Can You Do Squats Without a Squat Rack? (9 Options)

Can You Do Squats Without a Squat Rack (9 Options)

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A squat rack is essential if you do any kind of heavy lifting. But it’s an expensive piece of equipment and takes up a lot of room, making it inaccessible for some people.

Fortunately, there are many squat variations you can do to build your legs without a squat rack:

  • Front squats
  • Goblet squats
  • Hack squats
  • Bulgarian split squats
  • Tempo squats
  • Belt squats
  • Zercher squats
  • Trap bar deadlifts
  • Overhead squats

While you may think you have to give up squatting altogether if you don’t have access to a squat rack, there are plenty of ways you can continue working your lower body.

In this article, I’ll discuss whether or not it’s possible to do squats without a squat rack. I’ll also discuss the drawbacks of squatting without a squat rack so you can understand how it will affect your progress.

At the end, I’ll provide instructions for performing each of the exercises above.

Can You Do Squats Without a Squat Rack?

It is possible to do squats without a squat rack, but it’s difficult, especially if you work out at home. If you work out at a commercial gym, you can do squat variations like hack squats or belt squats. But when you train at home, your options are more limited.

In addition, squatting without a squat rack poses some safety risks, as I’ll discuss below. Sometimes, you also have to expend more energy by cleaning or snatching the barbell first, which wastes energy and builds up fatigue before you even start squatting.

For these reasons, I recommend getting a squat rack if you have the budget. Check out my favorite squat racks for small spaces if you don’t have a lot of room.

6 Drawbacks of Doing Squats Without a Squat Rack

exercise front squat

1. You’ll Be Limited By How Much Weight You Can Clean and Press Overhead

The most efficient way to get the barbell to your shoulders without a squat rack is to do a clean. But you most likely will only be able to clean about 65-70% of your back squat, and your squat progress will be limited by how much you can clean.

And that’s not all. Unless you do a front squat, you have to press the bar overhead to get it onto your back. If you can clean a weight but can’t press it up high enough to get over your head, you’ll have difficulty doing heavy back squats without a squat rack.

2. You Have to Know How to Do a Clean Correctly

Speaking of cleaning the weight up to your shoulders, you have to know how to do a clean correctly.

The clean is a highly technical lift that takes a long time to master, so your technique may limit you just as much as the amount of weight on the bar.

3. Safety Is an Issue

A big concern with squatting without a squat rack is safety because you won’t have safety straps or bars to catch the barbell if you have to drop it.

You likely won’t be squatting as much weight as you would if you had access to a rack, but you have to know how to bail a squat safely.

This is especially true if you also don’t have a spotter. The weight might be light, but you never know if you’ll have to bail a rep. Not doing so safely can have disastrous consequences.

Another thing to consider is bringing the barbell down to your back after you clean it and press it overhead. You can suffer from a severe injury if it crashes down onto your neck too hard.

4. You’ll Expend Some Energy Cleaning the Bar and Pressing It Overhead

When you have to clean the bar from the floor to your shoulders, and then push it overhead to bring it behind your neck, you use up a lot of energy before you even get to squat.

This means you’ll have to use even lighter weights than you initially plan for and may not be able to do as many reps since you’ll fatigue sooner.

5. Using Other Equipment Isn’t as Safe or Effective

As I’ll discuss below, you can use jerk blocks to elevate a barbell high enough to comfortably get it on your back. However, jerk blocks can cost just as much (if not more) as a squat rack, and loading plates onto a barbell from them is challenging.

As well, jerk blocks take up nearly as much room as a squat rack, which is still an issue if you don’t have much space.

Furthermore, you have to walk out further to have enough room to squat, which expends more energy. And there are also the same safety concerns since there’s no way to catch a dropped barbell.

Learn more about why taking too many steps for your squat walkout is bad in Squat Walkout: 7 Common Mistakes Lifters Make.

6. You May Not Be Able to Do Low Bar Squats

If you’re a low bar squatter, you may need to switch to high bar squats if you’re squatting without a squat rack.

It can be difficult to get your upper back tight enough to create a stable shelf and get the barbell low enough on your back to do low bar squats when you clean the barbell and bring it behind your neck first.

Curious about the differences between low bar and high bar squats? Check out Olympic Squat vs Powerlifting Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons.

