Squatting Without a Rack: Is it Possible?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
June 22, 2022

Though the barbell back squat is usually performed with the use of a squat rack or power cage so as to position the barbell at an elevation that makes performing the squat easier, certain individuals may find themselves without access to such equipment.

There are quite a few alternative exercises or methods of achieving the same training stimulus - most of which are accessible to practically anyone.

For the most part, squatting without a rack is simply a matter of choosing what course of action is most appropriate for the exerciser’s needs - with low weight squats allowing for the barbell to be simply raised onto the exerciser’s back, and heavier squats requiring an alternative exercise instead be used.

Are There Advantages to Squatting Without a Rack?

While the usage of a rack is a very common component of barbell squats, there are several advantages to performing squat exercises without a rack - most of which have to do with a lack of “walk out” prior to each set of the exercise, increasing the efficiency and form adherence of the exerciser.

squat rack

Other advantages can include the allowance for greater mobility and range of motion as the exerciser is not restrained within the power cage or by the height of the pegs of the squat rack.

Apart from these rather specific benefits however, performing barbell squats without a rack is a major disadvantage as it reduces the total amount of resistance usable per set, makes performing the back squat needlessly more complex and overall is simply an inconvenient situation for an exerciser to find themselves in.

What to Do When Squatting Without a Rack

Unless the exerciser is planning to perform a set of back squats with a light enough weight that they can clean and jerk it onto their back, the only other recourse is to instead perform an alternative movement that recreates the intensity and muscle group activation of the back squat.

These alternative exercises will generally be performed from the floor or with the use of specialized exercise equipment specifically meant to recreate the mechanics of the back squat, avoiding the need for a power cage or squat rack at the cost of an altered angle of resistance or type of training stimulus.

While certain techniques such as old school strongman lifts will allow the exerciser to hoist a heavy barbell onto their back, these are generally unsafe and are not advisable unless the exerciser is experienced in their performance or utilizing very low amounts of weight.

How to Reproduce the Intensity of the Squat with Less Resistance

The total amount of weight used in an exercise is only one factor that plays into the intensity of an exercise, with other factors such as time under tension, angle of resistance, volume of repetitions and mind-muscle connection all leading to a greater intensity and thus greater results from the exercise.

This means that though certain variations of the squat that do not use a rack are performed with lower amounts of weight, it is entirely possible for the exerciser to still induce a similar level of muscular hypertrophy and strength development in their legs.

Why are Bodyweight Squats a Poor Substitute for Barbell Squats?

One may notice that, in the previous section of this article, we did not mention performing simple bodyweight squats as an alternative to barbell back squats despite the fact that bodyweight squats do not need a rack.

bodyweight squat

This is due to the large difference in the intensity and resistance of either exercises, with barbell squats generally being performed with weights equal to or greater than the bodyweight of the exerciser, while bodyweight squats present only a fraction of such resistance.

A reduction in resistance and exercise intensity will subsequently also equate to a reduction in total training stimulus, greatly affecting the results the exerciser wishes to achieve.

While bodyweight squats are generally a poor substitute for free weight squat exercises, this is not to say that all calisthenic leg exercises are ineffective, as many other leg exercises that solely use the bodyweight itself as a source of resistance are perfectly capable of inducing excellent training stimulus.

Calisthenic lower body exercises such as pistol squats, bulgarian split squats and wall squats can all rival the intensity and exertion of a weighted back squat in a manner that simple bodyweight squats cannot.

How to Squat Without a Rack with Lower Weight

As the upper body generally will not be able to move as much weight as the far larger muscles of the legs, “cleaning” the barbell up to the required elevation that the rack would normally hold it up to will require a far lighter amount of weight.

This is not solely reserved for the back squat, however, as the exerciser may instead elect to only raise the barbell to their clavicles such as in the front squat, or even only to the height of their elbows such as one would do in the zercher squat.

Regardless of the particular squat variation the exerciser chooses to use, it is almost a guarantee that they will not be able to position as much weight as they would with the use of a squat rack - reducing the level of resistance, though the intensity of the exercise may be preserved by several other factors.

1. Cleaning the Weight

Whether the exerciser is raising the barbell to their back, their clavicles or simply by their elbows, proper barbell clean technique must be followed - wherein the exerciser will deadlift the weight from the ground explosively and maneuvering their own body beneath the bar as it is raised as high as possible, “catching” the barbell at wherever it must be.

In the case of the back squat, however, this clean must be further followed by a half-press wherein the exerciser will raise the barbell high enough to position it behind their neck - requiring even more effort as well.

