History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 77

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



Our ongoing series of articles has been very much focused upon the development of the sport of powerlifting, the unfortunate growth of specialization in the distinct and different aspects of the Iron Game, and the evolution of the equipment utilized in powerlifting. There can be no complaint about the evolution of equipment. We have moved from large, cumbersome, and very heavy pieces that were in fact necessary to preserve the safety of participants both in training and in competition, to better designed, lighter, and while being lighter, stronger equipment.

We have spent a great deal of time discussing squat racks, an obviously central piece of equipment to the sport of powerlifting and how it is now possible to load a pick-up truck with enough squatting and bench pressing equipment to supply a competition platform and four warm-up platforms. Equipment breaks down, is light enough to handle by one individual, and yet can provide absolute structural safety. One of the key features on any squat rack apparatus is the ability to adjust it. While the reduction in overall or absolute weight of the product has been a major improvement, the ability to quickly and safely elevate or lower the stand safely while it is supporting weight, is in my opinion, the most important step forward.


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Former Michigan State defensive back Richard Brown trained with Dr. Ken for ten years and had a successful college football career at 5’11”, 198 pounds. At our former residence and garage training area, he is shown standing with one of Doc’s ATOMIC ATHLETIC custom barbells supported by a squat rack that meets many of the requirements for safety and ease of use. These are bolt together, hydraulic cylinder height adjustable racks that are lightweight but structurally strong. Difficult to see but present are welded hooks that are stationary and not height adjustable, for bench pressing. Not as “user friendly” as the ER Racks, these were our designated “Outdoor Racks” used for squats and presses, racks that lasted many years.



If one takes a moment to examine the many photos “from the old days” that have illustrated the previous 76 installments of this series of articles, it should be obvious that the only way to lift or lower squat rack height was through the process of manually moving the barbell and then the rack height to the desired position. During the course of a contest, there were competitors, their coaches, spotters, and friends filling the warm-up room. Thus, there was plenty of assistance available when height changes were needed. On the competition platform, spotters and loaders could lift one end of a 700 pound bar, hold it for a moment until the rack was also lifted or lowered to the desired height, and then replace the barbell end in the weight saddle. Once the procedure was completed on the other side of the bar, the two squat stands or racks were ready to go. Tedious, time consuming, a bit dangerous, and perhaps archaic in retrospect, but that’s how it was done. Training however, was another issue.



If two or three training partners were approximately the same height, the squat racks could be set, and then remain at a fixed position for the entirety of the squat workout. Certainly, even slight differences in height from one individual to another would make it a bit “less than perfect” for at least one of the trainees, but workouts could be efficient and safe. When the training partners were of differing heights, and of course the problems were magnified when there was a significant height difference among the members of the training group, the squat segment of the workout could drag on interminably. Changing the rack height would in fact become a significant aspect of the workout if numerous alterations were needed. Even with two partners, the necessity of changing rack height over the course of three or four warm-up sets and three to six work sets, could be brutal. Made worse by the use of very heavy weights, this aspect of training became another exercise in itself. One trainee lifted the end of the bar, held it, and hoped that his partner could quickly pull the pin out of the rack upright hole, and rapidly shove it into the one needed. The procedure was repeated, and the squat set was completed. When the next lifter came up to take his turn, the process was repeated. Now, picture this with heavy weights, very cold hands in an unheated garage when there was snow and ice on the ground and winds were howling through the doors, and the hour was either exceptionally early or late. These conditions made for less than optimal and often, less than safe training conditions.


Our series has reviewed the step up to the use of car or truck jacks, hydraulic cylinders, and Jim Sutherland’s electric/motor drives for rack height adjustment. Erik Rasmussen’s pin-and-lever system of adjusting rack height was a step forward that eliminated the heavy manual work, the possible slippage or failure of jacks, the leakage or inability to create pressure within the closed hydraulic cylinder, and a lack of electricity or other electrical or mechanical problems that were potential pitfalls with the electric racks. This ability to quickly, safely, and efficiently adjust rack height was rather brilliant in its simplicity, and one of those “Why didn’t I think of that first?” type of alterations.

