The 12 Best Alternatives To Back Squats
Safe & Joint Friendly Alternatives To Barbell Squats
By: Zack Mathews
Barbell squats used to be the king of lower body exercises but over the past few years there has been a push to more joint friendly alternatives to back squats.
These barbell back squat alternatives have gained traction because of the rise in knee and back issues people have been experiencing from poor form or prior injuries.
Today, I’ll show you the 12 best alternatives to barbell squats that I perform with my clients, there will be a video provided of every back squat substitute, and I’ll answer the most frequently asked questions I get about these movements.
- Why You Might Want To Do Barbell Back Squat Alternatives
- The 12 Best Alternatives To Back Squats
- Frequently Asked Questions
I’ll be the first to admit that I was one of those coaches that programmed barbell back squats for all of my clients when I first started training.
They had always been in every magazine workout I’ve ever done so why wouldn’t I program them?
I quickly learned that that they are not the best for the average gym goer for many reasons included:
- Excess stress on your spine from the bar being loaded on it.
- Most people lack the ankle and hip mobility to get to the proper depth.
- Past injuries are more likely to flair up when you have a heavy load on your back.
Once I started finding back squat substitutes that were easier on my client’s joints and they still produced muscular gains, I never looked back. If you need stretches to pair with these squat alternatives check out How To Fix Lower Back Pain From Squats.
Holding a dumbbell in front of your body is a great back squat substitute because you’re taking the load off your spine and transferring it to your arms. You’re much less likely to hurt yourself on a goblet squat than on a barbell back squat.
You won’t be able to load up a goblet squat as much as a barbell squat so get creative with your training.
You can make lighter weight feel heavier by doing 1.5 reps, paused reps, or slow eccentrics.
Additionally, to increase the load, you can wear a weighted vest or drape chains around your neck.
Keeping with the trend of keeping the bar off your spine, a Zercher squat will move the bar in front of your body and be placed in a cradle across the middle of your arm as if you are cradling the bar.
In A Zercher squat, you’ll transfer more of the load onto your quads and it will allow you to keep more of an upright position.
When it comes to machines that can be good alternatives to back squats, the leg press and hack squat machine are going to be your best options.
I combined them into one here since not all gyms have a hack squat machine.
Using a machine allows you to load up more weight since the stabilization element is taken away that a normal squat requires.
If it’s uncomfortable for you to hold a dumbbell goblet style or maybe you’re getting jacked and the dumbbells aren’t heavy enough for you, this is the back squat alternative to do.
Using two dumbbell and throwing them up on your shoulders allows you to continue to make strength and muscle gains.
There are multiple ways you can load the dumbbells so make sure to watch the video and find which one works for you.
The last of the bilateral movements (two legs) is loading the bar in front of your body instead of on your back.
A front squat will emphasize more of your quads similar to the Zercher.
The one issue that many people have with the front squat is getting the bar into position because of a lack of wrist mobility. You can change your grip and go with a grip similar the one in the video if you have trouble bending your wrists back to keep the bar on your upper chest.
Now we switch over to unilateral exercises. You can still have amazing legs when you do single leg work as an alternative to back squats. It’s all about intensity so make sure you are training hard when doing all these single leg exercises.
The Bulgarian splits squat, or rear foot elevated split squat like some people call it, is of the best bang for your buck exercises.
It’s difficult and will wipe you out, but totally worth it.
If you get to a point where the dumbbells become your limiting factor, start using wrists straps and continue to increase the weight.
An alternative way to add more tension is to do 1.5 rep Bulgarian split squats, like the video above. That extra half rep makes a big difference and you’ll feel the burn!
You can also mix things up and hold only 1 dumbbell to create more instability so your core has to work harder. My client Brian is doing a ipsilateral Bulgarian split squat below, meaning he is holding a dumbbell on the same side as the planted foot.
This movement is similar to your Bulgarian split squat, but instead of raising your back foot, you’ll keep it on the ground.
Dumbbell position is totally up to you so find which one you like more. The two dumbbells on the side will give you a little more glute emphasis, while the goblet style will hit your quads.
The first two single leg exercises had you staying in a fixed plane but now we’ll get you moving with a reverse lunge.
I like starting new clients off with a reverse lunge because it’s easier on the knees and allows you to learn good lunging habits before you start going forward.
My client Emily is performing an advanced version of a reverse lunge in which she stands on a platform so she has to go deeper. This will make her glutes have to work harder to get her body up.
Once you’ve got reverse lunges locked in and you can do them with two dumbbells, now you can load up a heavy dumbbell and hold it goblet style.
To mix things up from your traditional reverse lunge where you do all the reps on one side and then switch, alternate back and forth with this movement.
If you just want to start walking forward and are sick of me talking about reverse lunges, we’ve got your good ole walking lunges.
It’s one of the best alternative to back squats because of the load you can put on your legs by performing them correctly.
The main cue to remember is when you take the step forward, the heel on your front foot should never leave the ground when you go into your lunge.
If you start lunging and your heel is raised, you are putting way too much stress on your knee and could hurt yourself.
An underrated exercise and one that I know I should do more of too is the weighted step-up.
Taking these slow on your eccentric makes for an amazing glute and quad workout on the leg that’s on the platform.
The great thing about step-ups is that they are a great barbell squat alternative because you can do them anywhere. At a park, step-up on a bench. At home? Use a chair, couch, or steps on your stairs.
Did I really save the hardest alternative to back squats last? I think so!
The skier squat is one of the most difficult single leg movements you can do, popularized by Mike Boyle
Get good at using a very light pair of dumbbells or bodyweight only to learn the movement. Once you’ve got it down, add a weighted vest, chains, or hold onto a heavy sandbag (like the picture below) to create progressive overload.
I’ve worked with many clients that have bad knees and have tests all 12 of these alternatives to back squats. The most common exercises that feel ok for them and hopefully will for you will be:
- Goblet squats
- Split stance squats - two db’s on side
- Reverse lunges
If you are looking for alternatives to back squats because of a bad back, you want to stay away from exercises that require a bar that your body needs to stabilize. The best exercises you can do are:
- Bulgarian splits squats
- Reverse lunges
- Walking lunges
Step-ups are a great barbell squat substitute since you can use anything around your house to perform them. Other great options would be a lunge variation, skier squats, goblet squats, and dumbbell front squats.
The Best Back Squat Alternatives Recap
I’ve given you a list of the 12 best back squat substitutes that will be easy on your joints while still allowing you to build muscle and strength.
Which one’s are best for YOU? That’s for you to find out.
Spend a workout or two at the gym or at home going through these options and see what feels good on your knees and back, and what which ones you can perform with good form.
Good form and doing a movement pain free is always the best option when looking for alternatives to back squats.
If you want to try some of these movements out in a full workout, check out this challenging dumbbell only leg workout.