If you want to train your lower body, but bad knees, dodgy hips or a sore back mean the squat is off your exercise menu, here are some alternatives that will do the job just as well.
There are several reasons why you’re looking for an alternative to the 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 at home and don’t have the space for a squat rack.
You may have done 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 squat alternatives work the same muscles as the squat, but are often a lot easier on your knees, hips or back.
- Leg Press
- Barbell Hack Squat
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Above Parallel Squat
- Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
- Sprint Interval Cycling
Perhaps the most obvious replacement for the squat is the leg press. It’s a highly effective way to train the quads and glutes, but with less involvement from the muscles in the trunk compared to squatting.
- Sit down on the 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 quads 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 at home, and you don’t have space for a squat rack, the barbell hack squat serves as an effective alternative.
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.
Trap Bar Deadlift
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Compared to a regular deadlift, the trap bar allows you to maintain more of an upright torso, which makes it more comfortable for people with back issues.
If you can’t do regular squats, and find barbell hack squats uncomfortable, the trap bar deadlift is a workable alternative. It’s not a perfect replacement for the squat, but can form the cornerstone of a lower body training program 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.
- 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 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 90 degrees.
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 90 degrees, 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 lower body after 10 weeks of 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 full-depth squat 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 lower body 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.
Sprint Interval Cycling
By itself, sprint interval cycling isn’t a direct replacement for the squat. It’s not like you can ditch the squat, start doing sprint intervals on a bike, and expect to see the same results.
However, I do think that sprint interval cycling can form part of an effective joint-friendly approach to training your lower body when it’s programmed alongside more direct replacements for the squat, such as the leg press or 90-degree squat.
Done immediately after training your legs, sprint interval cycling is like a “finisher” for your quads.
What exactly do I mean by that?
Let’s say you train your legs with an exercise like the squat or leg press. Each rep lasts 3-4 seconds, and you do 10-12 reps.
You’re expending a high level of effort for between 30 and 48 seconds. Then you rest for a couple of minutes. You do the same thing again, usually for somewhere between 3-5 sets.
Now, let’s look at what happens when you do sprint intervals on a bike.
You cycle as hard as you can for 30-60 seconds. Then you cycle at a slow speed for a couple of minutes or so, before repeating the process 3-5 times.
In other words, both forms of exercise involve a brief but high level of physical effort, followed by a period of rest, repeated multiple times.
Physiologically, while the two types of exercise aren’t exactly the same, they are similar.
Cycling is a form of low-intensity resistance exercise, and the resistance-like loading stimulus has been shown to increase the size of the slow-twitch type I muscle fibers 
Granted, these studies were done in untrained beginners. In novices, virtually any stimulus represents an unusual challenge to muscle tissue, which will adapt to that challenge, in part at least, by getting bigger.
If you’ve got a few years of training behind you, your muscles will already have adapted to such a low level of stress, and cardio is unlikely to provide much of a stimulus for growth.
What’s more, much of the increase in size will come from something other than contractile proteins, most likely an expansion of the fluid part of a muscle cell, known as the sarcoplasm.
The sarcoplasm is filled with stuff – water, glycogen, mitochondria and so on – that doesn’t contribute directly to the production of muscle force.
However, sprint interval cycling can still make a contribution to gains in muscle size.
In fact, four months of interval training on a bike has been shown to increase fat-free mass, mainly via an increase in the water content of muscle rather than the addition of new muscle protein .
And if you program the sprints at the end of a lower body workout, you can stimulate some gains in cardiovascular fitness as well.
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.
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