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The height adjustment lever system developed by Erik Rasmussen on his ER Racks is the industry leader in safety and ease, especially with groups of lifters in trainng or competition. The side-to-side adjustment rollers are an “added bonus” to the total equipment package


My father was a craftsman, typical of his generation and typical of the immigrant population that arrived from Europe in the early 1900’s. He insisted that the most minor job be done as well as possible and that the work, even if insignificant, be completed as well as anyone could do it. Some of my early attempts at fabricating squat racks or power racks were less than successful but in a day before computer controlled laser cutting and drilling became standard, every drilled or punched hole was clean, every weld was ground to smoothness and often a “glass-like” finish, and the work area was left cleaner than it was prior to the start of the project. In the ER promotional materials, it states “Every product he (Rasmussen) creates carries over a thousand years of heritage and national pride with it. Products from ER do not leave his factory meeting minimum standards. His products reach for the highest standards of craftsmanship. Not only are his products extremely functional and durable but they are also visually appealing.” I have a full understanding of this statement because I grew up with it. Our three ER Racks with Bench Press and spotters’ safety stands do in fact look the part. Heavy duty without being ridiculous (like one of the 5” X 5” tubing Olympic bench presses I encountered in a contest, a bench that caused the inside plates of the loaded barbell to continuously strike the outside of the uprights on almost every lift), yet beautifully crafted, make for good looking as well as functional equipment. Having done my early lifting on a truck axle with flywheels and gears as my barbell and plate substitute, I am not seeking “elegant” equipment but like anything else that one depends upon as a tool of their trade, one wants the tool to be “inviting” when it’s time to lift. ER Racks and benches fulfill the requirement.


The most important aspect of squat racks will always be safety and structural support. Will they cave in, will they tip, will they slide across the floor, and will the pin remain in place when the bar is slammed back into the saddles after a completed lift? These are the obvious questions and of course, the ER products have been proven in national and international competition while exposed to the heaviest of loads. For contest promoters, spotters, and loaders, one of the less obvious advantages of the ER Rack is the fact that one piece of equipment can accommodate the squat and the bench press. Most of the early squat racks, even with the addition of a welded on piece of angle iron for example, could not adequately accommodate the bench press if one utilized a flat utility bench. I tried a number of times and if the rack uprights were cut so that one could also bench press off of their lower attachment while using a legal height bench, they invariably would not adjust high enough to fulfill the squatting needs of a tall lifter. There was also the problem of safe bar recovery. Even if some sort of welded attachment to the standard squat racks would also allow for bench pressing, one was not taking or replacing the barbell from a standard or safely configured weight saddle as they would in the squat. As bench press records and usual contest attempts began to move up, this became a dangerous situation. The ER Racks allow for bench pressing off of full weight saddles that allow for safe contest or training lifting.


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The ER Rack can be utilized as a squat rack that accommodates tall or short lifters and as an official Olympic bench press useable for any organization’s contest, complete with spotter safety racks that are, like the primary barbell uprights, adjustable for height



The spotters’ stands are a nice addition, especially for the lifter who trains alone or at home. Having a piece of equipment that accomplished the job of two is an obvious space saver, especially as the changeover from squatting to bench pressing takes less than a minute, at least in our garage. My wife and I can complete any training or rehabilitation task in our home/office facility. The equipment we use in the garage area includes the three ER Racks and three distinct platform areas as well as an outdoor lifting platform. Our ER Racks serve as the obvious centerpiece and dependent on what has to be accomplished on any specific training day, these will be set as squat or bench pressing pieces. Again, the changeover is rapid and easy so no task is a problem. I have sung the praises of this piece of equipment because we use it and truly enjoy using it.