my gym and learn more about home-based workouts.

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