These days everyone is extra jazzed up about the “big 3” powerlifting movements. Back squats, deadlifts, and barbell bench presses are making it into more and more training programs around the world. For the most part, this is a great thing. These movements represent three variations of the foundational squat, hinge, and pressing movement patterns. Therefore, doing these movements consistently is sure to increase your general strength and athleticism. However, people often get a bit up in arms about how these exercises need to be performed.
Take the back squat for example. Powerlifters have their reservations about what constitutes a true and honest rep. The hips must descend below parallel and the weight must stay firmly planted on your back in order for the rep to count. Have the audacity to squat to parallel or even slightly above and you’ll be ridiculed by the purists of the world. But should this really be the case? Is back squatting ass to grass really necessary for everyone? In truth, countless variations of the squat pattern can be extremely effective in training. In fact, getting away from competition style back squatting can be a good thing even if you are looking to compete in powerlifting. Overall, it pays for just about anyone to incorporate some alternatives to the traditional back squat into their training.
The Back Squat Isn’t for Everyone
First, let me explain why someone would even want to perform any alternatives to the back squat. There is no doubt that the back squat is generally one of the most effective and beneficial exercises out there for lower body development. The strength and muscle mass you can build with back squats is relatively unmatched by other exercises. But, despite these lofty accolades, there are times when people are better off leaving back squats out of their training program.
For instance, a beginner who lacks the coordination and/or technique to perform the back squat should opt for something less complex. Once they build up the squat pattern with alternative exercises, they can progress to the more challenging and complex back squat movement. Unfortunately, many people do not employ this strategy. Instead, they power through the early stages with compromised form, resulting in either injury or a feature on the quarter squat gang social media page. Either one of those is an event that you might never fully recover from.
Another reason to try some alternatives would be to incorporate basic movement variety and variation in the training program. Back squats are an awesome exercise, but too much of a good thing can start to have a negative effect. If all you ever do is back squats for lower body development, you will eventually stall out and likely experience some sort of issue. Changing the stimulus and working the musculature/pattern in a different way is a fundamental quality of a good training program. This will allow you to develop a more well-rounded physique and strength pattern given the different motor pattern and muscle recruitment you will experience from other exercises. In the end, you actually end up improving your back squat and leg development to a greater extent when you switch things up from time to time.
Now that I have explained some of the reasons that you might want to change up your exercise selection, let’s talk about the most beneficial alternatives. The one that is best for you will come down to your experience level, end goal, and current phase of training. And while the following exercises are some of the best alternatives to the back squat, this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list.
A simple change to the bar position in a squat can make a world of difference. While it is likely that you have to use a lighter load in the front squat compared to the back squat, the change in stimulus makes up for the difference. Front squats require a more upright torso and place more emphasis on quadriceps strength. This makes it a great exercise to work on weak quads as a substitution for back squats in the offseason. It can even be included as an accessory movement in the weeks leading to competition peaking. However, just as with the back squat, this movement can be difficult for beginners and so must be used appropriately based on experience level.
Safety Bar Squat (SSB)
Many people struggle to find the mobility to perform front squats or perhaps are dealing with a pec, shoulder, or elbow injury. In steps the genius of the safety squat bar. Although the bar is placed on your back, handles extend out with allow you to comfortably control the bar without torquing your arms in an uncomfortable position. Additionally, the bar is cambered in a way that shifts the center of gravity towards the front of your body, similar to a front squat. You can usually load up the SSB much heavier than a front squat, which makes it a good pick for heavy training and intensification phases. Many powerlifters even use it in the final stages of their meet prep. Also, given its ergonomic design, it may actually represent a more user friendly variant for beginners compared to the traditional back and front squat.
While most will favor free weight exercise over machines, this one in particular is very worthwhile. Often times, users are able to handle about as much weight on the hack squat machine as they can in the back squat. In that way, it offers a similar stimulus as far as load is concerned. However, the mechanics of the hack squat place a different demand on the body compared to a back squat. Again, we see that this movement forces you to keep a more upright torso which creates more strain on the quadriceps. Additionally, the machine has a fixed track, which means you won’t be able to wiggle around your bar path if you hit a sticking point. Overall, I find this variant to be useful for hypertrophy work, or perhaps as a way to stimulate a heavy squat pattern every now and then. Beginners and advanced trainees alike can benefit from this movement.