6 Tips for Squatting Without a Squat Rack

Hack Squats

1. Don’t Go To Failure

Since you won’t have spotter arms in a squat rack to catch the barbell if you fail a rep, you shouldn’t go to failure when squatting without a squat rack. You’ll want to ensure you have some energy at the end of your sets to bring the bar overhead and in front of you so you can lower it to the floor with control.

Not going to failure will also ensure your form doesn’t break down before the end of your set, which lowers the chances of you having to bail.

Which leads me to…

2. Learn How To Bail Properly

Even if you’re careful, you may fail a rep at some point. Learning how to bail a squat safely will come in handy when you squat without a squat rack. If you don’t do it properly, you can injure yourself.

To bail a squat, shrug the barbell off your shoulders and let it roll off your fingers. Then quickly push your hips forward and take a few large steps to get out of the way of the barbell.

I also recommend practicing bailing with a very light weight until you feel comfortable doing so. Purposely failing a few times with a low load will help you feel more comfortable if you have to do it with a heavier weight.

3. Use Bumper Plates

If you can, you should use bumper plates when squatting without a squat rack.

Since there will be no safety bars or straps to catch a dropped barbell, the rubber covering on the bumper plates will absorb some of the shock of being dropped. This can help protect your floor from significant damage if you have to dump the weight.

4. Use Crash Pads

Another way to protect your floor from damage from a dropped barbell is to use crash pads. Crash pads are square- or rectangular-shaped blocks of heavy foam. In addition to protecting your floor, they also reduce noise and vibrations from dropped weights.

If you’re squatting without a squat rack, you can set them up behind you. Then, if you have to bail, the crash pads will absorb all of the shock from the dropped weight.

You can also use them to roll the bar off your shoulders and drop the weight behind you at the end of a set instead of lifting it overhead and returning it to the floor from in front.

5. Learn Proper Clean Technique

If squatting without a squat rack is something you’ll have to do often, it would be beneficial to learn proper clean technique. 

The best way to do this is to work with a coach (like an Olympic weightlifting coach) in person. But if you don’t have access to a coach or can’t afford one, you can watch videos on YouTube and record yourself lifting to compare how your form looks to more experienced weightlifters. 

You can also post a video of yourself doing a clean to a weightlifting forum like the Reddit weightlifting forum to get feedback on your form.

6. Get Creative With the Equipment You Have Available

As I alluded to earlier, one way to do squats without a squat rack is to set up a barbell on jerk blocks.

You can also set up a makeshift belt squat station with a weight belt and two sturdy plyo boxes. While belt squats aren’t the same as back squats, they are still a great way to continue building your legs when you don’t have a squat rack.

9 Squat Variations You Can Do Without a Squat Rack

1. Front Squats

Front squats are an ideal squat variation to do without a squat rack. Once you clean the bar up to your shoulders, you don’t have to worry about pressing it overhead to bring it down to your back.

This will save you a small amount of energy and prevent injuries from crashing the bar on your neck.

How To

  • Load a barbell with the desired weight.
  • Step up to the barbell with your feet hip-width apart and pointed out slightly.
  • Bend over with a flat back and grip the barbell with your hands just outside your legs.
  • Ensure your shoulders are slightly in front of the barbell.
  • Keeping your back flat, push against the floor with your feet and begin deadlifting the barbell.
  • As the barbell passes your knees and you drag it up your thighs, drive your hips forward until you’re almost standing upright.
  • At this point, shrug your shoulders and drive your elbows up and out. Point your knuckles down toward the floor.
  • After the barbell makes contact with your hips, pull yourself under the bar as you drive your elbows forward.
  • Bend your knees slightly as you bring the barbell to rest on your shoulders.
  • After you catch the barbell, stand back up until your knees are straight.
  • If you need to readjust your stance at this point, carefully slide your feet out until they’re about shoulder-width apart (or slightly wider if you prefer).
  • Ensure your elbows are as high as possible.
  • Take a deep breath to create tension in the core.
  • Bend at the hips and knees simultaneously and squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Driving through the entire foot, stand back up until your knees are straight.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, then carefully lower the bar to your hips (similar to how you would lower the barbell after a reverse barbell curl). Let your hips hinge backward slightly as you do this.
  • Hinge at the hips to lower the barbell to the floor as you would with a deadlift.

Pro Tip

Try to hold onto the barbell with a full grip is common when doing front squats. While there are some benefits to this – for example, it lets you squat heavier loads – it requires a level of wrist mobility that many people don’t have. It can also make it harder for you to keep your back from rounding at the bottom of the squat.

