How to Use a Squat Rack

Never underestimate the power of simple, functional exercises. The squat is not overly complicated. But it grants amazing results. There’s a reason it has been a staple movement in every fitness nut’s arsenal.

Squatting in a squat rack

One of the most important rules to follow?

Squat HEAVY.

Throw out those 10 kg dumbbells and graduate to a squat rack.

Yes, even if you’re a beginner! Working your way up to this cage of steel can be one of the best decisions you’ll make along your fitness journey.

Learn how to use a squat rack so you’re comfortable AND confident when taking that first step into the weight room.  

What is a Squat Rack?

A squat rack is a supportive piece of gym equipment that holds an Olympic barbell, allowing the user to perform a wide range of exercises like squats, bicep curls, and deadlifts. The average barbell weighs around 20 kg without the weighted plates, which is quite heavy! All this weight calls for a safe way to load, unload, rack, and rerack the barbell, making a rack one of the most convenient (and popular) pieces of gym equipment.

The Anatomy of a Squat Rack

1. Front Catches

The squat rack includes various hooks at the front of the structure to make racking and unracking the barbell simple and easy. These hooks are tiered, suiting a variety of heights, so loading the weight onto your back is hassle-free.

2. Side Rods

On the sides of the rack, expect to see several weighted plates hanging from short rods. Most squat racks are organised with the heaviest weights at the bottom and the lightest plates at the top. Usually, you’ll also find two safety clips to keep the plates from sliding off the bar on these rods.

3. Safety Bars

While a stable form can keep your body strong and secure, squatting with a barbell comes with a few risks.

Your legs could give out, forcing you to drop the weight behind you. Thankfully, the safety bars on the lower left and right sides protect you if this were to happen. The bars on the side will catch the weight, guarding your spine, neck, and legs. These bars also prevent your body from getting pinned under the weight.

Lastly, if you can’t bring your body back up from a squat, you can drop the barbell behind you and stand back up! It doesn’t matter how long someone’s been lifting — sometimes, they may overcompensate the amount of weight they can lift, rendering them unable to launch themselves out of the squat.

Accidents and situations like this are rare. Mainly, because the squat rack was expertly designed with your safety in mind.

How to Use a Squat Rack Safely

There is a right and wrong way to use a squat rack. To avoid injury, follow these guidelines when setting up and executing the exercise.

1. Ensure The Barbell Is Set At The Right Height

Step up to the rack. Note how low or high the barbell sits. Adjust it to suit your height and lift the weight up and out with ease.

2. Warm Up With The Bar

A quick warm-up with the 20 kg bar will prepare your body for the more rigorous exercise to come.

3. Load the Barbell

Next, it’s time to load the bar. Even if you’re using light weights on the bar, use the clips provided to secure the plates.

Select the right weight for your body. Work your way upward, starting from the bar’s standalone weight. Slowly add 2.5 kg plates and perform the exercise until you find a weight that feels challenging but doable.

4. Select The Bar’s Placement On Your Back/Shoulders

Finding the best placement on your shoulders is tough! Some weightlifters prefer a high bar positioning, while others feel comfortable with the lower placement.

A high bar placement perches the barbell right above your trap muscles and across your shoulders. This variation also calls for a straighter torso and a more pronounced forward movement of the knees.

Lower placement of the bar also has several benefits. For starters, most of the effort is focused on the lower posterior chain. So expect these squats to fire your glutes and hamstrings more.

5. Lift The Bar And Take 1-2 Steps Back

Take a breath and lift the barbell from the rack. Then, take a step back and prepare to start the movement.

Don’t take too many backward steps before squatting. One is golden! Many beginners make the mistake of taking too many strides backward after unracking the weight. Unbeknownst to the exerciser, this mistake can drain them of their energy. Instead, preserve it for the more important movement — the exercise itself.

6. Ensure Your Stance is Firm and Start the Squat!

Dig your heels into the ground. Ensure your stance is solid and begin the descent downwards. Your knees should not pass your toes as you squat. Once you have reached your maximum range of motion, use your quadriceps and glutes to pull your body back up into your starting position.

Here’s a pro tip: keep your core engaged to prevent your lower back from supporting the load — this is how most squat-related injuries happen in the gym!

