Squats may be the best overall exercise for full-body development.
Well-executed squats can build muscle, strength and mobility from head to toe.
But as with any exercise, you get out what you put in. In order to experience the full benefits of the squat, you need to push yourself. Greater intensity brings greater rewards.
As such, a proper power rack or squat stand is the absolute best way to squat. In this article, we'll discuss when it's okay to squat without a rack and/or spotter, along with smarter solutions that deliver greater gains and safety.
Can I Squat Without a Rack?
By "squat", we assume you mean a barbell back squat.
The answer is yes —but only with light weight. While this may be okay for beginners, it's very limiting for more experienced lifters.
The biggest problem is the set-up.
A quality power rack or squat stand helps you easily position the barbell exactly where you want it for squats.
Comparatively, maneuvering a loaded barbell into proper position for squats without a rack or stand can be highly awkward and dangerous. The only way to really do it is to first clean the weight up, then press it overhead, then finally bring it behind your head and onto your shoulders.
Most people can't clean or overhead press nearly the amount they can squat, so that's tremendously limiting.
If you can't use a challenging weight, the benefits of squatting will be greatly reduced. Sure, you can always do more reps, but the potential gains associated with that approach are quite limited.
You could ostensibly put an unloaded barbell on your back and then have two partners try to evenly load weight plates simultaneously, but there's a high likelihood of that going horribly array.
Bottom line: you can back squat without a rack, but only if you're using weight that you can easily clean and press overhead and onto your shoulders.
RELATED: Is a Power Rack Worth It?
Even then, the only way to end your set would be to either perform a behind-the-neck press (which for most people is even more difficult than a normal overhead press) to bring the barbell back to a front rack and then to the ground, or to "dump" the barbell off your back straight to the ground. The dump technique is actually a viable option in certain cases, but it definitely has its limitations (more on this later).
If you're without a rack, you're probably better off sticking with options like Zercher Squats, Front Squats, Bulgarian Split Squats, Landmine Squats, and Dumbbell Goblet Squats.
Can I Squat Without a Spotter?
In certain instances, yes — it’s completely okay to squat without a spotter. But it depends entirely on the environment and equipment at your disposal.
The safest way to squat without a spotter is to utilize a power rack or squat stand with adjustable safety pins, arms or straps.
Anything less can be quite risky.
If you’re squatting without the right equipment and/or a reliable human spotter (or spotters), you can wind up in an extremely dangerous and vulnerable position.
Many of the “squat fails” you’ll see on YouTube come from powerlifting competitions. There are two big reasons for this.
One, a powerlifting competition features individuals pushing themselves to their absolute limit. As such, you’re probably going to see quite a few failed reps.
Two, many powerlifting competitions don't let lifters use racks or stands that feature safety pins, arms or straps because these apparatuses can prevent the judges from getting a clear view of a lifter’s technique.
So the average powerlifting competition features a lot of people trying to squat really heavy weight while also relying solely on human spotters if they fail. As it turns out, this isn't the best recipe for safety!
Believe it or not, all those incidents are from the same meet!
Make no mistake about it — you can seriously injury yourself with a failed squat.
Of course, things get a lot safer when you stick only with weights and rep schemes you're 100% confident you won't fail, but that also makes it really tough to make significant gains!
RELATED: Can I Bench Press Without a Spotter?
This isn't to say that having a great human spotter (or several great human spotters) to help you can't make the movement safer. It can, especially when you're training without safety pins, arms or straps.
What makes a truly great spotter?
- Great spotters communicate with the lifter prior to the exercise and know their target number of repetitions.
- Great spotters know proper technique — whether they’re standing directly behind the lifter or spotting one end of the barbell. A squat is typically spotted by either one individual (who stands directly behind the lifter) or three individuals (one spotter behind the lifter, one at either end of the barbell).
