A power rack and half rack are popular pieces of weight training equipment that are mainly used as a convenient workout station for freeweight barbell exercises: squats, bench presses, and anything else that you could normally use a spotter on.
Power racks, also known as power cages, surround the barbell with 4 uprights and safety bars underneath, catching the barbell on a failed rep or if you fall forwards or backwards.
Half racks do not enclose the barbell with 4 uprights. The barbell is used off the front of the rack only, and only some models include safety arms to catch a failed rep.
A power rack isn’t always better. Here’s the case for both…
The Argument for a Power Rack
A power rack is safer to use in case you fall forward or backward during your set. The four uprights will stop the barbell from leaving the rack and causing mayhem, or stop the whole rack from tipping over.
Here’s an example of said mayhem on a light duty half rack:
So while the half rack above caught the bar, the force was great enough on the safety arms away from the center of gravity that the whole rack flipped up. Not good.
With a better half rack, the above should not happen even if you drop the bar, but still, you don’t have that added assurance that the rack will catch the barbell if you fall forward or backward. It’s going to be just one or the other, depending on the direction you’re facing.
Half racks tend to not be as heavy as power racks, simply due to having fewer frame components, so some half racks may not catch the barbell as well as you would like. With cheaper half racks, if the barbell hits the uprights hard enough it may tip the rack over. Some half racks are made to be stable enough that this isn’t really an issue. The safety in such a scenario might be done with the extra weight of heavy-gauge steel or large tubing, a stable foot design that extends out enough, or it may have tabs to be bolted down into the concrete.
Another issue with half racks is the safety bars. A lot of half racks will have safety bars (also called safety arms) that extend out a couple feet. They are of course made to catch a barbell, but they need to be beefier to be as strong as the safety bars on a power rack that are supported at both ends.
Even if it isn’t obvious that you can bolt down any particular rack, it’s actually possible to bolt any rack into concrete. You either want to drill through the tubing and use extra long bolts, or bolt down some kind of bracket that lays over the tubing.
So as far as safety goes, there’s no question that although a half rack can be made safer in various ways, a power rack has more safety features. Some folks have a very low risk tolerance, and for them a power rack is the perfect choice. It’s also a smart choice for beginner lifters who don’t have the squat movement down and may severely lose their balance and have to let go of the bar in an uncontrolled manner.
See our review of the Titan T-2 power rack for a budget-friendly option, or our collection of reviews on the T-3 power rack as the next step up.
So Why a Half Rack?
So all that being said, there are some pretty good reasons to pick half racks.
Technically the footprint of a heavy duty half rack is often the same as a power rack. But in a tight space a half rack can give you more room to move around and step over the feet, enough to make a difference. A home gym can have limited space that you have to make the best use of.
2. Overhead Presses
A lot of racks are made to about 81″ high so that they can fit in residential units with a standard 8ft ceiling and still do pull ups without necessarily banging their head. That’s also the right height to barely fit in a lot of basements without having to make questionable cuts into the ceiling struts. That height is fine for most exercises, but an 6ft tall male wanting to do standing overhead presses will have a problem. The bar will smack right into the frame at that height. You could get a taller power rack, like 92″ or so, to just barely reach the 8ft ceiling, or even taller if the ceiling isn’t an issue, but taller racks like that are pretty expensive and not so common. The easier solution is a half rack where you’ll be pressing outside the rack anyway.
A half rack has fewer frame parts and is cheaper to make and ship.
However, good half racks can be more expensive than power racks, because they need to be heavy duty enough to stay stable despite having a smaller or lighter frame.
4. Moving the Bar
To do exercises outside of the rack like overhead presses or olympic lifts, or if you just want to switch the bar out, a half rack offers more flexibility because you’re always outside the rack. You can finish your set of standing rows outside the rack, clean the bar to your shoulders, and set it on the rack ready for a set of squats. A power rack requires that you completely unload the bar first and carefully maneuver it around between the uprights to set it inside, and you better not have a wall next to you or sooner or later you’re going to be repairing drywall.
5. Olympic Lifting
This is actually a major reason to go with a half rack, especially nowadays with so many people into Crossfit, but to me it’s the most interesting so I saved it for last.
Just to avoid confusion, most of us are using “olympic weights”, but when we talk about olympic lifts, we mean the snatch and clean-and-jerk, and variation exercises such as front squats and complexes. Crossfit® has exploded the popularity of these exercises. Maybe you want to do some warmup front squats off the rack, then take a few steps back and do a set of cleans off the floor without the rack getting dangerously in the way.
Olympic lifting is much more about balance and coordination than a simple barbell back squat. Athletes do lots of reps at light weight, not just to build strength and conditioning but to practice the movement for safety purposes and get it down pat before they move up to heavier weights. An olympic lift is a quick, dynamic movement that heavily relies on technique. Athletes learn to stay safe by dumping the bar. This really comes down to training philosophy. To some, training is not only about building strength but learning how to handle themselves in dynamic situations where they don’t have safety bars to save them. Real life doesn’t come with safety bars. So risk assessment comes into play. We want to push ourselves but also be able to walk away injury-free. Can I attempt this much weight and dump it safely enough if I fail the rep? Am I going to dump it forward or backward? Some like the sense of accomplishment that comes with being able to safely control a heavy weight from the ground to overhead, and being a few steps away from the rack helps us rely on ourselves to accomplish it.
Group workouts pose their own issues. Affiliates with limited space may need to move the racks to the floor for a particular workout and then store them back against the wall again. With power racks this isn’t feasible. Not only are they heavy, but they don’t stack together in the corner well. But with small half racks a single person can carry it, or two people easily, and you end up with some serious space opened up. It’s a matter of what works for the environment.
This video nails exactly when it’s ok to squat outside of a rack:
If you look at the upscale gyms of major universities and pro sports teams, they often have a whole bunch of half racks lined up down the room, with a lifting platform in front of each rack. The reasons for this can be any of the above, particularly easy transitions from one exercise to another without getting in the way of each other. Teams often train together, so athletes can spot each other if needed.
To save you time, currently our #1 recommended half rack is the Rogue SML-1 Monster Lite Squat Stand.
If you compare all of Rogue’s squat stands, this is the lowest priced one that has safety spotter arms as an option. If you don’t need them, skip them for now, but at least you’ll have the option to get them later on if you’re doing heavy back squats or bench presses and you want to stay alive.
It’s actually quite heavy duty, with 3″x3″ 11-gauge steel. I would have recommended one that’s 2″x3″, but again, this is already the best deal for what you get. The extra heavy steel just makes it better, less prone to tipping or sliding when you’re re-racking that heavy squat.
As of writing I personally use the Titan X-3 short rack with spotters included, which is basically a lower-priced copy of the Rogue SML-1. I was curious how it compares, and I’m really happy with it. Titan’s deal is they aren’t as good on the little things, like rounding off the corners of the UHMW inserts, things like that. Mine came with a few scratches. I don’t care. The tubing and other main things are direct from Rogue’s design, so the basic design itself is proven and sound, such as the balance and placement of the uprights. If you’re OCD, go with Rogue.
As far as full power racks go, take a look at our article on the Titan T-2.
The T-2 doesn’t have to be bolted down into concrete like a lot of the racks by Rogue and others out there now that don’t have any lower rear crossmembers to stabilize them.
This one is pretty light duty, fine for most beginners. There are videos, however, of someone lifting a ton of weight on it.
So I hope that helps clarify things and helps you make a decision between these two types of racks!