Do squats. That’s a standard piece of advice for getting strong, and if you’re interested in working with barbells, the story generally begins with “do barbell squats.” But how do you actually set up for squats? Today we’ll go through the steps in a way you’ll understand even if you’re a complete beginner, and cover some of the stuff even experienced gym-goers sometimes overlook. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to get your squat rack ready to go in 60 seconds or less.
What is a squat rack?
There are several types of squat stands, racks, and cages. I’m not going to get into the differences between them, except to say you’re looking for something that has:
- Hooks to hold the barbell around shoulder height
- Bars or other horizontal supports positioned somewhere lower down, maybe around mid thigh height, as safeties
There are squat stands that only have the hooks, with no safeties. These are fine to use if you know how to bail safely (how to drop the bar behind you without getting hurt). But we’ll be talking about the kind with safeties.
Some squat racks include two upright posts, with one hook and one safety arm on each post. Others are a cage (often called a squat cage, power cage, or power rack) with four posts. The hooks are on two of the posts, facing inward toward the cage, and the safeties are bars, straps, or chains suspended between the front and back posts on each side.
All of these have hooks and safeties, which is the important part.
First, adjust or choose the hooks
The barbell will start on the hooks, so you need the hooks to be an appropriate height. When you begin squatting, you’ll want to get your feet under the bar, get your shoulders into contact with the bar, then bring your hips underneath the bar. At this point, the bar will be stacked over your hips, which are over your feet. Your hips and knees are bent. Now you’ll straighten your hips and knees, like a mini squat, to stand up with the bar.
Importantly, you need the bar to be clear of the hooks at this point. If you hit or even graze the hooks as you step back, the hooks are too high. If you need to go on tiptoes to make sure you don’t hit the hooks, they are too high. If you’re between heights, where one setting is too high and another is too low, go with the one that seems too low. If you’re sharing the rack with somebody else, set the hooks to the height that works for the shorter person.
Here are a few typical ways to get the hooks at the right height:
- If the uprights are tall posts with holes down the front and back, and the hooks are “J-cups,” rotate the J-cup sideways (it pivots along the pin that holds it into the holes). Once it’s rotated, you can pull it out and then replace it into a different hole.
- Some racks have a different mechanism for locking the hooks in place, like a pin that goes into the hook from the back. Usually it’s not hard to figure out just by looking at it, but if you can’t figure it out, ask someone.
- If the uprights have multiple different hooks, and they aren’t moveable, you don’t adjust the hooks; you just choose the one you want to use.
This video shows a trick for moving the J-cups without having to remove the bar entirely from the rack. I would not endorse doing this with a fully loaded bar (at least not on your first day in the gym), but this is a good way to adjust the hooks with an empty bar, and it shows what I mean about pivoting the J-cups to move them.
When the hooks are properly set for a squat, they’ll usually be a few inches below your shoulders, maybe mid-chest height.
Then, set a barbell on the hooks
Now, you need a bar to squat with! A power bar or Olympic bar is the typical choice. A women’s Olympic bar is lighter (15 kg instead of 20) but is still made to fit on a standard size rack. Other types of bars, like curl bars, won’t fit on standard racks. Do not try to make one of these work.
Once you have the bar on the hooks, get under it and make sure you can safely walk out without needing to shrug your shoulders or get up on your tiptoes. Now is a good time to do a practice squat or two. You’ll want to do some empty bar squats as part of your warmup anyway, but more importantly, we have another setup step to do.
Set the safeties
This is the part a lot of people forget. The safeties are important for two reasons. One is safety: If you get to the bottom of a squat and can’t manage to stand up, you can set the bar down on the safeties, or even drop it a few inches onto the safeties. It might make a loud “clang,” but at least it won’t fall onto your body.
The other important reason is that you can confidently sink all the way down into a squat without having to be afraid of being stuck there, because you know you can set the bar down on the safeties. Beginners often have an outsized fear of failing, and this can stop them from being able to confidently move up in weight as they get stronger. Sound familiar? Take the time to set the safeties.
On a rack with only two posts, the safeties may attach in a similar way as the J-cups. If this is the case, check to see if there is a secondary pin that goes through the safety, besides the main one you use when adjusting it. If you do need to set the weight down suddenly, it’s this secondary pin that takes most of the weight.
In a cage with four posts, the safety is usually a bar that passes through both the front and back post. It may have an inner and outer tube. In other cases, the safety may be a strap or chain rather than a bar. Once again, if you can’t figure it out by looking for it, ask somebody. The same thing applies if the cage seems not to have safeties at all: Cages have safeties, that’s kind of the point. But sometimes they’ll be removed or misplaced. Look around, and ask around.
The proper height for the safeties is just below the lowest point the barbell will reach while you squat. This is why those practice squats with the empty barbell are so important. If you bonk into the safeties on every rep, they are too high.
Make sure to practice bailing, too. With the empty bar, squat all the way down, then pretend you can’t get back up. Set the bar down. If it’s too low, you’ll have trouble doing this. Find an appropriate height before returning the bar to the hooks and loading it for your next set.
Unfortunately, some racks have a single, fixed safety bar. If this isn’t the right height for you, you’re kind of out of luck. Try bailing, and see if you can do so safely. If you can’t make it work, see if the gym has another rack that fits you better.
Face the bar and step backward
Now that the hooks and safeties are adjusted properly, it’s time to squat! Face the bar, put your hands in roughly the place you’d like them to be, and duck your head under the bar. Get your shoulders set and your feet aligned under the bar, then bring your hips under the bar. Get tight, and stand up.
Take one step backward, then another step with the other foot. The bar is now well clear of the hooks and you are ready to squat. (You may have a third step, if needed, to make sure your feet are in the right position. There is no need to take more.)
The reason we step backward when setting up for a squat is so that, after the set, we can walk forward to replace the bar on the rack. Then you can congratulate yourself on a squat set well done. By the way, before you go: Make a note in your training journal about which settings you used for the hooks and safeties. (Many racks have numbers by the holes.) This way you’ll be able to set up more quickly next time.
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