Barbell Squat Alternatives: Grow Your Legs Even When You Can’t Squat

By Matt Walter
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Avoiding squats because of lower-back or knee pain? Try these movements and keep your gains going.

I get it, squats are king. But there are many reasons you may not want to do them. Maybe you have a low-back issue or bad knees. Maybe you’re bored or you’ve plateaued. Maybe you want some exercises that you can cycle in to keep your body guessing or just to give yourself a break. Or maybe you just don’t like them!

All of these are legitimate reasons to look for substitutes, and none of them mean that you won’t be able to continue your quest to massive legs.

Personally, I get far more out of front squats than I do back squats. I have long femurs and a short torso, so I always end up with a forward lean. This is fine, and I don’t have back issues, but my back always tires before my legs. If I do squat, I usually superset with quad extensions to pre-exhaust my legs, and then I let the squats push them past their limits.

But most of the time I’d rather just front squat or do many of the other movements I’m going to detail for you here.

Before you go any further, listen to Coach Thibaudeau explain why squats are important, but not necessarily one particular type of squat. Trust me, this video is 4 minutes well spent watching.

Read on to learn my favorite barbell squat alternatives. Or click below to jump to any exercise you want.

Barbell Squat Alternatives

The following are every back squat alternative I can think of. If you’re looking for something to take the place of squats in your leg routine, you’ll find a worthy substitute here. If you’re just looking for more movements you can add to your arsenal, you’ll find those, too.

I’ve got everything from beginner-friendly bodyweight movements, to advanced exercises that will challenge even the most battle-tested gym warrior.

Before we begin, let’s quickly cover squat technique:

Shoulder-width stance. You can go narrower or wider, but shoulder-width is the standard, especially for beginners.
Toes pointed slightly out, beginning at shoulder-width distance. Narrower than shoulder-width, toes straight ahead. The wider you go from shoulder-width, the further out your toes point.
Feet remain flat on the floor at all times, assuming a tri-pod foot position. If you come up onto your toes, you are going farther down than your mobility allows at the moment.
Your knees can track in front of your toes. Squat down comfortably for your body.
The further back you sit in your descent, the more glutes and hamstrings you’ll activate. The further you let your knees go in front of your toes the more quads you’ll use.

These are general guidelines. Now, onto the fun stuff.

Squat Movements

Air squats or Bodyweight Squats

Why they work: The ability to squat down to a full depth with just your own bodyweight and stand back up, especially without pain, is incredibly underrated. If holding weights is too much for you right now, simply work on full range of motion air squats, pain-free, and build up to as many as you can. Then begin adding weight with some of the other movements in this post.

I used to have older clients and those that were severely overweight sit onto a bench and then stand back. it’s incredible how demanding that can be! But a few sessions working on those and they began to earn back the ability to get up off their couch without help. Win!

Air Squat

How to Perform Air Squats:

Step 1: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out.

Step 2: Bend at the knee and hinge at the hip simultaneously. Think about sitting back into a chair…butt back and lower with your legs.

Step 3: Keep your back straight, and stay as vertical as possible throughout the movement.

Step 4: Squat down as far as you can. You should not feel pain in your lower back or knees, and your feet should remain flat on the floor. Do not come up on your toes! If you feel pain or your form breaks down, stop and return to your standing position.

Step 5: Repeat.

Air Squat Tips:

Start slow if you are new to squatting, and build to high-rep sets over time.

Wearing a weight vest is a great way to make the movement more challenging.

Keep your reps slow, controlled, and continuous. Make a point of not pausing at the bottom or the top of your reps. When you feel such a strong burn that you have to pause, call that end of your set and rest before doing another set.

Further engage your hips by wrapping a resistance band or Crossover Symmetry Halo around your thighs, just above the knees. Focus on pushing out against the band throughout the movement. Don’t let your knees cave!

Squat Jumps

Squat jumps are a great way to make air squats more challenging. Perform these exactly like a traditional air squat, but when you get to the bottom of your squat, stand explosively and jump off the ground. The more intensely you explode, the higher you’ll jump. Land softly. Repeat.

Jumping Air Squats

Wall Sits

Why They Work: My high school wrestling coach used to make us do these almost every practice. And, because it was wrestling, it was always a challenge to see who could hold on the longest. Those were some of the most excruciatingly painful things I’ve ever done in my life.

Wall Sits

Wall sits build static strength (strength in the exact position that you are holding the squat) and create an intense burn in the muscles as they consume oxygen to hold you up. These are great as a challenge for anyone, but if you have knee or low back pain and struggle with the up and down movement of squats, finding a comfortable position and holding it can be a great alternative.