Although they are not often found in gyms these days, belt squats offer a great alternative to the back squat. There is far less strain being placed on the spine in this movement, and it allows you to squat in a more natural pattern. And because you are removing the limiting factor of back extensor strength, you are able to load up the legs with a greater amount of weight compared to the back squat. You can think of the belt squat sort of like an upright, more practical/functional leg press. This is a great variant for teaching beginners how to squat while also giving them a good amount of load. However, it can also be used by strength/hypertrophy focused individuals as well as those who are especially looking to spare their backs from too much strain and loading.
Sometimes you don’t need to load things up super heavy in order to get a good result. This is especially true in the earlier stages of training when learning proper form takes precedence. The goblet squat is perhaps the most effective exercise for teaching beginners how to squat properly with a bit of load. It can also be used to help correct the form of those who may have skipped straight to back squats when they first got started. However, goblet squats can also be an awesome exercise for training the squat pattern for a lower intensity focused session. The limiting factor is usually spinal erector endurance, but improving that will only serve to improve your back squat as well. Try elevating your heel or using tempo to make this exercise extremely challenging!
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
People tend to focus too much on bilateral movement and ignore unilateral training. However, using some unilateral exercises in your training can make a big difference. The rear foot elevated split squat is one of the best single leg exercises you can do as far as strength and hypertrophy are concerned. It is quite versatile in that you can use dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and even bands to perform this exercise. Additionally, you maximally stimulate one leg at a time which allows you to correct any strength discrepancies you may have between legs. However, some find this exercise challenging from a balance and coordination perspective, and so it may be too advanced for some people.
Traditional Split Squats
If the rear foot elevated split squat is too uncomfortable for you, then regular split squats are another great single leg option. You can also perform these with a variety of equipment, although it is most common to see it done with dumbbells or a barbell. Essentially, you place most of the load on one leg and use your other leg to help guide/balance you throughout the movement. You don’t have to use as much total load since you are only training one leg at a time, which means less spinal loading and less nervous system impact. This variant is a bit more user friendly which makes it a good option for beginners and advanced lifters alike. Hypertrophy and strength adaptations can be had with this exercise depending on the load you choose.
People don’t often think of the lunge as a squat type of movement. However, it is essentially just a split squat put into motion. Again, you can use either dumbbells/kettlebells or a barbells to do lunges and they can be loaded heavy or light depending on your end goal. However, you often see lunges being used to elicit more of a hypertrophic response rather than a pure strength response. Coordination can be an issue here, especially when you choose to employ the walking lunge variation. Given that quality, it is often best to nail down perfect form in the split squat or static lunge first. However, depending on the variant you use, the lunge can be used by lifters of pretty much any experience level.
Taking things all the way back to basics, the pistol squat is a great exercise for teaching single leg control. It requires a combination of foot strength, coordination, and mobility in order to perform a true pistol squat. Funny enough, even some of the strongest squatters in the world are humbled by an inability to perform just one bodyweight pistol squat. This might make it seem like pistol squats are for advanced trainees only. However, there are ways to make the pistol squat more doable for everyone. Little tricks like using a box or a counterweight can help many people achieve a modified pistol squat. Over time, you can slowly remove the assistance until you are able to perform a true rep. This movement may not result in awesome gains in muscle mass or strength, but it will make subtle improvements to your stability in a traditional squat. As a result, you’ll be in a better position to squat heavier in the future.
When it comes to training the squat pattern, we can’t just rely on the back squat forever. There are so many other exercises you can use to get a similar stimulus while also accruing additional benefits you can’t get from back squatting. For most people, it probably comes down to getting comfortable with the way their training is laid out. When you get good at back squatting, you naturally want to perform that exercise over anything else, but we can’t truly grow if we remain comfortable in our exercise selection. Including some exercises you “suck” at will only make you a better lifter in the long run. If your goal is be a powerlifter, then you are going to need to do a fair amount of back squatting, but you can still include variations and accessory movements to make yourself better. And if you have no plans to compete, then you have no excuse not to try some other exercises on for size. In the end, you’ll find that a little bit of variation will take you a long way!