Since the barbell rests on the front of your shoulders, you don’t need to maintain a tight grip on it. Your fingers are only there for support. Not keeping a tight grip will prevent wrist discomfort, enabling you to comfortably perform more reps.

2. Goblet Squats

You can do goblet squats with a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell. This makes this squat variation an excellent option to do in a home gym or any other gym with limited equipment.

The only drawback is that you’ll be limited by how much weight you can hold in your hands.

How To

  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold a heavy dumbbell (ensuring the handle is vertical) or kettlebell at your chest. The heels of your palms should be either underneath one head of the dumbbell or supporting the round part of the kettlebell.
  • Bend the knees and hips simultaneously and squat until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor.
  • Keep your elbows close to your sides and your chest up throughout the lift.
  • Push through the entire foot to stand back up and return to the start position.
  • Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Pro Tip

If you really want to target your quads, you can elevate your heels. The elevation allows you to get deeper in the bottom position, which recruits more of the quad muscle fibers, leading to more strength and muscle growth.

I recommend using an elevation that’s at least 1” high. You can stack weight plates or put your heels on hex dumbbell handles. Alternatively, you can buy a squat wedge.

3. Hack Squats

Hack squats are a suitable alternative to back squatting if you belong to a gym with lots of machines but no squat racks.

How To

  • Place your feet on the footpad of the machine anywhere from hip to shoulder-width apart.
  • Push your shoulders up against the shoulder pads.
  • Place your hands on the handlebars by your shoulders and disengage the safeties.
  • Maintaining your grip on the handlebars, stand all the way up.
  • Bend at the knees until your hip crease is below your knees.
  • Drive through the entire foot and think about pushing the platform away to stand up.
  • Complete the prescribed number of reps, then reengage the safeties and exit the machine.

Pro Tip

If you don’t have a squat rack or a hack squat machine, you can get a similar stimulus to the hack squat by doing a landmine hack squat. You’ll need a barbell, some plates (preferably bumper plates or 45lb steel plates so you have a large enough surface area to lean on), and a free corner of a room to wedge one end of the barbell into.

Deadlift the loaded end of the barbell to your hips, then carefully lift it up to one shoulder. Turn around, so your back is toward the weight plates. Holding the end of the barbell on one shoulder, lean your upper back against the plates and bring your feet out in front of you. 

Squat down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Drive your feet into the ground and press your upper back into the plates as you stand back up.

We provide many more hack squat alternatives in 9 Best Hack Squat Alternatives (With Pictures).

4. Bulgarian Split Squats

Bulgarian split squats are an excellent squat variation you can do to build lower body strength if you don’t have a squat rack. Because they’re a single-sided movement, they’re also good for addressing imbalances between your left and right sides.

You can do them at home with just a pair of heavy dumbbells and something to rest your rear foot on. If you don’t have dumbbells, they are plenty challenging with just body weight.

How To

  • Holding a pair of dumbbells in your hands, stand 2-3 feet in front of a box or bench that’s about knee height.
  • Place one foot on the surface behind you with your shoelaces on top.
  • Squat down until your back knee touches or almost touches the floor.
  • Drive through your entire front foot to stand up.
  • Complete all reps on one leg, then switch legs and perform the same number of reps.

Pro Tip

You can change which muscle groups you target by altering your stance. If your foot is further out in front, you emphasize the glutes more. If it is closer to you, you emphasize the quads more. Leaning forward slightly at the bottom will also target the glutes more.

If Bulgarian split squats are too difficult for you, or if you want to make them more challenging, try these Bulgarian split squat variations.

5. Tempo Squats

Slowing down the tempo of your squats is a great way to make them more challenging when you can only use light weights. It increases time under tension (the amount of time your muscles are under stress), which can help produce strength and hypertrophy gains even with low loads.

