If you are currently researching a gym equipment purchase, you are probably reading a lot of recommendations for power racks, especially on forums. And for good reason. In terms of functionality, safety and effectiveness – probably the most important factors in any fitness equipment purchase – the power rack would be one of the top-ranking selections in anyone’s books.
So in this article you will see what all the fuss is about.
If you have already purchased your power rack, we will hopefully show you a few extra tips and tricks to get the most out of your training experience.
The beauty of weight training, and one of the reasons I preach it like a religion, is that you get the most benefit if you keep it simple. It has been proven time and time again, that if you perform compound movements with increasing intensity you will get stronger and build more muscle. Provided you are getting adequate rest and nutrition.
Compound exercises are movements that recruit multiple muscle groups at once. Exercises like bench press, squats, chin ups, dips, deadlifts etc require many large muscle groups to fire into action. Your body senses this activity, and responds by building muscle and strength.
Exercises like bicep curls only use one small muscle – the bicep – so the signal it sends is minor. Compound movements send the message loud and clear. So if you want big biceps to impress the ladies, do exercises like bench press, squats or deadlifts.
Aside from the cosmetic factor, compound movements are also preferable for their functional strength. By this I mean the strength you will develop from an exercise like squats is transferable to your functioning in everyday life. If you need to lift something heavy, you will bend your knees and drive with your legs – just like a squat.
Most importantly to me, squatting is just like getting off a chair. This is no big deal you might say, but what about when you are 80? There are plenty of old guys and girls lifting well into their senior years, and I bet they bounce out of the chair instead of being pushed around in it.
So what do compound movements have to do with power racks?
Compound movements are completely safe when performed with correct form and with the right equipment – safer than driving a car – I say this to give some perspective about what I am going to say next.
But some compound movements – namely bench press and squats – can not only lead to injury but even death. Many people have died trapped under a barbell after not being able to complete a bench press whilst training alone.
These people are prime candidates for the Darwin awards, considering that investing in a proper power rack or half rack not only does not cost a lot more, but these days they don’t have to take up more space. Considering the amount of use and the benefits offered by spending that bit extra, it really is a no brainer.
The big appeal of the power rack is that it allows you to perform your bench pressing and squats with safety even if you train alone. The four uprights box the barbell in and restrict movement to the front and the rear. Adjustable spotter or safety bars, restrict downward movement.
So using bench press as an example, safety bars are set just below the bottom of your movement so you still have free range of motion. If you can’t complete your rep, you can just set the bar down and get out. Better quality racks like the Barbarian cage, have hole spaces that are only 50mm apart, which give you the ability to get the spotters in the exact position for your bench press.
The Barbarian cage also has rubber on top of the solid steel safety bars so it won’t damage your barbell in the event of a heavy drop. So you have no excuse not to use them!
So you now know you can perform some really important exercises with complete safety. You are probably thinking is that all you can do? Sounds boring?
Nothing could be further from the truth, as a matter of fact the number of exercises and variations is almost endless. One of the best parts of training at home with a power rack is discovering new exercises or coming up with variations of old favourites. Once you nail down the basics, dig out some old bodybuilding or powerlifting books and see some classics. Or jump online and join a forum to get some ideas.
There are also exercises which are best performed or easier to do in a power cage.
Aside from the safety aspect, performing a bench press in power cage is often better than many dedicated bench presses. When discussing the spotter or safety bars, I mentioned that the Barbarian cage had 50mm hole spacing. This also has another benefit for exercises like bench press.
The barbell rests on supports called j-hooks. Just like the spotter bars, they can be moved into the perfect position for where you would like to start and stop your bench press. In some gyms, the bench press might only have 3 or 4 positions available.
This system also allows you to perform the bench press variations like incline press and decline press. So, you will be able to test and try different positions and work out what works best for you.
The spotter bars are also handy in that they let you know if you are performing the exercise with correct form. Sometimes you can bring the bar down crooked and without spotter bars you would be none the wiser. However, with spotters the bar will touch one side first and you will be able to make the necessary adjustments to your form.
The bench press works your pushing muscles which include your pecs, triceps and the front part of your shoulder muscles. So, the front half of your upper body. Once you are handling a challenging weight, you can really feel it in your core too.
But don’t fall into the trap of trying to win bragging rights by trying to bench massive weight with poor form. Not only do you risk injury, you won’t engage the target muscles correctly, thus hampering your long-term development in this exercise.
