How to Squat Without a Squat Rack?

How do you squat without a squat rack? Don’t worry this isn’t another post about the trials and tribulations of a home gym (I’ve already done that here). No this is about the early 1900s and the difficulties facing the average barbell man or woman.

The birth of our modern fitness cultures can be traced to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when individuals like Eugen Sandow and Bernarr Macfadden helped introduce millions to working out and dieting. People took to gyms in their hundreds of thousands but, and this is important, these gyms were far cries from the arenas we now train in.

What did a gym look like in the early 1900s?

If you were lucky, there might be a barbell, a lot of dumbbells, some gymnastics rings and pommel horses. Throw in some climbing ropes and Indian clubs and that is pretty much it. In physical culture books and magazines, dumbbells and barbells were recommended.

Many of the exercises we still use were promoted with some noticeable exceptions. The back squat is one such example.

Squatting like its 1899

Friends don’t let friends skips leg day

A fresh internet meme c. 2010

Sandow, Arthur Saxon, Professor Attila and others were undoubtedly strong individuals. Their training books were full of good information but many, like Sandow and Attila, were not honest with their readers.

That’s right. I said it. Sandow, Attila, and many others were dishonest with their readers in the most egregious of ways. They claimed that light weights – not heavy weightlifting – produced their physiques.

Sandow’s readers were thus told that 5 lbs. dumbbells could produce a ripped and muscular physique. Same with Attila. Why did they do this? Weightlifting was new. Many people were skeptical about lifting heavy. People’s fear meant watered down training programs.

How did this relate to the back squat? It didn’t really. Squatting in the early 1900s was typically done without weights and with the heels off the floor. In other words, squatting was typically done on the tippy-toes. If you really wanted to push yourself, maybe you could hold dumbbells while squatting.

Again light dumbbells were used. Not heavy barbells.

Flipping the (Squatting) Script

Not everyone was happy with light dumbbell training. In fact, some people knew it was hogwash. The pursuit of muscularity and strength necessitated progressive overload and heavier weights. Lightweight dumbbells were not doing the job.

Alan Calvert knew this. Inspired to build a physique like Sandow after he saw Sandow at the 1893 World’s Fair, Calvert spent years doing traditional, light, exercises. The result? Disappointment after disappointment.

No matter how hard he tried, Calvert could not build his physique. Eventually he realized that he needed heavy barbells and dumbbells. His passion and his pain led to the formation of Milo Barbell in 1902.

As the founder of Milo, Calvert was a propagandist for heavy lifting. Eventually this passion settled on back squats. Calvert and a small group of others realized that heavy squats were necessary to build big legs.

They told people to put a barbell on their back. To keep their feet flat on the ground and to squat heavy.

Sounds like a good idea right? There was just one problem.

Squatting without the Squat Rack

How do you load a heavy barbell without the use of a squat rack? This isn’t a trick question or a theoretical conundrum. This was the situation many lifters faced prior to the 1920s and 1930s.

Now before you ask – no they did not want to forget about the back squat and just do front squats. That would have been too easy. They wanted back squats. And they wanted heavy back squats at that.

So what do you do? Calvert, of course, had an answer. But before going into that we need to discuss the Steinborn squat. We mentioned Steinborn (as in Milo Steinborn) in our history of the back squat article.

As a reminder, Milo Steinborn was a German weightlifter and wrestler who helped popularize back squats in 1920s America. What Steinborn did, which attracted thousands of admirers, was back squat.

Yep. That’s it. A back squat – but with a twist. Rather than tell you, I want to show you the Steinborn squat in action.

I still struggle to explain this to people but here goes. Start with a heavy barbell placed vertically. Slowly position the bar across your shoulders and, in a quick motion, take the full weight of the bar across the back by getting into the squat position.

Before you ask why people did it this way remember … no squat racks!

The Calvert Solution

So the Steinborn squat can be dangerous. Calvert introduced a slight safety measure in his course entitled The Second Progressive Course of Instructions which is available online through the amazing Strongman Project.

Alan Calvert squatting illustration 1920sImage Source.

So there you have it. Next time you’re squatting without a squat rack simply do the Calvert/Steinborn solution.

Or … you know … do literally any other exercise which won’t be dangerous.

As always … Happy Lifting!

6 Comments

  1. Where the heck do we get the spherical weights in this era? I honestly tried to do this with modern plates and barbell and damn it was a huge pain in the butt. No wonder the older bodybuilders used spherical weights on their barbells.

    1. Hey Javier. With the proviso that I don’t get any affiliate link for this – Titan have a novelty globe barbell” https://www.titan.fitness/strength/barbells/specialty/loadable-globe-barbell/429970.html

      I was going to buy it during lockdown but bought a Oly barbell instead. I don’t think it’s that heavy but it’s something! Failing that you could keep an eye out for auction websites. There’s a rich collectors market for older weights

  2. Wow, I never even stopped to consider this early era conundrum. At least they would have had a legitimate excuse to skip leg day, lol.

    You’d have thought some gym-going engineering genius would have conceived an easier task of building a makeshift rack to hold the blood thing instead of hoisting the vertical barbell up on their shoulders like that, haha?

    1. It’s honestly something that has baffled me considering how innovative older lifters were. The only thing I can think is that lifters were reluctant to admit to lifting heavy in the early 1900s and mainly focused on Oly lifts. Why they went to these lengths is amazing

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