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Fitsmart: July 2014

Large commercial gyms cost money to maintain. If you belong to a well-run establishment, the owners likely update facilities, equipment and technology all year round.

July 3, 2014 
By Brad Lawrence

Large commercial gyms cost money to maintain. If you belong to a well-run establishment, the owners likely update facilities, equipment and technology all year round. Almost all these gyms exist for one reason: profit. That’s why I’m always surprised at the start of every year when I walk into the big-box commercial gym I belong to and get my first glimpse of the new workout machines the owners purchased for the coming year.

Have you ever stopped to look at some of these things? Seriously, some of these contraptions are ridiculous. It’s seems every muscle – no matter how big, small or insignificant – has had something built for it. (It’s true. Google the words face trainer to see just one example on a very long list).

My gym does not have a face trainer, but honestly, some of the newer pieces of equipment are not that far off. Some of these state-of-the-art training machines more closely resemble furniture than gym equipment; it’s as if someone took a recliner, removed the cup holder, and added a weight-stack.

Seeing all this new gear show up makes me appreciate the old-faithful type training apparatuses even more, particularly my favourite piece of training equipment, the power rack. This single piece of equipment has contributed more to my fitness level than any other.

I’m guessing you’ve probably noticed this trend in your gym – it’s a lot easier to find an empty power rack than an empty bench press. While it’s never really a shock to see empty pieces of equipment around a large gym, I do find it quite strange that a power rack can sit empty as often as it does. I love that there isn’t a line up to use the power rack, because, in my opinion, it’s the most versatile piece of equipment on the floor of any gym.

A power rack is the free-standing barbell squat rack. Designed initially for performing barbell squats, the power rack has evolved into much more of a full-service station. Over the years different height increments have been added, allowing users to perform several exercises. Modern racks include chin-up bars and dip attachments and many other features. With a little creativity, you can get a great full-body workout all from inside the rack. And, all the added technology has provided a much safer working environment, especially if you’re training by yourself.

Aside from a barbell squat, all other exercises in the rack are all free-weight based, meaning your supporting muscles and core handle the stability of the lift. Every exercise you perform engages and strengthens your core muscles. Many exercise options are also multi-joint, multi-muscle movements; these movements demand more exertion from your body and produce greater amounts of growth hormone and a better, longer metabolic boost.

Best power-rack exercises

  • Squats – Simple and straightforward.
  • Pull-ups – Use this “upper-body squat” as the catalyst for your upper-body workout. Be creative. Alter the tempo from slow eccentric movements to fast explosive reps.
  • Bench press – Slide a flat bench into the rack and boost your push power.
  • Barbell row – This is a great power exercise; have your palms facing the ground when you grab the bar to better isolate your back.
  • Inverted row (off the barbell) – This is a great alternative to pull-ups, and a great, safe eccentric option for your back.
  • Deadlift – This is one of the best exercises for the posterior chain when performed correctly.
  • Dips (with dip-bar attachment) – Lean forward to shift the load onto your chest and this becomes a very effective movement.

Notice a pattern to these exercises? Each exercise takes a lot of effort, but makes you strong. This is merely the start of a long list of good power-rack exercises. Be creative and you’ll have no issue finding a balanced, full-body routine in which all exercises can be performed in the rack if necessary.

We all have ups and downs in the gym, good days and bad days. About five years ago I decided if I showed up to train on one of those down days I was still going to make the best of it, and I promised myself that the bad days weren’t going to cost me in the long run. I did this because to me, there’s no more defeated feeling than leaving the gym knowing you just had a brutal, waste-of time-workout. To amend this, I decided whenever I came in to train feeling I was in for a sub-par day, I would warm-up and head straight for the power rack. I would start by loading the barbell and performing a set of squats. Those 45 to 60 minutes started to become the least creative workouts of my life. Many times, I would just do set after set after set of squats. You’d be surprised how much better you can feel after four or five sets. From there, I had the option to continue with more squats, or branch off and train other areas, but often I just stayed in the rack and did squats – I still do this and will continue to. Some of the down days became my best workouts of the month.

This training philosophy and the power rack have saved many borderline workouts for me, and will salvage many more. I encourage you to challenge yourself to make your down days into good days. Try my method, or find your own personal strategy to make your bad days great. Happy training.

Brad Lawrence is a firefighter with the Calgary Fire Department and a certified personal trainer Email Brad at

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