History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 76

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on June 17, 2015 Comments off

More on ER Racks Part 3


In Denmark, powerlifter Erik Rasmussen gave quite a bit of thought to the equipment needs of himself and his training partners. As a steel fabricator, perhaps this was a natural progression, but his love of powerlifting and joy in his work came together to produce the next evolution in powerlifting equipment. While there is very good and very poor equipment on the powerlifting market, there is no denying the fact that there is certainly a lot of it available to the consumer. Portable squat racks, permanent squat racks, stand alone squat racks, connected squat racks, power racks, utility benches that are modular fits for power racks, competition bench presses, and of course, an almost overwhelming variety of “powerlifting barbells” makes for a confusing but consumer friendly market.

In the past, the only way to add stability to individual stand squat racks was to make them heavier. Our series of articles has displayed numerous photos of concrete filled tire wheels, relatively thick steel plate in round or square configurations, and pipe of thick gauge meant to satisfy this requirement. In some cases the approach worked.


Through my first ten years of involvement in weight training, I fabricated most of the squat rack designs for my own use or that of training partners. All, in retrospect, were serviceable and safe for the way in which we utilized them, and I also know that some are still in service in home or high school gyms in our area. In every case, the squat stands were difficult to move around the training space, even with a tire wheel or round stock base due to their overall weight. Remember what many manufacturers do, not “for” the consumer, but “to” the consumer: the presentation of a piece of equipment is impressive because the tubing or round/pipe stock is large. A bench or rack made from four-inch x four-inch tube looks a heck of a lot more “beefy,” heavier, stronger, and “powerlifting capable” than the same piece constructed from two-inch x two-inch tube stock. However, the smaller sized tubing may be much stronger because it is of a thicker gauge. In lay terms, while force may be dissipated “better” over the face of “more metal,” for weight training purposes, it is the thickness of the metal, not the overall width that will best determine strength and safety. Thus, one should not judge “strength” of a piece by the width of the tubing but rather by the thickness, or gauge of the tubing.


It is with humor that I recall a few early pieces that I made, and thank goodness it was only a few, that utilized solid stock. With the guidance of my father or one of the other older, experienced craftsman, whatever I fabricated for myself was “good” in that it was safe and sturdy.


My calculations, proportions, and configurations were at times in need of tweaking or blatant correction, but nothing was ever going to collapse under the weight of a trainee or loaded barbell. I have previously noted in print, multiple times, how happy I was to make my way from Long Beach to Brooklyn’s Mr. V Sports Shop in order to purchase a Weider adjustable utility bench. Circa early 1960’s, it was junk, there was no other word for it but to me, it looked the part of a professional piece of weight training equipment. I also saw photos of some of Weider’s huge bodybuilders using it for incline presses, flyes, and seated curls and thought, “Well, I won’t be using the kinds of weights that (choose one or more from the list of Chuck Sipes, Harold Poole, Dave Draper, Larry Scott, Freddy Ortiz, or Larry Powers) does so this must be a really good piece of equipment.” Of course there was the unspoken implication that if I did in fact purchase and train on the equipment I would get as big and strong as any on that list but I was at least first focused on getting the bench into my home gym.

An hour bus ride from Long Beach to Far Rockaway led to two subways and a lengthy walk to the only store I knew of in Brooklyn or any place else in New York City, that sold the Weider line of equipment. Carrying the box that held the disassembled bench on my shoulders and then traversing the same arduous course back home also brought disapproval from those on the bus who had to endure standing-room-only in the aisle status with my very large box jamming them in various body parts. The bench actually worked, although adjusting the thin pipe that allowed for changes in bench angle was often treated like a wrestling match since the hinges on the bench back rest never did quite line up properly. I was pleased that I could do forty-five degree incline presses with thirty-pound dumbbells but the bench was shaky with much more than fifty in each hand so as I progressed, the bench went into a corner and I utilized sturdier pieces that I made myself.


There came a day however, when for reasons still not evident to me other than we were not thinking clearly, that my training partner Jack and I were lifting in a small, unventilated cinder block room during the midst of the summer, and more or less wilting from the heat and humidity. We had the space jammed with equipment and pulled the utility bench out for my use. I stood, cleaned a pair of what I recall as 100 to 120 pound dumbbells to my shoulders, rolled back on the inclined back pad to begin my presses, and felt the bench collapse. In truth, the bench exploded! All four legs went in different directions and the frame, seat, and back pad dropped to the concrete floor. I never moved. I held the dumbbells at my shoulders, just as I had cleaned them, and wound up sitting on the floor with them, amidst the crushed rubble of the bench. Miraculously, neither of us was injured and we completed the workout. One look at the bench could have told any logical individual that the equipment was not going to withstand that type of weight exposure but we were young and I certainly was dumb enough to not think things through.