How To Perform Wall Sits:

Step 1: Stand with your back against a wall and bring your feet out in front of you. Your feet should simply be comfortably spaced, not too wide, and not too narrow.

Step 2: While keeping your back flat against the wall, drop your butt down into a squat. The goal is that your knees should be bent at 90 degrees with your thighs parallel with the floor.

Step 3: Hold that position for as long as possible. Try to beat your previous record!

Step 4: Stand or let yourself fall to the floor when you can’t hold the position any longer.

Wall Sit Tips:

Only go as low as you can pain-free. If you feel too much pressure in your knees, stand a little higher.

Don’t let your hands sit on your thighs. Let them fall to your sides, or up over your head if you want a little added challenge.

Do these as one set to failure at the end of your workout, or as a quick pre-exhaust before sets of a compound movement, like squats or leg presses.

Or make these tougher by holding a weight out in front of you!

Wall Sit Modification With Added Weight

Wall Squats

Why They Work: Wall squats are a great squat alternative if you cannot do a barbell squat due to joint or ligament pain. You will be working with your own body weight, and the stability ball and wall add leverage and support.

Wall Squats With Stability Ball

How To Perform Wall Squats:

Step 1: Choose a stability ball and place it between the small of your back and a wall. Keep your torso upright, feet about shoulder-width apart, and your arms either relaxed at your side, on your hips, or across your shoulders.

Step 2: Bring your feet slightly out in front of you so that you can squat down and maintain a 90-degree bend at your knees.

Step 3: Stay vertical, keep pressure against the ball, and squat down as deep as you can go without pain. The ball should roll up your back as you drop into your squat.

Step 4: Return to your standing position.

Step 5: Repeat

Barbell Front Squats

Why They Work: The other barbell squat! You’re still using a barbell, but moving the bar to the front of the shoulders makes a huge difference. Front squats will engage more of the quads and less of the glutes than the back squat. Bodybuilders in the late 1990s and early 2000s started using these a lot to bring up their quads. I remember it was all over FLEX Magazine at that time.

Barbell Front Squats

But for those with lower-back pain front squats can be an amazing substitution! The bar in the front of the body forces you to keep your torso much more upright than with the bar on your back. This will take pressure off your low back. I have very long femurs and a short torso, which forces my upper body to hinge forward quite a lot when I back squat. I don’t have back issues, but my low back always tires before my quads. Front squats solve that!

Front squats also exert fewer compressive forces on the knees than back squats according to a 2009 study. Sot these may work for you if you have knee pain with traditional squats. (1)

How to Perform the Barbell Front Squat

There are many ways to hold the bar for front squats. I’ll detail them all after the following steps. Just choose the one that is the most comfortable.

Step 1: “Rack” a barbell across your shoulders.

Step 2: Keeping your torso upright, bend at the knees and squat down as low as possible without pain. The ultimate goal is to be able to squat to a full depth where your butt is close to your heels.

Step 3: Reverse your momentum and return to a standing position.

Step 4: Repeat.

Front Squat Tips:

Here are your basic front squat holds.

Olympic Clean Hold: Hands wrapped around the barbell, just outside your shoulders. bring your elbows up toward the ceiling as high as you can. This creates the shelf for the bar to sit on. Think “elbows up!” as you squat to keep your torso vertical.

Front Squat With Clean Grip

Hands Criss-Crossed: Set your shoulders into the bar and criss-cross (is gonna make you jump, jump!) your arms so that your right palm is on top of your left shoulder and your left palm is on top of your right shoulder. Again, elbows high to create a shelf for the bar.

Front Squat With Bodybuilder Grip

Hold the Center Knurl: Before I got into Olympic Lifting I used this grip. I kind of came up with it on my own. I’ve never seen anyone else use it. Wrap your hands around the very center of the bar with your pinkies touching. Bring your elbows high to create your shelf. You’ll kind of end up with your fists punching your throat. It’s more comfortable than it sounds, and I find it places less stress on my shoulders than the criss-cross method.

Front Squat With Middle Knurl Grip

Landmine Squats

Why they work: I love my landmine! It’s one of those pieces of equipment that I don’t absolutely have to have, but there’s no way I would give it up. Landmines have become popular recently, but for years we used to put the end of a barbell in a corner of a gym where two walls meet, weigh it down with a really heavy dumbbell, and have a make-shift landmine.

This is a great alternative that works all the same muscles as a traditional squat but allows for much more variation.

I have a landmine that is attached to its own platform. I got this from my father-in-law. I have no idea where he got it. I love it because it’s portable and it can handle more weight than I’ll ever use on it.

You can pick up this landmine that is designed to drop into the center hole in a weight plate. Super cool idea! I have not used this. Many of the reviews say it can only hold up to two 45-pound plates before it starts to pop out of the weight plate. But it’s cheap and will hold enough weight for most people.