- Great spotters can tell the difference between strain and failure. They’re able to differentiate a lifter who's simply pushing through a sticking point from one who truly requires help. In instances of the latter, they’re quick to take action.
- Great spotters are physically capable of doing their job. They possess adequate strength for the weight being lifted and their dimensions make them well-suited for their duties (you wouldn’t want someone very short spotting someone very tall, for example).
Pages 32 and 33 in The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Basics of Strength and Conditioning Manual cover proper spotting technique for the back squat.
Yet great human spotters are tough to come by.
Few people possess the right blend of knowledge, technique and strength to properly spot a heavy squat. Many human spotters have sloppy technique and a bad habit of intervening either too early or too late.
There are other limitations, too — asking a complete stranger to spot you can be awkward, and you can’t always rely on having other people around (particularly if you train at odd hours or in a home gym).
If you’re not using a rack or stand with safety pins, arms or straps, the best way to fail a squat is to simply lean back and dump the barbell behind you. Human spotters are not involved in this technique in any way.
YouTuber Simeon Panda does an excellent job of demonstrating the “dump” method:
Simply leaning slightly backward and dumping the barbell behind gets yourself out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. You just let gravity do the work. Trying to roll the barbell up your neck and over your head is also a really bad idea, so be sure to drop the bar behind you!
The dump technique works best in certain environments. Not every floor is designed to safely withstand the impact of a heavy barbell. Some commercial gyms also outlaw the “slamming” of weights.
The noise and risk of floor/equipment damage associated with this technique can be significantly reduced by using rubber bumper plates rather than cast iron plates. However, this is definitely not a technique you can use anywhere.
The Best Way to Squat Without a Spotter
The absolute best way to squat without a spotter is to utilize a rack or stand that has safety pins, arms or straps.
These items differ slightly in their design. However, all serve a similar purpose and are more reliable than even the best training partner when utilized correctly.
Safety pins are long, durable rods that insert directly into the support poles of a power rack or power cage. Spotter arms are sturdy, reinforced arms that attach to the front of a squat or lifting stand. Safety straps are similar to safety pins, but are constructed of a softer material (like nylon) and are a bit more adjustable in their positioning.
These devices allow you to safely fail a repetition without harming yourself, your floor, or your equipment. You simply set them up just below the bottom range of motion for your squat and they'll catch the loaded barbell in case you fail.
“As a rule, set the pins up no more than 6 inches below your bottom squat depth. If you’re a half squatter, adjust accordingly. If you’re squatting deep, do the same,” writes Lee Boyce, strength and sports performance coach, in an article for T Nation. The idea is similar for spotter arms or straps.
YouTuber Omarlsuf gives a nice rundown of how to fail inside a power rack plus the “dump” technique in this video:
While these devices are built-in on some lifting racks and stands, it’s important they be adjustable. Squatting depth varies widely from person to person, and you don’t want to find yourself with an ill-suited set-up. Access to a rack, cage or stand with these features will also let you perform unique variations like Pin Squats.
“Lifters ask me to name the most important piece of equipment you can have. My answer? A power rack is the most critical item. First, for safety, it can act as your spotter in case you fail a lift. Lower the bar down onto the safety pins,” Louie Simmons, famed powerlifter and strength coach, writes on the Westside Barbell website.
“I trained for six years with no training partners … Just don’t forget to (actually) use the safety pins, or they don’t save anyone.”
HulkFit offers a variety of high-quality solutions that empower safe, intense, and effective workouts.
Rather than awkwardly attempting to wrestle a loaded barbell onto your back, check out our high-quality rack and stand options that start at just $150.
The HulkFit Power Rack and Squat Stand Pro include premium adjustable safety pins and spotter arms, respectively, while the more compact Wall Mounted Power Rack and Squat Stand Lite can be outfitted with top-of-the-line safety features.
Imagine the gains you'll make by being able to squat alone without fear of a failed rep! Get yourself the proper tools, put in the work, and watch your results skyrocket.