Power racks are a must for lifting seriously heavy weights.
Not only do they help you store weights and load and unload your barbells, they give you protection from failing a lift and getting injured.
Plus, they’re incredibly versatile. There’s an array of exercises you can do with a rack, including but not limited to:
- Heavy row
- Bench press
- Shoulder press
- Front squat
- Back squat
Sounds great, right? It is — until you walk into the gym and see a bunch of different types of power racks and you’re not sure which one to use!
Don’t worry, it’s not too daunting.
The main types of power racks are:
- Full power racks
- Half power racks
- Squat stands
- Squat racks
- Sumo racks
Which power rack is right for you? It all depends on what you want to target during your workouts.
Most people should stick to using a full power rack (or cage) for most big exercises like squats. However, the other varieties have advantages and specific uses you should know about.
Here are the five different varieties of power racks and what each one can accomplish.
1. Full power rack
You’re probably most familiar with the full power rack at the gym.
It’s identifiable with its two standing posts, four upright bars located around the barbell, and safety bars.
It’s an extremely popular type of weight training equipment as it allows you to perform a variety of free weight barbell exercises, including bench presses and squats.
Normally for these exercises, you would need a friend to spot you to prevent getting crushed by the bar, or you simply wouldn’t be able to unrack the weights at all.
However, a full power rack has two conveniently placed safety bars you can adjust as necessary.
As an added bonus, there’s a pull-up bar up top on most models. It’s mostly there to complete the design, but you’ll find plenty of people use it to get some quick calisthenics in.
The primary benefit of a full power rack is how it prevents injury in case a weight slips and falls. Therefore, you don’t need someone there with you, which can help if you usually go to the gym by yourself. And with steel construction like you’ll find from most trusted brands, you can be confident the rack is built to last and isn’t going to give in any time soon.
Jamie Hickey from Truism Fitness emphasizes how the safety bars are really the main attraction on any power rack:
“You adjust the safety bars to a height just slightly below the bottom of your range of motion for the particular exercise, so that the safety bars can catch the barbell on a failed rep before the barbell crushes you.
“For that matter, if you fall forward or backward, the barbell may hit the uprights as well as the safety bars. That’s what they are there for. So you’re good almost no matter what happens.”
Some taller lifters run into issues when doing vertical movements like the standing barbell press inside a full rack, where the bar may hit the top of the rack, but that’s rare.
The only real drawback comes if you plan on purchasing a full power rack. It tends to be pricy with many of the more reliable models costing over $1,000.
If you don’t have the space or budget for a home power rack, you’ll find plenty of these at the gym.
(See this list of gyms that have power racks for more.)
2. Half racks
As the name suggests, half racks only have two uprights bars compared to the four you get with a full rack.
Many varieties still come with safety bars to catch the barbell in the event it falls.
Half racks are popular because they take up far less space than a full rack, and for that reason, you’ll usually see a bunch of these at your local gym.
Or if you want to purchase one, it takes up less space in your garage and costs less.
The drawback is that half racks are not quite as safe. In a full power rack, you really can’t step out of the protected area.
But with a half rack, you can easily step back too far to where the safety bars can’t catch the weights.
However, some lifters prefer the freedom to move around more and avoid any horizontal or vertical restrictions.
Half racks are also generally made out of a thinner steel and can sometimes have a lower weight limit than full power racks or cages.
3. Squat stand
Squat stands are ideal for, well, squatting!
The stand holds and supports the barbell as you get in position to do squats during your weight training.
The device consists of two upright metal bars on either side of you. You can adjust the height so that the barbell is precisely where you want it to be.
To get started, you just need to take one step backward after getting the bar off the stand. When you’re done, you simply step forward to re-rack the barbell on the stand until you’re ready for the next set.
Squat stands are popular with some lifters because they don’t take up much space. But if you’re new to power racks, then watch out for squat stands.
Champion powerlifter and personal trainer Robert Herbst says, “Squat stands are the least preferable as they may be unstable, especially the old car wheel types. Also, they do not have anything to catch you if you miss a lift. They are also limited in what you can do off them.”
Squat stands don’t have safety bars, so you may still need a spotter while you work out and you won’t be able to do partial lifts like rack pulls or certain kinds of shrugs.
4. Squat rack
The difference between a squat stand and a squat rack comes down to how much room each one takes up.
Stands tend to be smaller and lack that essential safety bar.
Meanwhile, squat racks are similar to half racks. They consist of two upright metal bars that allow you to pick up the barbell to perform squats with ease.
Some squat racks come with safety bars or arms while others don’t.
If you’re looking for a squat rack for your home gym, try to find one that accommodates safety arms. It makes the rack a lot safer and more versatile (the arms enable partial lifts and range of motion training).
By the way, squat stands and squat racks aren’t only for squatting! You can use them for other exercises like the bench press or military press.
But that’s only if the safety bars are adjustable.
Some squat racks and stands have fixed position safety arms, according to Jamie Hickey, and that makes them less than ideal for most lifters and severely limits what you can do inside the rack.
5. Sumo rack
You don’t need to be a sumo wrestler to enjoy all of the benefits of a sumo rack.
This rack is similar to a full power rack. The main difference comes down to how you can place your feet wider than what you’re able to do with a typical power rack.
This extra width comes courtesy of wider or more elevated bottom frame tubing. Lifters can easily slide their feet underneath and assume a “sumo” stance while they work out.
There are numerous exercises you can perform on a sumo rack, such as a sumo squat or deadlift.
The main thing you want to watch out for is working out on a sumo rack with a bottom frame that’s too high.
This can restrict how low the barbell can go, which limits your ability to perform certain exercises, such as low rack pulls or deadlifts.
Are Smith Machines power racks?
Smith Machines are generally not considered to be power racks.
They’re not even really in the same family.
Smith Machines have more in common with resistance machines like the pec dec or leg press.
(If you’re not familiar with the Smith Machine, it’s a rack-like device that allows a barbell to travel up and down while loaded with weights. The barbell can be locked and adjusted to various positions and ranges of motion.)
Smith Machines restrict the range of motion to a straight line, and that reason, most trainers advise the majority of gym-goers to avoid them.
According to Herbst, “Because it restricts motion, a Smith Machine can put undue stress on the joints such as the knees in squatting as the person drives back against the machine’s support rather into the bar to move the weight.”
Unless you’re advanced and you’re using the Smith Machine for a very specific purpose, stick to using free weights inside open-style power racks.
Most power racks are great for performing the main big compound lifts like squats, bench press, overhead press, and more.
If a full rack or cage, half rack, sumo rack, or squat rack has adjustable safety arms, it can be useful for partial lifts like rack pulls or different rowing variations.
For most intents and purposes, you’ll want to use the full power rack or cage at the gym. It can do almost everything you need and provides the most safety and stability.
If you have the room in your home gym, go with a full cage. If not, a half rack or squat rack with adjustable safety arms is almost as good.
Once you know your way around the gym a little better, you can experiment with the freedom that comes with open squat stands or play around with foot positioning inside a sumo rack.
Hope this helps!