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How to use the power rack

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It's the most daunting piece of equipment in any commercial gym. I remember very well when I first stepped foot into the free weights section of a commercial gym. I was 17 years old and had been working out for 6 months. I saw these huge guys lifting insane amounts of weight. I was nervous. I saw large barbells, dumbbells that weighed over 40kg and all these pieces of equipment that I had no idea how to use. Four guys gathered in the corner around what I later learned was a “power rack”. This contraption of vertical posts, horizontal bars and weight plates stacked on each side was frightening to me. So don’t worry if you feel the same. We’ve all been through it and I’m here to help you out.

It’s like a playground for lifters

The power rack is a great tool, because it allows you to lift heavy weights safely. Unlike traditional machines in the gym, the power rack is extremely versatile. You can use it for back squats, front squats, shoulder press, deadlifts, bench press and heavy rows. It’s like a playground for lifters. But instead of sandcastles and climbing frames, you are playing with weights.

Let’s dissect the power rack for a moment. For your Weight Training journey you need to know about all its different pieces and how to use them.

For each exercise the barbell needs to be placed at a different height. This ensures maximum safety and minimal energy wasted to get the bar into the right position. Pins are straight or L-shaped tools that hold the barbell in place. Gym members might also refer to them as bar catches. Common mistakes: Setting each pin at a different height, putting them in the wrong way and being unable to get them out of the post. I am guilty of all three and it is frustrating. Not every pin is created equal. Especially the heavy duty pins need to be adjusted first before you can pull them out.

The unique quality of the power rack is that you can go heavy on the exercises without compromising your safety. Every power rack comes with so-called safety bars. They are especially important for squats and bench presses. They are like an emergency exit. In case of you failing a repetition, you can abort the barbell and release it on the safety bar. I wish the 17-year-old-me knew about this tool to avoid getting my sternum crushed underneath a barbell while bench pressing.

Common mistake: Not setting it at the correct height. For the Bench Press you want it to be just around the height of your chest. You want it to be close enough to your barbell so you don’t get buried under it. But you simultaneously want to avoid hitting the safety bars on each repetition. For the squat you also want it very close to the actual depth you will be squatting to. Use your warm up sets to get a feel for the correct height.

The power rack is great for barbell training. In true playground-fashion though, it offers bodyweight training options as well. Usually every power rack has a pullup bar attached on top. This is handy, when you want to train deadlifts and pullups within the same workout. Some gyms might even provide a handle for dips. High-end power racks even have attachments for resistance bands that you can loop around the barbell to provide a unique training stimulus.

5 tips to avoid funny looks in the gym

I have done some things in the gym that I am ashamed of. I am guilty of looking very stupid at times. I want you to avoid the common traps of training in the power rack. Here are my top 5 tips on power rack safety and etiquette:

  1. Mind your barbell math: You need to get your numbers right. It should go without saying that you should put the same weight on each side of the barbell. The fact that I almost tipped over to one side while bench pressing is evidence that, in the heat of the moment, the brain can just switch off. Most barbells weigh 20kg. If you want to do Squats with 40kg, then you should load the barbell with 10kg on the left and 10kg on the right. Pretty straightforward you would think.

  2. Load and unload evenly: This is for you athletes that are super strong and are able to lift heavy weights beyond 100kg. Make sure to load the bar first by adding 20kg on both sides and not just go straight for 60kg on the left and then 60kg on the right. The danger of the bar tipping over is real. Keep this in mind when you unload the bar as well.

  3. Face the pins: This is important when you want to re-rack the weight. Facing the pins makes it easy for you to put the barbell back in place once you finished your set. Take the back squat for example. Place the bar on your shoulders, walk out backwards and re-rack walking forwards. That way you can easily ensure that the barbell is on the pins on both sides. The amount of times I have seen people face the other direction and struggle to put the bar back on the pins and even missing one is scary.

  4. No bicep curls in the power rack: Now, I have nothing against bicep curls and I am even guilty of breaking this unwritten law on gym etiquette myself, but this is just unnecessary. Make sure you are not in the power rack when you do simple isolation exercises like bicep curls or tricep extensions. Yes it’s convenient. People will get mad at you though. The thing is that you don’t need a rack to perform these exercises. For back squats you do. And that’s why the powerlifter with the huge quads might give you a weird look. This leads right into the last tip, which is not a must, but ties into gym etiquette.

  5. Share the power rack: The power rack is one of the most sought after pieces of equipment in the gym. Lifters love it, because you can perform the big compound exercises safely and effective. Also, lifters usually spend a lot of time in the power rack. In your weight training journey you might do Back Squats, Romanian Deadlifts and Push Presses all within one workout. You might be occupying the power rack for a good 45min. Think about sharing the power rack with other members of the gym so they can get their training in as well.

The Go-to equipment for strength and muscle gain

Yes, the power rack is daunting. If done right though, it is one of the best pieces of equipment a gym has to offer to gain muscle and build functional strength. Imagine doing a back squat and always having to pick it off the ground, hoist it over the shoulder and place it on the back. That would be inefficient and I would probably be gassed before I even attempt my first squat. Learn about the different parts that make it up and mind these key tips to avoid putting you and other people in danger.