The squat rack, or power rack, is a relatively bulky accessory that can be found in all good fitness centers or in a home gym. This equipment is often available in two versions: one that is safe enough to handle guided loads and another that allows you to work in a more free way while protecting your body in case the bar falls.
Here, we will see how to use a squat cage in a classic weight training session and how to make it a versatile tool in the practice of activities such as Crossfit or powerlifting.
What’s a squat rack?
It’s a piece of fitness equipment composed of a square or rectangular structure whose height is around 2.5m. Depending on the model, the squat cage can be equipped with various add-ons (a pull-up bar, dip bars, safety handles, etc).
Metal or steel is often the material used for the design of this equipment. This does not prevent talented do-it-yourselfers from using wood to make their own rack. There are also plastic models on the market today, but their quality is questionable, I wouldn’t advise getting a plastic one.
The squat is a fantastic exercise for building functional strength and power from the bottom up.
Origin of the squat rack
These installations became popular in 1960, when the famous Terry Todd and Doctor Craig Whitehead used them to test their theory: “theory of maximum fatigue”.
Peary Rader dedicated a very long article to them in her successful Iron Man Magazine. A more elaborate version of the first squat cage was created in 1987, thanks to Karl I. Mullen, a native of Portland.
What are the main benefits of using a rack?
Ease of use
Squats are a staple when you want to build muscle and strength, simply because they are a polyarticular exercise that engages every muscle in your body (and are also great as a fat burner).
While there are many ways to perform them, the most effective one is the barbell squat. Without a squat rack, it will be very difficult to place the bar on your shoulders. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to clean bigger weights than they can squat, so you need a rack for heavier loads.
This is an essential criterion to consider when you decide to purchase any home gym equipment.
Indeed, you will surely not have someone to assist you at home all day long. The vast majority of squat cages have safety “pins” on the sides of the cage that you can hang the bar on at all times, just in case things go wrong!
On top of squatting, you can use a rack for many other exercises, as we’ll see below.
How to Use a Rack to Squat Properly
Ideally, you’ll need a rack with safety arms, sturdy enough to hold your weight. How much you squat is up to you, but it’s probably best not to go too heavy in your first session if it’s your first time using the equipment.
Adjust the height of the safety arms so that they are just above shoulder-height when you’re standing in front of them. Make sure that you can comfortably step back from the rack and still have your feet against them before starting a set.
Make sure you warm up first. The last thing you want to do is fatigue yourself after the warm up and then attempt a squat with too much weight. As we all know, this will only end in one way – pain!
So just do a few reps of air squat, then a few ones with an empty barbell, a slowly load up to your desired weight.
Solid Feet Position
There is a multitude of different opinions on what is the ‘best’ foot position when performing a squat. While it’s great that there are so many variations, it can make choosing a good starting point a little bit confusing!
The most important thing to consider is that your feet should be firmly planted flat on the floor from the beginning to the end of your squat. It is often helpful to visualize yourself stepping off a step between each rep or set, while still keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground.
How far you place your feet in front of the bar (‘Stance’) will depend on several factors, including leg length and overall body structure. In general, a wider stance will place more pressure on the glutes and hamstrings, while a narrow stance will shift more pressure onto the quadriceps.
The best way to find out how you should be holding the squat rack for your own height is to stand in front of it, shoulder-width apart, with your arms extended out to the side. Now bend down and take hold of the barbell as if you were about to perform a deadlift or a clean.
How does that feel? Is it too close or too far away from you? How does it feel when you try taking a wider grip? How does it feel when you try a slightly narrower grip? How does it feel when you try taking the bar all the way to your collar bone? How does it feel when you try gripping it at around chin-height?
How should you be breathing during squats? Well, this will differ depending on how heavy the weight is. As a general rule of thumb, it’s good to be breathing in when lowering yourself down and out when standing up. Or if you’re going for higher loads (say 5, 3, or 1RM), it’s probably best to take a big breath in, tighten your core before going down, then release air as you get back up.
Keeping the natural arch in your back, bend at the hips and knees and lower down into a sitting position. Make sure you are always looking forward and keep your feet flat.
Drive through the floor to get back up in a big explosive movement. Think about keeping your torso upright so you don’t put unnecessary load on your lower back.
Congratulations! You’ve completed one rep.
Key Mistakes To Avoid When You Use A Squat Rack
Don’t just go into the rack and start doing squats with no warm up.
Also, don’t use too much weight too soon. A key mistake people often make is that they just go for it with the weight and fail before even reaching half their max.
Don’t squat too close to the mirrors in your gym. It might seem like a good idea at the time, but you’ll only break them if you fail. How embarrassing that would be.
Don’t lose track of how many reps you have done and if possible, don’t go past your target rep range. It’s a problem that often happens with beginners who lose count as they get tired towards the end of their workout. This may leave you using more weight than necessary, which can put you at more risk for injury.
How To Progress And Improve Your Squat Using A Rack?
After mastering the basics of how to use a rack for squatting, what’s next? How can you progress and improve your form? Well, there are a number of things you can begin to experiment with such as:
Progressively increase the weight each week. How much weight should be added is subjective and will depend on factors such as personal preference and experience level.
How long should you rest between sets? How long should you rest between sets will depend on how intensely you are training. The more intense the workout, the longer the recovery time needs to be for your body to repair itself and avoid injury.
How many reps should be completed in each set? How many reps you complete per set again depends on your experience level and personal preference. How high you set your rep range is dependent on how intense your workout is. More intense workouts will need fewer reps to achieve the desired effect, whereas less intense workouts can be completed with a higher number of reps per set.
How long should you rest between different exercises? How long you rest between different exercises is determined by how intense the workouts are, as well as your own personal preference. How high or low you set your rest time again depends on what intensity of workout you intend to perform. More intense workouts should have a shorter rest time, whereas less intense shouldn’t need much resting between sets.
How long you rest during your workouts will depend on lots of factors such as your own personal preference and experience level. Changing these variables can also help you change the intensity of your workout and play a role in progression and improvement.
What are the main exercises you can do with a squat rack?
The most common exercise that can be done with a squat rack is obviously the barbell squat. There are other exercises that you can include in your routine, but they’re not necessarily suited for beginners or people that lack strength. Here are some examples of the main exercises that can be done with a squat rack.
- Shoulder press
- Bench press
- Barbell lunges
- Bicep curls
- Bent-over row
Additional tips when using a squat rack?
Use a rack to support yourself as you squat. The safety bars will stop the bar from falling off your shoulders if you can’t complete a full rep.
Add weight plates to the bar until it becomes challenging for you to complete 5 reps before increasing the weight again.
Keep an eye on your form and try not to lean too far forward to complete your reps. This can put pressure on your lower back.
Beginners should start with the bar, which weighs 45lbs (20kg). Be sure to always check that you have a secure grip before each rep.
Once you’re comfortable with the form and amount of weight, progress onto dumbbells or barbells.
Add weight to the bar for each set until you feel like your form starts to break down. Then, it’s time to go back one step and start again!
Be sure not to rest the bar on your neck or head when putting it back in position, instead keeping it close to your shoulders.
A Word of Caution
It is important to learn proper squat movement with a competent sports coach. With the required skills, he or she will be able to indicate the right movements to adopt. The use of a squat rack allows you to secure the exercise and limit the risks of injuries.
Common mistakes to avoid:
Using the safety bars if you simply can’t complete a rep. This is not safe and can lead to injury.
Leaning too far forward when completing your reps. Keep an upright upper body and stay in control at all times.
Putting the bar on your neck or head when returning it to the rack after each rep. Don’t do this as it could cause you to drop the weight on your neck or head.