If you’re not sure how to use a squat rack correctly and most importantly; safely. This guide is for you.
To the new lifter, a squat rack (also more aptly known as a power rack) can be an intimidating piece of gym kit. It’s big, sturdy, hidden in the dark corners of the gym and is usually loaded with an Olympic standard bar weighing 20kg (45lbs). Sometimes you’ll find it with a lot of weight plates already loaded.
While it may seem intimidating, this wonderful piece of equipment has the potential to change your life. And not just your squat life.
The truth is, when you know what a power rack is and how to use it to its full potential, it quickly becomes one of the most important pieces of equipment in your workout.
In this guide, we’re going to begin with the basics on how to use a power rack correctly for squats. In addition to this, we’ll share some tips on how you can progress and improve your squat. And finally, we will summarise some other exercises a power rack can be used for.
Why use a squat rack
Squats are without a doubt one of the most efficient exercises you can do, so if you’re not squatting – you should be.
The squat is a very powerful compound exercise that recruits your largest muscle groups in one fluid movement. As a result, it has earned its right to be key exercise in your workout plan.
The primary purpose of a squat rack is to assist you in progressing your squats by way of adding increments of weight. Leading you to amounts of weight that you otherwise wouldn't be able to get into position unassisted.
Ultimately, the power rack is life to the dedicated weightlifter. Despite this, many lifters aren’t taught how to use it to its full potential when they start lifting.
Many trainers fail to teach their female clients how to use a squat rack at all. If you have a personal trainer who hasn’t worked the squat rack into your workout plans, ask them to show you how.
If you haven’t got a trainer or anybody to show you how; keep reading, because this guide is for you.
How to use a squat rack 101
How to use a squat rack to it's full potential
The first thing to do is get the set up right. To do that, the squat rack should be stripped of all weight.
Once you have an empty rack you can start to set up for your workout.
The next thing you need to consider is bar position. This is crucial, so ensure you get the bar height right.
Look for the adjustable parts on your squat rack and set them to around shoulder height.
Note that safety bars should always be used. So be sure to you adjust the bars to an appropriate height based on how low you squat. A word to the wise; you should never heavy squat alone without the safety bars in place.
Another important thing to note, is that you should be squatting as low as possible. If you’re not squatting low you have no business squatting heavy.
Before you load, go back to basics and return to the rack when you’re squatting to at least parallel (quads/hamstrings parallel with the floor).
For most people, a high bar squat will be most comfortable and useful in their training program. This is where the barbell sits high on the back, but not on the neck. Rather than a low bar squat, which is mostly used by power lifters.
Getting into position
To get into position, set the empty bar to the correct height. Be sure to test the bar height before you move on.
You’ll know the height is correct by grabbing the bar at arm’s length. From here your arms should be roughly parallel with the floor.
From that position; your next step is to grip the bar tightly, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
Use the knurling and ‘notches’ on the bar to help ensure you are in a central position. You can do this by placing your index finger in the same position either side of the bar.
Keep your grip tight and duck under the bar, taking care to make sure that your head is in a central position. This is important! If you’re not in the centre of it, the balance of the bar will be off and you could injure yourself as a result.
Finally, the bar should sit on your upper back and shoulders – never on your neck.
Lifting the bar off the squat rack
Before you lift the bar off the rack, take a deep breath and contract your core muscles. Brace yourself for the weight that you are about to lift. This helps to protect your back.
You should keep your shoulder blades squeezed tightly together and pulled down towards your bum. We do this to provide a strong and stable platform for the bar to sit on.
With your core braced, the barbell positioned on your back and your grip tight, you are now ready to stand up and take the weight off the rack.
Establishing a solid foot position
When you are in a stable position with the weight on your back, your next step is to slide one foot (either one, it doesn’t matter) back in a straight line, followed by the other.
We slide feet back so that we don’t rock the bar side-to-side in the set up.
The weight is now a safe distance away from the rack, which means there’s no chance of it colliding with the rack when you squat.
You can now adjust your foot position on both sides into a squat stance (feet shoulder width, toes slightly turned out).
Maintain your weight through the middle of your feet and be sure to keep your back nice and straight.
From this position, you are now ready to sit back into your squat.
Squat rack use; safety points to consider
It’s a good idea to run through this sequence a few times with an empty bar. This will help you to get a feel for the movement before you start loading. The bar alone weighs 20kg (45lbs) more often than not. That said, some gyms provide 10/15kg bars also.
Note that; while the weight is the same, the feel of the Olympic bar will differ from a standard fixed barbell, which is generally shorter.
When you are happy with your set up, can get into position smoothly, and most importantly; are comfortable with the exercise, you can start to add weight gradually.