If you have a squat cage at home, check with the manufacturer. Many of them have landmine attachments, like this one from Titan Fitness.

How to Perform Landmine Squats:

Step 1: Pick up the end of the barbell and hoist it onto one of your shoulders. If you have a bench available, place the free end of the barbell on the bench to make it easier to pick up.

Step 2: Place your feet shoulder-width apart and lower yourself into a squat by bending your knees and hinging at your waist.

Step 3: Drive your feet through the floor and explode, returning to a standing position.

Step 4: Repeat.

Landmine Squat Tips:

You can perform these facing the landmine or facing away from it. Facing the landmine will place more emphasis on your quads, facing away will emphasize the hamstrings and glutes.

Dumbbell or Kettlebell Goblet Squats

Why They Work: You’ll use less weight and have a more natural squat than with a barbell back squat. These are incredible even for advanced athletes, but they are also a great introductory exercise for beginners because the movement is so natural. They’re also a quad burner!

Kettlebell Goblet Squat

How to Perform Goblet Squats

Step 1: Hold a single weight (dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate) in front of your body, high up on your chest.

Step 2: Squat down by bending at your knees and maintaining a vertical torso. You don’t want the weight pulling you forward, placing unnecessary stress on your low back.

Step 3: Squat as low as you can go without pain and then reverse your momentum, returning to a standing position.

Step 4: Repeat.

Goblet Squat Tips:

Holding a dumbbell: chest height with your palms facing upward toward the ceiling, or both holding the handle of the dumbbell one on top of the other.

Dumbbell Goblet Squat

Holding a kettlebell: hold the KB by the horns so that the outside of your hand, just below your pinky fingers, is resting against the body of the bell. Think about holding the KB so that the top of the horn gives you a mustache. You can hold the kettlebell upside down as well, with the bell under your chin.

Kettlebell Goblet Squat Horns Up
Kettlebell Goblet Squat Horns Down

Whatever weight your using, make sure and keep your elbows tucked in against your body.

Kettlebell Squat or Double Kettlebell Squat

Why They Work: The single-arm variation of this movement requires unilateral strength, coordination, upper back strength, and core stability. The dual variation allows for added weight and requires more recruitment from the upper back muscle. KB squats force your torso to remain upright and result in a very natural squat. How much weight you can use will be limited by how much weight you can clean into position.

Dual Kettlebell Squat Front Rack

How to Perform Kettlebell Squats

Step 1: Clean 1 or 2 kettlebells into the rack position.

Step 2: Brace your core, hinge at your hips, and bend your knees to lower into a squat. Squat as low as you can without pain and without your heels coming off the ground.

Step 3: Reverse your momentum and return to a standing position.

Step 4: Repeat.

Kettlebell Squat Tips:

Hold the handle of the kettlebell toward the upper center of your chest. The bell should be toward your shoulder. If you are holding two KBs the handles or your knuckles should be touching.

Single Kettlebell Squat Front Rack

Dumbbell Squats

Why They Work: The CrossFit Open introduced many of us to this movement a few years ago, and now it’s become a staple for many. These are very similar to kettlebell squats, and their advantages are the same. You’ll use less weight than with a bar and people tend to have a natural squatting motion with these.

Single Dumbbell Squat Front Rack

How to Perform Dumbbell Squats

Step 1: Clean 1 or 2 dumbbells up onto your shoulders. You may hold them with one dumbbell end sitting on your shoulder (hands vertical) or with the dumbbells sitting on your shoulders, parallel with the floor.

Step 2: Brace your core, hinge at the hips, and bend your knees to lower into a squat. Squat as low as you can without pain and without your heels coming off the ground.

Step 3: Reverse your momentum and return to a standing position.

Step 4: Repeat.

Dumbbell Squat Tips:

Play around with these to find the most comfortable position to hold the dumbbells.

If you are using one dumbbell, try and keep your torso from turning to one side as you squat. Your core should hold your body straight forward.

You can also hold the dumbbells at your sides. If you have the DBs touch the ground at the completion of each rep, that is a dumbbell deadlift. But holding the DBs at your sides can allow you to do these without having to worry about getting the weight up to your shoulder, especially if you have elbow or shoulder concerns.

Wall Ball or Dead Ball (D-Ball) Squats

Why They Work: Man, these are fun! These are very functional (if that’s such a thing). I always picture Arnold at the beginning of Commando carrying the tree back to his house when I do these. These are the very definition of odd-object training and will force every muscle in your body to work while you squat. I’ll detail how to hold the ball after the performance steps.

How to Perform D-Ball Squats

Step 1: Clean a d-ball or wall ball into a comfortable position that you can hold while you squat.

