How to Do a Barbell Squat When You Don’t Have a Squat Rack - Living Strong Television Network
How to Do a Barbell Squat When You Don’t Have a Squat Rack

To lift weights at home, first you need the weights. That’s simple enough—if you’re into barbell lifts, just buy a barbell set.

But your next problem is figuring out how you squat. Squatting typically involves a squat rack, and that’s a luxury many home gymmers don’t have. THat doesn’t mean you have to forgo squatting altogether though. Let’s look at your options. 

Before I get into it, note that none of the options I’ll be discussing include safeties, which a real squat rack would have. That’s okay, because they all assume that you are either working with light enough weights that you won’t fail your lift, or that you know how to bail out by dumping the weight if you can’t complete the rep. This is a learnable skill, and it won’t damage your equipment if you use bumper plates—keep that in mind if you’re living the no-rack life.

Get squat stands instead of a rack

A solid squat rack is an investment, so I understand not wanting to splurge on one right away. (Heck, my own pandemic home gym went without a squat rack for about a year—not because I decided against one, but because it didn’t occur to me that a squat rack might be affordable or feasible in my small garage.) 

The truth is, supports for squatting aren’t nearly as expensive as you might think. You can order a pair of lightweight but strong squat stands like these for $50 to $60, or make your own out of concrete and 2x4s. I’ve gone on the record saying a good squat rack is worth the investment, but I also believe that makeshift stands like these are an excellent stopgap if you aren’t ready to take that step. 

Pros: Cheap, lightweight, can move out of the way for storage. The only limit to the amount of weight you can squat this way is the limit of the equipment

Cons: Not free. You also don’t get to learn any strange new skills, like the options below.

Clean the weight and do front squats

Olympic lifters and Crossfitters will probably be most comfortable with this option: Instead of squatting with the bar on your back, clean the bar into a front rack position. That means you grab it while it’s on the ground, launch it upwards, and catch it on your shoulders, just in front of your neck.

The ending position of a clean is the same as the starting position for front squats, so you can then do as many reps of front squats as you like. 

The main problem with this approach is that if you aren’t a weightlifter or Crossfitter, you probably aren’t very good at cleans. It takes time, practice, and ideally some good coaching to get efficient enough at cleans to be able to handle a realistic weight for front squats. If you’re committed to lifting without a squat rack, this is a skill worth learning. Otherwise, you might want to check out the other options.

Pros: Easy if you know how to do it. Lets you make the most of a small amount of weight (front squats are harder than back squats at the same weight).

Cons: Requires you to be pretty good at cleans. Also, this doesn’t give you a way to do heavy back squats.

Zercher squats

The zercher is often seen as esoteric—an odd lift only done by odd people. But it’s actually a solid option for squats, whether or not you have a rack available. Sometimes called a “low bar front squat,” it lets you go a lot heavier than a regular front squat, but you don’t need to know how to clean a barbell to get the weight into position. 

How to do zercher squats: 

  1. Stand in front of the bar with your feet wider than your arms (same idea as a sumo deadlift, but you don’t have to get as wide as sumo deadlifters do). 

  2. Deadlift the bar.

  3. Bend your knees so that you’re in a squatting position, and set the bar down into your lap. 

  4. One at a time, slip each arm between your legs and under the bar. 

  5. Now that the bar is in the crooks of your elbows, stand up. You’ve completed your first rep.

  6. For subsequent reps, just bend and straighten your knees as you would in a normal squat. (No need to return the bar to the ground each rep, although you can if you want.) 

If your first thought is “ow, that would hurt my elbows,” well, you’re right—at first. Turns out the elbows adapt; people who zercher squat regularly find that it’s not really a problem. You can always wrap the bar in a towel or barbell pad, or wear elbow sleeves for extra cushioning. If I haven’t zerchered in a while, I’ll sometimes wear a sweatshirt and slip my knee sleeves over my elbows. Anyway, you get used to it. 

Pros: Free. No special skills required. Heavy weights are possible. You get to do a deadlift with every set. 

Cons: Elbows might hurt. You have to do a deadlift with every set.

Steinborn squats

Alright, now this one is an odd lift for odd people. You could become one of those people, though. 

To do tit, you’ll need a clear space around you, non-slip flooring, and just enough bravery and stupidity to think “sure, what the hell, I probably won’t die.” (It will not surprise readers to hear that I check all three boxes, and thus have gone on to set a national record in my weight class in this lift.) 

To be fair, it’s not as dangerous as it looks. You do need a little bit of practice to know how to stabilize the bar and center yourself underneath it, but I found it easier to learn than the Olympic clean discussed above. Would this be my first pick for somebody who wants to squat and doesn’t have a squat rack? No. But is it a viable option for a person who thinks it’s cool? Absolutely.

Pros: Free. Heavy weights are possible. Impress your friends, scare your neighbors.

Cons: Requires plenty of space and nerves of steel. Scares your neighbors.

Squat alternatives I don’t recommend

The following things are not replacements for barbell squats, in my opinion: 

  • Barbell hack lifts are behind-the-back deadlifts. They involve the quads a little more than a regular deadlift, but they’re not squats.

  • Trap bar deadlifts, ditto. Great as a deadlift variation, but not a squat.

  • Goblet squats. These are a fine exercise, but if you’re strong enough to do barbell squats, goblets probably aren’t going to cut it as a main lift. 

  • Lifting the bar over your head and onto your back: If you can do this, the weight is too light for a heavy set of squats. 

Not-quite-squat options that are still great

The following are exercises that aren’t the same as normal barbell squats, but they’ll still build strong legs and are worth considering as you explore your options. 

  • Bulgarian split squats: these can be done with lighter weights than regular squats, so dumbbells or a relatively light barbell can do the job.

  • Leg press machines, any kind (I’m including the hack squat machine here). If your gym has a leg press but no squat rack, these would be my first pick for a squat replacement.

  • Pistol squats: I find these to be too hard on the knees to fully replace squats, but they’ll certainly give your legs a serious challenge. 

  • Lunges and step-ups: This type of single leg work is always challenging to the quads, and doesn’t require as much weight as two-legged squats.

I’d also like to give an honorable mention to Arthur lifts. This is where you hack lift the bar until you can get it onto your lower back, then bounce it up to your shoulders. From there, you can squat it normally. Honestly, this only didn’t make the main list because I don’t personally like it. I consider it more painful than a Zercher and scarier than a Steinborn. But if you are intrepid enough to try it, knock yourself out. 

Optimized with PageSpeed Ninja

Protected by Security by CleanTalk