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9 Dec

9 Worthy Alternatives to the Back Squat

Barbell lungesAs great as back squats are for strength, general fitness, and body composition, sometimes they just don’t work for a person. Maybe they cause knee, shoulder, or wrist pain. Maybe someone’s body proportions aren’t conducive to proper back squatting. Maybe their legs are too long to achieve good depth without compromising position. While there are dozens of articles imploring you to mobilize this or that joint and work out the kinks in this or that muscle so that the back squat will work, and those can be very informative and helpful, some people just don’t want to back squat. For whatever reason, it doesn’t work for them.

So – are these people doomed to perpetual chicken legs? Should they turn in their gym card forever and resign themselves to a life of sedentary existence?

Absolutely not. Plenty of other knee flexion exercises are worth doing. Let’s take a look at some of the best alternatives.

Goblet Squats

Goblet squats are easier on most bodies than back squats for two reasons: less weight is used (because you have to hold it in your hands at chin level) and they promote a more “natural” squatting technique. To perform a goblet squat, you hold a weight (kettlebell, weight plate, dumbbell, small child) at chin level, stay tall, and squat down between your legs while maintaining an upright torso. Many seasoned strength coaches use the goblet squat to teach beginners how to squat because it’s so intuitive.

That said, there are some extra details to keep in mind:

  • Tuck your elbows against your body. This creates a more stable “shelf” of support for the weight.
  • Keep your chest up.
  • Push your knees out.

Since you won’t be pushing heavy weights with the goblet squat, focus on higher reps and more overall volume. If things get dicey, dropping the weight in a goblet squat is way easier than dropping a barbell sitting on your back.

Here’s a textbook goblet squat.

Front Squats

To me, front squats have always felt more natural than back squats. There’s less thinking about what your joints are doing and which muscle groups you’re supposed to be activating. You just squat with a weight in the front rack position and the rest follows. It’s hard to mess up and round your lower back because if you lean too far forward during a front squat, you’ll just dump the weight.

According to a 2009 study on front and back squats in trained individuals, front squats exert fewer compressive forces on the knee and “may be advantageous compared with back squats for individuals with knee problems such as meniscus tears, and for long-term joint health.” Furthermore, front squatting less weight resulted in identical muscle activation as back squatting more weight.

The more upright posture inherent to front squats is also good for people with lower back pain by creating less shear stress on the vertebrae. An important cue to keep in mind during the front squat is “elbows up.” This creates a strong, stable shelf for the bar and cues the torso to stay firm and unyielding to forward tilt. If your elbows dip, the rest will soon follow.

The trickiest aspect is the rack position. There are three ways to hold the bar in a front squat — crossarmOlympic, or with straps. See this video for an explanation of the different techniques.

Zercher Squats

In Zercher squats, the bar sits in the crook of your inner elbows about belly-high as you squat. This places more emphasis on the core and glutes. Anecdotally, people with knee pain during normal squats seem to flourish with Zercher squats. As for the weight resting on the arms, it hurts at first, but you get used to it. And if you don’t, you can always use a pad or a rolled up towel to dampen the pain.

They kind of force good form, too. As you squat down with the bar in the crook of your arm, your elbows fit neatly between your knees and prevent them from buckling inward. As you come up, be sure to thrust your hips fully forward at the top and stand up straight.

Initiate zerchers in one of two ways:

The more involved method – Deadlift the bar to just above the knee. Squat down, carefully letting the bar rest on your lower quads. Slip your inner elbows underneath the bar and stand back up. Commence Zercher squatting.

The easier method – Place the bar on a squat rack set to about waist height or a bit higher. Slip your inner elbows underneath the bar and stand back up. Commence Zercher squatting.

Bulgarian Split Squats

Several years ago, a strength coach named Mike Boyle made waves across the Internet by recommending against back squats and promoting Bulgarian split squats in their stead. The split squat, he said, allows fuller loading of the legs being worked by removing the back from the equation. In a Bulgarian split squat, you place one foot behind you on an elevated surface and squat down until the back knee touches the floor (or a pad resting on the floor), keeping the weight on the foot in front of you. Getting your balance right can be tricky at first but once you’re comfortable it’s a great way to isolate individual legs without taxing your back. Many a trainee has woken up with throbbing glutes after a day of split squats.

