Squat racks are as essential to weight rooms as pumpkin spice is to autumn. Walk into any globo or garage gym setup and you'll see at least one squat rack or squat cage welcoming strength trainers into its metal majesty.
Sadly, most exercisers aren't using squat racks to their full potential. Typically, when someone is using a squat rack it's because they are back squatting, according to physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. No doubt, back squats are beneficial. But "there is so much more you can do in and with a squat rack than just back squats," he says.
Read on for proof. Below, Wickham shares five of his favorite squat rack exercises (besides back squats!). All you need for these muscle-building moves is a squat rack or basic squat stand, a barbell and some weight plates.
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1. Barbell Front Squat
On paper, the front squat sounds nearly identical to the back squat. After all, both exercises involve squatting while holding a barbell. However, a front squat requires that you hold the barbell in a front rack position across your chest, rather than along your back.
When you shift the barbell from the back side of your body to the front side, the main muscles used to move the weight shift from the posterior chain muscles to the anterior chain muscles, according to Wickham. Meaning, the front squat works the muscles along the front of your body — like your quads and core more — than the back squat does, he says.
Due to the location of the bar, during a front squat people are able to maintain a more upright torso than they are when they back squat, he says. Generally, this allows you to sit deeper into your squat, which means the exercise works your squat muscles (hamstrings, quads and glutes) through a greater range of motion.
For the standard barbell front squat, you typically want to set the barbell up in the squat rack so it's approximately at shoulder height. However, Wickham says advanced Olympic lifting athletes who regularly squat clean in their exercise routine should set the barbell up way lower.
“Starting the exercise in the bottom will help strengthen your hamstrings and glutes in their end ranges of motion, which will make standing up a squat clean far easier,” he says. In other words, this iteration may offer carry-over benefits to your other lifts.
How to Do It
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed straight or outward slightly.
- Place the barbell in the front-rack position so the bar rests across the front of your shoulders and your elbows point straight forward.
- Brace your core and keep your back straight and upright with your elbows high and pointing forward.
- Push your hips back and down until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as low as you can comfortably go with good form).
- From the bottom of your squat, push through your feet to extend your legs and stand back up.
2. Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat
The love-child of a lunge and a barbell squat, the Bulgarian split squat involves lowering and raising your body while in a split-leg, lunge stance.
A unilateral exercise, it allows you to train your lower-body muscles one side at a time, which helps you correct for muscle imbalances that have cropped up between sides.
"Due to the fact that we all have a lead leg when we walk or run, most of us have some asymmetry between the right and left side of our bodies," Wickham says. While some asymmetry is normal, too much can lead to improper movement patterns and even up your risk of injury.
Adding a barbell along your back while you do the movement helps maximize the muscle-building, balance-improving benefits of it, according to Wickham. "Weighting the movement increases the demand on your leg and core muscles," he says, which ultimately makes the movement even more effective at improving balance.
How to Do It
- Set up a barbell in a squat rack and stand several feet in front of a bench, box or chair, facing away from it.
- Walk up to the barbell and step underneath so your feet are directly beneath the racked bar. Your knees should be bent and the bar should rest on your upper back. Hold the barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing out) just outside your shoulders.
- Straighten your legs to unrack the bar.
- Then, step back carefully until you’re able to reach your left foot back and place the top of your foot flat on the surface. To help with balance, widen your base of support by moving your left foot a few inches to the left.
- Lean your torso forward slightly and bend your front knee to sink your hips toward the floor as far as you can comfortably go.
- Your front leg shin should be vertical or close to it, while your back knee should point directly toward the floor. If either leg is out of place, move your front foot forward or backward until you’ve found the ideal positioning.
- Push through the middle of your front foot to return to standing.
3. Rack Pull
Also known as deadlift rack pulls, rack pulls are a deadlift variation that involves pulling a weighted barbell from the rack rather than the floor.
