Back squats are one of the best exercises to build leg strength, muscle mass, and athletic capacity. There are times, however, when we may find ourselves unable to perform them. While the below exercises are not replacements for squats in the long-term, they can be used at various times in the training cycle to continue to build leg strength and address weaknesses.
In this article, we will discuss the back squat, specifically:
- Benefits of Backsquats (Brief Review)
- How to Back Squat Correctly
- 3 Squat Variations to Use When You Don’t Have a Barbell
- 3 Squat Variations to USe When Recovering from Injury
Why You Should Squat?
In an earlier article, “17 Undeniable Benefits of Squats” we discussed in detail the benefits of squatting. Below are three (3) key benefits that apply to all lifters and athletes.
Increased Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength
Squatting is one of the most direct ways to add external loading to our bodies. In doing so, we can increase stress placed upon the muscle and connective tissues, nervous system, and joints to bring about performance enhancing physiological adaptations and growth.
Leg and Glute Development
Developing the leg and glute muscles via squat training can improve
- Athletic capacity
- Knee and hip health
- Running speed
- Explosive power and strength
- Lean body mass
Seeing that most athletes and lifters require strong legs, the back squat is one of the most foundational and direct movements to train the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
Increase Leg Power and Explosiveness
Increased leg strength, power, and explosiveness has direct application to many functional fitness movements and formula sports, making the squat a foundational movement to train in the gym to increase athletic capacity.
How to Back Squat Properly
Back squatting is often one of the first movements you learn as a beginner lifter (HOPEFULLY), however many experienced lifters may find themselves with nagging injuries and aches and pains from squat technique issues and/or not recovering from training adequately.
Before you decide to move forward with back squats, be sure you take a look at our Back Squat Training Guide to go over (again) technique and training tips.
Set Your Base
Start by stepping under a barbell (supported in a rack). This step is key as it is your chance to properly engage the upper back (step 2), set a firm foundation with the core, and mentally prepare for the un-racking of the barbell.
While you will need to step out of the rack to set your feet up for the squat, it is recommended that you place your feet in the squat stance, or slightly narrower, as you want to think about “squatting” the load off the rack hooks, rather than stepping in and out with one foot, etc. This is especially the case as the loads get heavier.
Coach’s Tip: This step is significantly important the heavier the loads are. Not not rush this process.
Get a Grip
Grip widths will vary, however the key is that you should be able to take a full grip on the barbell, as this will allow you to maximally contract the upper back/traps/forearms to properly secure the barbell in the high-bar squat position. Note, that the barbell should be placed above the traps, or on them, rather than on the rear delts/lower on the back (like the low-bar squat set up).
When doing this, be sure to actively flex your upper back and traps up into the barbell, which will give you some “padding” for the barbell to rest on. Lastly, be careful not to hyper-extend the back as you do this, as many lifters will lose tension and bracing in the core.
Coach’s Tip: Squeeze the bar and find a secure position. Once you have found it, pull the barbell tight into the body so that you and the barbell are now one, massively dense and stable unit.
Step Out and Get Stable
When you are ready, step out of the rack, using either a 2 or 3-step approach (as this is often the best way to minimize barbell movement and conserve energy). The feet should be about hip-width apart, with the toes slightly pointed out. The chest should be held high, with the core and obliques contracted.
Be sure not to have too much of a forward lean, as this high-bar variation should allow you to keep your torso up vertical.
Coach’s Tip: This can be challenging and inconsistent for many beginner and intermediate squatters (the pre-squat routine). Be sure to practice the same set up and walkout techniques every time you squat, as this will help it become more automated (one less thing to worry about).
Pull Yourself Down into the Squat
With the feet planted, and pressure evenly distrusted throughout the foot, slightly push the hips back while simultaneously allowing the knees the bend forwards, tracking over the toes. Keep the upper back locked to minimize forward lean or collapse of the thoracic spine.
Think about gripping the floor with the toes and creating space for the belly between the thighs. Often, the cue “knees out” is used, which can be beneficial for some (however it can also cause excessive bowing of the knees). Regardless, think about pulling your torso straight down so that the abdominals and hip flexors assist in the lower of the movement.
Coach’s Tip: Take your time as you lower yourself into the squat, making sure to feel any weight shifting back/forward or tendencies to collapse the torso.