Also, use flat, hard-soled shoes when performing this exercise. Spread your toes to anchor your body to the floor. Remember: a strong squat starts with a strong base.

Squat Stances to Try at the Squat Rack

Everyone’s body is built differently. However, certain exercise modifications can help an exerciser activate the correct muscles and see better results.

Therefore, experiment with different foot placements and squat stances at the rack. You can try a wider stance to increase your range of motion if you find reaching that ‘low’ squat difficult. Allow your feet and knees to turn out to the side.

On the other hand, a narrow stance will feel more difficult but predominantly target the quads.

7. Rerack The Bar And Rest

After finishing your set, step forward and latch the bar back onto the hooks at the front of the rack. Rest before repeating these steps for another three to five sets. When you’re finished, rerack the plates before leaving the area.

Rest for 30 to 60 seconds. Squats are taxing, so prepare the body fully before attempting the next set!

Other Exercises That Can Be Done In A Squat Rack

Sure, squat is in the name, but a squat rack can help you perform several exercises that target both the upper and lower body. In fact, you can focus an entire full-body workout using this one piece of equipment!

Front Squat

The front squat is the best variation for anyone who wants to place more emphasis on the quadriceps. Add this exercise into your routine once you have mastered the back squat.

  1. Place the bar on the front of your shoulders.
  2. Cross your arms and grip the barbell with both hands.
  3. Take a step back, balancing the bar across your chest.
  4. Perform the squat motion, keeping your chest up.
  5. Ensure the bar follows a straight up and down pattern as you rise back up.
  6. Rerack the barbell and rest.

Military Press

The military press is excellent for the trapezius muscles (the back) and the deltoids (the shoulder muscles). Familiarise yourself with the movement by using the military press machine first. Using the squat rack the next step; it’s best to use the rack for this specific movement as the barbell does not limit your range of motion.

  1. Step up to the squat rack and place your hands on the bar at a shoulder-width distance. The barbell should be levelled with the chest. Adjust it accordingly to suit your height.  
  2. Hook your thumbs underneath the bar and lift the bar from the hooks.
  3. Take 1-2 steps back, keeping your spine neutral and the bar close to your chest.
  4. Standing with your feet together, begin to push the bar overhead.
  5. As you lift upwards, ensure your elbows are pointing forward and not extending out to your sides. 
  6. Continue lifting upwards until your arms are fully extended.
  7. In a controlled manner, slowly lower the bar back to chest level.
  8. Count this as one rep, and repeat until you’ve hit the desired rep range.
  9. Rerack the weights when done.

Deadlifts

Deadlifts are another compound leg movement that can help you develop size and strength. Unlike squats, this exercise is best for the hamstrings, so incorporate these every other leg day.

  1. Start by lowering the barbell down to the safety bars at the bottom of the rack.
  2. Begin adding weight to either side of the barbell.
  3. Stand in front of the lowered barbell; it should be a few inches off the ground. Keep a slight bend in the knee, and reach down.
  4. Grab the barbell with both hands. Use a firm grip that’s a shoulder-width apart.
  5. Keep your back neutral and begin the ascension. Rely on your hamstrings and glutes to help you pull the weight up until the barbell intersects your body.
  6. Maintaining the same stance, drive your hips back and keep the barbell as close to your body as possible. Lower the barbell back down.
  7. Rise back up as soon as the bar hits the safety mechanisms and repeat the movement.
  8. Repeat to complete the set.

Reverse Lunges

If you’re a more advanced lifter, try reverse lunges to improve your stability, leg endurance, and core strength.

  1. Begin the movement as if it were a regular squat.
  2. Instead of lowering your body with both legs, take a step back with your left leg.
  3. Bend the knee until it makes a 90-degree angle with the floor. Keep the weight on your back steady.
  4. Bring the leg back to the front, meeting the other.
  5. Switch legs and repeat the same movement to complete the set.  

Bulgarian Split Squat

This exercise requires a significant amount of strength and balance. You’ll need a bench or a pylo box to prop your leg. Consider this exercise a progression from the simple reverse lunge.

