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.

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.

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

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Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.