Table of Contents
What is a power rack?
This is also known as a power cage or “full” power rack.
A power rack is a popular piece of weight training equipment that is mainly used as a conveniently shaped rack for freeweight barbell exercises: squats, bench presses, and anything else where you could normally use a friend spotting you to keep you from getting crushed by the bar.
It’s important to note that the rack does not touch the bar while in motion and is therefore not a weight machine at all.
The main point of a power rack are the safety bars, also called spotter arms or spotter bars. The 4 vertical steel tubes of the rack, which we usually call the uprights, are there to support the safety bars on the sides. 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.
When you’re unsure of the exact height you should set the safety bars at, it’s standard practice to do a few reps with just the empty bar, or an easy amount of weight, to figure out the right height. Some racks have numbered holes to make this easier. If not, all you can do is try to count the holes, or put a mark on it for next time if it’s your own rack you have at home.
Also inside the rack is a set of J-cups, which you lift the barbell off from initially, and re-rack the barbell back onto when you’re done with each set. Depending on the exercise, these are set significantly higher than the safety bars so that you can lift the barbell off and begin the movement at the top of your range of motion.
What is a half rack?
Also sometimes called a half squat rack or half power rack.
Half racks do not surround you with 4 uprights. There may be only the two uprights, and if there are any more, they are toward the back and only used for weight plate storage.
The barbell is used off the front of the rack only, and only some models include safety arms to catch a failed rep. If you fall backwards far enough, there is nothing to catch the barbell.
These may or may not have pull up bars.
What is a squat rack?
A squat rack could mean just about anything. The above styles and more. The original racks designed for squats were all called squat racks.
The old style squat racks looked like this.
They are basically half racks but with fixed spotter bars that are not adjustable. That’s a big drawback. Taller users need the safety bars to be higher, or it isn’t as safe.
Note also the gunrack-style bar hooks. Instead of a set of adjustable-height J cups, you use whatever height you want. Personally, I don’t like that style. The hooks are several inches apart. They can easily lead you to banging the front of the hooks when you’re trying to re-rack the barbell.
You still see many of these around in commercial gyms. They really aren’t any cheaper than power racks. The main reason for them is they have zero moving or detachable parts that can walk away. One less headache for gym managers to deal with.
Using a bench inside a power rack or half rack
A flat or adjustable flat/incline/decline bench can be used in both types of racks to do bench presses. These types of benches are also called dumbbell benches or utility benches, and you can use them for various other barbell or dumbbell exercises. They are not the benches that have a built-in rack, ie: the type that can pretty much only be used for bench pressing. When you slide a bench into a power rack or half rack, any built-in rack on such a bench would only get in the way.
What’s the width of a power rack or half rack?
Almost any power rack, half rack or squat rack is a width considered olympic width, or about 48″ on the outside edges.
The reason for this is they are made to fit a 7ft olympic bar, which is about 52″ between the shoulders. That lets you rest the shaft of the bar on the hooks so you can freely load weight plates on the sleeves.
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 injury. The safety bars enclosed in a power rack do better to stop the whole rack from tipping over should you drop a bar on them.
Here’s an example of exactly that on a light duty half rack with an inadequate safety arm design:
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.
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 is inherently safer. It’s a particularly 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.
Plus, beginners squat with running shoes. Don’t do that. The padded sole does no favors for your stability.
So why a half rack?
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.
Barbell Medicine has an article going into detail about how to correctly perform the overhead press.
A half rack has fewer frame parts and is cheaper to make and ship.
However, good half racks can be more expensive than some 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.
How to pick a safe half rack
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. When it’s a half rack design that you can bolt to a concrete floor or to a platform, you’re in much safer territory.
With a freestanding rack (not bolted down), the best half racks are made with the extra weight of heavy-gauge steel or large tubing, or a wide footprint design.
Another issue with half racks is the safety arms. Some safety arms are very short and might as well not be there at all, because you can’t count on them when you’re failing a rep. 18″ long safety arms are reasonable for bench pressing. For squats, you really should have 24″ safety arms, given that you are typically squatting a farther distance from the lift-offs to
Most half racks don’t have 24″ safety arms mainly because the design, particularly the footprint size, doesn’t support them. When you drop a loaded bar near the outer edge of the safety bars, such racks will tip up, as in the video at the top of this article.
Even if your rack doesn’t have tabs with bolt holes, it’s actually possible to bolt down any rack. You either want to drill through the tubing and use extra long bolts, or better, bolt down a bracket that lays over the tubing.
Group and commercial environments
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.
Recommended power racks
See one of these articles for my top pick according to your need:
Recommended half racks
Consider one you can mount into the floor, if you have a concrete floor or can get/build a lifting platform. See the section on bolting down a rack in this article about power racks. It equally applies to half racks.
A second option is wall mounted squat racks, which works on any wall inside your house or garage.
If you compare all of Rogue’s squat stands, the SML-1 is the lowest priced one that is heavy duty enough to have good 24″ safety spotter arms as an option.
It’s quite heavy duty, with 3″x3″ 11-gauge steel. I would have still 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 have been using 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 pretty 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 also ran into an issue where the uprights wouldn’t stay perfectly level until I cranked down the bolts. I had to use a crescent wrench and pliers, having no socket wrenches big enough (those are huge bolts!), and I kept hurting my hand as it slipped. I gave up and called it good. Another 1/2 turn with a wrench should do the trick.
So I hope that helps clarify things and helps you make a decision between these two types of racks!