The squat is likely a major foundation for pretty much any strength training program. Whether you’re training for muscle growth, absolute strength, power, or physique, the squat is a one-stop exercise shop. To get better at it, you need to spend some serious time under the bar.
But when you’re squatting hard and heavy for any period, dreaded plateaus are common. It’s key to have squat accessory exercises at the ready to take some load off the bar while ironing out any weaknesses. Here, we’ll dive into the 15 best squat accessory exercises with a splash of programming tips and tricks to get the most out of these moves.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Best Squat Accessory Exercises
- Barbell Good Morning
- Front-Rack Kettlebell Elevated Split Squat
- Back Extensions
- Ab Rollout
- TRX Y
- Front-Rack Pin-Stop Split Squat
- Pause Squat
- Anderson Squat
- Sissy Squat
- Zombie Front Squat
- Side Lunge
- Band-Resisted Barbell Squat
- Leg Press
- Box Squat
- Deadstop Row
Barbell good mornings target your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings all in one exercise. You’ll have to proceed with caution — especially if you don’t have access to a safety squat bar — because you’ll be placing the bar at a somewhat precarious angle.
That said, if you’re cautious, the good morning will help train your lower back to keep a neutral spine under compressive load. The good morning will reinforce posterior strength and improve squat performance when performed correctly.
Benefits of the Barbell Good Morning
- This exercise can promote spinal erector and glute strength.
- The good morning’s large range of motion is excellent for building muscle and improving hip mobility.
- Good mornings improve the flexibility of your hamstrings without stretching.
How to Do the Barbell Good Morning
Have the barbell set up as you would for a back squat. Step into the squat rack and unrack the barbell onto your upper back. Walk out two or three steps and soften your knees. Hinge back, keeping your chest up and shoulders down until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor. Lift yourself to a standing position by contracting your glutes and hamstrings.
Every solid squat demands hip mobility and upper back strength. The front-rack kettlebell split squat gives you this and more.
This exercise combats imbalances between your sides and improves leg drive, which is critical for squatting heavily. The kettlebell’s front rack position helps emphasize your quads and improves your posture, upper back strength, and endurance.
Benefits Of The Front-Rack Bulgarian Split Squat
- This split squat variation reduces muscle imbalances between sides and helps to improve the leg drive required for squats.
- You’ll get even more leg muscle recruitment here, as split squats make you work harder with an off-balanced position.
- The front-rack kettlebell position improves posture, core, and upper back strength.
How to Do the Front-Rack Bulgarian Split Squat
Clean a pair of kettlebells into the front rack position. With your chest up and shoulders down, place your back foot laces down on a weight bench. Set your front foot in your preferred position and drop your back knee towards the floor. Maintain a slight forward lean in your torso. Push your front foot through the floor, and lock out your glute. Reset and repeat
Back extensions are generally performed either on a glute-ham raise bench or a back extension machine. You can also opt for a floor-based variation. Either way, it will involve flexing your lower back muscles to lower and raise your torso.
Stronger hamstrings, glutes, and lower back are required for squats — back extensions target them all.
Benefits of the Back Extension
- This exercise strengthens your lower back through an extended range of motion for improved strength and hypertrophy.
- The back extension is a versatile exercise that can be loaded differently when you have nailed the bodyweight version.
- This exercise strengthens your hamstrings as a hip extender, which is critical for squats.
How to Do the Back Extension
Secure your feet on a back-extension machine with your hips above the padding. Cross your arms across your chest or hold a weight plate there for extra resistance. Lower your upper body until you’re below parallel to the floor. Rise back to the starting position using your glutes and lower back. Reset and repeat.
The ab rollout exercise can be performed with a barbell loaded with plates, an ab wheel, or a stability ball. All involve extending your torso toward the ground while holding steady through your core.
This exercise strengthens your core by lengthening it, which builds anti-extension strength. This is important for squats because it’ll help avoid lower back flexion with a heavy barbell on your back.
Benefits of The Ab Rollout
- Ab rollout improves anti-extension strength, which is critical for a good and safe squat.
- You’ll see better ab development, as the ab rollout challenges you during both the lowering and lifting phases.
- This exercise can be performed with a variety of implements, making it a diverse addition to your core routine.
How to Do The Ab Rollout
Get into a tall kneeling position and grip the equipment of your choice. Tuck your hips under and spread your shoulder blades apart to get your spine neutral. Then roll out, letting your chest sink toward the floor without extending your lower back. Stay in a range of motion you can control. Squeeze your lat muscles and roll yourself back to the starting position. Reset and repeat.
When squatting heavy, your upper back strength plays a vital role in keeping a neutral spine and stops the squat from turning into a good morning. A meaty upper back also provides a shelf for the barbell.