Play with the height of the surface your back foot is resting on. If it’s too high, you’ll place some wonky shear stresses on your back. Lower the height if you find your back arching or your torso tilting too far forward. Stacking a few weight plates about six to eight inches high is good enough for most people.

Check out a video of the Bulgarian split squat in action.

Step-ups

Step-ups are fun. And they’re different than every other exercise in this post because they begin with the concentric portion of the lift. Most exercises begin with the eccentric portion. When you start with the eccentric portion, you’re dreading the concentric portion the whole way down. When you start with the concentric portion, the hard part is over right away and you just have to control the descent. There’s also no bounce to use as a crutch — just like the first deadlift of the set. Some people hate them, some love them. They’re definitely worth a shot and are a fantastic way to hit the glutes.

To target quads, hamstrings, and glutes, use a surface high enough that your knee is at 90° when you step onto it. The higher the box, the more glute and hamstring you’ll hit. Lower boxes will focus more on the quads. Try not to push with the off foot. If you find yourself pushing off despite best efforts, dorsiflex the off foot and touch down only with the heel.

Here’s a good video example of weighted step-ups with a barbell in the front rack position.

Walking Lunges

My go-to exercise when dealing with substandard hotel gyms is a few sets of walking lunges while carrying the heaviest dumbbells they’ve got. There’s something special about the combination of moving through space and lifting that adds a whiff of complexity and increases the training adaptations.

Lunges are relatively easy on the knees for many people who get knee pain during back squats. For others, it’s the opposite (but this post isn’t really intended for them). If you have problems with lunges, play around with the torso angles. Turning the movement into more of a single leg hip hinge by slightly leaning forward (shoulders over knees) can alleviate unpleasant forces to the knee.

Here are some (really) heavy walking lunges.

Reverse Lunges

Walking lunges are awesome, but they require magnificent balance. And if you’re pushing heavy weight, any minor mistake during the initial descent can send you and the weight tumbling. They also require a lot of room. Reverse lunges are generally safer, more stable, and they don’t require much space (because you do them in place).

Here are some reverse lunges with the hip hinge. Check out some Zercher reverse lunges, too.

Leg Press

After the Smith Machine squat, the leg press is probably the most maligned lower body workout across the entire Internet. Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength creator and enthusiastic promoter of the low bar back squat, thinks a person should only use the leg press to get strong enough to squat. That’s a fair assessment of its potential, but too many people have taken the extreme position that the leg press is useless or even counterproductive for building leg strength.

It’s true that the squat is more effective than the leg press. Squatting demands more from your body, and the subsequent rewards have the potential to be greater in turn. However, with greater rewards come greater risks, particularly if you have a preexisting lower body injury. In one study comparing the two, the squat had more potential for muscle development but greater risk for people with knee injuries.

These days, I’ll occasionally use the leg press machine. For my goals, it works. The leg press also seems to work pretty well for one of the strongest dudes I know, Keith Norris. If you don’t believe me, just watch him grind out a brutal set. Tell me that’s not a good lower body workout.

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to go so low on the leg press that your back starts to round at the bottom. This places a huge amount of really weird stress on your lower back. Stick to parallel and have someone watch (or film) you and confirm that you aren’t rounding your back.

Oh, and I almost forgot:

Bodyweight Squats

Don’t underestimate the efficacy of the simple bodyweight air squat. It’s great for mobility and surprisingly metabolically demanding. You can increase the difficulty — without changing the loading — by slapping on a weight vest; I frequently do this.

That’s it for today, everyone. If you’ve ever felt guilty for not doing or enjoying back squats, I hope you’ve found at least a couple exercises in today’s post to fill the void — and get you a fantastic workout in the process.

Thanks for reading. What are your favorite alternatives to the back squat?

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You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Does the Squatty Potty count :)

    Groktimus Primal wrote on December 9th, 2014
    • Cleaning up after it does.

