Last updated on July 13th, 2022 at 03:40 pm
Cost and space are two of the most common concerns when building a garage gym. Many people find adding a power rack to their gym directly at the intersection of those two concerns.
Unfortunately, most folks address this by buying a cheap rack. That’s a terrible idea when shopping for a piece of equipment whose primary purpose is to keep you safe.
A better way to address this issue is to forgo a power rack altogether. But whenever I suggest that to people, they immediately ask how they could possibly train effectively without one.
After all, virtually every video and image of home, garage, and basement gyms posted online show a power rack as their centerpiece.
Do you really need a power rack in your garage gym? Is it possible to train effectively at home without one? If so, how do you do it?
If this concerns you, you are in the right spot! Let’s look at how to build a highly functional garage gym you’ll love without making room in your garage or your budget for a power rack.
Why Buy a Power Rack?
A power rack has 3 primary uses. It provides a safe way to do heavy squats and bench presses when training alone. It allows a heavily loaded bar to be placed in the correct starting position for those same exercises. And it provides a place to connect attachments like cables or pullup and dip bars.
Make no mistake, a power rack is a highly versatile piece of garage gym equipment. I own and use one every day. But if I had to move into a small apartment tomorrow and didn’t have the space or finances, my training wouldn’t miss a beat.
Building a great basement or garage gym without a power rack is not only possible, but it’s also easy! I promise you won’t miss a beat if you don’t have the space or budget for a rack!
A rack’s single most important function is to keep you safe during two fundamental training movements: the squat and the bench press. Both exercises have a high potential for injury or even death if done without a spotter or some type of safety in place.
If you fail (can’t move the weight, suffer an injury, or lose your balance) during a squat or bench press, you risk the loaded bar coming down on top of you.
I wrote an entire article dedicated to training alone safely without a spotter, but the crux is that anytime your body is underneath a loaded bar, you must have a plan to catch that bar if it falls. And preferably, it needs to be caught before it crashes down on you!
That means that if you don’t have safeties or a spotter, you shouldn’t ever find yourself under a loaded bar with no way to stay safe. And that’s where understanding the difference between movement patterns and exercises comes in.
Movement Patterns vs. Exercises
There are six primary movement patterns that we train when working with weights (source):
Those are the movements we must train. Those are the requirements of any quality exercise programming. The good news is that there are almost endless ways to train those patterns effectively.
The even better news is that all those movement patterns can be trained effectively without a power rack!
How to train the push pattern without a power rack
The first thing to get out of the way here is to come to grips with the fact that the only way to perform a barbell bench press safely is with a spotter or a rack with safeties. Full stop. No exceptions.
Look, I get it. It’s one of my favorite exercises. The long-standing measure of strength has always been, “How much ya bench?”. Asking people (especially guys, since we are a terribly stubborn group of people!) who train regularly to not bench press is probably one of my most ignored pieces of advice.
But I was hoping you could live to see old age and not get crushed by a heavily loaded bar resting on your trachea! So, that means:
No spotter or rack, no barbell bench press!
What to do instead? That’s easy!
My first go-to in this situation is doing pushups with Olympic rings or a suspension trainer. If you just scoffed at the idea of pushups replacing the barbell bench press, you’ve never done them on a suspension trainer.
If you perform slow, controlled, full-depth pushups on rings or a suspension trainer, you will quickly find out just how weak your chest and stabilizing muscles are. If you’ve only been bench pressing to train the push movement, you will be amazed at how much stronger this particular exercise can make you!
If someone asks me how to break through a bench pressing plateau, my first advice is often to stop barbell bench pressing and go to suspension pushups for thirty days. This works effectively every single time!
As an important money-saving note, do NOT buy a TRX suspension system. They are overpriced and lack critical features. Either get a set of basic Olympic rings or this suspension trainer by Bodytorc (both available on Amazon). I wrote a complete comparison of rings vs. suspension trainers that you can read here.
I’ve tested the Bodytorc set head to head against the TRX, and there is no comparison. It’s no wonder TRX just filed for bankruptcy (source). They simply don’t have the best product on the market like they used to!
As a side note, suspension training is so effective that you could make that your only piece of equipment and still get an amazing workout every day. I’ve followed this program by the guys over at Mind Pump and was shocked at just how effective it was!
The cool thing about using dumbbells for training the push movement pattern is that you don’t need nearly as much weight as you would use on a barbell.
For example, if you currently bench press 225, there’s almost a zero percent chance that you could do the same number of reps and sets with 100-pound dumbbells. I use 225 pounds when I train in sets of three reps. When using dumbbells for the same rep range, I have to drop down to 75-pound dumbbells, and even that is a challenge!
Trust me. You can get brutally strong using only dumbbells for your push training!
Band presses are one of my least favorites, but they are still effective. I prefer to do these standing in a split stance instead of lying on a bench, but the movement pattern is the same either way.
This one is my go-to when on vacation. I always bring a set of bands with me. You can also use a band to add resistance to standard pushups. In fact, you could use bands for a complete training program in and of itself if you wanted to!
Bands are an ideal solution for those skipping a rack for budgetary reasons. A great set of bands is inexpensive and highly versatile. Don’t bother getting a fancy set with lots of handles and accessories. Just stick to the basics like these from Rubber Banditz that you can get on Amazon!
How to safely train the squat pattern without a power rack
When training the squat movement pattern, there are many different options that don’t require a loaded barbell on your back. Almost all of those options can be done without a rack too!
Since there are so many different options, I will stick to my four favorite ways to train the squat pattern without traditional back or front squats.
Goblet squats are one of my favorite squat variations because they are safe and easy to perform. They are also a great teaching tool when helping someone learn to squat. Lastly, they can be done with a variety of implements.
