Tuesday, October 8, 2019
The Versatile Rack - Bill Starr (1998)
For anyone who's honestly trying to get stronger, a power rack is an essential piece of equipment. I'm not just talking about advanced strength athletes, either, because the power rack is extremely useful for rank beginners as well. The beauty of the power rack is that it takes up so little space and is so versatile.
If you have an Olympic set and an adjustable bench, you can do a tremendous range of exercises inside and outside the rack - and the fact that it's compact makes it ideal for a home gym. You can, conceivably, work out in a 10-by-10-foot space. I know this is true because I've trained in such confined areas. it's tight, but you can accomplish the same amount of work as you can do in a commercial gym. All it takes is desire.
Whenever I see a television commercial about some new exercise gadget and hear the announcer going on and on about how little space it takes up, I have to laugh. I can do 10 times as many exercises in a power rack, and it's less intrusive than the machines.
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the power rack is the safety feature. This, again, makes it the ideal feature for those who train alone. Racks come in many shapes and sizes. Some cost a small fortune, but you can find excellent racks for less than $300. For home use or it it's going to be used by only a small group of trainees, the rack doesn't have to be heavy duty construction. many racks use four-five-inch metal, and that's sort of overkill. Even in my gym at Hopkins we only have racks that are made our of moderately heavy metal, and they've held up perfectly for nine years. The heavy gauge metal is for show more than for function.
There are some important things to look for when you buy a rack. is it tall enough to let you do some overhead work? Are the uprights wide enough apart to let you do movements without being restricted, and are the holes set close enough to give you a wide variety of positions to choose from? Another point is that the rack must have four pins, and I'll explain the reason for that below.
The feeling of security is probably the main reason that people like to work inside a rack. They know that if they get stuck, say, in a squat, they can simply sit down and place the bar back on the pins. That eliminates damage to the equipment, floor and, even more important, themselves. The sense of security enables them to put a greater effort into the exercise, a factor that's doubly true for the bench press, which in my opinion is the riskiest exercise of all. You can always dump a squat. Sure, you may lose some skin, but people are rarely injured while dumping a squat. What's more, there's no risk in pulling movements because you can just drop the bar.
The bench press, on the other hand, is a horse of a different color; if you miss a bench press while you're training alone, you're id deep doggy-do-do. At best you're going to get a lot of bruises. At worst it could actually be tragic. With the pins properly situated inside a power rack, however, you can always squeeze out from under a missed attempt. And, as I mentioned above, knowing you're safe lets you apply greater effort to the lift. I believe I have more balls than most people who train, but I have admit that I'm reluctant to go for a max attempt or even that extra rep on my back-off set when I'm alone and don't have the benefit of a power rack.
One of the greatest uses of the power rack is for injury rehab.
Fellow old farts take note and apply as needed along the way of aging.
By setting the pins at specific positions, I can direct athletes to do many exercises that wouldn't be possible outside the rack. For instance, when athletes are recovering from any sort of shoulder injury, they usually cannot do full-range bench presses because the bar aggravates the injury when it's lowered past a certain point. By placing the pins just above the range that hurts, which is usually right above the chest, they can perform bench presses. That not only enables them to maintain some degree of shoulder girdle strength, but it helps the healing process, since it flushes blood into the damaged area.
The same holds true for pulling and squatting movements. When athletes are coming back from a knee injury, it's imperative that they don't go low in the squat right away. That doesn't mean they can't do squats at all. By setting the pins in the rack above the point where it hurts, they can do partial squats quite safely. This is a much sounder idea than doing partials outside the rack. For one thing, it's often difficult to tell how low you're going on each rep, and there's also the fear of going too low and re-injuring the knee.
Inside the rack, however, lifters are secure. They know exactly when they're going as low as they want to, and they also know that if they experience any discomfort, they can simply dump the bar.
It's extremely important to feel secure when you're rebuilding an injured area. Since you don't have to worry about aggravating the injury, you can apply your full attention to doing the exercise precisely. In some cases I've even had athletes ride the bar up and down the railings of the rack so they don't have to concern themselves with the factor of balance. It's much like doing squats in a Smith machine, which is another point for the rack's versatility.