      Animanarchy wrote on December 10th, 2014
  2. The highest risk alternative is doing the diddly squat.

    Stevemid wrote on December 9th, 2014
    • I don’t think I know diddly squat.

      John Caton wrote on December 9th, 2014
      • I have a degree in diddly squat!

        SumoFit wrote on December 9th, 2014
        • I know. That’s why you’re so good.

          John Caton wrote on December 9th, 2014
    • Well played, sir. Well-played.

      Benn wrote on December 9th, 2014
  3. The Zercher squats sounds promising. I have tight hips and achilles tendons (or the muscles in the back around that area) so I struggle getting low with squats. Thanks Mark!

    Jacob wrote on December 9th, 2014
  4. I thought the back squat was without alternatives but I didn’t know squat. Sorry to all.

    Mark wrote on December 9th, 2014
  5. Speaking of Diddly Squats, I did 8 sets of them yesterday and I didn’t even get tired.

    Nocona wrote on December 9th, 2014
    • The lethargy doesn’t generally set in until you do them for several days in a row.

      M wrote on December 9th, 2014
  6. Great list. a few more suggestions.

    – I found that my back squat form seemed much more sustainable after I had done front squats for a while. Using the same foot placement and knee travel for back squats as one would for front squats seemed to help my joints a lot

    – I find using very high boxes for step-ups to really help my knee integrity. This is counter to what conventional wisdom says, but I am convinced that a lot of knee problems are due to poor strength in the lower part of the squat range of motion

    – Steadying yourself with a wall or power rack is also a good way to do negatives with the step up box

    – For people with low back problems, another alternative is to use a belt to hang weights from your waist as you would for dips, but stand on two boxes with the weight suspended between them. This puts all the weight on the muscles from the hips down and allows a free range of joint travel.

    – Personally , I think holding dumbells is a more effective way to add weight for the step-ups than a barbell, especially if you are using a high box

    – To find you correct foot/knee travel position for either the front or back squat, I suggest using an empty bar going all the way down, finding what position seems solid for you there, and then this dictates your foot placement and knee travel when starting from the top. I see lot of people doing fronts squats with a back squat position, and they would be a lot more effective if they got the rock bottom potion right first, which usually for the front squat means using wider knee travel and narrower foot placement, which also makes staying vertical easier/possible.

    Superchunk wrote on December 9th, 2014
    • Great suggestions super.

      Roger wrote on December 9th, 2014
  7. Squats help keep my booty on a shelf! Love these.

    Erica wrote on December 9th, 2014
  8. Due to a back issue, I gave up squats many moons ago.

    For leg strength you can also do squats on a side to side balance board, or Buso ball. Hold the weight (20-40 lbs) in front for a set, in one hand for a set and the other hand for set 3. This way you can use considerably less weight and add some dynamics to your leg balance.

    i find this especially useful on the ski hill and for mountain biking where legs are often not symmetrical like in a normal squat.

    tw wrote on December 9th, 2014
  9. I think you missed out on the double kettlebell squats.

    They are a great core and leg workout. My knees also feel better doing them.

    Steve S wrote on December 9th, 2014
  10. I can’t see any reason to do anything more than leg presses. Weighing the saftey of a good leg press machine vs. the dubious benefits and definite dangers of squats of any kind, its like duh! no thanks!

    mrfreddy wrote on December 9th, 2014
    • Leg presses do not offer the countless other benefits of squats. If one starts extremely light and works their way up in a slow and controlled manner with tons of focus on perfecting the form, there is no reason why squats have to be dangerous. It is different if you have an injury but if you are injury free, building up strong, good form squats can be very beneficial.
      I’ve been doing Stronglifts 5X5 (http://stronglifts.com/5×5/) for about 3 months after Mark referred to it in an article. It has helped me tremendously including reducing my lower back pain significantly.

      spayne wrote on December 9th, 2014
      • I should say I have access to some very, very good Medx lower back and leg press machines. The lower back machine has entirely eliminated the serious back pain issues I went through a few years ago. I’m getting all the benefits I need so I don’t see the need for the risk of doing squats. What more would I possibly get from it? Why should I bother?