The TRX Y is one of many exercises to strengthen the upper back without weights. It strengthens the muscles surrounding your shoulders — particularly the upper traps and rhomboids — for better mobility and posture.
Benefits of the TRX Y
- The TRX Y is highly scalable by moving your feet closer to or further away from the anchor point.
- It strengthens your upper back from a different angle for better overall muscle development.
- The TRX Y strengthens your rhomboids and traps for better shoulder mobility and a healthier shoulder girdle.
How to Do the TRX Y
Take a firm grip on the TRX handles and walk your feet in or out to match your desired intensity. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears. Pull your arms into a Y shape overhead, keeping your arms by or behind your ears. Slowly lower down before you reset and repeat.
Think of the front rack-pin-stop split squat as a single-leg Anderson squat. Starting in the bottom position, you’re taking the stretch reflex out of the muscle and focusing on making the concentric contraction, which improves leg drive.
This exercise will have you feeling your quads in a hurry. You can place the barbell posteriorly or in the front-rack position, depending on shoulder mobility.
Benefits of the Front-Rack Pin-Stop Split Squat
- This split squat variation takes the stretch reflex out to improve quad engagement and leg drive.
- The front-rack position will improve upper back strength and endurance.
- This exercise will boost your single-leg balance and the size of your quads.
How to Do the Front-Rack Pin-Stop Split Squat
The setup is key to this exercise. Focus on getting the correct half-kneeling position to set the pins in the proper position. Bring the barbell to the front-rack position in the half-kneeling position and do the split squat as usual. Slowly lower down to the pins, stop for a beat, and push through your feet to stand back up.
The pause squat is an exercise that many lifters love to hate — but they sure are effective. Pausing at the bottom position and taking the stretch reflex out makes the squat harder in two ways.
One, you have to own the bottom position, building serious strength, stability, and confidence. Two, without a stretch reflex, you’ll be generating all the power for standing up without any help from momentum. The concentric contraction becomes much more difficult.
Benefits of the Pause Squat
- The pause in the bottom position improves the squat technique by making you own the bottom position.
- The pause squat may be the answer you need if you’re slow coming out of the hole.
- Because the stretch reflex is taken away, pause squats improve leg drive.
How to Do the Pause Squat
Set up your barbell squat as you usually would. Use between 70 and 80 percent of your one-rep max. Squat to your preferred depth and pause for three to five seconds. Keep tension in your entire body. Explode up. Reset and repeat for appropriate reps.
The Anderson squat is a variation focused on promoting strength and positioning out of the dreaded hole by removing the stretch reflex from the equation. In this way, it’s very similar to pause and pin squats.
You can perform this lift as a front squat, back squat, box squat, or overhead squat. It is a great variation for a lifter who struggles with sticking points coming up out of the squat, and it also works wonders for improving hip mobility.
Benefits of the Anderson Squat
- Because the stretch reflex is taken away, you build concentric strength in your squat.
- Anderson squats can address squat sticking points that might be causing a plateau.
- You’ll strengthen your confidence and muscles squatting out of the hole, which can lead to squatting more weight overall.
How to Do the Anderson Squat
Set the safety bars of a squat rack in your preferred bottom position and place a loaded barbell on top of that. Then set your body up under the barbell in your chosen position. Brace your core and upper back. Squat up. Slowly lower back to the rack, pause, reset and repeat for desired reps. Try to avoid slamming the bar on the safety bars.
The sissy squat is a fantastic bodyweight squat accessory exercise because it isolates your quadriceps and carries over to front squats. Bigger and stronger quads will also benefit pretty much all squat variations.
They don’t require any special equipment and, if your knees are feeling good, they’ll take you through a large range of motion for more considerable quad-growing potential.
Benefits of the Sissy Squat
- It isolates your quads, and building their size and strength will increase the resilience of your knee joints.
- This move improves your balance because it takes a great deal of fine motor control to perform well.
- The large range of motion and stretch here gives you more quad-growing potential.
How to Do the Sissy Squat
Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart and lower your body into a squat by diving your knees straight forward and leaning back with your torso. Your range of motion is determined by your balance and ability to maintain full hip extension through the entire range of motion. Push yourself up to the starting position. Reset and repeat.
Don’t worry — zombie front squats won’t ruin your chances during the zombie apocalypse. But they will help you with the correct bar position during the front squat.
Since you are performing it with your arms out in front with no assistance from your hands, it encourages you to find the right bar position and hold it during the entire squat. This will ensure better technique and help improve your upper body strength and stability.
Benefits of the Zombie Front Squat
- The zombie front squat strengthens the front-rack position of your front squat.
- Extending your arms out in this manner gives instant feedback on whether you maintain a good position.
- It makes for a great warm-up exercise before loading your front squat.
