How to Use a Squat Rack to Max Out Your Leg Gains

How to Use a Squat Rack to Max Out Your Leg Gains

Discover how to safely and effectively use a squat rack to maximize your leg gains, including personalized settings for your height and squat depth.

There’s a lot of imposing-looking equipment in the gym, but if you’re a beginner, few things are as intimidating as the squat rack. It’s where you see the gym behemoths stacking ridiculous amounts of weight on the bar, only to perform feats of strength that would crush mere mortals.

You might conclude that the squat rack isn’t the place for newbies. But you’d be dead wrong. If you want to build a foundation of strength, power, and muscle mass, it’s precisely where you need to be.

However, working out on the squat rack is a skill that must be nurtured. Unless you know how to set up the rack and perform exercises within it optimally, you’ll likely do more harm than good.

As a personal trainer, I’ve seen more squat rack mishaps than I care to recall. Most of them were caused by inefficient set-up and poor form. Over the past 35 years, I’ve trained hundreds of people on proper squat rack use, helping them develop the confidence and the skill to make maximum, safe use of this basic training tool.

In this article, I’ll provide the guidance you need to become a confident, safe, and proficient squat rack user.

Here’s what we'll cover:

  • Why use a squat rack?
  • Squat rack set up
  • A step-by-step guide to squatting on a squat rack
  • Mistakes to avoid
  • Other squat rack exercises
  • Why Use a Squat Rack?

    A squat rack is a device to help you perform a range of barbell exercises more safely. The main exercise performed on the rack is the squat, though you can also perform more than a dozen other exercises within the rack.

    The rack has a frame with adjustable pegs to place the bar on. It also has a safety spotting mechanism consisting of spotter arms or straps to catch the bar if you cannot complete a rep.

    The squat rack allows you to position the bar at shoulder level so you can step into position and unrack the bar across your traps and shoulders when squatting. You then step back to clear the rack and begin your set. Without a rack, you would have to clean the bar from the floor to get into position.

    Squat Rack Set Up

    Proper use of a squat rack begins with setting up the rack before you start exercising. The first thing you should do is strip the rack of any weight that a previous user has left over. Put the plates on the weight pegs positioned on the rack's base.

    The following description relates to setting up the squat rack for the squat exercise. In the section on other squat rack exercises, I’ll explain how to set it up for other movements.

    Now that you have a clean rack, you must position the J-cups at the right level, which hold the bar. Some racks will have adjustable J-cups, while others will have fixed pins. Most adjustable racks set the pin holes an inch apart.

    The ideal bar height is at shoulder level. This will allow you to step directly into the bar, load it on your traps and shoulders, and then step back. Shoulder height means that when you stand a foot from the bar and reach your arms to touch it, they should be parallel to the floor.

    Check now that the bar is centered on the rack. The center knurling of an Olympic bar is meant to sit across the back of your neck when you are squatting, so it should be in the middle of the rack. If it isn’t, adjust the bar accordingly.

    Your next task is to set the level of the safety bars. Again, some racks will have adjustable bars while others will be fixed. If you can, set the safety bars at a height about an inch below the level of the bar at the bottom of your squat. This allows you to safely dump the bar onto the bars if you cannot complete the ascent.

    Now that both the barbell and the safeties are positioned correctly, you can load the barbell. Make sure to use the same number of plates on each side and that they sit flush and tight. Ensure that you also use secure collars to keep the plates from moving.

    Step-by-Step Guide to Squatting on a Squat Rack

    Step One: Unrack the Bar

    Step up to the bar and place your neck under the central knurling. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and slightly turned out. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip equidistant between your shoulders and the first plate.

    Pull your shoulder blades in and your lats down. This creates a natural shelf to support the bar. Now contract your core and breathe in.

    The placement of the bar is critical to effective squat performance. The best placement actually depends on your squatting goal. If you are focused on lifting as much weight as possible, rather than building leg size, the bar should be placed low across your traps. This will put your lower back muscles and glutes in their most powerful pushing position.

    On the other hand, if your goal is lower body hypertrophy, you should position the bar high on your traps.

