9 Worthy Alternatives to Back Squats (No Barbell Required)

alternatives to back squatAs 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.

Especially now, when gyms are closed and it’s difficult to get your hands on a barbell, you might be looking for alternatives to back squats that will keep your legs just as strong.

Plenty of other knee flexion exercises are worth doing. Let’s take a look at some of the best alternatives.

Instantly download your Guide to Gut Health

9 Back Squat Alternatives You Can Do At Home

  1. Air squats
  2. Goblet squats
  3. Front squats
  4. Band Zercher squats
  5. Bulgarian split squats
  6. Resistance band split squats
  7. Step ups
  8. Walking lunges and Reverse Lunges
  9. Tempo squat jumps

1. Air Squats

air squats

Don’t underestimate the efficacy of the simple bodyweight air squat. It’s great for mobility and surprisingly metabolically demanding.

To do air squats, start with your feet shoulder width apart. Bend at the knee, and come to a low “seat” in an imaginary chair. Keep a straight line between your tailbone and your head. Don’t think you can work your quads without heavy weights? Do a few high-rep sets of air squats and you’ll feel it. If you’d like an extra challenge, wearing a weighted vest or holding weights at your sides will add some extra oomph.

2. Goblet Squats

goblet squatsGoblet 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.

3. Front Squats

front squatTo 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.”1 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.

No bar? No problem. Grab two weights and hold them just above your shoulders, or hold a sandbag at chest level.

4. Band Zercher Squats

band zercherFor resistance band Zercher squats, hold the band just below your chin, just as you would with a goblet squat. The difference here is that the hardest part is at the top of the movement.

If you have a bar, you can do a traditional bar Zercher squat, where 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 do well 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 bar 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.

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.

5. Bulgarian Split Squats

bulgarian split squatsSeveral 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 place. 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 stress 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.

6. Resistance Band Split Squats

resistance band split squats

As with weighted split squats, resistance band split squats start by placing one foot behind you on an elevated surface and squatting 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. Instead of weights, you’ll grip a resistance band at chest height.

7. Step-ups

step upsStep-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.2

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.

8. Walking Lunges and Reverse Lunges

walking lungeMy 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.

To make them easier, forego the weights. To make them more challenging, add hand weights and a weighted vest if you feel like you need to ramp it up.

reverse lungeWalking 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).

Instead of taking steps forward, you will step backward into your lunge and return to standing for each rep.

9. Tempo Squat Jumps

Start as you would an air squat, feet shoulder-width apart. Over a count of four, lower into a squat position. Explosively jump up, land soft, and lower your body back into a squat position, taking a full count of four to get there. You can watch Brian demonstrate this and all of the above squat alternative movements in this video.

That’s it for today, everyone. If you feel like you’re missing out on the barbells at the gym, 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?

TAGS:  fitness

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

57 thoughts on “9 Worthy Alternatives to Back Squats (No Barbell Required)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. 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!

  2. I thought the back squat was without alternatives but I didn’t know squat. Sorry to all.

  3. Speaking of Diddly Squats, I did 8 sets of them yesterday and I didn’t even get tired.

    1. The lethargy doesn’t generally set in until you do them for several days in a row.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

    1. 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 (https://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.

      1. 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?

        1. 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.

        2. 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.

        3. 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 🙂

      1. I’d call it personal opinion.

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

  8. No pistol squats? Pretty easy to add weight and a good strength builder in my experience.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. Thanks for these options. I have tried pistol squats, but I find them very difficult (and this comes from someone doing years of barbell squats).

          I’ll take a look at the shrimp squats, as I was finding (by accident) that putting a leg backwards (instead of forwards as in the pistol squat) made the maneuver easier.

      2. 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?”

  9. 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.

    1. 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.

  10. “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.

    1. 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.

  11. I am ok with doing regular squats right now and have no problem with them. I hate lunges haha, such an awkard movement.

  12. 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.

  13. I like to say something uncouth while dumping compost. I call it the Sass Squat.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. Overhead Squat! Even if you only use an unweighted stick, it’s so good for your posture … 🙂

  18. 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.

  19. 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!

  20. I would also recomend pistol squats, shrimp squats and sissy squats for the bodyweight athlete <3

  21. I noticed some people commenting about recovery. I found this article to be pretty helpful with information. here

  22. I was all excited when a video in my YouTube feed introduced me to the benefits of the quarter squat. It’s not a replacement for full squats, but adding quarter squats into my microworkout routines during boring meetings working from home has seriously increased the number of squat reps I do in a week.

  23. Hello Mark Sisson, Thank you so much for telling 9 worthy alternatives to the back squat. I will definitely try this at home. Keep sharing such healthy tips.

  24. So – people talk about squats being dangerous. I think the danger comes with the weight. I have been doing unweighted squats, making sure that my knees do not travel out past my toes. I follow the hint I saw on a poster in a Physical Therapy office: Squat your age every day! I am 61. It is keeping my core solid. I am not trying to build a lot of bulk, just trying to stay strong.

  25. Mark, you’ve covered them all but how about adding some instability, say, doing squats on an upturned Bosu or a Swiss Ball? Much more challenging, when you’re ready, and good if you’ve only got a light set of dumbbells at home.

  26. Like!! I blog quite often and I genuinely thank you for your information. The article has truly peaked my interest.