Many fitness “experts” say you have to squat to build strong, defined legs.
This isn’t necessarily true.
The squat is an excellent exercise that’s particularly effective for training your lower body.
But if injuries prevent you from squatting, or squats aren’t your bag, there are plenty of good squat alternatives for building lower-body muscle and strength.
In this article, you’ll learn 8 of the best alternatives to squats, why they’re effective, and how to do them with proper form.
Most experts consider the barbell back squat the “king of exercises” because no other exercise trains as many muscles across your entire body.
It also lets you lift heavy weights safely and progress regularly, so it’s ideal for gaining muscle and strength.
Nevertheless, not everyone can back squat.
For example, those with lower-back problems may find squatting through a full range of motion uncomfortable, whereas people with knee issues may find it difficult to bend their knees to 90 degrees and beyond, limiting the effectiveness of the exercise.
It’s not always ideal for beginners, either.
Some weightlifters have trouble grasping proper squat technique. Some novice lifters also struggle to lift a 45-pound bar, which is the minimum required to perform a barbell squat.
Fortunately, there are many excellent back squat alternatives that can help you gain lower-body muscle and strength.
Here are eight of the best.
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1. Front Squat
The front squat trains the quads as effectively as the barbell back squat, even when you use up to 20% less weight. It also places less compressive forces on your knees and lower back, making it a particularly good option for people who have knee or back issues.
If, after several weeks of trying, you find the front squat “rack position” painful on your shoulders and wrists, consider switching to a “cross-arm” grip, or substitute the front squat for an exercise that trains your body similarly, such as the Zercher squat or hack squat.
- Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of your breastbone (usually an inch or two higher than you would for the barbell squat).
- Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you.
- Step closer to the bar so that it presses against the top of your breastbone and push your elbows up and out in front of the bar.
- With the bar resting on the front of your shoulders and held in place by your hands, lift it out of the rack, take one or two steps backward, and place your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
- Sit down and remember to keep your back straight, elbows up, and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep.
- Stand up and return to the starting position.
2. Leg Press
Since the leg press doesn’t require you to balance or support weight with your upper body, it allows for heavier loads compared to other free-weight leg exercises. Compared to other barbell leg exercises, the leg press is also significantly less fatiguing, so you can do it more often without burning out.
- Load a leg press machine with plates and adjust the seat to its lowest position (with the backrest closest to the floor, at about a 30-degree angle).
- Sit in the leg press seat, and wedge your butt down into the base of the seat.
- Place your feet halfway up the footplate a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
- Bend your knees slightly and use the safety handles to release the weight.
- Lower the footplate toward your chest until your thighs are about 12-to-18 inches from your chest while keeping your butt firmly planted in the seat and without rounding your back.
- Push the footplate upward until your legs are almost straight (knees slightly bent).
Research shows that the Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise for your entire lower body. Because it trains a single leg at a time, it’s particularly useful for identifying and evening out any muscle or strength imbalances you might have, too.
- While holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand about two-to-three feet in front of a bench with your back to the bench.
- With your right foot (and heel in particular) firmly planted, place the top of your left foot on the bench behind you.
- Look at a spot on the floor six-to-ten feet in front of you and lower your butt toward the floor by bending at your right knee. Keep lowering yourself until your right thigh is roughly parallel with the floor.
- Stand up and return to the starting position.
Moreover, the dumbbell step-up is easy on your spine and doesn’t require you to lift heavy weights to reap the benefits of the exercise, which means it’s kinder to your bones and joints than most leg exercises.
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, place your left foot on a box, stool, or other surface about knee height off the floor.
- Keeping your weight on your left foot, fully straighten your left leg.
- Lower your right foot toward the floor, and return to the starting position.
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The dumbbell lunge trains all your lower-body muscles. Because it requires greater balance and coordination than most other leg exercises, it also engages many smaller stabilizer muscles throughout your entire body.
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand up straight with both feet hip-width apart.
- Take a long step forward with your right foot—about 2-to-3 feet. With most of your weight on your front leg, kneel down until your left knee touches the floor.
- Reverse the motion by pushing off the floor with your front foot and leaning slightly backward, allowing your legs to straighten.