  1. Place the pylo box or bench near the squat rack. Ensure your leg can reach it.
  2. Prepare the bar with half of the weight you would use for a standard back squat.
  3. Walk up to the bar, resting it comfortably on the shoulders.
  4. Unrack the weight and take a step back towards the bench.
  5. Extend one leg behind you and rest your toes on the bench/box.  
  6. Keep the torso upright and begin your descent downward.
  7. This movement pattern should look like a one-legged squat.
  8. Switch legs and complete the set.
  9. Rest and repeat.

Chest Press

The chest press is one of the best exercises you can do for upper body development. For this exercise, ensure there’s an extra long bench near you before starting.

  1. Place the barbell on a lower tier. It should be close enough to touch with your fingertips while lying down on a bench.
  2. Place the long bench at the dead center of the rack, just below the weight.
  3. Lie down with your back flat on the bench.
  4. Grab the barbell, weighted or unweighted, and unrack it.
  5. Move the weight down towards your chest into starting position.
  6. Once the bar is touching your chest, push upwards, keeping the barbell in a straight path.
  7. Lower the weight back down.
  8. Repeat until you’ve finished your set.

Bicep Curls

There are a few advantages of doing bicep curls in the squat rack. This variation is more challenging as it recruits more weight, which can be better for bicep development.

  1. Place the bar on a lower tier of the rack. You should be able to grab the bar using an underhand grip.
  2. Come in from under the bar and unrack the weight.
  3. Take a step back.
  4. Pinch your elbows to your body. Don’t allow them to drift off to the sides as you perform the movement.
  5. Lower the weight slowly and in a controlled manner.
  6. When your arm is fully extended, bring the bar back up towards your body.
  7. Rerack the weight and rest in between sets.

Be aware that doing curls in a squat rack doesn’t always go down well during busy periods in the gym (see below) so be warned.

Bent-over Rows

Try this staple exercise for the upper and lower back muscles! These even work your biceps.

  1. Rack the bar to the lowest tier.
  2. Add the weighted plates.
  3. Step up to the bar and unrack the weight, using an overhand grip.
  4. Take a couple of steps back.
  5. Bend over, and avoid curving your back.
  6. Drive your elbows towards your spine and row the weight back. Pinch your shoulder blades together.
  7. Maintain the controlled and bent-over positioning and lower the weight back down to complete the rep.

Gym Etiquette When Using a Squat Rack

Squat racks are usually high-traffic spots in the gym. Since many gyms get unbelievably crowded during peak hours, here are some etiquette tips to consider when using this piece of machinery — especially if your gym has a limited amount of equipment.

Allow People to Work in With You

Resting during your set? Allow another gym-goer to get their set in while you’re off to the side, taking a breather. This allows you to work out while remaining considerate to other gym members. Everybody wins!

Avoid Wasting Time

It’s easy to get distracted during a set, but if people are waiting for the squat rack, keep a close eye on the time. Set a stopwatch and count the seconds you’re resting, as it’s easy to let your mind wander during breaks! A complete and proper squat session can last anywhere from five to fifteen minutes.

Therefore, try and be mindful of everyone’s time when the gym is packed!

Ask Yourself: Can You Perform the Same Exercise Somewhere Else?

Using the squat rack for a non-squat exercise, like the military press? Unlike the squat, this is an exercise a gym-goer can perform using either machines and dumbbells. Scan the gym for a second. Is there anywhere else you can perform this same exercise?

The rack may not be necessary in some situations. If you are using a squat rack to do bicep curls during a busy time in the gym and there are loads of people waiting, you might find it doesn’t go down very well.

Rerack Your Weights When You’re Done

This bit of gym advice is crucial, whether the gym is packed or not. Remember to rerack your weights upon finishing your set. Doing so is courteous, but it also keeps other gym members safe. If the next person has to rerack someone else’s weights that are too heavy, they can injure themselves!

Not to mention, re-racking someone else’s weights will eat into their workout time.

Conclusion

The squat rack is a great bit of heavy-duty kit that serves several purposes: protection, convenience, and support are just a handful.

It’s also versatile. The squat rack can help you perform several compound exercises, making it one of the most impressive machines on the entire gym floor. However, looking at this contraption can feel intimidating if you’re new to the weight room.

Thankfully, it’s not something that takes years to master. Learn which modifications work for your body type. Also, read up on how to build up a powerful squat.

You’ll soon discover how crucial a squat rack can be for anyone’s fitness journey.

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