Welcome to our latest guide on getting to know your home gym essentials. Today, we’re racking up some big-boy weights and looking at a fantastic bit of kit for anyone looking to do some serious strength training: the power rack.
If you’re setting up your own home gym (good on ya!) then this is definitely one core piece of equipment that will do wonders for your training.
Grab a protein shake and lets find out why these frames are so important for getting stronger at home.
Introductions: What is a power rack?
Heavy steel cages that assist and protect people while they lift, power racks are common sights in most commercial gyms, and getting far more prevalent in home gym set-ups.
That’s because there is no safer way to lift heavy weights. Power racks have hooks, safety bars and other features that make lifting far simpler, as well as a bunch of smart features that saves you space, time, and makes workouts much more enjoyable.
Power rack benefits: are they really worth the space and money?
A power rack is literally designed for weightlifting. More specifically, it’s incredibly useful for the full range of traditional powerlifting exercises, so whether you should have one depends entirely on your goals and the exercise routines you use.
Who will a squat rack be useful to?
And who should not buy a power cage?
If your goal is to get stronger, especially if you regularly integrate the classic ‘big lifts’ like squats, deadlifts and bench presses into your workouts, then a power rack is a good purchase that will quickly pay for itself.
If you’re training to change your body comp, whether that’s losing fat or gaining muscle, then a power rack is probably a good choice, as strength training should be the core part of any body transformation program.
If you spend most of your time training cardio, and rarely if ever lift weights, then a power rack isn’t going to be useful to you or help you meet your goals.
Power rack exercises: what kind of things can you do?
Power racks are incredibly versatile pieces of equipment, suitable for any exercise that you can possibly do with a barbel.
Common exercises a power rack is used for include:
- Bench press
- Bent over rows
- Bicep curls
- Calf raises
- Shoulder press
Can I fit a power rack into my home gym?
anyone with an interest in training hard and getting strong fast should seriously consider the benefits, as there aren’t many better tools out there.
One major consideration with power racks is size. A full power rack is around 50” deep, about the same wide, and around 80” tall.
First, consider the footprint. A standard power cage has a footprint of about 18 square feet, or about 2 square meters. This isn’t counting the bar, which is wider than the cage and will stick out about a foot on either side, and will still need access in order to rack weights. You’re also going to need room for storage of all the accessories, and space to get in and out of it.
Expect your rack to need at least 5 feet of depth, and 8 feet of width, to fit comfortably in your room.
Second is height. At around 7 to 8 feet in height, a power cage will fit in most standard rooms and garages, but it’s a close run thing.
Make sure you have at least 8 feet of height for your power tower.
What are the different types of power rack?
Squat racks/stands – great compact space savers
By far the most basic option, a squat rack, also called a squat stand, is basically a pair of metal stands on a sturdy base. They’re only useful for resting the bar in between sets, but tend to be lightweight and easy to move, as well as budget friendly, so they’re a good choice if your home gym lacks space.
Half racks – the ‘short squat rack’
Compared to squat stands, half racks are much closer to an actual rack. They are essentially a pair of vertical columns on a stable base, letting you can mount j-hooks, hang the bar, and have safety bars.
Because they’re open, half racks are a good choice for dynamic overhead movements, where a full rack might get in the way. But because they’re not a full cage, heavy weights dropped onto the safety bars can cause it to move, or potentially even bounce or tip.
Better half racks will also come with accessories, including a pull-up station, bar storage or plate storage.
Full Power racks / cages
By far the most effective option, full power racks are suitable for the heaviest weights. Their full cage design is incredibly stable, because it spreads the weight through all four columns, and it means that safety bars are supported front and back, meaning they’re less likely to escape if dropped.
Compare some of the better ones in our best power rack guide here.
But power cages like this are also larger than other options. If you’re smart, this isn’t an issue, as most cages are big enough to work in, and you can complete almost a full workout from inside.
Power racks are also a good option if you share your gym space, because they can comfortably be used by two people at once, (one inside the cage, the other using hooks mounted to the outside.)
Are Smith Machines power racks?
Technically, the answer is no, but if you ask most gyms and training professionals, even though a Smith machine isn’t a power rack, it’s probably going to be recommended to you.
The reason is simple. Smith machines let you run through the same exercises you’d be doing in a rack, except the weight is constantly supported meaning that you’re safe, and even absolute beginners can learn the movements and train until they’re able to lift free.