- Once you’re standing, bring your right foot back to the starting position.
The trap-bar deadlift engages the quads significantly more than other deadlift variations, and it trains the lower back and glutes to a high degree, making it the most similar deadlift to the squat and a viable squat alternative.
- Place your feet about shoulder-width apart inside the rectangular center of the trap bar and adjust your feet so that when you tug on the bar, it moves straight up, not backward or forward.
- Take a deep breath and flex your abs, then push your hips back, arch your lower back slightly, and keep your shoulders back and down.
- Drive your body upward and slightly back by pushing through your heels, push your hips forward, and the bar passes your knees.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
The Romanian deadlift is an excellent squat alternative for developing the posterior chain (the muscles on the back of your body), especially the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles.
If the Romanian deadlift bothers your lower back, but you want to develop your hamstrings, try the leg curl instead.
- Stand up straight holding a loaded barbell with a shoulder-width, overhand grip (palms facing toward your body).
- Flatten your back and lower the weights toward the floor in a straight line while keeping your legs mostly straight, allowing your butt to move backward as you descend.
- Once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, bend your knees slightly more, and continue lowering the weights until your lower back begins to round—just below the knees for most people and about mid-shin for those who are particularly flexible.
- Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
8. Goblet Squat
The goblet squat is an effective exercise for training your lower-body muscles, particularly your quads. Because you hold the weight in your hands rather than across your shoulders, it’s also easier on your back than other squat variations.
What’s more, the goblet squat allows you to practice squatting with light weights for high reps, making it ideal for beginners.
- Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest with both hands.
- Place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, point your toes out to the side at about a 45-degree angle, raise your chest, and sit down.
- Remember to keep your back straight and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep.
- Stand up and return to the starting position.
+ Scientific References
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- Gullett, Jonathan C, et al. “A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 23, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 284–292, journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2009/01000/A_Biomechanical_Comparison_of_Back_and_Front.41.aspx, https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e31818546bb.
- Jones, Margaret T, et al. “Effects of Unilateral and Bilateral Lower-Body Heavy Resistance Exercise on Muscle Activity and Testosterone Responses.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 26, no. 4, Apr. 2012, pp. 1094–1100, https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e318248ab3b.
- DeFOREST, Bradley A., et al. “Muscle Activity in Single- vs. Double-Leg Squats.” International Journal of Exercise Science, vol. 7, no. 4, 2014, pp. 302–310, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27182408/. Accessed 4 June 2023.
- Selseth, Angie , et al. Quadriceps Concentric EMG Activity Is Greater than Eccentric EMG Activity during the Lateral Step-up Exercise. May 2020, https://doi.org/10.1123/jsr.9.2.124.
- Krause Neto, Walter , et al. Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review. Mar. 2020, www.researchgate.net/publication/339302672_Gluteus_Maximus_Activation_during_Common_Strength_and_Hypertrophy_Exercises_A_Systematic_Review. Accessed Mar. 2020.
- Simenz, Christopher J., et al. “Electromyographical Analysis of Lower Extremity Muscle Activation during Variations of the Loaded Step-up Exercise.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 26, no. 12, Dec. 2012, pp. 3398–3405, https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3182472fad. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.
- Marchetti, Paulo H., et al. “Balance and Lower Limb Muscle Activation between In-Line and Traditional Lunge Exercises.” Journal of Human Kinetics, vol. 62, no. 1, 13 June 2018, pp. 15–22, content.sciendo.com/view/journals/hukin/62/1/article-p15.xml, https://doi.org/10.1515/hukin-2017-0174. Accessed 19 May 2020.
- Ebben, W., et al. “Muscle Activation during Lower Body Resistance Training.” International Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 30, no. 01, 30 Oct. 2008, pp. 1–8, https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2008-1038785.
- Swinton, Paul A, et al. “A Biomechanical Analysis of Straight and Hexagonal Barbell Deadlifts Using Submaximal Loads.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 25, no. 7, July 2011, pp. 2000–2009, https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e73f87.
- Collins, Kyle S., et al. “Differences in Muscle Activity and Kinetics between the Goblet Squat and Landmine Squat in Men and Women.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. Publish Ahead of Print, 2 Aug. 2021, https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000004094.