Everyone knows if you want big legs, squats are going to help. It’s a heavy and difficult exercise that targets your quads, hamstrings, and glutes very well. You’ll even get your back, core, and several other muscles engaged as well.
Squats are also a very functional exercise. Most of us sit down and stand up every single day. Heck, some of us even have to squat down to pick things up off the ground often as well.
Squatting can help with your daily movement as a whole while helping you build plenty of muscle in your lower body.
However, squats aren’t for everyone out there. For some people, loading up a bunch of weight on their back may not be the best idea. I know it can definitely do a number on your joints too.
Plus, you need pretty good hip mobility to squat well. So, if you struggle with your mobility or have any joint pains, squats may not be the most suitable exercise for you.
If you find that squats aren’t a good option for you … don’t worry. You can still get a lot of the benefits squats have to offer through alternative squat exercises. That’s what we’ll talk about today.
Best Alternative Exercises to the Squat
So, what are good alternatives to squats? Which exercises can you do that work similar muscles without putting a heavy barbell on your back?
The answer is … there are a lot of them.
But, just like with a squat, proper form is crucial for safety and effectiveness. So pay close attention as I cover 6 of the best squat alternatives and exactly how to do them.
Deadlifts are similar to squats in that they target a ton of muscles in your lower body. However, deadlifts can put strain on some parts of your body, such as your back and knees. But, if you’re avoiding squats because you have to place a bar on your back, deadlifts can be a great alternative.
Just make sure to start lighter to ensure you can handle the exercise and are using good form.
Start by grabbing and loading a barbell. Place the barbell on the ground in front of you and walk up to the bar until your shins are touching it.
Set your feet roughly hip-width apart to get into your stance. Next, take a deep breath and squat down to grip the bar slightly outside of shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and pull up on the bar enough to pull your body down into a squat.
Keep your back straight as you drive your heels into the ground and stand up with the barbell. Your hips should come forward as your knees simultaneously straighten.
When you reach a standing position, squeeze your glutes for a second and exhale. From here, slowly return the barbell back to the ground by reversing this movement. Repeat this for reps.
2. Machine Leg Press
Possibly the most classic substitute for squatting is leg pressing. With a machine leg press, you’ll get a lot of the same benefits of squats without having to stress as much about the safety of your back and core.
On top of that, varying your foot placement is a great way to emphasize different muscles for this exercise.
That way, you can adjust it depending on which muscle group you want to focus on!
Keeping your feet closer together will be more quad-dominant. On the other hand, keeping your feet further apart will engage your glutes more.
On top of that, how high or low you place your feet on the platform will matter. Higher on the platform will target your glutes and hamstrings more. Lower on the platform will be more quad-dominant.
I’ll let you choose which variations you enjoy the most.
Either way, you’ll start by sitting in the seat and placing your feet flat on the platform. Make sure your feet are in mirror opposite spots from each other on the platform. You don’t want to train both of your legs differently.
Take a deep breath in and brace your core. This pressure will keep your lumbar spine supported and safe. Drive through your midfoot to press the platform away from you until your knees are almost locked out.
You never want to 100% lock out your knees on this machine because it puts torque on them and can lead to hyperextension. Instead, when your knees are almost locked out, squeeze your quads for a second and slowly return to the starting position. Repeat this for reps.
3. Hack Squat
This exercise is similar to the leg press, but it’s even closer to an actual squat. On the hack squat, you sit on a sliding seat and push yourself from the platform. With a leg press, your seat doesn’t move, and you push the platform away from you.
There are a couple of different types of hack squat machines. Some you will lay back and lock your shoulders beneath a pad to press against. Other types have the pad set up against your lower back and you will push against that.
For this one, we will use the machine where you lay back with your shoulders resting against the pad. I find that this kind of equipment is more common to come across.
To start, lay with your back pressed against the back pad and your shoulders pressed against the shoulder pads. Grab the handles next to your shoulders to secure yourself.
Place your feet hip-width apart in the middle of the platform. From here, push yourself away from it just enough to release the stopper, and take a big deep breath into your belly.
Slowly lower yourself down into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the platform. At the bottom, drive through your midfoot to press yourself away from the platform, and back to the starting position.
Squeeze your quads at the top, and repeat for reps.
4. Dumbbell Split Squat
This exercise is a burner for sure. By that, I mean your quads will burn if you do it right! I like to think of it as a variation of a single-leg squat when doing it. That way, my focus is on the front leg, and that quadricep gets isolated more effectively.
Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand at your side, and take a big step back with one foot as if doing a reverse lunge. Be sure that your feet are still hip-width apart, and that they aren’t in line with each other. This will help you maintain balance while also being safer.
Focus on keeping the pressure in the heel of your front foot throughout this movement. From here, keep your torso upright and bend your front knee as you lower your body to the ground. When your front thigh is parallel to the ground, drive through that heel and stand back up while keeping both feet in the same split stance.
Squeeze the quadricep of the front leg for a second, and then repeat for reps. Be sure to do the exact same weight and number of reps on the other leg.
If you find yourself leaning forward on the way down, try moving your back foot further behind you.
5. Romanian Deadlift
This deadlift variation puts a big emphasis on your hamstrings and glutes. Trust me ... this exercise is best done with the bar set up on safety bars to start with.
Walk up to the bar, and grab it just outside of shoulder-width apart. Pick up the bar and take a step back from the safety bars. Make sure your feet are hip-width apart and create a slight bend in your knees before you get started.
Keep your core tight and back straight as you bend forward at your hips with the bar and push your butt back. While doing this, drag the bar along your body as it lowers to your mid-shin.
When the bar reaches your mid-shin, you should feel a big stretch in your hamstrings. Keeping your back straight, engage your hamstrings and glutes to pull yourself and the bar back to the starting position. Squeeze your glutes at the top and repeat this for reps.
6. Dumbbell Box Step-Ups
This exercise is a favorite of mine. It will exhaust you, and it doesn’t take a lot of skill to perform either. For this exercise, all you'll need is a box and a pair of dumbbells.
Grab a dumbbell in each hand and stand upright in front of the box. Step up onto the box with your right foot and drive through your right heel to bring your other foot onto the box as well.
Next, step back down with your left leg followed by your right to reverse this movement. Repeat this exact movement by leading with your left foot. Alternate between legs for reps and you're guaranteed to feel the burn.
Which of These Exercises Should I Do With a Bad Back?
If your problem is not being able to squat because of a bad back, it’s understandable. At the same time, some of these exercises may also not be for you.
In this case, I would avoid the deadlift and potentially even the Romanian deadlift if it aggravates your back as well.
The leg press, hack squat, split squat, and box step-ups may be great options for you in this case. They will still work your quads, glutes, and hamstrings similarly to the squat.
As an extra layer of precaution for a bad back ... make sure you focus on keeping your core braced at all times!
Which of These Exercises Should I Do With Bad Knees?
If you avoid squats because you have a bad knee, you can still get some good leg work in. The leg press, hack squat, Romanian deadlift, and box step-ups can all be good options for you in this case.
They shouldn't put much pressure on your knees and will allow you to strengthen your leg muscles. You may also find that adjusting your footing in some of these exercises can alleviate pressure from your knees.
Results Aren't All In The Exercises
Obviously, there are a bunch of great exercises you can do in place of squatting. The 6 I highlighted today are just some of the many amazing ones you can do to build muscle in your legs and core.
Now, if you have problems in your back or knees, some of these may just be staples for your leg days. On the other hand, these exercises can really help build stronger legs to improve your squats (if you're someone who does squat).
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