        mrfreddy wrote on December 9th, 2014
        • The advantage is that you work so much of your body with one exercise. Squats and many of the alternatives listed here work everything from your feet to your upper back all at one time. It saves a ton of time and lifts like this have been shown to boost many functions from metabolism (through muscle gain) to testosterone production.
          I’m not saying you should do squats. I’m just saying that unless there is a significant reason not to, squats (and some of there alternatives) tend to be superior to leg presses.

          spayne wrote on December 9th, 2014
        • There is a great deal to be said for stability musculature that is not represented by any machine weights. At the very least, read up on stability, proprioception, and the importance of the smaller muscle groups. Essentially, they prevent injury and greatly improve strength and, of course, balance.

          Vince G wrote on December 10th, 2014
        • Squats are a natural functional movement. In fact, they are the precursor to many other movements. At minimum, think about air squats. Leg press is not a natural functional movement. It’s made up by men who don’t like to squat :)

          Troy wrote on December 12th, 2014
    • solid trolling

      Ryan wrote on December 9th, 2014
      • ?

        mrfreddy wrote on December 9th, 2014
      • I’d call it personal opinion.

        And thank goodness for the variety of opinions, experiences and perspectives that keep MDA interesting!

        SumoFit wrote on December 9th, 2014
      • Hahaaa… no doubt.

        Vince G wrote on December 10th, 2014
  11. No pistol squats? Pretty easy to add weight and a good strength builder in my experience.

    Adam wrote on December 9th, 2014
    • An alternative to pistol squats are shrimp squats. I just saw them today on the Breaking Muscle website. It’s a one-legged squat where you grab your leg behind your body. Doesn’t look quite as daunting as the pistol squat.

      Jacob wrote on December 9th, 2014
      • I started out with shrimp squats until I could do about 15 in a row then I practiced the pistol. Being able to do the shrimp easily makes it easier to progress to the pistol. Another good leg exercise and will help your balance is hop on one leg around the house every time you have to move somewhere. I even hop one legged up and down the stairs on the day I do this.

        Roger wrote on December 9th, 2014
      • Thanks for that, Jacob. I now have a mental image of a shrimp scratching his little head and murmuring, “Hmmm, which legs shall I squat today?”

        SumoFit wrote on December 9th, 2014
  12. I love step ups for a quick leg burner!

    Livi wrote on December 9th, 2014
  13. It’s funny how culture colours our perception of the squat. In the West, squatting is almost always considered working, whereas in the rest of the world, squatting is resting. The definition of squatting is also culture-specific. In Japan, “squatting” and “sitting” are interchangeable terms. What Western weight-training calls the “sumo squat”, for instance, is called a “stance” in Japan. The sumo wrestler who adopts this position is considered to be standing with a lowered centre of gravity. He isn’t squatting until his bum is resting on his heels, or on or near the ground. It’s all relative, I guess.

    Another squatting option is the sumo exercise called “shinkyaku”. It is basically a single-leg squat with the other leg extended, ankle flexed, toes pointing up, and the entire back of the leg from bum to heel resting on the floor. Start from a wide, hips lowered stance (the Western sumo squat position mentioned above). Slide your left heel out to the side, keeping hip, knee, ankle, and toes aligned, while squatting with your right leg, until your right foot is flat on the floor, and your centre of gravity is just inside your right heel. Now switch to the other side without using your hands for support, by drawing your left heel in slightly, sliding your right heel out, and shifting your hips to just inside your left heel. Keep your hips as low as possible when you switch sides. Repeat four more times. On the last rep, pull your extended leg in so both knees form approximately 90-degree angles, and stand up.

    SumoFit wrote on December 9th, 2014
    • Addendum: Start on whichever side you want. Traditionally, sumo wrestlers squat first to the left and extend the right leg, but I’ve noticed a lot of Westerners start exercises on the right side. It’s completely up to you.

