A Weight Lifting Beginners Guide to Using a Squat Rack

Follow this detailed guide on how to use a squat rack, its benefits, and the exercises that you can try so you can take your strength training sessions to the next level!

A Weight Lifting Beginners Guide to Using a Squat Rack
Photo by Jelmer Assink / Unsplash
María Rubio María Rubio
11 min read

When it comes to compound exercises that can give you a good and sweaty workout with just a simple movement, the squat is the king!

It’s a staple exercise for a reason: it’s effective, easy to do, and master, and it doesn’t require any equipment - at first. But if you want to take your squats to the next level and add a loaded barbell to your squat routine, then a squat rack is what you need to make this happen. This essential piece of equipment will improve your squat workouts by supporting the bar while you’re not lifting, allowing you to load it with ease and pick it up without struggling, minimizing any possible risks during your routine.

But that’s not the only thing squat racks are good for! There are many different exercises that you can do with it, from lower body exercises to upper body! So, in this guide, we’ll show you all the details that you need to know about a squat rack and how to use it properly that way you can hit your next strength training session with confidence.

What is a squat rack?

Among all the machines and pieces of equipment that you can find at the gym, the squat rack is one of the simplest yet most effective ones that you can try!

It is essentially a metal stand designed that supports the weight of a loaded barbell so you can easily grab it at the height that you need for your squats or any other weightlifting exercises, perform your reps, and then place the bar back on the rack. It has two main metal columns that hold the bar on each side, giving you space to place yourself in the middle and prepare for your exercise, and one pin at either side that you can move depending on the height that you want the bar to be.

One of the benefits of using a squat rack is that it usually comes with safety bars that act as spotters in case you need to drop the weight while you’re squatting, either because your muscles are too tired to push the weight back up or because your form has been compromised and the safest thing to do is to start again. These safety bars are located near the bottom and they’re designed to catch the bar if you let go of it, letting you step out of the rack safely.

Now, while the terms squat rack and power rack are often used interchangeably, there’s a key difference between the two. The squat rack has two metal columns and safety bars at the front, often resembling a bench press rack, but the power rack on the other hand has four metal columns and acts as an enclosed cage, which is why sometimes the squat rack is referred to as “half-cage”. Both racks offer great support for your weightlifting sessions, so choosing which one to use will depend on the exercise that you want to do and your personal preferences!

Here are a few benefits of using the squat rack:

  • Assisted progression: The main reason to use a squat rack is that it allows you to load and place the barbell where you want it to be before getting into position. This is particularly useful when practicing progressive overload because it helps you add increments of weight over time without struggling to get the bar to its intended position each time.
  • No path restriction: Unlike the Smith machine and other pieces of equipment that have limited space and path for the weight, generally intended to help beginners and advanced lifters with heavier loads, the squat rack allows you to move freely and thus perform a wider range of barbell exercises with it.
  • No additional assistance needed: While having a spotter is never a bad idea when lifting weights, you can use the squat rack all by yourself without needing assistance from someone else. You just place the bar at the desired height, load it, and start lifting!
  • Safety bars: These bars allow you to perform your weightlifting exercises without the extra risk of injury by acting as a safety net in case you need to drop the weight. Safety bars not only help you physically but also mentally because their presence is reassuring and helps you perform your movements with more confidence.

And these are only the technical benefits of a squat rack - don’t forget about the gains! Using this kind of equipment will help you make progress gradually and safely, and the use of heavier weights will make your muscles grow and get much stronger very quickly.

How to use a squat rack

To learn how to use a squat rack for your different strength training exercises, you first need to understand how to set it up.

The first step to set up your squat rack is to adjust the height of the bar by moving the pins up or down so it fits you and the exercise you’re about to do. The bar will go higher if you’re doing exercises such as overhead presses and any squat variation, and lower if you’re doing rack pulls, inverted rows, and other similar movements. It’s important to set the correct height for your exercise to grab the bar comfortably and prevent any possible injuries due to bad form.

