Squat Alternatives for Strength, Hypertrophy, and Functional Movement

In some circumstances, a lifter may want to vary their squat training to increase squat performance, work around injury, induce metabolic hypertrophy, or promote sound functional movement patterning.

Below is a listing of a few squat alternatives that can be used in most training environments for all levels and sports goals. It is important to note that the below exercises are NOT replacements for the back squat. These alternatives can be sprinkled in or used specifically when back squatting is not available for usage OR to add additional training volume.

Belt Squat

The belt squat is a great movement to teach proper vertical upright positioning in the squat while simultaneously adding high amounts of quadriceps hypertrophy. Additionally, this is a good movement for lifters who suffer from lower back pain or who want to limit the amount of loading (important during higher volume training phases) from loading the bar on the back. This movement allows for high volume leg training while minimizing lower back stress.

Bulgarian Split Squat

Unilateral leg training is a great option for athletes who may want to add more leg training volume or cannot perform heavy loaded back squats (for whatever reason). By diversifying squat training via unilateral exercises, musician and movement imbalances can often be addressed and applied back to the full lift. Lastly, unilateral leg training has been shown to be a potent muscular hypertrophy option for lifters looking to address poor quadriceps or glute development.

Leg Press

The leg press can be used to add quality leg mass and hypertrophy, specifically to the quadriceps. While this is a machine based movement, the inclusion of this during times of hypertrophy or injury can add in maintaining or increase lean muscle mass. Failure to apply the new muscle to the back squat (via performing back squats) will often result in increased muscle size yet minimal back squat strength improvements. You can even take this one step further and perform them with one leg to address unilateral development as well.

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🏋🏻‍♀️Sabemos que os #agachamentos são excepcionais para melhoria da força funcional, mas o que muitos questionavam, era sobre a capacidade do #legpress promover os mesmos benefícios. 📚Karlsen and Helgerud (2009), do International Journal of Sports, encontraram melhoras na força (+44% de 1RM) e melhora na caminhada (+33%) após 8 sem. de treino com Leg P.(4 sets/4 reps/ a ~85%de1RM/ 2 min intervalo); 📚Wang et al (2010), do Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Sports, encontraram melhoras na força (+31% de 1RM) e melhora na performance da caminhada (+10%) após 8 sem. de treino, 3x/sem (4 sets/5 reps/ a ~85%de1RM); 📚Ramirez-Campillo et al. (2014) em seu estudo sobre performance de membros superiores e inferiores, após 12 sem. treinando 3 sets de 8 rep. a 75% de 1RM – 1min. intervalo, para cada exercício (leg press, um dos), perceberam melhoras em todos os testes de performance de membros inferiores utilizados. 💪🏻Alem de todas esses achados, o #legpress é muito bom para quem treina sem um #personal #trainer ou sem um parceiro de treino. Nele você sente-se mais seguro para usar maiores cargas, ou executar até a falha da sua musculatura das #coxas, além de sua coluna está mais protegida… Essa segurança lhe dá mais confiança para dar o máximo de si no intuito de alcançar um ótimo estímulo para #hipertrofia / #força. Quanto ao exercício feito unilateralmente, tem como objetivo correções de assimetrias, tanto em força quanto em tamanho muscular. Bons treinos 👊🏻 #treinamentocompesos #treinamentodeforca #strength #train #personaltrainer #legsday #treinodepernas #musculacao #bodybuilding #workout #liftweight #weightlifting #academia #gym #treinodepernas

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Hack Squat

The back squat, often performed on a machine, is another leg pressing movement to add hypertrophy to the quadriceps and even glutes. This can be beneficial to lifters who may lack size and/or muscle mass necessary for long-term strength development (via front and back squat). Additionally, this may be a solid alternative for lifters who suffer from lower back issues yet still want to maintain or even increase lower body muscle mass during the injury period.

Double Kettlebell Squat

This kettlebell squat variation is a challenging movement that requires unilateral strength and coordination, upper back strength, and core stability. This movement can be used in place of the front or back squat to maintain proper squat patterning and upright torso alignment during the squatting movement, however it is not a long term substitution to build squat strength as the amount of loading is often limited by a lifters ability to rack the large kettlebells in front and/or get heavy kettleblls to the front rack (for example, of perform 3 sets of 5 reps at 405lbs, one would have to kettlebell clean 200lbs per hand, rack them, and repeat every set). While doable, may not be optimal to train heavy squats.

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I know people 💥love 💥 barbell squats, but for my money (and training effort) I'm still just a huge fan of double kettlebell front squats. # 🤷‍♀️ Why? # For a couple of reasons: # 🌒 1. They're tough as coffin nails ⚰️ even with a relatively light load like 2×28 kg (as in the video), the awkwardness and instability of the kettlebell will get the attention of damn near every muscle in your body – and not just your legs. # 🌞 2. They teach you how to really compress your abs. A lot of strength skills (and particularly bodyweight strength skills) demand a high level of not just ab tension, but ab *compression*. You know the feeling: like an anaconda has wrapped itself around your waist and is trying to squeeze the life out of you 🐍. If you survive (spoiler alert: you will) you'll have loads more core strength to show for it as well as leg strength # ☄️It's an unsung "cardio" builder. Now, squats themselves don't -*really* build cardio in the real sense, bit they will absolutely get your heart and lungs pumping like a race horse who just got the news that he's headed for the glue factory if he doesn't win his next race. There is nothing about double kettlebell front squats that will leave any stone (or muscle group) unturned – including that ever important heart muscle. # 🍑Build a better booty. Need I say more? # Next time you hit the gym, try out this complex: 1 clean, 1 front squat, set the weight down and take 2 slow, deep breaths. Repeat with 2 cleans, 2 front squats, and 4 deep breaths. Climb the ladder until you can climb no more, sprint to the puke bucket, and call it a day. # Have fun and happy squatting! #doublekettlebell #frontsquat #kettlebellsquats #kettlebellworkout #squats #legday #legdayworkout #booty🍑 #strength #strong #strongfirst #bodybuilding #quadworkout #kettlebells #paleo #primal #crossfit #skwaaats #movement #movementculture #calisthenics #bodyweight #abs #core #jerusalem #israel

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Zercher Squat

In an earlier article we discussed the Zercher Squat and why all athletes could benefit from performing them. The Zercher Squat can be used to increase upper back and core strength for the squat, increase hip and squat mobility due to the load placement, and can decrease the amount of stress on the lower back while squatting.

Final Words

As discussed above, all of these alternatives are not replacements of the squat. In rare cases when a back and/or front squat cannot be performed (not for reasons such as it’s “too hard”, or uncomfortable due to lack of skill), the above movements can be performed in conjunction with proper teaching and progression towards the barbell lift (assuming your goals are strength or sport skill specific to weightlifting, powerlifting, CrossFit, functional fitness, or formalized athletics).

Featured Image: @noahsiegeathletics in Instagram

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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