History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 75

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on June 10, 2015 Comments off

More on Racks


Our TITAN SUPPORT series of articles has chronicled the work of Jim Sutherland who developed the first electric adjustable squat racks. These were introduced in the early 1980’s by Jim’s Hastings Barbell Company and proved to be a big hit with lifters. Unfortunately, the components were expensive and though safe, efficient, and built to last (our facility has one of the first two racks that Jim fabricated and almost thirty-five years later, it still operates perfectly), they were preserved as a specialty meet item. As Jim related to me, the cost of the mechanical actuator was $440.00 in 1980. That same component would now cost $1400.00, and needless to add, building each piece “by hand” as a specialty item adds to the overall expense. Georgia Tech University and the University of Iowa had a number of these and they are still in optimal use in private facilities throughout those areas of the country. The electric racks made it possible to literally use the touch of a switch to elevate the rack up or down and to an exacting height. Jim introduced rollers within the weight saddles that allowed for adjustment of the saddles in or out without having to first elevate the loaded barbell from the racks.

While it may not seem like a big deal, or a “big enough deal” to mention, the originally used squat stands utilized in powerlifting competition through the 1960’s and even to the end of the 1970’s, stood independently. In the late 1970’s when 800 – 900 pound squats became more frequently attempted, just as the need for narrow plates and stronger bars were addressed to meet this requirement, squat stand stability became an issue. There were always meets that found lifters either stumbling or falling into the racks at the completion of a squat attempt, or an individual hell-bent on proving how strong and manly he was by smashing the barbell into the weight saddles after the completion of a successful squat. While it may have been humorous to experienced lifters to observe a goonish competitor screaming “Yeah, yeah!” and bellowing to the sky about his prowess on the platform while literally throwing a less than daunting 400 pounds back into the squat stands, it was less enjoyable to the spotters who often had to contend with a squat stand that skidded backwards or toppled over. The cement-filled car or truck wheels, half-inch thick plate based racks, or large circular bases might have helped but squat stand bases cut too large made for a clumsy approach or return to the rack, or presented a tripping hazard. The tripping hazard aspect of the old stand-alone racks applied to both the lifters and spotters. I can certainly recall numerous meets where in addition to any big lifts that might have been made, squat rack stumbles provided the lasting memories. I have witnessed relatively big and relatively small number squats ending with the lifter lurching into the racks, and one of them being knocked over, forced into the unsuspecting head of one of the spotters, and/or the barbell and racks doing a slow motion free-fall towards the head referee. In one of the Heart Of America meets hosted by George Turner in St. Louis, I recall a spotter being rushed off to the local hospital emergency room. While spotting one side of the barbell on a very heavy squat, the lifter completed the squat, and while replacing the bar into the saddles, struck one rack before the other and did so rather quickly and with quite a bit of force. The weight of the barbell certainly contributed to the problem, but the heavy duty independent squat stand “kicked out,” striking the spotter in the side of his head, knocking him to the floor, and causing quite a bit of bleeding from his scalp. To a greater or lesser extent, even with racks that had a heavy duty or weighted base, this would occur a number of times in any major contest.


Connecting the racks was a tremendous step forward in providing safety to both the lifter and spotter though it was not seen as revolutionary at the time. An example of the end product being greater than the sum of its contributing components, it also allowed for lighter components that provided the same degree of strength in supporting a loaded barbell. I have often sung the praises of master builder Jim Sutherland and when he had his Hastings (Michigan) Barbell Company in the early 1980’s, he had what might have been the first and what was certainly one of the first “connected” but otherwise free standing squat racks that were commercially available. Jim has produced a few products, outstanding products for John Wood and the Oldtime Strongman Company. Jim produced racks with a connecting and supportive piece that connected the two independent racks at floor level, as most still do. This design provided increased contact with the floor but made for one, stronger and more stable piece of equipment versus two independently, free standing squat stands. Below is a photo from John’s site that displays the latest Sutherland design, one that connects the racks at a point obviously higher than floor level and just as obviously as indicated with all of the weight being supported, is exceptionally strong and functional. This specific rack is, as the connected design allows, made from lighter materials than were used in “the old days” as the previous independent racks were purposely built very heavily for added stability.