If you strength train or build muscle alone, there besides barbells, dumbbells, and weights, there is one piece of equipment that will become your best friend. And, no, it isn’t a weight bench. It’s a squat rack. Why is this so?
Why Use a Squat Rack?
Why should you use a squat rack, or “power rack”, or cage to perform squats? There are two main reasons: First, squat racks and cages come with safety pins or cross bars that are adjustable to heights in order to catch the bar when you fail during a lift. With these safety catches, sometimes called “spotters”, you can safely discard the bar and not without getting stuck underneath it because you cannot lift it off of your shoulders; an extremely dangerous situation.
The second reason is the reason squat racks were invented in the first place. The bar can be set at a height that lets the lifter to get underneath the bar and set it on his or her shoulders without having to actually lift the bar from the floor to shoulder height. This makes sense because most the squatting ability of most strength trainees will quickly surpass the weight that they are able to lift from the floor to the shoulders.
Squat Racks are Cheating?
Some “purists” consider squat racks to be cheating. They say that you should not squat a weight that you are not able to clean and overhead press or jerk. This view is based on the concept that true strength requires you to lift without any helpful devices like squat racks. These types of viewpoints have nothing to do with the reality of building muscular strength but instead are personal value judgments. There is no technical reason for holding such a view.
To be fair, however, most do not agree with such puritanical attitudes and consider such statements to be simple sophistry. Squatting is a maximal strength exercise. Your maximal squatting strength will always outstrip your maximal clean and jerk lift. Even an absolute beginner can squat more weight than he or she can safely press overhead. To limit the weight on your squat bar to only so much as you can clean to your shoulders and then jerk or press overhead makes no sense unless you are not interested in developing maximal strength as opposed to power, as in Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk.
Training Without a Squat Rack
Still, if you do not have a squat rack or a training partner, you will have to content yourself with only the amount of weight that get to your shoulders from the floor. For this, the Olympic clean and jerk (or clean to press) is the safest method. You may be tempted not to bother learning the proper way to do this. Instead of using the clean, you might just use “brute force” to get the bar to the shoulder whichever way you can, which means shoulders will probably bear the brunt of the burden. This practice is dangerous and may result in shoulder injury. Sure, it may be alright at first but it will not be a viable option for long as the weight will grow way too heavy in short order, quickly causing this method to fail. You might then decide you would have been better off learning to properly clean the bar in the first place, allowing a longer progression period before the squatting weight required became too heavy.
Therefore, if you want to train the squat without a squat rack, but you do not necessarily want to do the Olympic lifts, it’s still a good idea to become somewhat proficient so that you can safely clean the bar to the shoulders. The front squat only requires the bar to be cleaned to the shoulders and then “racked”, at which point it is in the proper squatting position. So start with the front squat. The front squat is always a safer lift than the back squat for those without spotters.
You can add the back squat later if the Jerk lift is practiced. But remember that will require you lower the bar from overhead to behind the neck. Lowering heavy weights behind the neck, an eccentric action, can be potentially harmful to the shoulder joint, especially true for those with unconditioned shoulders. Previous overhead pressing activities can help to ready the shoulders for this duty but there is still some risk involved since the jerk can allow you to raise more weight than you can necessarily lower under control. Therefore, there is a case for using the overhead press instead of the jerk to raise the bar overhead but most will have to resort to the push press after a short period, and then on perhaps to unsafe cheating movements. Clearly, performing the back squat without a rack is not a long-term solution and may just be an accident waiting to happen. Performing the back squat alone and without safety catches is never a good scenario and sometimes sudden technical failure can occur even with relatively light weights. So always take this exercise seriously.
Now, just because you can get a heavy bar to the back of your shoulders does not guarantee that you can safely “dump” the bar. The front squat, therefore, as stated above, is always the safest alternative of the two for those who train alone without a rack or power cage.
Despite all this talk about squatting without a rack, the truth is, a squat rack is not as expensive as most people assume when first starting out. I purchased my squat rack for around $200 and it came with a barbell and a set of weights at the time! Yet, I’ve been pounding away on this rack for years and years and it is still just as solid as ever. So, yes, an inexpensive rack for home use may well be within your budget, once you consthe they years of use you’ll get from it. One thing I always remind people, especially since there are others lying about this in order to sell expensive equipment, is you do NOT need commercial quality equipment for home use. You don’t want dirt cheap, but something actually manufactured for home use will usually work just fine and give years of use. The same is true of barbells so you may want to find out about good quality cheap barbell for home use.
If you do want to purchase a rack, consider that there are different types available. The most typical type is pictured above, the full cage power rack. Make sure you have enough overhead clearance before committing to this type. A regular power rack, but not the full cage variety, will still be around the same vertical height. Make sure to measure your overhead clearance and find out the vertical height of any rack you are considering to make sure it will fit. You will want plenty of clearance overhead. As well, you may not have enough room for a full cage. That is OK, you can still do just as well with a regular rack like the HulkFit Multi-Function Adjustable Power Rack, shown above, can handle 800lbs (which really means more), has two pullup bars and dip bars.
Squat Rack Alternatives
Many people confuse full cages as being synonymous with “squat rack.” Therefore other types of racks are often seen as alternatives for squat racks. This is just a reflection of the confusion surrounding all the different options on the market. Any rack that has spotters and will accommodate performing squats can be considered a squat rack, including those that do not surround you with a cage as mentioned above.
The only true alternative to a squat rack are squat stands. Many manufacturers use the term squat rack and squat stand interchangeably or even combine them in the names of their products. However, the type of ‘stands’ I am talking about are not really considered a true rack by most people. Instead of being one piece, these consist of two separate stands. The stands themselves are adjustable so that the barbell goes at the top level, adjusted to your height preference, and safety spotters, if available can be set at an appropriate lower level. These can be much more affordable and are compact so that you can set them out of the way when not in use. The GoPlus Adjustable Standard Squat Stands, shown below, are a good quality example of what I’m talking about.
Squat stands like these can generally handle less weight than a squat rack. This is not necessarily because the materials can’t handle the load, but because of the stability of the stands. The more weight you place up top, the less stable they become, so there is usually a cut-off where the weight is considered too dangerous. Unless you are able to bolt the stands down, I think you can see the biggest problem. You can literally knock the stands askew either while lifting or while trying to return the weights to their pins. So while stands can be a viable alternative to a rack for those in a pinch, they are not the best solution. Starting at prices a little more than twice that of squat stands, a true rack can be purchased. But a rack is much more than twice as useable. So, I’d advise you to either shell out the extra dough or save your pennies for a true rack. While a pair of squat stands are around $70 to $80, a real rack, like the Doeplex Multi-Function Adjustable Squat Rack, shown below, will not break the bank.