Looking to Make “Gains” this Year? Here’s How to Use a Squat Rack Correctly for Increased Strength
Do you shy away from using the squat rack, fearing improper technique? Fear no longer! Learn how to use the squat rack correctly for increased muscular fitness, injury prevention and rehabilitation
It’s easy to get caught up in the same gym routine, fearing injury or embarrassment from trying something new. Many gym-goers neglect the squat rack and stick to body-weight or machine-based exercises because they are unsure of how to use the squat rack correctly.
Don’t let your fears discourage you – a squat rack is the perfect training tool for anyone looking to achieve power and strength.
Squat racks are frequently recommended by physical therapists and personal trainers as an excellent tool to increase full-body strength or target specific muscle groups for the prevention or rehabilitation of injuries.
Your questions about how to use a squat rack properly will finally be answered in this article. You will learn how to adjust the rack properly, how to squat in correct form, and how much weight you should be using for a standard squat. Once you’ve mastered the standard squat, check out the list of other exercises to try in the squat rack for targeted strengthening.
#1 STRETCH THOSE ANKLES!
Ankle mobility is fundamental to proper squatting and lunging form. If you begin squatting without first mobilizing and stretching your ankles, you may end up leaning too far forward in order to compromise for a lack of ankle mobility.
According to the popular medical journal, Elsevier, ankle mobility is directly related to postural stability. Limitations in ankle mobility can lead to imbalance and poor posture while squatting (Nakagawa and Petersen, 2018).
To mobilize your ankles before using a squat rack, start by massaging the soles of your feet for a minute with a trigger foot roller or small ball (such as a golf or lacrosse ball). Next, use a foam roller or stick roller to massage your calves for two minutes. Finally, sit back on the heels of your feet and hold this stretch for up to two minutes.
Woman foam rolling calves. Photo: Unsplash, StrideUK
#2 POSITION THE BAR
Knowing how to position the squat bar correctly is crucial for avoiding injury. Before adding weights to the bar, make sure you test for proper positioning in the following ways:
First, adjust the bar on the rack so that it is at chest height.
Next, position the bar on your upper back so that you can draw an imaginary straight line from the bar to your midfoot.
Finally, hold the bar so that it is resting either just below the neck or just below the shoulders. You can determine which placement is better for your body structure by imagining a straight line again, so that the bar is aligned with your midfoot.
Never place the barbell on your neck.
#3 POSITION YOUR BODY
How you position your body during a squat will determine whether you achieve “gains” or pains. Pay close attention to these body-positioning guidelines:
Position your feet…
Position your feet so that they are shoulder-width apart. Your feet should be parallel to each other or pointed outwards very slightly.
Engage your core…
Constantly engage your core while squatting. Keeping a tight core will prevent you from hunching over (which can lead to back pain or injury).
Use your hip muscles to tilt your torso slightly forward and your buttocks outwards.
Expand your chest…
When beginning the squat, expand your chest by inhaling and holding your breath. This breathing technique will alleviate tension in your back and chest.
Never hunch your back…
Keep your back and shoulders upright for the duration of the squat. Your lower back should have a slight arch. Contract your lumbar (lower back) muscles to maintain correct back posture.
Use your glutes and quads for “liftoff” …
When pushing your body back up from a squat, use your glutes (the muscles around your buttocks) and your quads (the muscles above your knee and below your pelvis) to push yourself back into starting position.
Never rely on your back muscles to push up from the squat, as doing so can cause back pain or strain.
#4 ADD THE RIGHT WEIGHT
Before adding any weight to the barbell, get your form down to a “T” by practicing the posture recommendations above. Once your posture is perfected, the weight that you add will depend on whether you are looking to gain muscle mass or strength.
To increase muscle mass, add enough weight so that you can do eight to ten reps. One way to gain mass is to perform three sets of ten squats with two minutes of rest in between sets. Set the weight so that the intensity starts comfortably and then becomes increasingly tiresome (think “slow burn”).
To increase muscle strength, add enough weight so that you can only do about five or six reps. A common suggestion from personal trainers is to add just enough weight to the barbell so that you can no longer stand up on your toes.
Always increase weight gradually to an intensity that you can handle. To ensure maximum safety and postural correctness, it is best to use the squat rack in the company of a spotter, personal trainer, or therapist.