Step 2: Squat down as low as you can pain-free.

Step 3: Reverse your momentum and return to a standing position.

Step 4: Repeat.

D-Ball Squat Tips:

There are two basic ways to hold the ball for these squats.

Hold the ball in front of your chest, with both arms wrapped around the ball. This method makes it very hard to breathe and forces your back to hold your body upright. Great for breathwork!

Hold the ball over one shoulder. This unilateral movement forces your core to work hard to keep your torso from turning or shifting to one side.

Jefferson Squats

Why They Work: Kai Greene popularized these. I’d never seen them before he started doing them. Some call this the Jefferson Deadlift because you lift the bar from the ground, like a deadlift. Unlike the deadlift, however, the weight is angled between your legs, and your torso stays very vertical throughout, with your pelvis rotated posteriorly underneath your chest. It’s a great exercise for working the muscles of the inner thighs.

How to Perform Jefferson Squats

Step 1: Place a barbell on the floor and stand over the middle of it so that it is positioned between your legs.

Step 2: Your legs should be wider than shoulder-width, with your toes angled outward.

Step 3: Bend your knees and grasp the front of the bar with one hand, the back of the bar with the other. Switch which hand is in front each set to promote balance.

Step 4: Stand straight up with the bar held between your legs.

Step 5: Squat back down by bending at your knees and keeping your back straight. Squat just until the barbell hits the floor, and then stand back up.

Step 6: Repeat.

Jefferson Squat Tips:

Keep your arms straight throughout the movement. You want your legs doing the work, not your arms.

These are best performed with a wider-than-normal stance. Somewhere between a shoulder-width and sumo stance.

Zercher Squats

Why They Work: Zercher squats are one of the most difficult barbell squat alternatives. Instead of holding the barbell on your shoulders or upper back, it rests in the crook of your elbows. Trust me, your biceps and front delts will be sore the day after training these!

Zercher Squat

Because the bar sits low on your body, beneath your chest, this exercise reduces the compressive forces on the spine considerably. And because the barbell is in front of your body you will be forced to maintain a vertical torso, further taking pressure off your low back.

How to Perform Zercher Squats

Step 1: Adjust your squat rack j-hooks so that your barbell is well below shoulder height. Start by trying it just below chest height. Slip your arms underneath the bar and let the bar rest in the crooks of your elbows.

Bend at the knees and hips, letting your glutes track backward, to lower yourself into a squat. When your quads reach parallel with the floor, drive up forcefully through your heels to the standing position.

Step 2: Walk the barbell out of the rack.

Step 3: Squat down by bending at the knees and hinging at the weight, but maintaining an upright torso.

Step 4: If you squat with a narrower stance, stop your descent when the barbell touches your thighs. I like to do these with a bit wider stance, and let my elbows drop between my thighs as I squat to a full depth.

Step 5: Return to a standing position.

Step 6: Repeat.

Zercher Squat Tips:

Wear long sleeves! At least the first time you try it. You can also wrap a towel around your barbell or use a barbell neck roll to protect the insides of your elbows. You’ll get used to the pain of these over time, though.

Belt Squats

Why They Work: Best squats are best performed on a machine called a Pit Shark or Belt Squat Machine. I’ve only gotten to use one once. They’re pretty rare, but are absolutely amazing! I’m saving up for one right now (I’ll purchase this Belt Squat Machine from Titan Fitness). You can do these at home or the gym, however, if you’re creative and have a dip belt and something to stand on. The weight hangs between your legs, which takes all the pressure off your lower back and focuses the movement on your quads.

Here I’m going to focus on how to do these at home, assuming you don’t have a Pit Shark. Or take a minute and watch Matt Goodwin with Elite FTS explain how to do these, along with an attachment he uses for them.

How to Perform Belt Squats

Step 1: Place a dip belt around your waist and attach the chain to a weight plate, dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell attached to a landmine.

Step 2: Stand on two elevated, stable surfaces that are the same height and tall enough that you can squat and still keep your weight suspended off the ground. They should have roughly a 1-foot distance between them.

Step 3: Bend your knees and hinge at your waist, squatting as low as possible without pain.

Step 4: Return to a standing position.

Step 5: Repeat.

Belt Squat Tips:

Stand on the surfaces before you attach your weight. Otherwise, you’ll have to perform a box step-up to get into position, which may limit the amount of weight you can use.

Cyclist Squats

Why They Work: Cyclist squats can be performed with a barbell in any position we’ve talked about, a goblet squat-style, or with your bodyweight. These are performed on a slant board or other implement that will elevate your heels about 3-inches above your toes. The movement focuses on your quads, most specifically on the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), affectionately known as the Tear Drop.