There are two groups of people who can benefit from rack pulls, according to Wickham. First, are people who can't, from a standing position, bend down and touch their toes.
"If you don't have the hamstring mobility to touch your fingertips to the floor, you don't have the hamstring mobility needed to safely deadlift from the floor," he says. In fact, trying to do so can put your lower back in a sub-optimal position, he says.
"When you don't have adequate mobility in one muscle group or joint, another muscle group or joint will have to compensate," he explains. Raising the height of the bar with the help of pegs and a squat rack allows you to reap the hamstring-strengthening benefits of the deadlift, while essentially mitigating the injury risk, he says.
The second group who can benefit from rack pulls are elite-level athletes, such as powerlifters. People are weakest at their end ranges of motion, which means the hardest part of the deadlift is the first few inches off the floor, Wickham explains. If you eliminate those first few inches of the deadlift by raising the start position, you'll be able to lift more weight, he says.
"When you can pull more weight, you increase the demand on your muscles as well as the demand on your central nervous system," he explains. This helps increase your overall strength, as well as helps prep your body for lifting more weight during a traditional deadlift later on down the line.
How to Do It
- Set up your barbell up in the rack at or below knee height.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, the bar over your shoelaces.
- Brace your core, then bend your knees and hinge at your hips to grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Pull the bar close to your body and screw your pinkies into the bar to activate your upper-back muscles.
- Drive your feet into the floor and push your hips forward to lift the barbell until you're standing.
- Squeeze your glutes at top, then hinge your hips back and bend your knees to return the bar to starting position.
4. Standing Barbell Strict Press
People mistakenly think the standing barbell strict press — also known as the shoulder press — only works your shoulder muscles. While the exercise absolutely does strengthen your shoulders, Wickham says it also works your entire upper body, core and legs.
"When you're doing the movement correctly, you are squeezing your quads, feet, glutes, midline and nearly every other muscle for stability while you press the weight overhead," he says.
While the most well-rounded exercise routine will include a variety of shoulder exercises, Wickham says the standing barbell strict press is better for building muscle compared to other pressing movements.
"Both of your arms are working together to lift the same implement, which allows you to lift more weight than you would if you used two dumbbells or kettlebells," he explains.
When you lift more weight, more muscle fibers are activated, which leads to greater strength and power gains after you recover, he says.
How to Do It
- Set the barbell up in the squat rack so it’s at shoulder height.
- Bend your knees and press your chest against the bar. Position your hands just outside your shoulders and wrap your thumbs around the bar.
- Brace your core and bend your knees to un-rack the bar. Step away from the rig and set feet to shoulder-width apart.
- On an exhale, tighten your glutes and core and press the weight straight overhead.
- As the bar comes up, slightly move your head back to avoid hitting the bar.
- Reverse the motion and return to the starting position.
5. Decline Bench Press
Few exercises are as loved by weightlifters as much as the bench press. But very few of the people who love to bench regularly incorporate the decline bench press into their routines — much to the detriment of their strength goals, according to Wickham.
The decline bench press works the same pressing muscles as the standard bench press (pecs, triceps and delts), he says. "But because the decline bench press positions your chest lower, it works those muscles through a greater range of motion than the standard bench press," he says.
Your move: If you have a decline bench, use it to grow your upper-body.
How to Do It
- Position a decline bench under a barbell in the squat rack. Adjust barbell height so that you’ll be able to un-rack it when you’re lying on the bench.
- Sit on the edge of the bench with your feet flat on the floor.
- Slowly lean back on the bench, ducking your head under the barbell as you do. The barbell should be right above your eyes or forehead at this point.
- Reach your arms up to grip the barbell with your hands just outside your shoulders and un-rack the barbell so your arms are straight and the bar is above your chest. This is your start position.
- Take a deep breath and lower the bar slowly until it touches the middle of your chest.
- Explode the bar back to the start position by straightening your arms and pressing through your chest as you exhale.