#5 VARY YOUR ROUTINE BY ADDING THESE OTHER GREAT SQUAT RACK EXERCISES
Now that you are a squat rack expert, try these other popular squat rack exercises to develop strength and vigor:
Exercise 1: The Deadlift
Looking for in all-in-one exercise? The deadlift is one of the best exercises to perform for overall muscular strength, as it works every major muscle group in the body. Other benefits include:
- Strengthens the lower back. A recent study has revealed that adding deadlifts to your routine can heal lower-back pain and prevent lower back injuries (Berglund et al., 2015).
- Helps you sprint faster. Incorporating exercises, such as deadlifts, can quicken your sprinting speed from 5-15% (Fisher, 2012).
- Helps you jump higher. One study has revealed that deadlifts can help you jump higher, since you are adding explosive power to your muscles when performing deadlifts. (Thomson et al., 2015).
Follow these steps to master the deadlift:
Step 1: Place the barbell on the floor
Step 2: Squat down with proper posture (see section 3 of this article for details). Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart. Your mid and upper back should be straight. Use your hips to create a curve in the lower back and to push the buttocks outwards.
Step 3: With your arms just outside your legs, place an overhand grip on the bar.
Step 4: Keep a flat back as you lift the bar off the floor. It helps to visualize yourself pressing down into the floor through your heels.
Step 5: Once the barbell goes past your knees, thrust the hips slightly forward so that you are now holding the barbell in a normal standing position.
Step 6: Reverse your movement, keeping the same posture as you had on the way up. Remember to keep a tightened core for stability.
Exercise 2: Barbell Lunges
Barbell lunges are the ultimate exercise for enhanced flexibility of the hip flexor and overall coordination. Other benefits include:
- Restores muscular balance. A recent study has shown that lunging is a great way to unmask muscular imbalance and correct it (Nadzalan, Sazali, & Azzfar, 2018).
- Improves your lunge speed in sports such as badminton. Scientists have recently revealed that lunges are a great way to help badminton players gain strength and speed, as lunging is commonly performed in badminton games (Nadzalan, Sazali, & Azzfar, 2018).
- Helps you stand taller. A recent, medically reviewed article reported that lunges can enhance posture because they fortify your back and core muscles without putting too much pressure on the spine (Bubnis, 2019).
Follow these steps to lunge with power:
Step 1: Place the barbell at chest height and stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
Step 2: Position the barbell on your upper back as you would do for a standard squat.
Step 3: Lunge your right leg forward, landing on your heel. During the deepest part of the lunge, your ankle, knee, and hip should form a 90-degree angle. Your knee should not go past your ankle.
Step 4: Reverse your movement, keeping the posture you had on the way down. Remember to keep a tightened core for stability.
Step 5: Repeat this exercise on the opposite leg.
Exercise 3: Standing Overhead Press
Give your core and upper body the conditioning it craves by implementing the standing overhead press into your gym routine. Other benefits include:
- Assists in coordination. Scientific studies have shown that the overhead press requires you to activate your core muscles and focus on stability, which can increase your coordination (Saeterbakken & Firmland, 2013).
- Improves upper body balance. According to a medically reviewed article, those who compensate their posture due to muscular imbalances in the upper body can benefit from the overhead press (Minnis, 2019).
- Tones your biceps and triceps. According strength and conditioning coach, Tom Kelso, the overhead press is a great way to target and tone to bicep and triceps (Kelso, 2018).
Follow these steps to press like a pro:
Step 1: Place the barbell at chest height and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
Step 2: While keeping your arms close to your shoulders, grab the bar so that your elbows are pointing towards the floor. Your forearms should be vertical, while your elbows should be close to your body and parallel to one another.
Step 3: Use your glutes and hips to lean your torso back slightly. This will allow you to lift the bar up without hitting your chin.
Step 4: Lift the bar up toward the ceiling, resuming the normal standing posture once the bar is lifted above your forehead.
Step 5: Reverse your movement, leaning your torso back again as the bar comes back down below the forehead.
Practice proper posture in the squat rack before graduating to heavier weights. Add supplemental stretches and core exercises into your routine so that you may reap maximum benefits while using the squat rack.
Enjoy your journey to increased strength and muscular fitness with correct use of the squat rack!
Written By: Scott Gray