In that case, even though the athletes are unable to do full squats, they're still way ahead of people who neglect doing any form of squatting. The partials help strengthen their hips, back and quads, as well as flushing blood and healing nutrients into the injured area. What's more, doing something positive to rebuild the injured area puts athletes a step ahead mentally, for they have some degree of control.
Obviously, some muscle groups are neglected when athletes do partials, primarily the adductors and leg biceps. Knowing this, I have them do some extra work for those groups in order to maintain some degree of proportionate strength. Stiff-legged deadlifts and good mornings hit the leg biceps nicely, and the adductor machine is the best weapon for strengthening those muscles. In the event that trainees cannot do either stiff-legged deads or good mornings, I have them do lots or work on the leg curl machine.
People can also work around a back injury inside the rack, since it affords a variety of positions. Breaking the bar off the floor may be out of the question, but by setting the pins at a higher level, you can still get in plenty of back work.
Except for those gym mullets who believe racks were designed to hold the bar between sets of curls, most people only use a power rack for squatting. Nevertheless, you can perform a wide range of exercises in a rack.
You can do all sorts of pulling and squatting exercises, and if you have an adjustable bench you can do inclines and seated presses as well as regular flat-bench presses.
Note: Don't forget the possibilities when it comes to partial presses while seated, not just flat bench partials. A 90-degree, or a very wee bit lower incline angle with your back and butt locked down can be worth looking into. I like the slightly lower than 90-degree angle for full range seated presses because it allows you to do them without having that chin-in-the-way thing going on. You just sit back solid and push for all you're worth from a dead stop on the pins.
Some people prefer to work outside the power rack and use it much like a staircase squat rack, performing their benches, inclines, overhead presses, push presses, shrugs, stiff-legged deadlifts and good mornings in that manner. Most racks also have a built-in chinning bar. Olympic-style lifters use racks to do heavy supporting exercises, drop snatches and jerks.
While the power rack is extremely useful for anyone who trains alone, it's an absolute necessity for those who desire greater strength. The reason is that it allows motivated individuals to isolate and identify their weaker areas and bring them up to par - sometimes way beyond par.
For example, a great many bench pressers have developed the habit of rebounding the bar off their chests. They don't pause with the bar on their chests at all but kick-start it in order to move heavier poundages. There are several good reasons not to do this, but I don't want to get off track. My point is that rebounding the bar vaults it through the middle portion of the lift - that is, until they attempt a max single. In that case the bar sticks in the middle. The reason is simple but often overlooked: The muscles that are responsible for driving the bar through the sticking point, in this case the middle range, have been neglected because of the rebounding, so they haven't been strengthened at the same rate as the others used in the lift.
The first step is to identify the weak area in any lift. Until they admit to it, they'll do nothing to correct it. I once trained with an exceptions bencher who couldn't move past 440. He had the problem described above, so I suggested he use the power rack to overcome his weak area, which was obviously the middle. When he was unable to budge 350 off the pins from the middle position, however, he was so embarrassed in front of his buddies that he never did rack work again. And he never moved past 440.
You can improve a weak area in a variety of ways inside a rack.
For the bench press one method is to set the pins slightly below the weak area and press the bar to arms' length. For the first few weeks you may do lots of reps just to increase the workload for that range. Then you start lowering the reps and moving up the poundage.
Another technique is to isolate the weak area by position two pins directly over the bar and start doing isotonic-isometric movements, which are the ultimate strength builders. That's the reason ijt's essential to have four pins for your rack. You'll eventually need them to do isotonic-isometrics.
The power rack became a part of strength training because of isotonic-isometrics. Doc Ziegler may not have had the very first power rack in the country, since a number of the old-time strongmen like Bob Peoples used some form of rack training, but Doc was the first to marry a program with the rack. Bob Hoffman of York Barbell took all the credit for developing isometric training and all the money from the sales of the racks, BUT IN TRUTH THE CONCEPTS ALL CAME FROM DOC ZIEGLER.
He proposed that if lifters could fully contract their muscles and corresponding attachments for a certain period of time, they'd get stronger. Of course, Doc understood that it's impossible to contract any muscle 100 percent, for that only occurs in fight-or-flight situations. He meant that lifters should try to apply 100 percent effort. Doc's rule of thumb was 8 to 12 seconds, and it was pure isometrics, pushing or pulling against a stationary object.