2. Front Squats

Unlike the back squat, the front squat only requires the barbell to be positioned atop the chest shelf and clavicles, removing the need to press the barbell overhead and allowing the exerciser to retain a similar level of intensity to the back squat with significantly less weight.

barbell front squat

A caveat to this is that the front squat places significantly more emphasis on the quadriceps muscle group, taking training stimulus away from the posterior chain and thus resulting in less development of those muscles.

3. Zercher Squats

Quite similar to front squats save for the fact that no clean is required in order to position the barbell to an appropriate elevation; instead, the exerciser need only raise the barbell to their thighs, temporarily resting it there as they hook their elbows beneath the bar and secure it in the crook therein.

zercher squat

Holding the barbell in their elbows, the exerciser will then proceed to squat in a manner similar to other free weight squat exercises - though without the use of a squat rack, or the need to raise the barbell any higher than the hips alone.

Rack-less Squat Alternative Exercises

Though certain variations of the barbell squat were already listed in this article, said exercises are limited in terms of resistance and generally require the exerciser to raise a loaded barbell up to a certain elevation - something that is not only difficult, but may be dangerous for individuals of advanced age or with a history of injury.

Fortunately, other squat alternative exercises that do not utilize a barbell rack may instead be performed, some of which do not even use a barbell at all.

1. Goblet Squats

Performed entirely with a dumbbell or kettlebell, the goblet squat is functionally and mechanically similar to a front squat, placing the source of resistance somewhere around the sternum of the exerciser as they grip a dumbbell or kettlebell in both hands.

goblet squat form

For exercisers without access to a barbell and a rack, the goblet squat may be the next best thing - though, like most of the exercises in this article, shifting the weight to the front of the torso and thus the angle of resistance will result in the posterior chain being activated to a greater degree and the mechanics of the exercise being changed.

2. Dumbbell Squats

Simply an ordinary weighted squat that has the exerciser grip a pair of dumbbells at either side instead, the dumbbell squat is an excellent substitute for barbell squats if the exerciser does not have access to a squat rack - with the exerciser’s grip strength being the only limiting factor and thus the only disadvantage to this substitution.

dumbbell squatting

Moving the source of resistance to both sides of the hips as opposed to atop the back will also reduce the pressure and load placed upon the spinal column, making the dumbbell squat not only excellent as a non-rack alternative, but also a safer one.

3. The Barbell Hack Squat

An alternative to the back squat that retains or even surpasses it in maximal weight capability, the barbell hack squat places a loaded barbell beneath the exerciser instead of on top of their back, allowing for just as much weight to be loaded onto the barbell as one would be capable of with a rack.

barbell hack squat movement

With the barbell beneath the exerciser’s hips and glutes, the angle of resistance and muscle group activation pattern is also altered, placing a greater focus on the quadriceps muscle group.

Unlike many of the other exercises mentioned previously, the hack squat’s form is more akin to a deadlift than a back squat, requiring its own set of form cues in order to be performed safely and effectively.

Nevertheless, in terms of intensity, total resistance and effectiveness as a leg exercise; the hack squat should be considered one of the best choices for squatting without a rack.

4. The Leg Press

Practically the machine version of the barbell squat, the leg press is another perfectly suitable alternative to the back squat if the exerciser does not have access to a rack.

leg press machine

The leg press and the back squat share a similar muscle group activation set, movement pattern and level of resistance - though the usual drawbacks of utilizing a machine-based exercise still do apply, leading to stabilizer muscle group imbalances over time.

Apart from this caveat however, the leg press is otherwise capable of inducing a training stimulus comparable to that of a barbell back squat without the actual need for a rack, barbell or weight plates.

In Conclusion

Though it is entirely possible to squat without a rack, certain limitations come into play in regards to how closely the exerciser will be able to mimic their training if they did indeed have a barbell rack available.

As such, one will find that by either utilizing a similar but more suitable alternative exercise to the squat, or by nonetheless performing the back squat with certain changes to its mechanics - the intended training stimulus of the workout session may still be preserved.

Either of these options come with their own pros and cons, but one’s expectations must be tempered, as completely replicating the benefits and effectiveness of a barbell back squat performed from a rack is quite difficult.

References:

1. Eliassen W, Saeterbakken AH, van den Tillaar R. COMPARISON OF BILATERAL AND UNILATERAL SQUAT EXERCISES ON BARBELL KINEMATICS AND MUSCLE ACTIVATION. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2018 Aug;13(5):871-881. PMID: 30276019; PMCID: PMC6159498.

2. Adda, Ghoual. (2019). The effect of repetition ranges on maximal strength and hypertrophy. International Journal of Physical Education, Fitness and Sports. 8. 149-157. 10.26524/ijpefs19415.

3. Erdağ, Deniz & Yavuz, Hasan. (2020). Evaluation of Muscle Activities During Different Squat Variations Using Electromyography Signals. 10.1007/978-3-030-35249-3_114.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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