Are smith machines bad?
No! They just do something different to a power cage. Smith machines give you a lot of confidence while working the same muscles as a simple power cage. They’re also a good choice if you’re planning to do forced reps for a set, but don’t have a spotter.
You do miss out on all the extra stability work but you’ll get a serious strength workout with a smith, all the same. A really good one is the Powerline Smith Machine, which offers a lot of stability and is reasonably priced.
If you think a smith machine sounds like your ideal training partner, you might enjoy our Best Home Smith Machines handy guide.
How much do power racks cost?
The cost of a power rack can vary massively, depending on how heavy duty it is and any extras it comes with.
Basic squat racks can be picked up for less than £100, but have very limited functionality.
In terms of power racks, an entry-level model could cost a few hundred pounds, with more expensive models running upwards of a thousand.
For most people, unless they’re at the upper echelons of elite fitness and constantly pushing for huge numbers, an entry-level squat rack will have enough strength for all normal exercises.
If you want a really good one, we’d recommend the Fitness Reality 810XLT. You can pick it up on Amazon and it ticks all the boxes, and is great for the price. It was also awarded the Men’s Health Editor’s Choice award.
Is a power rack a squat rack?
While you might hear people call a power rack a squat rack, they’re technically two different things.
We’ve already mentioned the differences, but it’s worth pointing out what that means when you’re exercising using it.
A squat rack is literally just somewhere to store your bar between sets and when racking weights. When you’re exercising, a squat rack provides no safety features or other bonuses.
The main benefit of a power rack is safety. If you can’t handle a weight or you end up collapsing, you can safely drop it inside the cage and trust that the safety bars will handle the weight and keep the bar off the floor, or, more importantly, off your back.
What to look for when buying a power rack
Running up the columns, the racking holes are the points where the j-hooks and safety bars are mounted.
Look for a decent height variation, with numbered holes if possible. It makes it much simpler to set up and change.
Better quality cages will have built in plate storage, generally at the back end of the cage.
This tends to be really useful, saving space that would be taken up by independent storage, saving time racking and storing weights, and saving money.
Most full cages have a built in pull-up station as part of their kit. Normally either a flat bar or a set of cast pull-up bars attached to the front.
If you’re buying a cage with a pull-up station, you’re going to need more vertical space, as a completed pull-up will put you above the top bars of the cage.
J-hooks lock into the frame, and give the bar somewhere to sit between sets.
A lot of racks come with j-hooks, but it’s worth taking a look at them before you buy. You want strong hooks, preferably made from quality steel, so they can hold as much weight as the cage itself.
Better quality hooks will also have inserts that protect the knurls on your bar, preventing long-term damage.
Some racks will only come with one set of j-hooks. In our opinion it’s always best to buy a second pair, as a set of external, front mounted hooks are really useful for some exercises.
The safety bars are there for when things go wrong, and you’re going to want to make sure that they’re strong enough to hold up to serious impacts. A 250lbs bar dropped from shoulder height has some force behind it, and your bars need to be able to resist that.
Solid steel is preferable, and if possible it should have some sort of coating to help absorb impact and prevent damage.
If you plan on doing any bench related exercises, you’re going to need a bench. Most racks don’t come with benches, but will fit any standard, high-quality brand.
Look for adjustable benches, because they give you the best option, and make sure it has mobility options, as you’re going to want to move it in and out of the cage often.
If you’ve not already got one in your gym, there’s some pretty good weights benches for under £100 available online.
Not strictly part of the rack, good gym flooring is a must if you’re buying a power rack.
Racks and cages are made from heavy steel, and might have hundreds of kilos of extra weight on them. That’s a lot of force on your floors. Good gym flooring material will spread that force, and also help to absorb the impact of your workouts, for a really cheap price.
Check out our guide on gym flooring here for more info.
Hopefully, you’ve got a better idea of what a power rack is and whether it’s the right choice for you. While power racks aren’t for everyone, anyone with an interest in training hard and getting strong fast should seriously consider the benefits, as there aren’t many better tools out there.
References and further reading
- There was a good study comparing smith machines with free-weight bench press exercises.
- There’s an interesting thread here discussing whether s Smith Machine is as good as a power cage.
- The NHS website has some common mistakes to avoid when you’re training.
- NCBI – How to squat – effects of stances and other factors when lifting