Squat to Depth, and Stand Up
Squat to the desired depth, which for many is at parallel or below. Once you have assumed the desired depth, push your back upwards into the bar while simultaneously pushing the feet aggressively through the floor, making sure to keep weight in the heels (and toes). As you stand, continue to keep the chest high and core locked.
Be sure to keep your spine locked into position, and your heels down on the ground. A general rule of thumb when assessing high-bar squat technique is that the shin angle should be parallel to the spine. If they are to intersect (id you continues those angles) at any point in time, it could indicate excessive forward lean of the torso (horizontal displacement of the barbell, which is not desired).
Coach’s Tip: You should feel your legs (quadriceps) working, as well as the upper back and hips.
6 Squat Variations to Use When You Can’t Back Squat
Below are six (6) squat variations that can be used to increase muscle hypertrophy, strength, and movement patterns without back squatting. The first three can be swapped during times when a barbell or back loaded squat is not available. The second three can be used at times when acute injury may be the limiting factor.
It is important to note that all of these are NOT replacements for the squat, but rather temporary swaps.
Additionally, if you are experiencing pain or have an injury that impacts your ability to squat, please consult a trained physical therapist or medical professional as these exercises and recommendations are NOT medical recommendations to deal with your injury.
No Barbell Or Weights
There will come a time when you will be itching for a serious leg workout yet find yourself without barbell or weights. In these instances, you can always opt to perform dumbbell or bodyweight squat variations to induce leg growth and development.
In addition to the three exercises below, you can also include techniques such as tempos, drop sets, and pauses to further induce muscle damage and stress to muscles without the need of heavy weights.
1. Pistol Squat
The pistol squat is a unilateral bodyweight movement that requires mobility, strength, and balance. This advanced movement can also be broken down into its regressions making it a great movement to begin to develop at any level.
Furthermore, establishing the ability to pistol squat can also help to improve unilateral strength, increase lower body joint stability, and improve core strength needed for bilateral barbell squats
2. Unilateral Squats
Unilateral movements have been shown to be effective exercises at increasing muscle hypertrophy, enhancing muscle activation, and can help to address strength deficiencies on a single limb basis.
Lunges, step ups, and split squats can be used to address single leg muscle imbalances, strength deficiencies, and movement patterning. Additionally, these are often performed with less loading when compared to bilateral squats making them a good go-to exercises when external loading is limited.
3. Sled Push
Sled training can be a great way to add lower body strength, power, and muscle mass. By manipulating the loading on the sled, time durations of the push, and rest periods; you can work to increase one or all of those physical attributes within a training session. You can even do plate pushes for metabolic conditioning purposes if you are without a sled.
It is important to reiterate that nagging injuries can be a serious matter, and often suggest a chronic problem that could escalate if you continue to do what you are doing without seeking help.
It is also important to point out that while the below exercises are temporary workarounds to allow you to train the leg muscles without placing a bar on your back, you should seek out a medical professional for your injuries.
Author’s Note: This is NOT a rehabilitation program and these are NOT injury recommendations.
1. TEMPO Goblet Squat
Goblet squats are a foundation squatting exercise that can be done to decrease loading on the lower back, improve positioning in the squat, and help to pinpoint any mobility issues with the hip, knee, andkle, or upper extremity.
Using tempos in the goblet squat can further enhance motor unit control, establish greater balance in the range of motion, and work to increase muscular strength and hypertrophy without the need for higher amounts of loading.
2. Weighted Unilateral Squats
Unilateral squat variations such as step ups and step downs, Burlgarian split squats, and lunges all can be great lower body training exercises during times when you cannot back squat. Relative loading is much less on unilateral exercises than barbell back squats which can decrease mechanical stress and neural fatigue on the body and systems.
Integrating unilateral training within your current program can be a great way to address single leg movements patterning, address any imbalances in limb strength, and help to establish proper squatting mechanics after an injury.
3. Occlusion Training
Occlusion training is a novel training protocol that is thought to increase muscle hypertrophy and development. Outside of normal training populations, occlusion training has also been seen in rehabilitation setting as it allows for metabolic build-up without the need for high amount of external loading. Some lifters may find that they can use occlusion training in controlled, small-doses to help increase muscle growth and enhance muscle endurance during times when higher amounts of external loading are not feasible.
More Squat Variations
Looking to increase squat strength and diversify your training? Take a look at some of the below squat variations and alternative guides to add variety and new training stimulus to your workouts!