How to Do the Zombie Front Squat
Set the bar in the squat rack at shoulder height. With your arms held out straight at shoulder height and the bar across your shoulders, secure the bar in the pocket above your delts. Squat down and up, paying attention to where the bar wants to roll out. Adjust as needed to keep it in place.
Side lunges, no matter the variation, develop strength, stability, and balance in the frontal plane — i.e., side-to-side movement. This improves your adductor mobility and strength, helping to increase hip mobility and potential resilience against groin injuries.
The side lunge strengthens the working side’s adductors while stretching them on the non-working side. It’s a win-win for your adductors and your squats.
Benefits of the Side Lunge
- Strengthening and mobilizing your adductors improves your hip mobility, allowing you to get deep into your squat.
- Improving your adductor’s strength and length goes a long way toward potentially reducing groin injury risk.
- The side lunge strengthens your gluteus medius. It also strengthens and mobilizes your adductors, which are important for your knee health and hip mobility.
How to Do the Side Lunge
The side lunge is loaded in various ways like goblet-style, front rack, offset, or simply holding the dumbbells by your side. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and take a big step to the side with your left leg. Hinge into your left hip, keeping your right knee straight and your toes pointed forward. Push through your left foot and return to the starting position.
One of the sticking points in many people’s barbell squats is lockout strength — i.e., the ability to finish your squat without stalling on the way up. The band-resisted barbell squat provides ascending resistance to make the lift easier at the bottom but progressively more challenging as you stand up.
Using bands increases the force you need to generate throughout the entire range of motion, improving your lockout strength.
Benefits of the Band-Resisted Barbell Squat
- This squat variation increases power output through the concentric phase to improve your lockout strength.
- Resistance bands provide extra resistance without overstressing your joints.
- This squat variation increases intensity without increasing the weight on the barbell.
How to Do the Band-Resisted Barbell Squat
Put the plates on before placing the resistance bands on either side of the barbell. Ensure that they’re secured. Unrack the barbell and ensure the barbell sleeves and the resistance bands are aligned. Perform the squat as you usually would, paying attention to your lockout performance.
Believe it or not, the leg press can be a helpful accessory exercise for the squat and even a variable alternative to it. Performing the leg press allows you to take the stress on your lower back while allowing for more quad training volume.
The added quad volume and growth can lead to a more substantial base from which to squat heavier.
Benefits of the Leg Press
- The quad strength built on the leg press can improve the lifter’s ability to hold the weight at the bottom of a squat and lockout strength.
- The leg press reduces stress on your lower back while accumulating quad volume.
- The stability of the leg press reduces your balance requirements, allowing you to use more weight.
How to Do the Leg Press
Sit down on the leg press machine and place your feet on the platform in your preferred position. Lower the safety bars holding the leg press platform. Press until your legs are fully extended, but keep a soft bend in your knees. Lower the platform until your upper and lower body are at a roughly 90-degree angle. Push the platform with your feet, using your quads to push back to the starting position. Reset and repeat.
The box squat is a variation many lifers perform when they are building confidence or technique at a certain range of motion. It’s a great squat accessory exercise because it can improve the back squat, add muscle to the legs, and get you used to heavier loads.
There is some overlap with the paused squat, and the benefits are similar, but the box squat may allow you to use a heavier load. In addition, you don’t want to be fully pausing at the bottom with a box squat. Instead, simply reverse the direction of your squat when your glutes touch the box gently.
Benefits of the Box Squat
- Box squats teach you to control the bottom end of a squat.
- The box height can be adjusted to various different ranges of motion.
- You can increase emphasis on the concentric part of your squat because the slight pause at the bottom reduces the muscle’s stretch reflex.
How to Do the Box Squat
Set up as you would for a barbell squat with the box three steps behind you. Practice your walkout to make sure that the box is located so as to not interfere with your walkout but also will allow your glutes to touch it safely upon squatting. Adjust as needed.
Unrack the barbell and perform your walkout. Squat down to the box, standing back up once your glutes gently touch the box.
The deadstop row is a stand-out single-arm dumbbell row variation that will build the upper back strength required for the barbell squat. With the deadstop row, you’ll go through a larger range of motion than with a regular row.
Because you’ll pause on the floor to rest your grip, you’ll be able to go heavier than other single-arm variations. This helps strengthen your upper back, which keeps your spine neutral under a compressive load when adequately engaged during the back squat.
Benefits of the Deadstop Row
- The pause here gives your joints and grip a break, allowing you to use a heavier weight than other single-arm row variations.
- You’ll fight off upper back imbalances between sides for a more muscular and symmetrical upper back.
- The increased range of motion and the pause on the floor give you better muscle- and strength-building potential.