      SumoFit wrote on December 9th, 2014
  14. My favorite is the staggered stance squat

    Justin Gaeta wrote on December 9th, 2014
  15. “To perform a goblet squat, you hold a … small child… at chin level, stay tall, and squat down between your legs while maintaining an upright torso…. If things get dicey, dropping the weight in a goblet squat is way easier than dropping a barbell sitting on your back.”

    It may surprise you that Mark advocates dropping small children from the rack position, but it’s good parenting. Those Groklings fell from heights all of the time; it’s why their joints are so flexible! The modern world, and Standard American Parents (SAPs) rob children of the spiritual development that comes from shock and pain, to say nothing of the hormetic adaptations to falling critical to building a solid physical platform.

    Ion Freeman wrote on December 9th, 2014
    • Perhaps when you say “fell” you actually mean “jump”? There’s a difference, the latter being controlled and the former not. And “supple” would be a better descriptor of the condition of joints that are well-nourished, and used properly and consistently. Suppleness does not result from falling from heights, whereas torn ligaments, broken bones, and death often do.

      “The modern world, and Standard American Parents (SAPs) rob children of the spiritual development that comes from shock and pain…”

      This is an ignorant statement. Ask any child who has lived through war how much spiritual development he or she experienced as a result of shock, pain, fear, loss, poverty, hunger, and disease.

      SumoFit wrote on December 9th, 2014
      • Well, at least I got Ion’s joke.

        Clay wrote on December 11th, 2014
      • I thought it was a joke at first…

        SumoFit wrote on December 11th, 2014
  16. I am ok with doing regular squats right now and have no problem with them. I hate lunges haha, such an awkard movement.

    Kathy wrote on December 9th, 2014
  17. I’ve done a few lifting regimes where I wanted to change up from the straight squat. Thanks for list list of alternatives, it will certainly come in handy when I’m at a loss for how to change things up.

    bodynsoil wrote on December 10th, 2014
  18. I like to say something uncouth while dumping compost. I call it the Sass Squat.

    Animanarchy wrote on December 10th, 2014
  19. Don’t forget the Pistol squat – I’m talking going down slow, hold at the bottom, and bottom means bottom sitting on your foot, not these “half pistols” that many gym trainers claim are pistol squats – hold for 1 second, and slowly come right up.

    A bouncy “half pistol” is a waste of time.

    Storm wrote on December 10th, 2014
  20. I hate back squats. Haha. With that said, I do them basically every strength workout currently.

    I’m pigeon-toed and have fairly long legs and back squats have been really hard for me for the last couple years of trying them on and off. Rippetoe’s low bar back squat is actually WAY easier for me to handle in terms of keeping form than the more traditional “high bar” version.

    I love front squats. I found them much, much easier to learn when I was beginning. The hardest part to get over was the feeling of the bar against my throat.

    Joshua Hansen wrote on December 10th, 2014
  21. Another alternative squat is the single-legged squat. Extend one leg in front of you, as close to a right angle from your body as possible. Maintain your balance while you do a series of slow squats. To advance the exercise, wear a weight belt or vest, or simply do the move more slowly. This is, of course, a good way to improve your balance, and exercise core muscles of all sorts.

    Marge wrote on December 10th, 2014
  22. well done..

    Jenny wrote on December 11th, 2014
  23. Overhead Squat! Even if you only use an unweighted stick, it’s so good for your posture … :-)

    Mike wrote on December 12th, 2014
  24. The problem is that this article assumes that you can easily get all these exercises set up in your local gym and it’s not possible.

    Alex wrote on December 13th, 2014
  25. Great tips, and I’m really happy reading these alternatives, as I’m looking for more variety at my time in the gym. To tell you honestly, I don’t like back squats – they’re too strenuous to me, even if I use a lightweight barbel. I’ll definitely ask my personal trainer about these, and see if he can incorporate it into my regimen!

    Clement Everette wrote on December 15th, 2014
  26. I would also recomend pistol squats, shrimp squats and sissy squats for the bodyweight athlete <3

    primal_headshrink wrote on December 19th, 2014
  27. I noticed some people commenting about recovery. I found this article to be pretty helpful with information. here

    Carole K wrote on August 16th, 2016

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