Always make sure to secure the plates in place at either end of the bar with clips. You don’t want to find out the hard way that you didn’t!
For safety reasons; squat racks come with adjustable safety bars on the side. These are to act as ‘spotters’ for you and prevent you from collapsing to the floor if you can’t lift the weight back to the start position.
To set the safety bars you should start by performing a few empty-bar squats. This is so that you can make a mental note of how deep you go and where the safety bars should be placed. Place the bars at the depth you think you need. Then perform another set of empty bar squats to test it. If necessary; adjust the bars up and down until you find the perfect height.
Mistakes to avoid when you use a squat rack
The first and most important mistake you should avoid is not trying at all.
Squat rack use can take some getting used to, but once you are comfortable with the rack you will be able to reap its many rewards.
Form and foot position
Even the most experienced lifters have to check themselves regularly. So just because you know how to squat, it doesn’t mean you can afford to let your standards slip.
Always ensure that you are positioned well, squatting with good form and are not rushing!
Too much weight
Avoid loading too much weight too soon. This is called ‘ego lifting’. Don’t do it, it’s not worth it.
As soon as you start adding weight to your squat you should be mindful of your posture and form at all times. Don’t play games with a loaded bar on your back!
Not enough weight
Remember that the point of a squat rack is to help you progress with weight, so don’t let yourself get stuck.
You should continue to add weight progressively, even if it’s only an extra 2 kg’s, it all adds up in the end!
How to use a squat rack and other exercises for progression
Since the main objective behind using a squat rack is to help you progress. Here are some things that you can do in order to help you squat more...
Take your shoes off, or get some lifting shoes before you use the squat rack
When you squat it is important to be well grounded. For this reason, you should avoid squatting heavy loads in gel bottom trainers.
When you improve your 'contact' and stability with the floor, you instantly improve the load you can handle.
Try it. - You won't regret it!
Go light and go slow
It really does pay sometimes to strip the weight and really slow the movement down in a clean and controlled manner. This is also a great opportunity to really feel the burn and use visualisation techniques to help you grow.
Use the squat rack safety bars and go low
Make sure your squats are low. You don't have to go below parallel, but you should focus on getting as low as you can unloaded.
If you're not squatting low enough without the weight, you have no business adding weight! Go back to basics and master this move in it's entirety.
Switch it up
There are a number of squat variations beyond the barbell back squat and you should be using them to help you grow.
A good workout plan will have variations to boost your performance already worked in.
Low rep your max
Don’t be afraid to load the bar for 1-3 reps of your max weight. Over time these low reps will add up, making you stronger and more powerful.
If you're not sure how much you can manage, see our One Rep Max Calculator.
Lower the bar
Roll the bar slightly lower on your upper back, this also helps to maintain good posture.
Widen your stance
Not quite sumo wide, but bring your heels out to just outside of shoulder width apart, this will help balance and stabilise the load.
Load the bar with a little extra weight each time
Don't underestimate the power of the little plates. Even if it's only an extra 2kg's, you'll be surprised how quickly the weight goes up from there.
Do some of these accessory exercises
- Do pause squats (stop at the bottom and explode up)
- Leg press
- Hack squat
- Goblet squats
- Box squat
- Good mornings
- Rack pulls
Don’t give up
Consistency is King, keep going, the results will follow!
What else can a power rack be used for?
While this guide has been named; ‘how to use a squat rack’, what you are actually using is a power rack. Therefore; in addition to your squats, you can also use the power rack for a number of different power moves.
The power rack essentially supports a weight at different heights. As a result you can position a loaded bar to use at a variety of heights, depending on the exercise you want to perform.
Here are a few exercises you might like to try at the different bar height positions.
High bar position
If the barbell is stored in a high position, it’s ideal for any exercises where you need the bar at chest or shoulder height…
Waist high position
If you position a barbell waist/thigh high, it can be used for…
- Inverted row
- Upright row
- Elevating feet for push ups
- Elevating a back foot for split squats
When the barbell is stored low down on the power rack, it is the ideal height for...
- Rack pulls
- Partial deadlifts
- Hang cleans
- Bent over row variations
And now you know why it’s called a power rack!
Hopefully by now you understand the sheer amount of use you can get from this one very simple, yet vital piece of kit.
Unlike many other pieces of gym equipment, the power rack is multi-use tool that allows you a huge amount of workout variety and is fundamental to many lifts.
Without a power rack, heavy squats, lunges and overhead work would be impossible, simply because the user won’t be able to get the loaded bar into position to start with!
If you want to learn more about the different types of power rack; check out this really extensive guide from garage gym builder.
And don't forget to share this how to use a squat rack guide with your friends.