Ok, I know what you’re probably thinking,“An entire article just on unracking the damn bar?

Is Dave this hard-up for material already?

It may seem like overkill to pick apart such a small part of the lift, but after 12 or so years in powerlifting, I’ve had the opportunity to watch literally thousands of squat attempts, both successful and unsuccessful. I can honestly say that the majority of missed attempts, especially by novice/intermediate lifters, are doomed from the moment the bar leaves the rack. In fact, on the rare occasion we’re not lifting or handling at a meet, my training partners and I can sit in the crowd and predict with reasonable accuracy which lifters are going to miss before they even get the “squat” command.

If I have any reputation at all in this sport, I’m known as a “technician." This is really just a nice way to say that I hit decent numbers despite not being very strong. Still, I’ve spent years picking apart every aspect of every lift, and I find the set-up to not just be important, but an absolute make-or-break component of the lift.

Think of the unrack as a mini-repetition in preparation for the big attempt. If you unrack the bar using the same technique you need to squat the weight, you will start the lift in a good position almost every time. If you make mistakes unracking the weight, you will almost certainly have problems during the lift.

These are the elements I find to be the keys for setting up a big squat:

  • Psyching up, not out

Each individual’s process to get ready for an attempt is as individual as their fingerprint. Some lifters take a cool, focused approach, while others work themselves into a frenzy. Whatever your process is, you need to make sure that no matter how much you work yourself up, you take your time and do not rush through your setup. Even Chuck Vogelpohl, the most aggressive lifter I’ve ever seen takes the time to do this right.

  • Grip

The closer to center you can keep your hands on the bar, the thicker and more stable shelf you create, too many lifters try to emulate the big guys by setting their hands almost at the collars. Unless your shoulders are too beat up, you’ll be better off inching them in.

  • Elbows down

Another novice mistake is to point the elbows backwards during the squat. Not only is this bad for the shoulders, but it also creates a poor foundation for the bar to rest on and makes it easier for you to round out in the bottom of the squat. If you have difficulty pulling your elbows down, you can grip the bar with your first three fingers only, it takes some getting used to, but a lot of big squatters have improved their technique this way.

  • Bar position

Start by setting the bar across your upper back. DO NOT REST THE BAR ACROSS YOUR NECK! Instead, pull your shoulder blades together, to create a “shelf” for the bar to rest on. When the bar is too high, you turn your torso into a longer lever and increase your likelihood of rounding out. You also create a tendency to pitch forward because you’ve turned your torso into a longer lever.

By carrying the bar further back, you can lean forward more, recruiting your posterior chain without letting the bar drift too far over your center of gravity.

  • Belly breathing

Belly breathing is an important part of setting up for and executing the power lifts. This breathing technique is just what it sounds like. Instead of breathing into your chest, take air into your belly, inflating it like a basketball. This will stabilize your entire midsection.

To belly breathe, take a deep breath while forcefully pushing your belly out. This should help you use your diaphragm to draw air into your belly. During the lift, try to exhale forcefully against your closed throat. This action, called the Valsalva maneuver will help you build up enough pressure to stabilize yourself under big weights.

For Standard Rack Squatters:

Set your feet under the bar, at about shoulder-width apart. I’ve seen countless squatters in reader submitted videos who take the bar out in a split stance. This may work on lighter weights, but it will hold you back at maximum attempts because it can throw you off-balance.

Arch your back and push your hips back. Take a deep breath into your belly and break the bar out of the racks by pushing your hips forward. Still holding your breath, step back and out. You should only need 2-3 steps to take your squat stance. Once you’ve allowed the weight to settle, take a deep breath into your belly and begin the descent by pushing your hips back.

Better yet, watch elitefts™ athlete Al Caslow do this perfectly.

For Multi-ply Squatters:

Although the monolift is supposed to make the squat set-up easier, you’ll actually see more bad set-ups in the multi-ply federations than you will in the single-ply ones. This is not intended to start a gear vs. raw debate…it’s just the way it is.

A squatter lifting out of a standard rack needs to maintain enough control over the weight to actually walk it out and set their feet, while the multi-ply guy just needs to eek it a half inch above the lip of the hooks and he’s “ready” to squat.

Not to mention the fact that more supportive gear means that multi-ply lifters are using more weight relative to their raw maxes. This shrinks the margin of error to the point that even slight deviations in technique can have catastrophic results.

Bar Position

Setting the bar is more challenging in multi-ply gear because the straps are thicker, which makes it harder to feel the weight. That is why I recommend squatting in full gear at least once per month when getting ready for a meet. You can also make things easier by altering the straps. Having a tailor remove one of the layers will give you a better feel for the weight. One of the advantages I noticed in switching from canvas to the Metal Ace Pro Squatter was that the poly straps gave me a better feel for the weight, as opposed to canvas.


Since you will be taking the weight out in your squat stance, make absolutely sure that your feet are where you want them before the lift begins. Otherwise, you will take the weight out unbalanced. Be very careful about using the monolift stands to space your feet. If you go to a meet that uses a different monolift, you might get disoriented. Try to go by feel, or if you’re particularly anal retentive, you can measure your stance with a tape measure.


One of the biggest mistakes I see lifters make is when they unrack the bar. They keep their hips under their shoulders and push the bar out of the rack with their knees. For most lifters, this action will actually cue you to begin the lift by breaking your knees, making it harder to sit back and hit depth.

Rack height

The perfect set-up starts before the lifter even approaches the bar. Finding the right rack height is an often under-looked element of the set-up, especially by multi-ply lifters. Most have a tendency to set their rack too high, which can result in a breaking of technique. When your rack is too high, two things happen:

  1. You lift the bar with your legs rather than your hips.
  2. You lose upper back tightness trying to shrug the weight out.

A good rack height will allow you to clear the racks by at least an inch without breaking technique on a MAXIMAL weight

At the meet, most lifters will find their rack height with an empty bar, which can be misleading. As the bar gets heavier, it bends more, requiring a lower rack for the same amount of clearance. Like with the stance, I recommend using a tape measure to measure the distance from the bar to the floor at your gym. This way, you’ll know exactly where to set it at the meet.

The Unrack

To properly unrack the bar, start by pushing your hips back and forcing your belly into your belt. With your hips pushed back, take a deep belly breath, push your belly into your belt and push your hips forward. Your shoulder blades should be pinched together with your head pushed back and your elbows pointing down the whole way.

Some lifters will take another breath before beginning the squat. I prefer to hold my breath from the unrack through the lift because I can take a deeper breath without the weight of the bar on me.

To see what a difference this all makes, check out the following video from a recent training session at Eastside. On the first rep, I nail the set-up and make an easy squat. On the next one, I do just about everything wrong, causing me to drift into my knees during the lift, losing it at the bottom. The last rep is successful, but the set-up is still not clean so the lift is nowhere near as easy as the first.

In closing, If you are struggling with issues like depth, rounding out or knees pinning in/forward. Start paying more attention to how you set up the lift. The solution may be as simple as lowering the rack a notch, pulling your elbows down or taking a better breath.