They are an incredible quad burner and the elevated heel position helps you get into a full squat depth without knee pain. Read more in-depth about Cyclist Squats here, including an awesome video explanation.

How to Perform Cyclist Squats

Step 1: Set up your slant board or heel-elevating platform and position it behind you.

Step 2: Get your weight (barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbell) into your desired position.

Step 3: Carefully step back onto your slant board or riser with both feet close together and toes pointed straight ahead.

Step 4: Begin your squat by bending at the knees, not at the hips.

Step 5: Let your knees pass in front of your toes as you squat to the lowest depth you can comfortably and safely reach. Maintain a fully upright torso throughout the descent.

Step 6: Pause slightly at the bottom before reversing the movement and returning to a fully standing position.

Step 7: Repeat.

Cyclist Squat Tips:

This is a quad movement, not a hip movement. You’ll do all of your work from your knees, not hinging at the hips.

Sissy Squat

Why They Work: The sissy squat is an incredible exercise for building quads, strengthening your hip flexors, and bullet-proofing your core all at the same time. The free-standing version of the movement is performed by locking your feet in place and rising up on your toes as you lean your upper body away from your knees.

For today, we’re going to focus on using a sissy squat bench.

My article How to Perform Sissy Squats has a great video that will show you multiple ways to perform free-standing sissy squats. It also details the sissy squat bench I have and personally use.

How to Perform Sissy Squats

Step 1: Adjust the foot roller pads so that your feet are locked into place on the bench’s platform.

Step 2: The adjustable calf pad should be pressing into your calves, just below your knees.

Step 3: Sit back into a squat by leaning back and away from your feet (your upper body should be either directly upright or leaning slightly backward; no leaning forward at all)

Step 4: Return almost to a standing position, but maintain a slight backward lean to keep pressure on the quads.

Step 5: Repeat.

Sissy Squat Tips:

Do not lockout at the top of each repetition. This exercise is ideal for keeping tension on your quads and building a good, deep burn. And a sissy squat bench will hold you in place, so you don’t have to worry about balancing at the top of each rep.

Maintain a slight backward lean throughout the entire rep. Again, this will stretch the quads and strengthen your hip flexors and core at the same time.

Lunge Movements

Lunges, Walking Lunges, and Reverse Lunges

Why They Work: Lunges can be performed in so many ways. You’ll never get bored with variations! You can step forward, step backward, walk, step onto a weight plate, step off of a weight plate, hold dumbbells or kettlebells, use a barbell or weight vest…you’re only limited by your imagination!

Many people use lunges in the same workout they squat in, but if you can’t squat for one reason or another these can be done in their place. Lunges work your quadriceps, calves, hamstrings (especially the glute-ham tie-in), and your glutes. If you haven’t been doing lunges lately you may find it hard to sit the next day. These are especially good at targeting your glutes!

Some people complain that lunges cause pain in their knees, but they’re likely to find a pain-free variation if they try some of the tips I’ll list after explaining how to perform them.

Forward Lunge

How to Perform Lunges

Step 1: Take a big step forward, being mindful to land on your heel, not your forefoot.

Step 2: While keeping a vertical torso, lower your hips by flexing your forward knee and dropping your rear knee toward the ground. Your front leg knee should bend at 90 degrees and your thigh should end up parallel with the floor.

Step 3: Lower your body as far as you can without pain, possibly even touching your rear knee to the ground.

Step 4: Press off the floor through your front foot’s heel, pushing your upper body back to a fully standing position.

Step 5: Gather your feet together, and then repeat for another rep.

Lunge Tips:

If lunges bother your knees, experiment with various torso angles or lunge styles. I find that leaning slightly forward instead of keeping a fully upright body angle can alleviate knee pain. Or try any of these types of lunges until you find one you like.

Reverse lunges: instead of stepping forward, step backward. I find this version to be much less straining on the knees. With a forward lunge, you have to push back to return to a standing position. With a reverse lunge, you end up pushing forward to get back to standing. This more closely resembles walking, which is a natural movement. If lunges bother your knees, definitely try these instead!

Reverse Lunge

Walking lunges: these are almost a combination of the standard lunge and the reverse lunge. Step forward and drop into a full lunge, like normal. But, instead of pushing back off your front leg to return to standing, push forward and bring your rear leg forward to meet up with your front leg. Just like walking. Gather your feet together, and then step forward with the other leg. Continue walking until you reach the number of reps you want.

Walking Lunge

One leg at a time: you don’t have to alternate legs. You can focus just on one leg for an entire set. Step forward (or backward), lunge, return to standing, and then step with the same leg again. Do as many reps as you want without alternating legs. Rest, and then do a set focusing on the other leg.

