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While barbell back squats are widely recognized as a great way of building strong leg muscles, if you’ve been relying on them for your leg workouts for a long time, it could be beneficial to explore alternative squat variations that are just as effective for adding muscle and increasing strength.
Switching up your squat routine with an efficient barbell back squat alternative can offer several benefits.
First off, it can help prevent training plateaus by challenging your muscles in new ways, promoting continuous growth and strength development.
Different squat variations work your muscles in distinct ways which can contribute to a well-rounded lower body development.
Secondly, incorporating alternatives to the standard barbell squat can be perfect for you if you have mobility issues or specific injuries that could limit your ability to perform a regular back squat.
By exploring various squat variations, you not only keep your workouts engaging but also tailor them to better suit your individual fitness needs and goals.
Barbell Back Squat Alternatives To Blow Up Your Legs
Let’s look at some of the best squat alternatives that can substitute a back squat.
If you’re comfortable using a barbell when squatting but you’d prefer not to load the weight on your upper back, then the front squat is an excellent alternative.
Front squatting is considered more of a functional movement when compared to a back loaded squat and it’ll put more emphasis on your quadriceps muscles with less focus on your posterior chain.
When performing a front squat, you’ll find you have a broader range of motion and be able to achieve a greater squat depth.
This is due to the more upright torso position you need to adopt.
This also makes the front squat easier to do so it’s a good option for beginners.
If you don’t suffer from any lower back issues and can do back squats, performing a combination of front loaded and back loaded squats is one of the best ways to develop your legs.
The dumbbell squat is a great exercise if you want to squat without too much weight.
You’ll be holding a pair of dumbbells either down by your sides or up at your shoulders.
When compared to a barbell, the dumbbells will give you better freedom of movement making it a great choice if you have any mobility issues.
However, it’s worth pointing out that the weight you can squat will be determined by your grip strength, so you’ll probably have to avoid heavy weight for this exercise.
There are a couple of differences in form with dumbbell squatting.
If you hold the dumbbells up at shoulder height, you’ll be able to squat with a full range of motion.
Compare this to holding them at your sides, where the dumbbells will hit the ground before you achieve a deep squat.
The goblet squat involves holding a single dumbbell or kettlebell up at your chest with both hands.
As the weight load is positioned in front of you, this does make it a little easier to perform with less load being squatted.
You can alter the center of gravity by holding the weight further away from your chest.
What this does is encourages more activation of your core muscles and helps you to maintain a more upright position helping to prevent butt wink.
This is when your pelvis tucks under at the bottom of the squat which can put excessive stress on your lumbar spine.
As with any squat alternative where the load is in front of your body, this does affect how the muscle groups are recruited.
Your glutes, hamstrings and lower back are worked during the goblet squat but there is more engagement of your quads and core.
When doing a goblet squat you need to squat deep as it’s an ‘ass to grass’ movement and a great alternative for improving your mobility and overall biomechanics.
Using a leg press machine is one of the best alternatives to back squats if you want to reduce any weight load on your lower back.
Leg presses follow a very similar movement pattern to squatting and can overload the leg muscles in the same way.
Not everyone has the best body mechanics for back squatting.
If you have particularly long upper legs, it can be even more challenging to execute a proper back squat without arching your lower back.
But that’s where the leg press comes in.
This will allow you to train your leg muscles to failure without stress on your low back muscles keeping you locked into the correct position.
Lunges can be done either as a bodyweight exercise or by holding a pair of dumbbells.
It’s a unilateral exercise meaning that you work one leg at a time.
The primary muscles worked during a lunge are the quads, glutes, and core.
Aside from these muscles the lunge will also recruit your shoulders, upper back and arms which come in to play to help stabilize your upper body.
A key benefit of lunges is that working each leg independently can help you address muscle imbalances.
A common mistake when performing a dumbbell lunge is taking either too large or too small a step forward.
Doing this can result in poor form and a rounding of your lower back.
When you’re in the starting position you want to think of moving your body downwards as opposed to forwards and make sure to keep your weight equally distributed between your front foot and the ball of your back foot.
The great thing about lunges is that they’re very versatile.
As well as forward lunges, you can also incorporate lateral lunges (stepping to the side) or reverse lunges (stepping back) into your training program.
Bulgarian Split Squats
The Bulgarian split squat is a single-leg squat variation that can make a great alternative to regular back squats.
It involves adopting a similar position to the lunge but also requires you to elevate your back foot on a surface like a step-up box or weight bench.
This increases your range of motion helping to encourage flexibility and mobility.
Unlike the back squat, the Bulgarian Split Squat places less axial loading on your spine, making it potentially more suitable if you happen to have lower back concerns.
It can be performed as a bodyweight exercise although you can resistance with kettlebells, dumbbells, or a barbell.