    Step Back

    With the weight resting across your shoulders and traps, you now need to take a backward step so that you are clear of the rack’s uprights while squatting. I recommend sliding one foot back at a time to prevent uneven bar movement.

    Ensure you maintain the shoulder-width foot distance with your toes slightly turned out. Your weight should be centered on your midfoot.

    Eccentric Squat

    Hinge at the hips to draw your butt back and down. Follow through with a knee bend as you descend until your thighs are slightly lower than parallel to the floor. Ensure that your upper body remains as upright as possible as you descend. Keep your core tight and your lats flared. This will help to avoid back rounding.

    Inhale deeply as you go down.

    Concentric Squat

    Push your heels into the floor to begin the ascent. Imagine that you are pushing the floor away from you as you drive the weight back to the start position. Your hips and chest should move as one, smoothly driving the weight up.

    Breathe out as you perform the concentric part of the squat.

    Rerack the Bar

    Once you have completed the prescribed number of reps, slide forward, one foot at a time, to place the bar back on the J-cups. Even though you will probably be exhausted, ensure that you do this slowly and deliberately. The last thing you want is to complete a good set of squats and then injure yourself because you failed to re rack the bar properly!

    Mistakes to Avoid

    There are four recurring squat rack mistakes that I’ve noticed over the years. These errors are easy to make, and just as easy to fix. Here’s how to get onto them early, so they don’t become bad workout habits:

    Mistake #1: Not Personalizing the Rack Settings

    If you’re squatting with one or more other people, you probably don’t want to reset the J-hooks after every set. But that is precisely what you should be doing, especially if there is quite a height difference between you and the other users.

    If the J-cups are not in line with your shoulders, you will have problems when you re rack the bar at the end of the set. If it’s too low, you must round your spine unnaturally. On the other hand, if it is too high, you’ll have to lift on your toes to reach the bar; that is not a maneuver you want to attempt with a maximum weight on the bar!

    Mistake #2: Not Using the Spotter Arms

    The whole point of using a squat rack is to provide you with a safety bail-out feature. If you can’t rise out of the hole, you can simply allow the bar to roll down your back slightly and onto the safeties.

    Yet, it’s quite common to see beginners who unrack the bar and then take two or three steps back so that they are actually squatting beyond the safety bars. Then, when they fail, they:

    1. Drop the weight off their back to the floor and fall back on top of it.
    2. Cave forward so that the bar rolls over their neck and to the floor in front of them. This can, and has, been fatal.

    Do not be one of these people. Take just a single step back from the rack to fully benefit from the safety arms.

    Mistake #3: Bad Form Coming Out of the Hole

    Getting out of the bottom position (the hole) of the squat is a potential danger area for many. It’s where I see form break down more than at any other part of the squat. Often, people will lunge their torso forward or their hips backward to create upward momentum.

    Both of these habits create instability and take the emphasis off your legs. Your goal should be for the chest and the hips to drive up simultaneously. This will only happen if you keep your core engaged, tensing the abs and tightening the lower back. This will actually protect the spinal area and keep the focus on your quads and glutes.

    Mistake 4: Not Warming Up

    You should warm up before every workout, but especially before a squat workout. This is a complex compound movement that involves a number of muscle groups. To achieve full range of motion, you must ensure that each muscle group is warmed up and ready to go.

    Your squat warm-up should only take a few minutes. Perform a couple of sets of 15-rep bodyweight squats, then do a hip opener stretch, leg swings, and glute kickback for one set of 10-12 reps each.

    You’re now ready to perform your first set. Start with just the bar and progressively work up in pyramid fashion, increasing the weight as you reduce the reps.

    Other Squat Rack Exercises

    The squat rack is a surprisingly versatile piece of training equipment. Here are three other exercises you can do on it, along with tips on how to set the rack for the given exercise.

