Power Rack Work
by Bob Simpson (1976)
It is time to turn back the clock a little. Back to one of the most result producing programs of the past 25 years – rack training, combined with isometrics. A whole new group of lifters has arisen since these methods enjoyed their place in the sun. Quite often people will come into the weight room at the YMCA, watch me train for a while, and want to know what in the world I am doing.
The system has probably been used, after a fashion, since the beginning of time, lifting or attempting to lift or throw stones, trees or whatever else was handy. John Grimek used it back in the 1930’s. more experiments were done in the 50’s, but the first systemized routine, especially designed to further lifting ability seems to have come along around 1961. Startling gains were made, and ordinary lifters were suddenly handling enormous poundages. Like most things which become popular, no matter how good they are, interest in this system eventually faded and it is now almost totally neglected. You may ask, with good reason, why this should be true if these methods are so good. The chief reason is that it was later discovered that the most publicized people using this system also started taking steroids on the sly, at the same time. When this was discovered their progress was then attributed chiefly to the steroids and doubts were cast on the value of a great system of training. Many of us, however, didn’t know a steroid from a dinosaur and went happily along making our progress without them.
There were two basic programs to hit the scene in 1961, In both of them any particular lift is broken down into two or three separate stages, usually the starting position, the middle, and the finish position. The first of these programs is pure isometric, where the lifter pushes or pulls against an immovable bar for a number of seconds. A disadvantage of this is that most people can’t gauge how much pressure they are applying and if you loaf and merely go through the motions with this system you may as well not do it. This is the chief reason, I believe, for those failures that did occur.
Self hypnosis is almost a must in order to get the most out of isometrics. There are plenty of books on this, so I won’t try to instruct you in this respect. It is nothing mysterious and you don’t have to delve deeply into the art to be able to use it to advantage in your workouts. You can reach the mild trance state required for this very quickly and once you have the hang of it you don’t even have to go into the trance in any special way. Many lifters are often shocked when they find out how many top men of the past and present have employed a form of this technique. What I would do for a press, for example, is to merely lay my hands lightly under the bar and give my subconscious a key word or command, such as “contract” or “press.” Then, with no conscious effort at all the proper muscles contract, little by little until a tremendous amount of pressure is exerted. An advantage of this is that the muscles not being used for this exercise are very relaxed, enabling you to channel your effort exactly where you want it. For instance, your biceps and forearms aren’t contracted, pulling your arms back down at the same time you are trying to press. Of course, this is too slow a process to use on a competition lift where explosiveness is a factor, but it is a tremendous help in building power and preparing for competition. It may well be that you could become proficient enough to actually use it for full lifts, and then there’s really no telling what you might accomplish. A possible key word in this case could be “explode!”
The second method of performance, called Isometronic, is to take a heavy barbell and push or pull it as high as you can, holding for several seconds. Sometimes the bar is held at this point as strongly as possible against restraining pins.
My best results were obtained by combining both of these variations. For example, I would do some of the exercises in pure isometric fashion and others isometronic, changing method use for an exercise from workout to workout.
The program described here is the isometronic – limited movement with heavy weights. For power, I favor doing one repetition per position, either pushing or pulling the bar up against restraining pins, or dispensing with these and lifting the bar as far as possible, but with enough weight to prevent you from going all the way. Experiment a little and determine which way you like best. Either way, hold the bar at its highest point until you no longer can and it starts back down. I generally did only one set each position, but you can do 3 or 4, starting moderately and adding weight each set, if you feel the need for a warmup. For bodybuilding purposes you can use 3 to 5 reps. In this case hold only the last rep at the highest point or against the pins.
Start with a weight at the shoulders that you can only press a few inches and press it a as high as possible, or against the pins. For the middle position, set the pins at about eye level and again press it as high as possible, holding at that point. An alternative for the mid position, and one that I prefer, is to take a weight somewhat lighter than the starting position press, start at the shoulders and press it up to forehead height. For power at the top, set the pins several inches below the lockout position, then with arms straight, bend the knees and straighten up. From here unlock the arms and lower the bar as far down as you can control it, and attempt to press it back up. You could also work the middle position in this same manner with a lighter weight, lowering it to about the halfway point and attempting to press it from there.