Next, you need to load the bar with the appropriate weight. Barbells are heavier than other free weights, and you need to be careful when loading them so you don’t hurt yourself at the time of the lift. It’s always better to go a little lighter to make sure you can handle the weight and then load it some more, instead of going all the way in with a few heavy plates and risking dropping the bar or injuring yourself.

Now that the bar is set at the right height and correctly loaded, it’s your turn to step in and grab it. Depending on the kind of exercise that you’ll be doing, your placement under the squat rack will be different. Here’s how to do the staple barbell back squat on a squat rack:

  1. First, make sure that the loaded bar is at about chest level, which is the ideal height for barbell squats.
  2. Step under the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart so that it rests on your traps, just under your neck.
  3. Once you’ve centered yourself with the bar, grab it with both hands facing forward and at a comfortable distance from your body.
  4. Unrack the bar by straightening your back and legs and step out of the squat rack with your feet firmly planted on the floor. This will be your starting position.
  5. Begin to lower yourself by hinging at the hips and bending your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  6. After a brief pause, slowly go back up. Keeping the bar under control, perform all your reps.
  7. When you’ve completed a set, carefully place the bar back on the rack making sure both ends are secured, and step out.

There you go, now you have successfully used a squat rack!

Although front and back squats are the most common exercises that people use the squat rack for, there are other variations such as the split squats and the pin squats that can give you a good total body workout with this piece of equipment. After all, squats are a staple compound movement that everyone needs in their strength training program.

But enough about squats! Even though they are named after them for a good reason, squats are not the only exercises that you can do on a squat rack…

More exercises that you can try on a squat rack

Since the squat rack is essentially just barbell support, there are many weightlifting exercises that you can do with it. Here are some of the best exercises that you can try with it that aren’t squats:

  • Standing overhead press: You can add this staple exercise to a squat rack workout by placing the bar at the same height as if you were going to do squats, which is at chest level. When you unrack it, hold it over your chest and right in front of your shoulders, take a step back, and begin pressing the weight up.
  • Barbell lunges: This movement is very similar to the split squat because you get into a half-kneeling position at the bottom, but lunges are more dynamic and use both legs to support the weight while you bring the bar down. Place the barbell at chest height on the squat rack and step under it, so that it rests just below your neck before you unrack it and start lunging.
  • Inverted row: This one is a little bit different, and requires you to lay on the floor. The bar will be placed near the lowest point, at arm’s length so that you can comfortably reach for it. It doesn’t need to be loaded, just secured. To perform the exercise, grab the bar with an overhand grip and begin pulling your upper body towards it with your arms.
  • Rack pulls: As a pre-deadlift exercise, rack pulls are excellent to build proper form and a stronger lower body, and squat racks are perfect for them! Instead of placing the bar in one of the levels, take a step back and place it on the safety bars. You can practice your deadlift form by lifting from a higher position and reducing the range of motion.
  • Bench press: While bench presses usually have their own rack, you can also just bring a bench under the squat rack and build your own bench press rack. This is particularly useful for those who have home gyms to avoid spending money on an extra piece of equipment. On the squat rack, the bar should be placed at a comfortable height for you to reach it without overextending your arms so you can bench press safely.

Before trying any of these exercises on a squat rack, keep in mind gym etiquette is a thing! If your gym is more crowded than usual and you’re thinking of doing any of these exercises, you might want to try a different approach such as using a power rack, a bench press rack, or a spotter so others can squat safely using the squat rack.

Common mistakes

So far, you already know what a squat rack is, its benefits, how to use it, and even some exercises that you can try with it. But before you jump right in, let’s go over a few of the most common mistakes that people make when using a squat rack during their strength training sessions, so you can be 100% prepared next time you’re at the gym!

Using too much weight

This is probably the number one mistake that people make when lifting weights, especially when you’re using a squat rack and can’t feel the actual weight until you unrack it.