How To

  • Load a barbell with the desired weight.
  • Step up to the barbell with your feet hip-width apart and pointed out slightly.
  • Bend over with a flat back and grip the barbell with your hands just outside your legs.
  • Ensure your shoulders are slightly in front of the barbell.
  • Keeping your back flat, push against the floor with your feet and begin deadlifting the barbell.
  • As the barbell passes your knees and you drag it up your thighs, drive your hips forward until you’re almost standing upright.
  • At this point, shrug your shoulders and drive your elbows up and out. Point your knuckles down toward the floor.
  • After the barbell makes contact with your hips, pull yourself under the bar as you drive your elbows forward.
  • Bend your knees slightly as you catch the barbell on your shoulders.
  • After you catch the barbell, stand back up until your knees are straight.
  • Bend slightly at the knees, then forcefully push the barbell overhead as you straighten the knees.
  • Slowly lower the barbell behind the neck, bending your knees again to absorb some of the weight.
  • If necessary, reset your stance, so your feet are shoulder-width apart or slightly wider.
  • Point your toes out 15-30 degrees.
  • Take a big belly breath to create tension in your core
  • Bend at the hips and knees simultaneously and lower to a count of 3 seconds until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Repeat the tempo squats for the desired number of repetitions.
  • Press the barbell overhead (use a dip by bending the knees slightly first if you need some momentum), then carefully lower it to your shoulders.
  • Lower the barbell to your hips by performing a movement similar to a reverse barbell curl. Let your hips hinge backward slightly as you do this.
  • Hinge at the hips again to lower the barbell to the floor as you would with a deadlift.

Pro Tip

You can create even more time under tension with tempo squats by pausing at the bottom of the squat. A 2-3 second pause is sufficient. 

Pausing at the bottom has several benefits. It allows you to improve your technique by making you more aware of your body positions at the bottom of the squat. It prevents you from “bouncing” out of the hole, encouraging you to be more powerful in the lift’s concentric (upward) portion.

It also teaches you how to stay balanced over your midfoot, preventing you from falling backward or forward.

All of these have carryover to your regular back squat, so when you’re able to use a squat rack again, you’ll notice improvements in your squat strength and form.

6. Belt Squats

Belt squats are a great exercise you can use to target the quads without overloading the spine. In addition to being a suitable alternative to back squats when you don’t have a squat rack, they’re also a good exercise to include in your program if you have lower back pain.

However, you need a belt squat machine or a weight belt and sturdy boxes to stand on to do this lift.

How To

  • Load the machine with your desired weight.
  • Secure the belt around your waist.
  • Step onto the platform and place your feet about shoulder-width apart (or slightly wider if you prefer).
  • Point your toes out about 15-30 degrees.
  • Bend down to secure the carabiner on the belt to the machine.
  • Stand up and pull the handlebar toward you.
  • Maintaining a light grip on the handlebar, squat until your hip crease falls below the knees.
  • Without putting too much weight onto the handlebar, push away from the platform and stand until your knees are straight.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Pro Tip

A common mistake with the belt squat is wearing the belt too high up on the waist. This places excess stress on the lower back, which is the opposite of what you want when doing this lift.

The belt should be placed around your lower hips/top of your glutes, so the edge of the belt touches your hip crease. This will help protect your spine and prevent lower back discomfort.

7. Zercher Squat

The Zercher squat is a squat variation I’d recommend only for advanced lifters because it requires a high level of ankle and hip mobility and upper back strength.

However, if you can do a Zercher deadlift to get the barbell off the floor and hold it in the crook of your elbows, you can use Zercher squats as a substitute for back squats when you don’t have a squat rack.

How To

  • Load a barbell with your desired weight.
  • Step up to the barbell with a stance that’s a couple of inches wider than your typical conventional deadlift stance. This should be hip-width apart or slightly wider.
  • Point your toes out 15-30 degrees.
  • Squat all the way down and roll your shoulders forward.
  • Create fists with your hands and slide your arms under the barbell. Your palms should face the ceiling.
  • Secure the crook of your elbows around the barbell by curling your arms to your shoulders, similar to doing a bicep curl. You can keep your hands apart or hold one fisted hand with the other hand.
  • Take a big belly breath to create tension in your core while raising your chest as much as possible.
  • Think about pushing the floor away with your feet as you stand up with the bar.
  • At the top of the lift, pause for a second to re-brace your core if necessary.
  • Bending the knees and hips simultaneously, squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Make sure your torso remains as upright as possible.
  • At the bottom of the squat, your elbows should be inside your thighs. If they’re not, you may need to widen your stance.
  • Letting the hips and chest rise simultaneously, stand up until your knees are fully extended.
  • Perform as many squat reps as your program calls for, then slowly squat all the way down to return the barbell to the floor.

Pro Tip

I recommend not going to failure when doing Zercher squats. Leave yourself 2-3 reps in the tank, so you have enough energy at the end of your set to squat all the way down and return the barbell to the floor with control.

You may also want to wear elbow sleeves to prevent bruising and abrasions on your elbows.