Goblet squats are also an ideal way for folks with back pain to train the squat pattern. Since there is no loaded bar on your back, you eliminate most of the spinal compression that comes with standard squats.
Bulgarian Split Squats
If you’ve done these before, you just groaned. These are brutally hard. They are not as easily learned as a goblet squat. And for many, they blow through your gas tank like almost nothing else.
For those reasons, some consider Bulgarian split squats even more effective than a standard barbell squat. Dr. John Rusin has been quoted many times stating that he can replace traditional squats with BSSs and have zero drop in performance or strength gains (source).
Being a unilateral movement (done with only one leg at a time), the BSS also builds strength in stabilizing muscles that traditional squats never even touch.
Regardless of weight, reps, or movement variations, the Bulgarian split squat is the single best way to train the squat pattern without a rack. In fact, it might be the single best way to train that pattern for most people, even if they do have a rack!
Hex Bar Deadlifts
If your garage gym doesn’t have a hex bar, get one! If you want to know which one, the brand new open back trap bar by Rep Fitness is in my garage now, and it’s the single best hex bar I’ve ever trained with! But really, any hex bar will do, even an inexpensive one like this.
The hex bar deadlift is known as a “squatty” deadlift variation. In other words, it trains your lower body in both the squat pattern and the hinge pattern at the same time.
This deadlift variation can not only replace squatting for many people but is probably the safest version of the deadlift too!
Most of us training at home on our own want to be safe. We also want to get in the garage, train, and get out. This form of deadlift/squat can reduce your training time while still being crazy effective.
This is also considered the safest variation of both the deadlift and squat (although some will argue it’s not a full squat, it still trains the pattern). Combine this with Bulgarian split squats and you’ll never have to do traditional squats again!
Use a Sled
Sled training is not new, but it has recently seen a resurgence in popularity. Many gyms have added turf and sleds to their array of gear. But what about at home? If we are trying to save space and money, installing turf isn’t really an option.
A Torque fitness sled is an ideal solution for those constrained on space but not so much on budget. I have the Torque MX1 and use it daily. I haven’t squatted once since I bought it. Instead, I push and pull that sled every single day I train.
It wasn’t until I started using a sled that I realized its full potential. I’m not only getting better leg development than when I was squatting weekly, but my knees, back, and ankles have never felt better! To see a great example of all of the benefits of using a sled, check out the Knees Over Toes Guy here.
I can’t recommend the Torque sleds highly enough. It’s been the first time in years that a new piece of equipment has changed my training for the better entirely. Any hesitations I had about the price are long gone! Check out the Torque Fitness sled options here!
Pullups and Attachments
These are the other two most common uses for a power rack. The solution for pullups is a simple door-mounted pullup bar like this one I’ve used for years.
Want something a little more versatile and a whole lot cooler? Check out the CrossGrips by JayFlex! I’ve been testing them out for the last few weeks, and I like them a lot! I’ve ordered the Ryze-Ups by the same company and can’t wait to try them. They look to be another excellent at-home pullup option!
For attachments, the solution is to identify the movement pattern being trained and then find an exercise that can be done without the attachment. That set of bands I recommended earlier will come in handy here as they are the single best replacement for cables you can buy.
Full-Size Rack Alternatives
So what if you still want a lot of the benefits of a rack, you have the budget, but you need something that takes up a little less room? That’s where foldable squat racks come into play.
Foldable squat racks (made popular by PRx as seen on Shark Tank) are a fantastic option for those who want the safety of a rack but don’t have the space.
They are more stable than standard racks (they are bolted to your wall, so they don’t move at all) and provide safety arms and plenty of places to attach accessories too!
If I were to buy one tomorrow, I’d go with the PRx rack. There’s no doubt they make the best version and also have the most wall-mounted options for your gym. If you haven’t seen their ecosystem of products, you need to take a minute and check them out here!
What Not To Do
Here’s where I make a few people upset. I speak from experience, so please bear that in mind.
Do not buy a cheap rack!
When the budget is tight, it can be enticing to go on Amazon to look at the $200-$300 racks. After all, they list their capacity as 800-1000 lbs. Surely those will work fine, right?
Unfortunately, many people think that capacity is the most important spec on a rack. It isn’t. The most important quality in a power rack is stability.
Cheap racks with 2″x2″ uprights and lighter gauge steel are not stable. They move every time you rack and unrack your bar. This is unsafe. The last thing you want is your rack moving as you try to rerack a loaded barbell.
A 3″x3″ heavy-gauge steel rack works best for most garage gym owners. It’s even better if you can bolt that rack to your floor. Using a foldable rack by PRx is another excellent way to ensure your rack’s stability. See my recommended racks here for a couple of solid options.
In the end, if I were rebuilding my gym today, I would have absolutely no hesitation in going without a rack if I couldn’t manage a nice, heavy, stable one.
There are a lot of reasons outside of budget and space that keep people from buying a rack. But no matter the reason, it’s important to remember that you absolutely CAN build an amazing home gym without a rack.
We live in a time of almost endless options. Hopefully, the options I presented here will help you on your garage gym journey.
How much space do I need for a power rack?
I wrote a very detailed article about this that you can read here. The short version is that you’ll need around 12′ wide x 13′ deep x 8′ high. There are a lot of variations there, so please check out that article!
Do I need special flooring if lifting without a rack?
No. You should use the same flooring in either case. I address the flooring I use in my gym along with every other flooring option you have to choose from in my complete guide to home gym flooring here.
Isn’t it “better” to have a rack?
Do I prefer standard squats and barbell bench presses to the abovementioned alternatives? Sometimes. Look, if you have the space and the budget, you should get a rack.
But so many people don’t, and instead of building a great gym without a rack, they don’t build a gym at all. That’s a problem! Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good! If you can’t get a rack, don’t worry about it! There are plenty of ways to train around that.