Performing squats in a power rack has the same benefits mentioned with bench press above. The structure of the cage plays a more important role in this exercise. Having the peace of mind that your movement is restricted forward, backward and downward will allow you to better focus on your technique and engaging the correct muscles in the right sequence.
Done properly, this exercise will recruit so many muscles in your body. Naturally your legs and lower back will do most of the lifting, but your upper body will also be stimulated as it supports the bar on your shoulders. Once you get up to handling some taxing weights, the old lungs will be on fire giving a cardio vascular benefit too.
Now I can’t think of any power rack that doesn’t come with some form of chin up bar these days, so chin ups can be considered a standard power rack exercise. Chin ups work your pulling muscles – lats, back and biceps – so the parts of your upper body that aren’t hit with bench press.
If you are just starting out in training or carrying a bit extra bodyweight and don’t have the strength to perform this exercise correctly don’t despair! There are many ways around this. You can use resistance bands. Or get a step and start in the contracted position and hold – this will build the muscles that will pull you up.
Many cages now have multi grip chin up bars – meaning you can grip at different angles and widths. As a market leader, the Barbarian cage has incorporated different grip thickness as well as bomb grips.
Dip handles are almost like chin up bars these days. If they aren’t included standard like on the Barbarian cage, they normally can be purchased separately. If you can’t get dip handles for your power rack, you can get gymnastic rings and suspend them from your power rack – proving yet again why they are so great. Power racks are great for improvising.
The dip has often been described as the upper body squat, as it recruits so many muscles in the upper body. If you can’t perform this exercise properly at your current bodyweight, you can use resistance bands for assistance.
Alternatively, if you get really strong, you can add weight by using a dip belt or weighted vest.
While we have the dip handles out, why not try inverted rows. Instead of pushing yourself up with dips, slide underneath your dip handles and pull yourself up. Building your strength on this exercise will help you perform chin ups.
If you don’t have dip handles, you can put your barbell on the j-hooks and row off that. Even if you do have dip handles, using the barbell is a great variation. The dip handles will typically give you a neutral or angled grip. The barbell will give you a horizontal grip.
The shoulder press is the main exercise to work on if you want build yourself some cannonballs of muscle on your shoulders. Even though this exercise is specifically targeting the shoulders, your arms and in particular triceps will feel the burn too.
Sometimes you might be restricted by your bench in getting in the correct position. The rear leg of some benches can hit the rear cross section of the power rack. This can often be solved by switching to the front uprights.
Hanging ab raises
Your chin up bar is not just for chin ups, it is also great for ab work. You can hang from the bar and perform leg raises. If you don’t have the strength to hang for extended periods, you can get ab slings that you can suspend yourself from.
If I expanded on all the barbell exercises and their variations that can be done with the aid of a power rack, this guide would end up longer than War and Peace! Some of the exercises I mention here can technically be done without the aid of a power rack, but are a lot easier to do thanks to a power rack. Plus, some of them are just variations of exercises already mentioned.
An exercise like shrugs can be done with just a barbell. However, if you have a barbell you can set your bar on the spotter bars and load up your weights. It is easier to lift the bar up into the starting position off spotter bars than lifting it off the ground. The same goes when finishing the exercise. This reduces the likelihood of injury and allows you to focus your efforts and intensity on the exercise.
Other exercises include:
- Barbell and bent over rows.
- Military Press
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Upright Rows
- Bicep Curls
- Reverse Curls
- Front Squats
- Lat options
As the popularity of power cages increased, a market developed for optional add ons to further enhance the training experience. The main, and most effective would be a high and low pulley section that bolt on the back, which effectively gives you a lat pulldown and seated row machine.
On the Barbarian Cage, the add on is based on their commercial stand-alone lat machines. So, you can add a commercial quality lat pulldown to your gym without taking up a lot more extra space, plus they are great value too!
With this addition, the list of potential exercises and variations just explodes. Like the barbell exercises, it is almost endless when you include the variations. For example, lat pulldowns can be done with a traditional wide bar, but you can get cable attachments with neutral grips.
Here are just some of the exercises:
- Lat Pulldowns
- Seated Rows
- Tricep Pressdowns
- Bicep Curls
- Upright Rows
- One arm cable crossover
- Lateral Raises
- Front Raises
- Cable Crunches
- Hamstinger Curls
- Face Pulls