It's been my observation that very few people can actually know if and when they're applying their full effort against a stationary object, so I suggest using a short isometric movement prior to locking the bar against the pins for the isometric phase. You do that by moving the loaded barbell a short distance, only a few inches at most - and even less is desirable if the rack lets you set the pins closer. When there's weight on the bar, you know for sure if you're pushing or pulling hard enough, since the bar will be either touching the pins or it won't. There's no guessing.
The time factor is more important than the amount of weight you load on the bar. If you can hold easily for 12 seconds, you should add weight the next time you do the movement. If you can't hold for 8, you need to take some weight off the bar. Admittedly, I often have my athletes hold beyond the 12-count, but that's for my own amusement more than their development.
How many sets and reps? Three total sets at a given position are enough once you find out where your limits are. By that I mean the first few times you try doing this form of exercise, you really don't know how much weight you can handle. So it takes a bit of experimenting - which means the first few times you do isotonic-isometrics you may end up doing five or six sets. Eventually, however, three sets is plenty, for the two warmup sets are only preparing you for the one work set.
Always do at least one warmup set using a full range of motion before going to the rack. That will ensure you're warmed up sufficiently, which is very necessary, since you'll be going all out on the isometric movement.
Keeping with the idea of improving the middle portion of your bench press, let's say you're currently benching 315. Do a set of 10 with 135 on the regular bench as a warmup. Your first set in the rack will be with 185 for 3 reps. On the first 2 reps touch the pins but don't hold there. On the third rep hold the bar against the top pins for a short count of three. That helps you get the feel of what's to come. For your second set use 225 and do the same drill, touching the top pins twice, then holding the third rep for a short count of three. The third set is the money set, there there's really no way to know how much weight you can handle until you try it.
Nevertheless, assuming that you're weak in the middle, use 255. It's better to use a bit less initially, for, again. the time factor is more important than the amount of weight on the bar. with 225 you once again touch the top pins twice, but on the third rep you lock it in and hold it for the minimum 8 and maximum 12 count. If you manage to barely hold it for 8, stay with that poundage for the next time around. If you hold for 12, you can increase the weight the next time.
One work set is enough.
This is very concentrated work, and more is not better. It's detrimental. I've seen lifters add two or three more work sets stating they didn't feel as if the one set did anything. That's a mistake. Ziegler preached that once you've fully contracted any set of muscles for the required length of time, that's all the strength you're going to develop that day.
How often should you do isotonic-isometrics?
I believe once a week is enough for most people because the work is so demanding and requires recovery time. Typically, I put them in the program on Friday to allow two days' rest before the Monday session. I've also used this idea by having lifters do just one set after their regular routine for the exercise. I substitute the back-off set, for I don't advise doing both. So, after completing a bench press routine, you can go inside the rack and do one work set at our weak position. The technique works with a squat or pulling routine as well.
You can also build strength in those hard-to-reach areas, like the deep bottom of a squat or the very top of a pull. Not everyone is interested in doing that, but you can work them inside the rack.
Set the pins very low for the squat, and high for the pulls. This is one of the best ways to increase strength on the top of the pull, both for cleaning and snatching. When you do either of those dynamic exercises, the bar only stays in the top position for a very short time - not enough time to make them much stronger - but you can really lean into those groups with an isotonic-isometric movement.
It's positively one of the best methods for increasing rear deltoid strength.
Another way you can use the rack to build strength by overloading is to remove the top pins and lift the bar from whatever position you choose to lock out. If you're especially weak in the middle, start from there. If you're weakest at the top, work that position. The lockout position on any lift is typically the strongest, and I use it to let lifters handle extremely heavy weights. That not only enhances structural strength, but it also does wonders for the mind. After 400-pound squatters lock out 800 or 900 pounds, which they can usually do the very first time, the next time they try 400-plus, it feels ridiculously light when they back out of the rack.
If you don't have a rack at your disposal, consider getting one. You can even build one of you're so inclined. During the 1960s I built and worked out on quite a few home-made racks and got exactly the same results. It's a most versatile piece of equipment, and every gym should have one.
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