Jumping Lunges

Why They Work: These are fantastic as an explosive movement, they require total body coordination, and they jack your heart rate up, which makes them a great conditioning tool as well.

Jumping Lunge

How to Perform Jumping Lunges

Step 1: Step forward and drop into a full lunge with your front knee bent at 90 degrees and your rear knee touching (or almost touching) the ground.

Step 2: Explode with both feet at the same time and jump in the air.

Step 3: While in mid-air, switch feet so that now your front foot is your back foot.

Step 4: Land with your feet now in their new position. The front foot should land flat, back foot should land on the forefoot.

Step 5: Repeat.

Jumping Lunge Tips:

When you are just learning these, jump in the air and just bring your feet back together so you land in a standing position.

As you get more comfortable with these, switch feet mid-air. Land, gather yourself and your balance and then drop into a lunge.

Once you are very comfortable with these you can land wit your feet switched and drop immediately into a full lunge without resting to regain your balance.

Make these more difficult by wearing a weight vest or holding dumbbells at your sides.

Single-Leg Movements

Pistol Squats

Why They Work: I love pistol squats! These are my go-to leg exercise if I’m short on time and want to get in a killer leg workout. Pistol squats (AKA single-leg squats) are definitely an advanced movement. They require a lot of balance, a good range of motion in your hips, and solid coordination. But if you can do them properly they are awesome!

Pistol squats are particularly good at targeting the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO) and adductor brevis muscle. Basically, all the muscles of your inner thighs. These are especially important muscles for helping your kneecaps track properly.

Pistol Squat

How to Perform Pistol Squats

Step 1: Stand on one leg and bring the other leg out in front of you with that foot up off the floor.

Step 2: Bend your knee and lower your body toward the ground while keeping the elevated foot from touching the ground.

Step 3: Ideally you should be able to bring your butt all the way down to your heel, hamstring smashed against your calf. Your ground foot should remain flat throughout the entire movement.

Step 4: Push off your ground foot and rise back to a standing position.

Step 5: Repeat on the same leg, or alternate between legs.

Pistol Squat Tips:

You will see some people holding onto the toebox of their elevated foot so that it stays off the floor. Avoid this if possible. Your hip flexors should be able to hold the elevated leg off the ground on their own, which will help make them stronger.

Try and maintain a small amount of separation between your thighs as you squat. This will force your working leg’s adductors to be more involved.

Short on time? Do these as a Death By…Start a running clock. At 3…2…1…Go, do one pistol squat on each leg. Rest for the remainder of the minute. At the top of the next minute, perform 2 pistol squats on each leg. Continue in this manner, adding one rep to each leg at the top of each minute until you can’t complete the required number of reps during a given minute. Push these hard and you won’t walk the next day!

Box Pistol Squat

Why They Work: Pistol squats are super advanced. If you’ve never tried them before, I recommend you start with is the box pistol squat. By standing on a box you are able to scale how deep into the squat you go. Start with a low box height, and progress to a higher box as you get stronger. 3-in-1 Plyo Boxes are great for this because you’ll be able to start low and advance as you get stronger with this movement.

How to Perform Box Pistol Squats

Step 1: Stand on a box or bench with one foot at the edge of the box and the other leg hanging off the side of the box.

Step 2: Bend at the knee and drop into a squat, letting your outside leg trail along the side of the box.

Step 3: Stop your descent when your foot touches the ground.

Step 4: Reverse your momentum, push off your box foot, and come back to a fully standing position. Try not to push off the ground with your outside foot. You want your focus leg to be doing the work.

Step 5: Repeat.

Box Pistol Squat Tips:

When you can perform 8 to 12 good reps on each side, move to a higher box. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you can perform a full pistol squat standing on a box. Then it’s time to try one from the floor.

Bulgarian Split Squats

Why They Work: Bulgarian Split Squats are kind of a cross between a squat and lunge. The rear foot is elevated on a box or bench, and focus is placed on the forward leg. You will often hear these called Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS), which is their super literal name.

According to strength coach Mike Boyle, who popularized this movement, Bulgarian Split Squats allow fuller loading of the leg being worked by removing the back from the equation.

The lunge position makes it easy to maintain an upright posture, allowing you to work your legs, glutes, and hips without excess pressure on your lower back. There is one key to this movement, however, that most people get wrong, which I’ll explain.

Bulgarian Split Squat

How to Perform Bulgarian Split Squats

Step 1: Place a box or bench several feet behind you and set one foot up on the bench. It should be far enough behind you that you can lunge/squat down and have your front let’s knee bend at 90 degrees (trying to keep your knee from tracking in front of your toes).

Step 2: While keeping an upright torso, bend at your knee and drop as far down as possible without pain. You do not have to touch your rear knee to the ground! Just as far as possible.

