Squatting is the indisputable heavyweight champion of exercises for developing strong, muscular legs and glutes. Unfortunately for gym-goers and athletes with pre-existing joint injuries or mobility issues, barbell squats are generally not feasible for a lower body workout.
Research (unsurprisingly) shows that shallow or partial squats are less effective than deep squats and compromise the movement’s safety. Thankfully, there are a handful of squat alternatives you can implement into a lower body workout for the time being, or as an adjunct to barbell squats.
The best squat alternatives train the same primary muscle groups as a barbell squat, albeit without the need for as much coordination and technique competence. Essentially, these lower body exercises allow you to “squat without squatting.”
Let’s take a look at four of the best squat alternatives for a lower body workout!
The prudent way to learn proper squat form is repetition (read: practice), but it’s also wise to incorporate squat alternatives as part of your lower body workout. Using the squat alternative exercises in this article will help strengthen muscles that might be lagging or hindering your ability to squat with proper form.
Another notable benefit of squat alternatives is that they are generally less technical and much safer for novice-to-intermediate lifters. Heck, even highly advanced lifters and bodybuilders should use squat alternatives as assistance exercises and mass builders.
Removing the technical nature of squats from the equation allows you to focus on moving heavier weights without risking injury. Many of the best squat alternatives are also easier on the joints and don’t require the degree of mobility/flexibility necessary for below-parallel barbell squats.
The primary advantage of using a leg press machine as a squat alternative is that it doesn’t load the spine like barbell squats do. Hence, the leg press is a great way to simulate a squatting motion with much less chance of injury. It’s also a suitable squat alternative for people with mobility issues stemming from the spine.
Yet, the leg press is arguably the most disrespected lower body exercise in fitness subculture, presumably because many bodybuilders and gym-goers perform it as an “ego lift.” After all, you can have toothpicks for legs and still leg press a decent amount of weight.
However, just as with squats, you need to perform the leg press with a full range of motion for maximal effectiveness.
Biomechanically speaking, a proper leg press is very similar to a barbell squat. Imagine where your chest would be relative to the top of your knees if you were to squat to just below parallel? That’s the same depth you should aim for on a leg press, while keeping your hips and glutes firm against the padding throughout the entire range of motion and bracing your spine.
A major misconception with leg press machines is that you’re supposed to lower the weight sled as far as possible. This is actually counterproductive and unsafe since it leads to people lifting their glutes/hips off the machine padding and contorting the spine - a major no-no for staying injury-free. Likewise, loading up 400lbs on the leg press and performing quarter reps isn’t a good idea, either.
Sit/lay on a leg press machine, so your back and glutes are flat against the padding. Place your hands on machine handles (usually near the hips).
Place your feet near the top of the platform (sled) shoulder-width apart. A narrower stance places more emphasis on the quadriceps, while a wider stance engages the glutes and hamstrings to a higher degree.
Brace your spine, take a deep breath, and lower the sled until your knees reach a 90 - 110-degree angle, then push the platform away from your torso by extending the knees until your legs are near-straight. Keep a very slight bend in the knees at the top and exhale.
Repeat step 3 for as many reps as necessary.
Again, do not let your hips/glutes or chest come off the padding at the bottom of the rep by lowering the sled too far; this drastically compromises the safety and effectiveness of leg presses.
Interestingly, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that high-rep leg presses at 40% of one-rep maximum (1RM) are better for stimulating quadriceps growth, while lower-rep sets at 80% of 1RM are superior for targeting the glutes.
Sometimes referred to as “stiff-leg deadlifts,” straight-leg deadlifts are often neglected despite their versatility and practicality for gym-goers of all experience levels. These are a fantastic squat alternative for people who have a lagging posterior chain (i.e., muscles of the back, glutes, and hamstrings).
The best part about stiff-leg deadlifts is you can use either dumbbells or a barbell to perform them, and they force the hamstrings and glutes to do large amounts of work on both the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) phases of the movement.
It’s quite common for people to rely on leg curls as their primary form of hamstring training, and this will undoubtedly impact squats in the long run. Leg curls, and most hamstring-isolation exercises, predominantly involve concentric contractions with minimal eccentric tension. Hence, straight-leg deadlifts give you much more “bang for your buck” as a posterior-chain exercise.
Common pitfalls of this exercise are rounding the back too much and locking the knees. Be careful not to develop these habits.
Note: You can also increase the range of motion of straight-leg deadlifts by doing them on an elevated platform.
The good morning exercise is essentially a straight-leg deadlift with a barbell resting across your upper back (much like it does during a barbell back squat). Like stiff-leg deadlifts, good mornings are a superb squat alternative for developing the posterior chain, especially the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
This exercise can be a bit challenging until you get used to the unorthodox mechanics. Play it safe and start with a relatively light weight so you can focus on form. Avoid trying to “look up” while you do this exercise; your neck/head should remain in-line with the rest of your spine, even at the bottom of the good morning.
Be careful not to let your lower back round too much; you should feel the tension mostly in your glutes and hamstrings.
Lunges are another versatile and effective squat alternative for your lower body workouts. The great thing about lunges is they aren’t a technical movement, and they are an excellent way to get your heart rate up while targeting the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hips, and calves.
You can perform walking lunges with a barbell or dumbbell, whichever feels most comfortable and challenges you.
As an alternative to squats, lunges tend to be less strenuous on the knees since you’ll use comparatively lighter weights. If you find that lunges aggravate your knees, try leaning your torso/chest slightly forward during the movement. Many people will find this alleviates undue knee strain.
Barbell back squats are - and will always be - the best lower body exercise you can do. In fact, you will use virtually every major muscle group in the trunk and lower body if you use proper form on barbell squats.
Needless to say, nothing builds a strong foundation like heavy squats (as long as they are “ass to grass”). You could turn your thighs into veritable tree trunks by doing nothing but barbell squats as a lower body workout.
However, performing barbell squats with proper form requires quite a bit of practice and technicality that even advanced gym-goers struggle to master.
We’ve all seen the people who load up the bar with way too much weight and “squat” with a three-inch range of motion. Sure, it can be entertaining to watch, but it’s hazardous when things inevitably go awry.
Would you ever do bicep curls with a two-inch range of motion to build bigger arms? Probably not. The same applies to squats.
A study from 2002 found that as squat depth increases, so does gluteal muscle activation. In other words, you’re much better off reducing the weight and squatting with proper form throughout the entire range of motion.
Squat all the way down until your hip crease is parallel with the top of your thigh and keeping your chest up throughout the movement. If you can go deeper without compromising your spine, go for it.
If you find that squats cause pain in your knees, it’s wise to invest in some quality weightlifting knee sleeves and a quality joint supplement like Transparent Labs Joint Support.
While no exercise can ever really replace barbell squats, squat alternatives will certainly help pack lean mass on your legs and glutes, safely. Over time, the strength and muscle growth from these exercises will carry over to actual squats.
With that in mind, make sure to do squat alternatives with proper form, and don’t let your ego get ahead of you. Lifting a lot of weight can be exhilarating, and hitting new personal records is always encouraging. But improper form and careless technique leads to injury, and you’re not going to be building much muscle if you’re hurt.
Quality over quantity is the name of the game for long-term muscle growth.
And of course, proper nutrition is imperative for maximizing performance and recovery. Muscle building starts with protein, so be sure to read: How to Determine Optimal Protein Intake