Getting past “gymtimidation”

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The gym is an intimidating place for many of us, but it doesn’t have to be. One reason why we find the gym intimidating is strength training equipment. Knowing how to use this equipment is not always straight-forward compared to aerobic machines like treadmills and stationary bikes. How are adjustments made? What’s the right technique? Understanding the purpose of different equipment and growing confident in our ability to use them are first steps in overcoming “gymtimidation.” Among the more intimidating equipment are squat racks. These are large metal stands used for squat-related exercises that help keep users safe. Here is some useful information about squat racks that will help us better understand their purpose and how to use them effectively, as well as instructions on back squat technique.


The squat rack, as we might assume, is used primarily for free-weight squats. Free-weights are not attached to any device or cable system, allowing for a full range of motion without restrictions. The free-weights used in the squat rack include weighted plates which are added to a barbell. Different variations of free-weight squats can be done in the squat rack, but the most common is the back squat. This exercise targets the major muscle groups of the lower body including the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, as well as the erector spinae of the lower back.

Setting Up

Most squat racks have components that are adjustable to meet our preferences. Be careful not to confuse squat racks with smith machines. The smith machine looks similar to a squat rack, but it has a barbell attached to rails that allow it to slide up and down. This is used primarily for fixed-weight squats, not free-weight squats. They’re more suitable for people with injuries or who intend to isolate specific muscle groups.

  • J-hooks are what hold the barbell while we’re not squatting. The j-hooks are the pieces of equipment (that look like hooks) on either side of the machine. There may be multiple at different heights or one on each side of the squat rack that is adjustable based on our height. Find the j-hooks at chest-height or adjust them to chest-height. This is where the barbell should be placed, as it helps us avoid going onto our tip-toes when removing (un-racking) and placing (re-racking) the barbell.
  • Safety rails, located on each side of the squat rack, are intended to catch the barbell if we are unable to complete a squat. The height of safety rails can be adjusted based on our size or the type of squat we’re performing. They are simply removed and replaced as necessary. Having someone with weight lifting experience stand by is also recommended for extra safety and accountability.
  • Weighted plates are added to the barbell based on our strength level and experience. Start with only the barbell (typically weighing between 35-45 pounds). If technique, as described below, is adequate and the intensity ranks at or below a 7 on a scale of 1 (light effort) – 10 (max effort), add weight in increments of 10 pounds. This would mean adding 5 pound plates on each side of the barbell. The total weight should always be distributed evenly on each side of the barbell with the heavier plates on the inside.
  • Clamps should always be placed on each end of the barbell against the plates to keep them secure. There are different types of clamps, but the most common are called “spring collars.” These are used by squeezing together hand grips and sliding the circular collar onto the barbell. Upon release of the hand grips, the spring collar will squeeze tightly to the barbell. Using clamps are another element of safety that many gyms require.

Back Squat Technique

After the squat rack is adjusted and an appropriate weight is added to the barbell, it’s time to begin the back squat. If this is your first time performing the back squat, start with only the barbell.

  1. Grip the bar tightly with both hands. How wide the hands are depends on shoulder flexibility. Step under the barbell with both feet so that the barbell rests across the upper back. Stand to lift the barbell off the j-hooks and step backwards carefully with each foot. Body position should be centered within the squat rack. When un-racking the barbell, it shouldn’t roll onto the neck or lower and place stress on the shoulders and wrists. If there is any pain, step forward and re-rack the weight to adjust bar placement and hand position.
  2. Make sure the feet are in a squat-ready position. This is typically around shoulder-width apart with toes angled slightly outward. Gather breathing and tighten the abdomen before hinging the hips backwards and bending the knees, lowering towards the ground. Keep the weight on the heels and wide knees throughout the movement. Also look forward or slightly upwards to help maintain a strong upper-body posture. Squat depth depends on many factors including hip mobility. Try to reach a depth where thighs are about parallel with the floor.
  3. After completing a set of back squats, step forward carefully with each foot and lower the barbell onto the j-hooks. Rest for 1-3 minutes prior to the next set. Evaluate how the back squats felt and make any necessary adjustments. Beginners should start with 3 sets of 5-10 repetitions.

—Submitted by Frankie R., Lipscomb University