8. Trap Bar Deadlifts

Even though this exercise doesn’t have ‘squat’ in the name, the trap bar deadlift is a great exercise to work your lower body if you don’t have a squat rack. The angle your body is in with a trap bar deadlift puts more emphasis on your quads than other deadlift variations.

To target the quads even more, you can elevate your heels by putting them on plates or a squat wedge.

How To

  • Ensure the trap bar is set up with the handles facing up.
  • Load the trap bar with your desired weight.
  • Step inside the trap bar and place your feet about hip-width apart.
  • Bend forward to grip the handles with your palms facing each other.
  • Get into a half-squat position while keeping your chest as upright as possible.
  • Think about pushing the ground away with your feet as you lift the trap bar. Keep pulling the bar until you’re standing upright.
  • Bend your knees and hips simultaneously to lower the barbell to the floor.
  • Ensure the weight comes to a dead stop before you start your next repetition.

Pro Tip

If you don’t have a trap bar, you can do dumbbell deadlifts with a heavy pair of dumbbells elevated on low boxes or stacks of plates on each side of you.

The elevation should be high enough that the dumbbells are just about even with your knees when you bend to pick them up. This position is similar to where your hands would be on a trap bar and allows you to put your torso at a similar angle as it would be if you used a trap bar.

9. Overhead Squats

Overhead squats are a suitable squat variation for squatting without a squat rack because you can power snatch the barbell off the floor. However, they are challenging and require a lot of core strength and shoulder and upper back mobility. 

For this reason, I only recommend overhead squats for advanced or intermediate athletes. But if you can do them, they’ll build core and leg strength and shoulder stability.

Overhead squats are also beneficial to your program if you’re trying to get stronger for CrossFit.

How To

  • Load a barbell with the desired weight.
  • Step up to the barbell with your feet about hip-width apart and the barbell over your midfoot.
  • Bend down and take a wide grip on the barbell. Your hands should be a couple of inches outside of your shoulders.
  • Ensure your shoulders are slightly in front of the barbell.
  • Keeping your back flat, push against the floor with your feet and begin deadlifting the barbell.
  • As the barbell passes your knees and you drag it up your thighs, drive your hips forward until you’re standing upright.
  • As the barbell makes contact with your hips, shrug your shoulders, drive your elbows up and out, and point your knuckles toward the floor.
  • Pull yourself under the barbell as you “punch” it overhead.
  • Bend your knees slightly as you “catch” the barbell in the overhead position.
  • After you catch the barbell, stand back up until your knees are straight.
  • Take a deep breath in to create tension in your core.
  • Make sure your armpits are facing forward, and avoid shrugging your shoulders.
  • Squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Drive through your entire foot and think about pressing your hands into the bar as you stand back up.
  • Repeat the overhead squat for the desired number of reps.
  • Carefully lower the barbell to your hips, then hinge your hips back to deadlift it back to the floor.

Pro Tip

While certain lifts like the bench press require the wrists to be in a neutral position (i.e., in line with the shoulders and forearms), it’s detrimental in the overhead squat.

A neutral wrist in the overhead squat places too much strain on the wrists and can cause pain or discomfort. It can also limit how much you can overhead squat since your hands will be in a sub-optimal position to support the weight overhead.

Instead of keeping your wrists neutral, keep them bent back about halfway (somewhere between neutral and bent all the way back to the point where your knuckles point toward the floor). This will prevent wrist pain and allow you to stay more stable while holding a heavy weight overhead.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Can I Use Instead of a Squat Rack?

If you don’t have a squat rack, you can use jerk blocks. However, loading a barbell on jerk blocks is challenging. You also have to walk out further before you squat, which wastes more energy. As well you’ll have to know how to bail a squat safely since there are no safety mechanisms to catch a dropped barbell.

How Can I Build My Legs Without a Squat Rack?

If you don’t have a squat rack, you can build your legs with front squats, tempo squats, or overhead squats. However, you have to power clean or power snatch the barbell first. You can also do hack squats, belt squats, or trap bar deadlifts. Goblet squats and Bulgarian split squats are good limited-equipment options.

How Do You Fail a Squat Without a Rack?

To fail a squat without a squat rack, shrug the barbell off your shoulders and let it roll off your fingertips. As the barbell falls to the ground, drive your hips forward quickly and hop or take several large steps forward to get out of its way.


About The Author

Amanda Dvorak

Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.