How to Do the Deadstop Row
Using a weight bench for support, hinge down until your back is roughly parallel with the floor. Take a firm grip on the dumbbell, place your opposite hand on the bench, and row it towards your hip. Keep your shoulders down and your chest up. Lower the weight slowly until the dumbbell stops on the floor. Reset and repeat.
Muscles Worked by the Squat
There isn’t a muscle left untouched when back or front squatting because it’s a full-body exercise. But here, we’ll focus on the main muscles needed for the barbell squat.
The upper back comprises the lats, rhomboids, and trapezius. Your upper back works together during the back squat to help support the weight of the bar and — especially in the case of low bar squats — these muscles help “pin” the bar to your back.
The lower back comprises three muscles forming a column from the lower back to the neck. These three muscles are the spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis. They’re also known as the erector spinae. Their primary function while squatting is to prevent the flexion and extension of your lower back under compressive load.
The glutes are muscles: the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. These three muscles are the prime movers used in hip extension and play an essential role in producing force for locking out your squat at the end of the movement.
The gluteus maximus is the prime mover for hip extension, while the glute medius and minimus work in conjunction with the gluteus maximus. The glute maximus originates on the lower back of the sacrum and coccyx and inserts on the gluteal tuberosity of the femur.
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles on your rear thigh: biceps femoris (long and short head), semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. Your hamstrings assist your glutes in extending your hips. Their eccentric strength helps you lower with control, while their strength provides knee stability for heavy squatting.
The adductors mainly assist with adducting your hips and thighs — in other words, moving them toward your body’s midline. But during the squat, their strength and flexibility play a role in hip mobility, pelvis stabilization, and knee flexion. The squat is often thought of as a sneaky exercise for the adductors.
The quadriceps are four muscles on the front of the thigh. Their primary actions are knee extension and hip flexion. Your quads’ eccentric and concentric strength allows you to lower with control, support the bottom position of your squat, and assist your glutes with lockout.
How to Program Squat Accessory Training
How often you train the squat and its accessory exercises depend on your lifting experience and joint health. If you are a novice with less than one year under the bar, you can aim to perform for eight to 12 weekly sets, including accessory exercises. Split this work over two to three days.
If you are an intermediate lifter with one to four years of squatting experience, bump up your squatting volume — including accessory exercises — to 10 to 16 sets per week. Split this over two to three training sessions. For a veteran gym-goer, you might be able to up your volume to 16 or more weekly sets.
Squat Accessory Exercise Selection
Let your needs determine which squat accessories you choose. If you feel you’re slow rising from the bottom of your squat, pause or box squats should be your go-to.
On the other hand, if you’re struggling with the top part of your squat, some leg presses or Anderson squats to increase the size and strength of your quads might be more helpful.
Squat Accessory Sets and Reps
With accessory exercises, you’re generally not looking to max out. Instead, think of these moves as supplements that can help improve your overall lifting prowess.
- For Strength: Perform three to five sets of six to eight reps.
- For Muscle Growth: Opt for three to four sets of eight to 15 reps.
- For Endurance: Do three sets of 12 to 15 reps, particularly with the single-leg exercises on this list.
There is an inverse relationship between weight and reps. When weight goes up, reps go down, and vice-versa. When training your accessory exercises, start at the lower end of the rep range and build up to the upper rep range before adding more weight. When you have reached the upper range, increase the load, decrease the reps, and start again.
Squat Accessory Training Tips
The barbell squat is a complex movement that requires both mobility and strength. When looking to improve, you need to be smart in choosing the right accessory exercises and knowing when to back off or go full throttle.
Train for Muscle and Strength
The stronger your lower body is, the bigger the potential to build muscle. It pays to train the squat for strength and muscle, depending on your current goals — both can improve your squat. Movements like box squats are great for strength, and leg presses are fantastic for adding some size to your quads.
The squat requires shoulder, thoracic, and hip mobility to perform well. Taking your body through these areas. Don’t skimp on your ramp-up sets, either. This will ensure that your body is ready to squat.
Incorporate Single-Leg Exercises
Heavy bilateral movements like the squat might hide strength imbalances between sides. So, it pays to combat these imbalances with unilateral exercises. Evening out any imbalances between sides and strengthening each leg will lead to a better bilateral squat.
Squatting hard and heavy takes a significant toll on your body. Taking the time to focus on mobility exercises and foam rolling can help provide better recovery. Even if you love squatting, you’ll generally want to take two to three days’ rest between heavy squat training to improve strength levels.
Try These Accessories
When you’re looking to improve your strength and performance with the barbell squat, you need to squat more and squat smart. Choosing the right accessory exercises can help you boost your squat numbers without necessarily increasing the load and stress on your body. That’s definitely a win-win.
Featured Image: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock