If bad knees, dodgy hips or a sore back are stopping you squatting, here are some highly effective alternative exercises you can try in your next leg workout.
There are several reasons why you’re looking for an alternative to the back squat.
Maybe your knees, hips or back hurt when you squat. You can push through the discomfort, but you don’t want to cause any long-term damage.
Perhaps you’re training in a home gym, and don’t have the space for a squat rack.
You may have done back squats in the past, ended up injured, and you don’t want to risk the same thing happening again.
Or it might be that you just can’t get the hang of squatting. You’ve watched video after video, trying to learn the right technique, but it just doesn’t feel right.
No matter what the reason, these alternative exercises work many of the same muscle groups as the back squat, but are often a lot easier on your knees, hips or back.
Back Squat Alternative Exercises
- Leg Press
- Barbell Hack Squat
- Front Squat
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Above Parallel Squat
- Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
- Walking Lunges
- Landmine Squat
Perhaps the most obvious replacement for the squat is the leg press. It’s a highly effective way to train the quadriceps and glutes, but with less involvement from the muscles in the trunk compared to squatting.
One of the benefits of the leg press is that you don’t need to worry too much about technique or stability, which isn’t the case with the squat. The weight is guided on rods, so all you need to do is focus on pushing the platform up, then lowering it under control.
- Sit down on the leg press machine and put your feet on the platform.
- Your feet should be roughly shoulder width apart, with the toes pointing slightly out.
- Start with your feet placed roughly in the center of the platform, not too high and not too low. If your feet are too low, it can lead to pain in your knees. If they’re too high, you’re not working the quadriceps as hard. Play around with your foot placement until you find a position that feels right for you.
- Straighten your legs and release the safety catches.
- Lower the platform by bending your knees. Use a range of motion that’s as large as possible, but doesn’t hurt your knees or cause you to round your back.
- Make sure your knees follow the direction of your toes throughout the movement.
- Push the platform back to the starting position by straightening your legs.
Single-Leg Leg Press
If you’re worried about rounding your lower back about the bottom of the movement (which isn’t doing the discs in your spine any favors), try the single-leg leg press, which makes rounding the lower back a lot less likely.
Barbell Hack Squat
If you’re training in a home gym, and you don’t have the space for a squat rack or leg press machine, the barbell hack squat serves as an effective variation to the regular back squat.
All you need is a barbell and some plates. And if you get stuck at the bottom of a rep, you can just let go of the bar.
- Think of this exercise like a deadlift, only with the bar behind your body rather than in front.
- With your feet roughly hip width apart, bend down and grab the bar.
- Keep your knees pointing in the same direction as your feet throughout the movement.
- Your hips should stay low and your shoulders high.
- If your grip isn’t strong enough, use lifting straps. I like Harbinger Big Grip Lifting Straps, mainly because they have a rubber strip that prevents the bar from slipping.
Unlike the back squat, where the barbell is positioned behind your head, in the front squat it rests across the top of your shoulders.
One of the main benefits of the front squat is that it typically involves the use of lighter loads than the back squat, but hits the lower body just as hard .
In one trial, scientists measured muscle activity in the thighs and lower back during both front and back squats .
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The front squat was shown to hit the leg muscles just as hard as the back squat, despite the fact subjects were able to lift a heavier load with the back squat. That is, the front squat delivers a similar stimulus for growth, but with a lighter load.
The reduction in load has the advantage of reducing compressive forces on the knee. This makes the front squat a useful exercise if squatting with heavy weights causes pain in your knees.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Unlike a regular deadlift, the load is directly below the hips rather than out in front. This allows you to maintain more of an upright torso, which makes it more suitable for those with back issues.
Most hex bars will have both high and low handles. To maximize the amount of work done by your leg muscles, you’ll want to use the low handles.
You can also do trap bar deadlifts while standing on a raised (1-3 inches) platform. The deeper starting position means that your leg muscles and glutes end up having to work harder than normal.
However, you should only use a range of motion that allows you to maintain the natural arch in your back. If you end up rounding your back at the bottom of the exercise, you’re better off losing the platform and going back to doing the exercise from the floor.
Are trap bar deadlifts a good substitute for barbell squats?
If you can’t do regular squats, and find barbell hack squats uncomfortable, the trap bar deadlift is a workable alternative exercise. It’s not a perfect substitute for the squat, but can form the cornerstone of a lower body workout if you don’t like squats or deadlifts.
- Stand in the center of a hex bar with your feet roughly hip width apart.
- Bend down and take hold of the handles on the trap bar.
- Brace your abs as if you’re about to take a punch in the gut.
- Keep your shoulders high and hips low as you stand up.
- Focus on driving up through your heels as you return to a standing position.
- If the bar starts to tilt when you lift it, put it back down and adjust your hand position accordingly.
- Keep your knees tracking in the same direction as your toes. Don’t allow your knees to cave inwards during the lifting or lowering phase of the exercise.
Above Parallel Barbell Squat
NOTE: The video above shows squats done roughly to parallel. You can use the same instructions for the set up and execution, but stop the descent when your knees hit roughly a 90-degree angle.
If you have bad knees that hurt when you squat, sometimes shortening the range of motion is enough to solve the problem.
Squatting to the point where your knees hit roughly a 90-degree angle, which is slightly higher than a parallel squat, is still low enough to stimulate growth in your quads and glutes.
- Rest the bar across your traps and keep tight hold of the bar.
- Step back from the rack and place your feet roughly shoulder width apart.
- Your toes should point slightly outwards rather than straight ahead.
- Brace your abs before starting the descent.
- Your knees and toes should point in the same direction while you descend.
- Maintain the natural arch in your lower back throughout the exercise.
- Squat to roughly 90 degrees of knee flexion, which is slightly above parallel.
There was an interesting study done by a team of Japanese researchers, who looked at the rates of muscle growth in the thighs and glutes after 10 weeks of barbell squats done to different depths .
The first group squatted as deep as they could, while the second went down only to the point where their knees hit 90 degrees.
As you can see from the image on the left below, which is pulled from this study, 90 degrees is slightly above parallel.
After 10 weeks of training, there was no significant difference in the rate of quad growth between the two groups.
Whether the men squatted to 90 degrees, or as far as they could, the increase in quad size was virtually identical.
That said, the barbell squat performed through a full range of motion did lead to more growth in the glutes and adductors than the 90-degree squat.
But there are other lower-body exercises you can do to stimulate growth in those areas, giving you the same results as full squats (in terms of muscle growth at least) but without aggravating your bad knees.
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
The rear foot elevated split squat, also known as the Bulgarian split squat, can also serve as a replacement for the squat.
It’s one of the few genuinely effective squat alternatives that can be done with dumbbells.
Just like the squat, the rear foot elevated split squat targets the quads, glutes, and even hamstrings to some degree [4, 5]. It’s also been shown to serve as an effective squat substitute for increasing lower body strength .
But unlike the squat, the rear foot elevated split squat allows you to train your thighs with minimal spinal loading, which makes it ideal if a bad back prevents you doing squats.
- Place the rear foot on something stable like a bench.
- Practice doing the exercise without dumbbells until you get the hang of the technique.
- Play around with the position of both feet until you find a foot placement that allows you to perform the exercise without losing your balance.
- The foot in front of your body should point straight ahead.
- Keep your torso upright or lean slightly forward throughout the exercise.
- Make sure the front knee tracks in the same direction as the foot.
- Use dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell across your shoulders to add load and make the exercise harder.
Like the split squat, the walking lunge allows you to train your lower body with minimal spinal loading.
You can do walking lunges with a barbell across your shoulders, while holding a couple of dumbbells or kettlebells, or even with a weighted vest or heavy chain draped across your shoulders.
The landmine squat is another effective squat variation. It’s similar to the front squat in the sense that the weight is in front of you, but some people find the landmine squat more comfortable than resting a barbell across your shoulders.
A landmine attachment is relatively cheap and extrenely versatile, so it’s worth getting hold of one if you’re training at home rather than a commercial gym.
Resistance Band Goblet Squat
As well as a resistance band, the goblet squat can also be done by holding a single dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest.
While the squat is one of the best lower body exercises you can do, it’s not always practical, especially if you’ve got bad knees or back issues, or you don’t have access to a squat rack.
While you may well need a couple of squat alternatives to replicate completely the benefits of the squat, the payoff is that the muscles in your lower body will grow just as quickly, but it’ll be a lot easier on your joints.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I build my glutes without squats?
To build your glutes without squats, you can do hip thrusts, glute bridges or 45-degree hip extensions. Exercises like Bulgarian split squats or deficit reverse lunges will also work well for building the glutes.
Can you get big legs without doing squats?
Yes, you can get big legs without doing barbell squats. Exercises like the leg press and Bulgarian split squat, or squat variations like the landmine squat or trap bar deadlift can all form part of an effective training program designed to make your quads grow.
Are dumbbell squats a good substitute for barbell squats?
The barbell squat is far superior to the dumbbell squat as far as building your legs is concerned.
That’s not to say that dumbbell squats are a complete waste of time. They’re certainly better than nothing. But if all you have is a couple of dumbbells, there are better lower body exercises out there than the dumbbell squat.
The main downside is that grip strength can be a limiting factor. That is, your grip will give out before your legs do.
One solution is to get some lifting straps, which allow you to hold on to a heavier weight for longer.
You could also wear a weighted vest, which can typically add between 10 and 30 kilograms (22-66 pounds) in load. The extra weight is going to make dumbbell squats a much more challenging lower body exercise.
However, all things considered, training your legs with a couple of dumbbells is usually best achieved with a single-leg exercise, such as the Bulgarian split squat or deficit reverse lunge. Dumbbell hack squats are also worth a try, as the dumbbells don’t hit your legs as you squat down.
Do squats work your hamstrings?
While the hamstrings are involved in compound lifts like the barbell squat and leg press, their contribution is relatively small.
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