When loading your barbell, always be mindful of your current fitness level, and don’t make big weight changes between your last lifting session and the current one. After all, unless you were lifting weights in your sleep, your strength level will be very similar to before, if only a little bit better. Strength training is all about slowly making progress and taking your journey step by step instead of going all the way in with all the weight that you can think of - this is called ego lifting and it’s not beneficial for you!

Next time you’re loading your barbell, measure the weight appropriately and try it before actually getting into the exercise so you can avoid injuring yourself. And remember, it’s better to underestimate yourself than to overdo it and fail - and don’t forget to secure the plates so they don’t fall off the bar!

Choosing the wrong height for the bar

The great thing about squat racks is that you can choose the perfect height for the bar depending on how tall you are and the exercise that you’re going to do, but this freedom can also cause a lot of people to miscalculate the correct height for the bar.

If you’re doing a regular front or back squat, the ideal height for the bar will be at your chest where you can comfortably adjust yourself with the bar and place it either on your back or your shoulders and unrack it without struggling. Say you place it higher than usual and you position yourself under the bar, but it’s barely touching you even when standing straight. When you unrack it, the weight will drop from its height and onto you, causing unnecessary tension and even pain in your upper body.

If you place the bar too low, you’ll need to bend down more than usual, making it difficult for you to then stand upright and get into the starting position, risking a strain in your lower back from picking up the heavy weight in that position. So, before unracking the bar, always position yourself as if you were about to begin the exercise and see how comfortable the height is for you, and adjust if necessary.

Not using the safety bars

A good number of squat racks come with their safety bars permanently installed, but others have removable safety bars that you can adjust depending on your height and how low you squat. There might be instances where you see a squat rack without them because they were removed by someone else who worked out before you, or maybe it has the safety bars but you decide to step out of them to work freely on your own.

We’re here to tell you… The safety bars exist for a reason! Try your best to work out with them, either by adjusting them yourself, asking a member of the gym staff, or just getting closer to the rack instead of actively avoiding it. This way, if anything happens, the bars are there to catch the weight and prevent you from injuring yourself. They won’t bother you during your workout, so there’s no need to avoid them, especially if you’re working out with a heavier weight than usual!

Rounding your back

In general, breaking your form when lifting heavy weights such as loaded barbells is bad, but this mistake in particular can be dangerous if it’s not corrected on time.

During resistance training, your back muscles protect your spine from the heavy weight that’s being lifted and help support your upper body. When you round your back, you accidentally place all the tension on your lower back, losing all the support from the strong back muscles in the upper area and putting your spine at risk. This could result in lower back pain interfering with your future workouts and even lead to a much larger problem such as a herniated disc. Regular lifter or not - this is definitely not something that you want!

When lifting any kind of weight, light or heavy, try your best to keep your back straight and your back muscles fully engaged as you perform the movement so you can protect your spine and lift more effectively.

Squatting too low

When doing weighted squats, particularly if you’re lifting a heavy barbell, it’s important to know when to stop squatting. With lighter loads and higher reps, it’s possible to go lower than usual without any problems, but the usual rule of thumb for squatting is to stop when your thighs are parallel to the floor.

That’s because this squatting position gives your legs a good burn while you’re still keeping the weight under control, helping you go up without struggling. If you go too low with a heavy weight, going up will be tougher and you can lose the balance of the weight or yourself, leading to possible injury. Even using a manageable weight can get tricky once you’re in a deep squat position, so try to avoid that unless you’re using a lighter weight that you know won’t be a problem for you.

Now, go make progress using the squat rack!

Follow this guide and you’ll be ready to step into the gym and use the squat rack safely and with confidence - and with many different squat rack exercises in mind!

Whether you’re new to weight lifting or you’ve been training your strength for a while, the squat rack is a piece of equipment that can be useful to anyone interested in growing bigger and stronger muscles. So don’t be afraid to add it to your routine and experiment with a few new movements, so you can hit your all muscle groups from every angle and position possible and get the body of your dreams in no time!

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