AN INTRODUCTION TO ER RACKS
The competitive powerlifters of any era respect the record holders, the greats, the leading lifters of their time and place. Thus, the answer to the question, “Who is the greatest?” will be answered dependent upon age and experience as well as statistical evidence. Bodyweight consideration and personal preference come into play too, with some viewing heavyweights in a more glamorous or important perspective than lighter men or women. Discussions and arguments abound but few discuss the more important equipment innovations that have allowed for the evolution of the sport, the enhanced safety of the sport, and the factors that allow the sport to continue. Everyone with a love of powerlifting has immediate recognition of the names Mike Bridges, Ed Coan, Andy Bolton, Donnie Thompson, and Rebecca Swanson for example. Few if any understand the importance of Jim Sutherland, Ray Madden, or Erik Rasmussen. Yet the legacy of the latter gentlemen has had a longer lasting effect on the sport than the former roll call of champions.
The author and famed Mike Bridges are shown in a light moment at the 1982 World Powerlifting Championships in Munich. To many, the author included, a case can be made for Bridges being among the best three lifters in the history of the sport.
In powerlifting’s nascent days, the order of the three competitive lifts was bench press, squat, and deadlift. As numerous TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEMS articles have described [https://titansupport.com/blog/], the equipment was crude and often unsafe. Wooden benches creaked under the load of large bodies bench pressing as little as 350 pounds. The tubing or angle iron used for the bench frames and support uprights were not truly sturdy. 800 pound squats were supported upon independent, free-standing squat stands consisting of thin hollow pipe stock, often standing within a concrete-filled tire wheel. While this was certainly a step above the racks made from wood, which would literally split down the middle when a heavy barbell was plunked into the weight saddle, they would rock, tip over, needed to be held in place by additional spotters, and at times, collapsed or bent under the load. In almost all cases, the weight saddles were narrow and lacked an elevated posterior which made exacting placement of the barbell necessary after each lifting attempt. With non-adjustable squat racks, everyone obviously took their squats from the same set height. Shorter competitors were forced to climb onto make-shift wooden steps (and of course, back off of those same steps with the barbell across their upper backs) or a pile of 100 or 45 pound plates. Taller competitors had to stoop and essentially complete a quarter to half squat just to secure the bar and then back into the starting position.
The development of adjustable squat stands was a step forward. Holes drilled into the uprights allowed for pin placement so that lifters of different heights could have the height of the weight saddles moved up or down. Unfortunately, this was done manually and took numerous spotters and quite a bit of accumulated time as a meet dragged on. One side of the bar would be elevated off of the saddles by two or three spotters while another grasped the adjustable part of the squat stand upright, to move and then pin it into place. When the lift was completed, the process was most often repeated. A meet promoter’s best chance of directing a well paced meet was to get through the squats efficiently with numerous competitors of the same approximate height, thus minimizing the need to adjust squat rack height. For the larger lifters who were unable to securely grasp the barbell because the racks themselves interfered with their hand placement, it was again the spotters who would be called upon to lift one end of the bar off of the stand, slide it in or out to the correct position for the specific lifter, and then repeat the process for the other side.
Fabrication of the racks was thankfully done with heavier materials, making the stands safer and more stable but height adjustments for both the bench press and more importantly, the squat, continued to extort a high cost in safety, time, and convenience for lifters and spotters. There has been argument regarding who first attached a car or truck jack to a squat stand in order to raise or lower the weight. East Coast lifters remember some of the relics from the New England meets with equipment supplied by Ed Jubinville and those in the Southwest recall using early versions of these racks as a result of the work of Buddy Capps or the Patterson Brothers. As with most powerlifting equipment innovations, it just as well could have been a lifter in his shed in backwater Louisiana or in a warehouse training site behind a machine shop in Chicago where someone handy welded a jack to a rack and produced a faster and what was usually a safer way to move the barbell up or down while it sat atop the weight saddles of a squat stand.
The cautionary words are “usually a safer way” because frequently, the jack, no matter how sturdy, would slip and one or both sides of the barbell would rapidly slide down, either toppling from the stands or nearly decapitating the lifter. Especially when the bar was placed into the saddles after an attempt, the resultant forces would often collapse one side. This of course led to mad scrambling by the spotters to catch or secure the bar before the unbalanced load brought both racks tumbling to the ground, usually with the lifter still under the bar! Introduced to the general powerlifting public in the late 1960’s, the car jack type of adjustable rack remained state-of-the-art into the mid-1970’s.
Horror stories of slipping jacks and the injuries that followed such incidents was enough to spur many meet directors to utilize the older model of manually adjusted squat stands for their competitions. While there had been a few unique squat or power racks produced by the likes of Reverend Robert Zuver for example, that utilized a hydraulic bomb hoist built within a specialized rack in order to remove the weighted bar from a lifter’s upper back, these singular pieces were exactly what they were meant to be, very specialized pieces of equipment. It wasn’t until the introduction of independent standing squat racks that employed the use of hydraulic bottle jacks that a more rapid and reliable way to adjust squatting, and less frequently, bench press upright height became widespread.
Long time champion Rickey Crain has spent decades as one of the leaders in the sport of powerlifting. His company has supplied equipment, books, attire, wraps, and just about anything and everything else connected to the sport. His very heavy duty hydraulic squat racks are shown as a combination unit with bench press
Again, no one will know with certainty who first developed the idea of utilizing small, cylindrical or broader based bottle jacks on squat stands but this became standard in both training facilities and competition venues. The jacks were reliable despite some fluid leakage or failures and occasional rack slippage. The jacks were relatively inexpensive, simple to use, and easy to obtain, making them standard fare for powerlifters. The technology was simple too and the only seeming drawback was occasional mechanical breakdown requiring valve seal or internal O-ring repair, and a little bit of “elbow grease” to manually pump the jack height up to the desired level. The jacks made for relative convenience, “relative” because even so-called long stroke jacks required many strokes if the rack height had to be elevated more than a few inches. In a contest where height changes had to be made quickly, there was often furiously paced pumping throughout the entire contest. There was also a relatively narrow range of motion that the barbell height could be altered through. This was dependent upon the limits of the jack movement and of course, where on the upright stand it was secured. Thus, the jacks offered a safer, faster, and more efficient way to move the barbell up or down for squatting but there were limitations and some very short or very tall lifters were still forced to accommodate themselves to the rack height.