Step 3: Return to the top of the movement by pushing powerfully off your front foot.

Step 4: Repeat on the same leg as many times as necessary.

Step 5: Rest, and then perform a set with your other leg.

Bulgarian Split Squat Tips:

Keep your torso upright throughout the entire movement. Don’t lean forward or arch your back! If you find yourself falling forward, get lighter weight.

A standard bench at your gym is usually the right height for most people. Just play around until you find a height that is comfortable.

These can also be performed with your back leg on a stability ball, in a TRX band (which they call TRX Lunges), or in a gymnastics ring. All of those will make the movement more difficult because the rear leg will not have a stable surface to support itself on.

Here is where most people go wrong with this movement: the foot that is elevated on the bench should be resting on the tip-toe of your shoe. Not lying flat on your shoelaces, like you’ll see most people do. You should almost be able to wiggle your toes inside your shoe at any point throughout the movement. You want to make sure that your front leg is doing almost all of the work.

Make the movement more difficult by adding a weight vest, holding dumbbells or kettlebells, at your sides or in the front rack position, or holding a barbell across your back or front rack.

Step-ups

Why They Work: Step-ups are another exercise where each of your legs has to work individually. You can perform these on any stable surface, but a good plyometric box is ideal. Benches in your local gym are squishy, which can make the movement unstable. Be very careful with that if you have bad ankles.

One of the most unique things about these is that the movement begins with the concentric portion of the lift. You aren’t dropping into a squat, you’re starting from the bottom. Almost like a pause squat. This can make them very effective for working strength out of the bottom of a squat.

Box Step Up

How to Perform Step-Ups

Step 1: Place one foot flat on top of a box, bench, or another stable surface.

Step 2: Push through the foot on the box, bringing your entire body up and landing your non-working foot on the box.

Step 3: Remove the non-working foot from the box and lower yourself back down to the ground.

Step 4: Repeat with the same leg, or alternate each rep.

Step-Up Tips:

Plyo boxes that can be adjusted to different heights are definitely a great investment for this exercise. Any height has advantages, even the low heights.

The higher the box height you choose, the more glutes and hamstrings you’ll work. Lower box heights will focus more on your quad muscles.

Try not to push off your ground foot. You want to do all the work with your foot on top of the box.

Front Foot Elevated Split Squat

Why They Work: Split squats begin just like lunges, but you don’t gather your feet back together at the completion of each rep, similar to the Bulgarian Split Squat. My favorite version of these involves adding a small elevated surface to either stop onto or off of. A 45-pound weight plate is ideal. This increases the range of motion for the exercise, further activating the target muscles.

Split Squat

How to Perform Front Foot Elevated Split Squats

Step 1: Place a weight plate or other slightly elevated object on the floor in front of you. Step onto the plate with one foot, leaving one leg behind you. You will look like you’re about to perform a lunge.

Step 2: Bend at the knee and squat down, mimicking a lunge movement.

Step 3: Push off the front foot, rising back to your starting position, but not collecting your feet back together.

Step 4: Repeat for your target reps before returning to a fully standing position with both feet together.

Step 5: Repeat.

Front Foot Elevated Split Squat Tips:

If you want to really focus on your quads, lean slightly forward into your lead foot and let your knee travel slightly past your toes.

If you really want to focus on your glues and high hamstrings, stay upright. The elevation of your front foot will give you an extra stretch in the glute-ham tie-in.

Make these more difficult by holding weights or with a barbell across your back or front rack.

Machine Movements

Leg Presses

Why They Work: The leg press is a great alternative to the squat. Many people will perform both squats and leg presses, but this can be the primary mass and strength builder for people that can’t squat for one reason or another.

Leg Press

Dorian Yates, 6-time Mr. Olympia, squatted in his early days, but rarely if ever squatted throughout his professional bodybuilding career. He found leg presses more effective at working his legs due to his long femurs and short torso.

How to Perform Leg Presses:

Step 1: Place your feet on the sled platform and push upwards to release the sled from the supporting racks.

Step 2: Keep your back and glutes flat against their supporting pads as you lower the sled by bringing your knees toward your chest.

Step 3: Bring your knees as close to your chest or armpits as possible without pain.

Step 4: Push your feet against the sled and drive it away from your body.

Step 5: Do not lock your knees at the top of the movement. This could cause you to hyperextend your knees, possibly causing injury.

Step 6: Repeat.

Leg Press Tips:

A narrower stance places more emphasis on the quadriceps. A wider stance will place more emphasis on your glutes, hamstrings, and adductors (inner thigh muscles).

Placing your feet lower on the platform is going to place more emphasis on your quads while placing your feet higher on the platform with place more emphasis on your glutes and hamstrings.