    1. Bench Press

    To bench press in the squat rack, you must place a flat bench inside the rack. This provides a built-in safety mechanism to ensure you don’t crush your ribcage if you fail on a rep. Here’s how to set up the rack for benching:

    1. Position a flat bench in the rack so its head is directly under the bar uprights. Ensure that the bench is centered in the rack.
    2. Position the J-cups a few inches short of full extension when you extend your arms above you.
    3. Place an unloaded barbell on the J-cups to be centered, with the same amount of overlap on each side.
    4. Adjust the safety vars to be about an inch above your chest level when lying on the bench.
    5. Lie on the bench with your feet firmly on the floor and your hips down.
    6. You are now ready to reach up and unrack the bar.

    Hip Thruster

    The hip thruster is a popular glute developer that can be done with a machine or barbell positioned over your hips. Using a squat rack means you don’t have to start with the loaded bar on the floor and then roll it up your legs to start the movement.

    You will also need a flat bench for this exercise. Here’s how to set up for the squat rack hip thruster:

    1. Place the flat bench horizontally at the end of the rack.
    2. Set the safety bars about 18 inches from the floor (this should equate to the second or third hole).
    3. Load an empty barbell on the safety bars between the bench and the end uprights. Load the appropriate weight.
    4. Find some sort of padding that you can use to place between the bar and your groin area.
    5. Position yourself under the bar so that your hips are directly below it, your shoulders are resting on the bench, and your knees bent.
    6. Starting from a hips-down position, thrust your hips into the air and contract your glutes.

    3. Rack Pull

    The rack pull deadlift is a modified version that involves pulling the bar from a higher position than the standard deadlift. Here’s how to do it:

    1. Set the rack supports at knee level.
    2. Load the barbell and place it on the rack supports.
    3. Stand behind the bar with your mid feet directly under it.
    4. Maintaining a neutral spine. Bend at the knee to come down to grab the bar just wider than shoulder-width. Use a double overhand grip to hold the bar.
    5. Looking directly ahead, begin lifting the bar, bringing it up close to your body.
    6. As the bar reaches your mid-thigh level, hinge the hips forward to complete the final pull to a standing position.
    7. Lower under control to return the bar to the rack supports and repeat.

    Check out more alternative squat rack exercises to work your entire body.


    Q: What is the point of a squat rack?

    A: The whole point of a squat rack is to keep you safe while performing the squat and other barbell exercises. The track has in-built safety catches that will take the load off the bar if you cannot complete a rep.

    Q: Do you face toward or away from the squat rack?

    A: You should always face toward the rack when performing squats. That includes front squats. If you are facing away from the rack, you will have to step forward to clear the J-pegs. This can be more challenging than simply sliding backward.

    People who squat facing away from the rack are less likely to have a view of their form in the mirror. Checking your exercise form while you are training is critical to proper technique.

    Q: How do you do a squat with a squat stand?

    A: A squat stand consists of two independent squat uprights with a frame that connects them. This allows you to adjust the distance between the uprights. However, it is nowhere near as solid and secure as a squat rack with a frame.

    The most important thing when performing a squat from a squat stand is to get the correct stand distance. It should allow you to move within them easily while providing enough bar space beyond the stands to re rack the bar quickly.

    Squat stands usually do not include a safety spotter mechanism, so you must use a physical spotter when going heavy.

    Q: What are spotting straps?

    A: Spotting straps are thick, heavy-duty nylon straps attached to the uprights of a squat rack. They are an alternative to safety bars, serving the same purpose of catching the bar if you fail on the rep.

    The main benefit of spotting straps is that they allow more give than a bar. This protects the bar and the lifter by more evenly distributing the force. Spotter straps are often easier to adjust than safety bars.


    Whether you are working out in your garage or at a commercial gym, you need to be familiar with squat rack basics before you get on the rack.

    Take the time to adjust the J-pegs and safety catches for your height and squat depth, properly load the bar, and ensure that you are working within the range of the safeties. Then, pay attention to your squat form, ensuring that your torso remains upright, you achieve a proper squat depth, and you push through your heels as you come out of the hole.

    Looking for a home gym squat rack that will work as hard as you do, delivering the strength, durability, and stability you need for maximum leg gains? Check out our home gym equipment