For power in the shoulders, biceps, forearms and traps set the pins at about the height of the lower pectorals, pull the bar off the pins as high as possible, or against the pins, and hold. Drop the pins down to about waist level, and from here pull the bar up to the lower pectorals. Drop the pins down again to the dead hang position and use a weight you can pull up for several inches.
Start with the pins set 2 to 4 inches below lockout for the first position. Next, set the pins in the middle position and press up as high as possible, or to restraining pins set about four inches up the rack. Finish off with the bar resting as close to your chest as possible and pressing up 2 to 4 inches. If your rack is of the type that has hooks that you can take the weight off of, it is good to do the middle position by lowering the weight from arm’s length, down to the halfway point and attempting to press it back up. If you have no power rack you can do this latter movement with the aid of a couple of alert spotters. You can do the low position the same way, by lowering a weight you can’t press, all the way down and attempting to press it back up, holding the weight at its highest point as long as you can.
Start with the partial squat at the top position, moving the weight only a few inches. You may have to use repetitions on this position as it is hard to get enough weight on the bar as you grow stronger. Move on down to the half squat position, where the thighs and the calves form a right angle. For the last position, start at the point where the thighs are a little below parallel to the floor, and attempt to rise to the standing position. This one can also be done without a power rack by performing pause squats at the three different positions. First doing heavy quarter squats, then drop the poundage and go down to the half squat position, holding that position for several seconds before coming back up. Drop the poundage again and sink into the full or below parallel position for several seconds and have spotters remove the weight from your back. Use a little caution here and build up to a heavy weight slowly. Don’t immediately collapse under an enormous weight and injure yourself. Start with just a little over what you can squat with and add week by week. Be patient and remember that if you add only 5 pounds a week that can be an additional 260 pounds in a year.
Start close to the top position, about 6 inches down. Move down to just below knee height for the second position. Start with the bar a little above floor height for the third position. You may need to use wrist straps for the top position, as you’ll soon be handling tremendous weights. finish this portion of the routine off with some leg raises hanging from the chinning bar.
This was the basic routine that brought fabulous results to many people 15 years ago. Subsequent developments with contracted position work now allow us to add a new dimension that we didn’t have before. At first thought it may seem that the finish position of each movement works this contracted position sufficiently, but this is apparently not the case. With this in mind it would be well to add the following exercises to your rack routine.
One pec and shoulder pullover using the leg extension machine.
One arm lying triceps extension.
Hyperextension or hip and back reverse hyperextension.
Regular leg extension.
Do two positions of each of those. For the first position do a full repetition and hold the weight in the finish position for about 6 seconds or until you no longer can. Increase to a poundage you can’t go all the way with and do a partial repetition, again holding as long as you can.
It is recommended that you follow the routine pretty much as outlined at first. Later on you can experiment with repetitions. Many people fail to improve on this system because they try to do several sets of repetitions in each position. They simply can’t believe that much can be gained by what seems so little work. If this feeling seems true in your rack training, I would recommend that you look closely at the actual intensity of the reps you are doing and make honest adjustments to how hard you are working each set. Also, many try it for one or two workouts and stop because they haven’t broken all their records. Give yourself time to really work up to some heavy weights.
As an example of the progress possible, I had pressed 315 in early 1961, but had dropped to 270 and it seemed that nothing I tried was working. At this point Peary Rader started publicizing his isometric/isometronic work in IronMan. I had no power rack, but used squat racks for the first part of the press and the top of the squat. Large blocks of wood were utilized for the middle bench presses and middle deadlifts. For the upright row I worked the bottom position by pulling heavy weights from the hang to about waist level and holding. All other positions were done in pure isometric fashion, by standing on my basement stairs at various heights and pulling or pushing an empty bar against rafters in the ceiling. Things happened very quickly. In about seven weeks I was pressing 360 and could drive 385 to arm’s length, but couldn’t hold it there.
An added and somewhat unexpected benefit was a size gain on my chest and thighs without very little increase in bodyweight. In the same period my clean went up 15 pounds, and I hadn’t trained on it for close to two years. Unfortunately, in the midst of all these miracles, the Air Force shipped me to