Single-Leg Leg Press: this is a harder variation that allows you to focus on one leg at a time and prevent or improve imbalances.

Deadlift Movements

Suitcase Deadlift

Why They Work: The traditional deadlift works the legs along with the back, but not to a great extent. If you absolutely can’t squat but you can deadlift, you should. The suitcase deadlift can be a great alternative to the squat due to a longer range of motion and less forward lean.

You can perform these with dumbbells or kettlebells, holding a weight in each hand or only one side. Holding a single KB or DB at one side is a great core movement as well!

How to Perform Suitcase Deadlifts

Step 1: Stand with your feet shoulder-width or narrower and a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells just outside your feet.

Step 2: Bend down and grasp the dumbbells or kettlebells. Keep your head up and maintain a neutral spine. Do not overarch or round your back.

Step 3: Push your feet through the floor and rise to a fully standing position.

Step 4: While maintaining a neutral spine, lower the weights back to the floor.

Step 5: Repeat.

DB or KB Deadlift Tips:

Treat these like a squat, not a stiff-leg or Romanian deadlift. Keep your torso tall and use your legs.

You will see these performed with a single kettlebell or dumbbell held with both hands in front of the body. This version is a great alternative to the barbell deadlift, but not the squat.

Barbell Hack Squat

Why They Work: You’ve probably done hack squats at some point. This is how hack squats were performed before there were hack squat machines. This movement is an incredible quad builder! This will look and feel weird in the beginning. It’s basically a deadlift, except the bar is behind your legs instead of in front.

Because the weight is behind your body it is easier to keep a vertical torso. Unlike traditional deadlifts that force your upper body to lean forward. Hack squats have always bothered my knees, but these never do. And this is a great version if you workout at home! You can get a great quad workout, and lift heavy, even if you don’t have a squat cage or rack.

How to Perform Barbell Hack Squats

Step 1: approach your barbell just as you would a deadlift, but turn around and stand with your back to the bar so that your calves are touching the bar instead of your shins.

Step 2: with your feet shoulder-width apart, bend and grasp the bar with an overhand grip (pronated, palms facing behind you).

Step 3: deadlift the bar to a standing position. The bar will travel up the back of your legs and you should feel the movement in your quads.

Step 4: slowly lower the weight back to the ground. Repeat as necessary. You will feel this movement much less in your back than you do with traditional deadlifts and should notice a huge burn in your quads after just a few reps.

Step 5: Repeat.

Barbell Hack Squat Tips:

Don’t worry about your hamstrings getting in the way! In fact, having to move the barbell around your hamstrings is part of what forces the movement to really hit your quads.

Other Lower Body Alternatives

Sled Push

Sled Push

Why They Work: Sled pushes are a great way to increase your leg training volume without squatting. And they’re basically impossible to do wrong! Load up a sled and push it! And they’re low impact, so they’re a great alternative if you have knee, hip, or low back concerns.

Don’t let their simplicity fool you, though! They are brutal! Pushing the sled is the variation that most closely resembles the squat, but you can also pull the sled, which absolutely lights up your quads. If you don’t have a sled, get one.

How to Perform Sled Pushes

Step 1: Load some weight onto a sled.

Step 2: Push it or pull it. Simple.

Step 3: Go for distance or a set number of steps.

Sled Push Tips:

Make these more difficult by pushing or pulling the sled up a slight incline.

Hip Thrusts

Why They Work: Hip thrusts are an ideal exercise to work your glutes if you can’t squat. I also recommend these for anyone that focuses more on front squats than back squats. The vertical torso held in the front squat is great for quads but can neglect the glutes.

How to Perform Hip Thrusts

Step 1: Sit on the floor with your back against a bench and a loaded barbell across your lap/hip crease.

Step 2: Push up onto the bench so that your upper body just below your shoulder blades lays comfortably across the bench.

Step 3: Bend your knees and push the floor away, driving your hips up toward the ceiling.

Step 4: Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement, and then lower your hips back to the ground.

Step 5: Repeat.

Hip Thrust Tips:

You can place a towel or neck roll across the barbell to make the movement more comfortable. Especially if you’re lifting quite a bit of weight.

Conclusion: Barbell Squat Alternatives

There’s no need to be stuck in the same old routine when it comes to your fitness! Experiment with different movements and lifting forms that will target your lower body muscles from new angles and allow you to work around injuries without sacrificing your gains. I hope this article has inspired you to discover some great ways to work your quads at home without relying on barbell squats alone!

What is your favorite barbell squat alternative exercise?

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References

  1. Gullett, Jonathan C et al. “A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals.” Journal of strength and conditioning research vol. 23,1 (2009): 284-92. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb
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AUTHOR

Matt has been a personal trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.

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