Ironically, one of the young bodybuilders who would on occasion travel from Connecticut to either train or visit other top ranked bodybuilders in our area was Bob Gallucci. Stopping in with his father to observe the training in the storefront gym we frequented, and prior to winning any of his teenage contest titles, Bob demonstrated what was obvious, superior potential and results. He later went on to be one of the greatest legitimately drug free bodybuilders ever and we all could see his early development and how well he already stacked up against some of the more experienced fellows. Bob described his experiences with a Weider bench, with both the equipment and results very much mimicking mine. From his book The Last Drug-Free Body Builder, Bob wrote, “Painted with gold paint, the bench was made of one inch round tubing. It was proudly placed in my basement and became the centerpiece of all of my equipment. I tried to perform almost every exercise using this piece of equipment and to this day, it was always my favorite. Eventually, I had to get rid of this bench because when I began to bench press over 350 lbs with a bounce (first year of college), I began to bend the tubular steel and I needed a stronger bench.” Thus not only was Bob Gallucci a much better physique man than Jack or I proved to be, but he was a lot smarter, dumping his bench before it caved in, unlike us who did it afterwards.


However I have seen a lot of failed equipment that appeared sturdy and few pieces need to protect a trainee more than squat racks. I went for thicker gauge, large and thick bases and weight saddles that were wide and high so that any lifter would have to work at throwing the barbell over the saddles when replacing a squat. If one goes back and reads some of the earlier TITAN articles in this series, its easy to understand how one could in fact miss racking the bar. The saddles were small, narrow, and had little or no back to make contact with the bar. They were difficult to move around the garage floor to arrange for pressing or squats and even more difficult to transport. As the number of powerlifting meets began to proliferate, those who directed, promoted, or set up the contests also realized that moving three or four sets of individual squat stands could be a major chore due to their weight and configuration. Most did not break down well. With a pipe-in-a-pipe construction for most height adjustable racks, one could slide the smaller piece out of the larger pipe but that larger pipe or tube, welded to a base heavy enough to support its share of a 900 pound squat, was usually cumbersome and close to a competitive lift in itself.


Tubing went a long way in reducing the overall weight of the squat stands but this decreased overall weight is what led to the innovation of connecting the racks. The lighter racks made from two-inch x two-inch or even three-inch x three-inch tubing would get batted around and move quite a bit during the course of a contest. Connecting them, to paraphrase something we have all heard so often, resolved much of that problem with the sum of the parts being stronger than the individual components. Erik Rasmussen put the finishing touches on the rack by inserting a skin-tight solid wood insert that ran the length of the support that held the weight saddle, and making the height adjustment simple and easy. Instead of hydraulic bottle jacks that often failed, leaked fluid, or took many pumping movements to elevate, and instead of the electric racks presented by Jim Sutherland which of course required a source of electricity, Rasmussen introduced a simple, mechanical lever.


At the time, either innovation seemed less than ground breaking. However, adding the wooden insert added strength and stability to the squat upright and over long and heavy use, prevented warping or distortion of the pin-holding hole that secured any height adjustment. The wood also made for an exceptionally tight fit for the stainless steel pin, insuring that it would remain in place. The lever type of height adjustment was in short, rather brilliant in its simplicity. Bolted together with industrial strength fasteners, none of the components of the lever arm mechanism was going to fail elevating or lowering the rack uprights, even when loaded with thousands of pounds. With trial and error determining the lever arm length, height increments could be made quickly, easily, and safely. The heaviest weights could also be moved by smaller individuals due to the mechanical advantage offered by the design. The tubing, while of thick enough gauge to withstand the poundages utilized by the world’s top powerlifters, remains light enough to move the rack easily when fully assembled. Breaking down into its component, bolt-together parts makes assembly, disassembly, and transport to and from meets simple and easy. The rack breaks down into easy to handle and easy to pack parts. Through the decades, especially when Kathy and I owned Iron Island Gym, we often loaned out equipment to various meet directors to help the success of their contests. We were “equal opportunity lenders,” shuttling squat racks, benches, plates, and bars to those directing AAU, APF, USPF, APA, USAPL, and anyone else that needed us to assist.


If any lifter wants to peel a few pounds or kilos off of their contest total, try loading, transporting, unloading, carrying, and assembling large, cumbersome, heavy squat racks or a Monolift for a contest that you had also planned to compete in. Having done it more than once, it demonstrates respect for the sport and your other competitors and it is a considerate thing to do but it can blow out any thoughts to make record attempts. One of the advantages to the ER Rack is its strength-to-weight ratio. It will hold any record breaking squat plunked atop or smashed into the saddles. This has been proven at multiple world and national championships. Yet, even when fully assembled and tossed or perhaps more accurately “carefully placed” into the bed of an open backed pickup truck, it is easy to move. I’ve done it with no assistance and not because I am the next coming of Man Mountain Dean. The unit is light but because of the connected assembly, the precise angles and configuration of the parts, able to withstand any lifting abuse.