The Zercher squat is a front-loaded squat variation, but instead of holding the barbell just under your chin, you position it in the crooks of your arms.
While it makes for a great back squat variation it can also be substituted for a front squat if you have poor wrist mobility.
When compared to the back squat, the weight load is positioned closer to your body’s midline.
This means it better mimics activities you perform in everyday life that involve lifting and carrying making it ideal for improving functional strength.
The Zercher squat will work your muscles a little differently but is still great way of improving your lower body strength and adding size, especially to your gluteus maximus, the largest glute muscle.
Smith Machine Squats
Smith machine squats can make for a good alternative to free weight back squats when it comes to increasing muscle mass to your hamstrings, quads, and glutes.
It’s worth noting that the fixed bar path when squatting on a smith machine does reduce recruitment of your stabilization muscles so won’t have the same effect on core strength.
The guided movement of the bar on a smith machine can be ideal if you’re new to squatting or have trouble maintaining balance with heavy back squats.
What’s more, most offer safety catchers so in the event of a failed lift it’s easy to dump the bar.
The pistol squat is one of the most difficult body weight squat variations you can do.
It’s a unilateral movement where you squat as low as possible with one leg extended straight out in front of you.
It requires exceptional mobility and balance, and before trying them you should already be adept at regular squatting.
So, it’s important not to jump straight into them as you’ll need to progress to a well-executed pistol squat with lots of practice beforehand.
It’s been suggested that pistol squats can be bad for your joints.
But that’s not the case.
With practice and when done properly, your hips, ankles and knees can become much stronger with this type of squat.
Can You Replace A Barbell Back Squat With Dumbbells
It’s perfectly acceptable to replace a barbell back squat with dumbbells.
In fact, if you keep the reps high and squat with a lighter weight, you can achieve similar results in terms of muscle gains than you could with heavy barbell back squats.
While you can also increase your leg strength with dumbbell squatting it won’t have the same impact as barbell squats.
The reason for this is that lifting heavy weights provides optimum results when it comes to strength gains.
What Is A Machine Substitute For Back Squats
If you’re in the gym and looking to replace back squats by using machines, there are several great options worth considering.
There are three types of leg press you can come across in the gym.
The most common of which is the 45-degree leg press which has a sled that you push your legs against at a 45 degree angle.
The leg press follows a similar movement path when compared to doing back squats making it a great substitute.
Other variations of leg press include the horizonal leg press which involves pushing the weight load in a horizonal plane and the vertical leg press which requires you to push the sled straight up towards the ceiling.
The muscles worked when using a leg press are the quads, glutes and hamstrings and by altering the position of your feet, you can place more emphasis on the different muscles.
The hack squat is a great alternative to back squats that provides full support for your upper body.
This is perfect if you want to keep any stress off of your lower back but still want to squat heavy weights.
The weight load on a hack squat is usually located directly behind you and runs on a sled.
You lock your shoulders under the pads and squat with a fixed plane of motion which can lower the risk of injury compared to the back squat.
Depending on how you position your feet on the footplate will determine which muscles are being worked the most but typically the muscles recruited when using a hack squat are the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles.
The belt squat is the truest to life squat machine there is so if you’re looking for the closest match, then this is it.
There are two different types, one which runs on a cable system and the other using a pivot.
In our opinion, the pivot system belt squat is the best as it keeps the weight load positioned either side of your body making it more representative of a barbell back squat.
It also doesn’t have the same ‘drag’ feeling associated with cable machines that can feel a little jerky and unnatural.
The key benefit of belt squatting is you can go heavy, as you would with a regular back squat, but keep the load away from your lumbar spine.
It also forces you to adopt the correct position when squatting making it a great learning tool which is ideal for squatting newbies.
Sissy Squat Bench
The sissy squat is the most compact of machines but don’t be fooled by its small size.
It can provide a hugely efficient quad workout when used properly.
When it comes to back squat substitutes it definitely ranks as a good one, but it won’t give you the same results in terms of strength gains to your posterior chain.
This is because, even though it’s challenging to do, it’s still a bodyweight exercise.
Many people do sissy squats as a pre-curser to back squats to warm up or as a leg finisher after a heavy squat session.
If you don’t have any issues preventing you from doing a traditional squat, then it’s a good idea to incorporate them along with the alternatives mentioned in this article.
Even though the back squat alternatives recommended here can provide excellent muscle and strength gains to your lower body, they should always be viewed as distinct exercises that will recruit your muscles in different ways.
A combination of all of them will give you the best results.
Ultimately, the barbell back squat is known as the king of lower body exercises, and when it’s done with proper form is a highly productive movement that should always be included as part of your leg workout routine.
When done regularly back squats can increase muscle mass across your entire body, boost your strength, lower your risk of injury and improve your athletic performance.