It is difficult to understate the benefits of back squats for strength athletes. They help build up the glutes, quads, hips, and require a stable core. Squat strength is essential for Olympic lifting, deadlifting prowess (leg drive), and is an applicable movement in pretty much every sport. Not to mention it’s a functional movement for everyday life. Hinging and lifting is something that you should hopefully be able to do well into your later years.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
But back squats are not necessarily for everyone. Sometimes limitations, such as a shoulder injury, can make it uncomfortable to put a barbell on one’s back properly. If you fall into that category, then the alternatives we’ll delve into here can help you get benefits of back squatting without risking injury.
What’s Needed For a Good Back Squat
First, let’s understand what is needed form-wise for a good back squat, as that overlaps with the alternatives. There are a ton of cues, techniques, and methods when it comes to the back squat, but the following three are non-negotiable.
- Lumbar spine remains in a neutral position throughout the movement.
- Feet stay planted on the ground and stable throughout the entire rep. Ankle mobility plays a huge role here.
- The load stays in a vertical line over the midfoot.
The first two points are usually solved by reducing the range of motion. Some ways to do this are box squats or placing a weight plate underneath your toes or heels to compensate for any lack of ankle mobility.
However, it can be difficult and sometimes painful to get the barbell in the correct position for athletes struggling with shoulder injuries or lack of flexibility in the shoulders. For the last six months, I’ve been suffering from anterior shoulder pain. It’s resulted in a lack of external rotation in both shoulders. Essentially, keeping a barbell on my back without pain at the moment is impossible.
But instead of giving up or conceding performing squats all together, there are three workarounds that I’ve used to continue to train to squat movement.
1. Front Squats (With or Without Straps)
For the front squat, the bar is held either in the fingertips or directly on the front of the shoulders and supported by the front deltoids. And if neither of those work, you’ve got the strap option. The straps make it easier to hold the barbell if there’s any issues with your wrists, shoulders, or both.
Front squats target the body’s anterior muscles (quads and anterior core) more than back squats. In particular, the vastus medialis, one of the four quadriceps muscles, is more heavily taxed during the front squat. Back squats, on the other hand, do a better job of training the posterior chain and the large muscle groups of the back, glutes, and hamstrings, especially the semitendinosus (1).
But the real difference is the muscles recruited to stabilize the barbell.
The back squat relies heavily on the erector spinae (because the barbell is on your spine) while the front squat recruits the upper back (trapezius muscles), as well as the shoulders and the chest.
Furthermore, if your lower back sustains any discomfort, the front squat vertical torso position makes the squat movement safer, as there is less compressive force on the spine (2).
2. Trap Bar Squats
The biggest difference with a trap bar squat versus a back squat is the weight is supported by your grip rather than your back. The trap bar, also known as the hex bar, allows you to step inside the bar, which aligns the weight with your center of gravity. This leads to a more upright torso position.
It’s a safer option for lifers with lower back issues due to the reduction of compressive force on the spine (3).
Trap bar squats and back squats train similar muscles (quads, glutes, hamstring and calves), but in notably different ways:
- There is a brief period of rest when the weights touch the ground when using a trap bar. Back squats fully engage the muscles throughout the entire movement.
- Trap bar squats require a smaller range of motion which leads to limited knee and hip flexion in comparison to the back squat.
- Grip strength plays a much bigger role with the trap bar squat and relies on middle and upper back strength more than the back squat.
[Related: Trap bar vs back squat: what’s the difference?]
3. Safety Bar Squats
The safety bar squat is an excellent alternative for those with upper body injuries or mobility restrictions. Although the bar still sits on the back, the safety bar leads to a more upright torso position than the back squat, again helping lifters whose area of weakness is their lower back.
With a safety bar, the athlete grips the bar in the front, increasing lower trap activation much like the front squat. So, if you’re having trouble gripping a barbell from the back or front, using the safety bar is a solid alternative to both.
Be aware however, that safety bar squats decrease the involvement of the vastus lateralis, the hamstrings, and the abdominals in comparison to standard back squats (4). This is partly because of the instability of holding the safety bar in comparison to having the barbell on your upper back. For most lifters, their max safety bar squat will be lower than standard back squats, but it’s better than not squatting heavy at all.
[Related: 4 benefits of safety bar squats]
Rarely is it correct to train through injury, especially when working around it is readily available. The same goes for strength and mobility deficiencies until they are up to the levels needed. So now there are not any excuses left to skip squats, what are you waiting for?
- Yavuz HU, et al. Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. J Sports Sci. 2015;33(10):1058-66. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2014.984240. Epub 2015 Jan 29.
- Gullett JC, et al. A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(1):284-92.
- Meldrum R, et al. A Comparison of Back Squat & Safety Squat Bar on Measures of Strength, Speed, and Power in NCAA Division I Baseball Players. International Journal of Sport Science. 2018; 8(5): 137-144.
- Hecker KA, et al. Effects of the Safety Squat Bar on Trunk and Lower-Body Mechanics During a Back Squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Oct 22.
Feature image via Shutterstock/Andy Gin.