In my opinion, Back Squats are the single best exercise for building strength. Back Squats not only build strong legs, but they’ll also help develop a strong back and a strong core.
However, as effective as I believe the Back Squat to be I also understand that there are situations where you might need an alternative.
Maybe you don’t have the necessary equipment or maybe you don’t feel comfortable with your Back Squat technique.
Whatever the reason, if you’ve come here looking for Back Squat alternatives, then you’re in the right place. I’m about to share with you 10 of my favorite alternative exercises for Back Squats.
Table of Contents
- Alternatives for Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Leg Press
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Single Leg Squat Off Box
- Barbell Step-Up
- Dumbbell Lunge
- Goblet Squat
- Wall Sit
- Tire Flip
- Prowler Push
- Final Thoughts
Alternatives for Back Squat
I’ve tried to include as much variety in this list of alternatives as possible. There are exercises that incorporate different pieces of equipment – barbells, dumbbells and even one that doesn’t require any equipment at all. There are also beginner-friendly exercises and others better suited for more advanced lifters.
Finally, there are traditional exercises as well as a couple that are a little more ‘outside the box’.
Hopefully, at least one of these exercises will be a good fit for what you’re looking for.
- Squat Rack
- Bumper or Iron Plates
- Lifting Straps (optional if needed)
- Set the height of the squat rack so that the barbell is about 1-2 inches below the flexed elbow (Elbow pointing toward the squat rack prior to taking the weight off the hooks).
- One of the first considerations you are going to want to make is what grip you want to use to perform the front squat.
- Later in the article, I will talk about different grips and the reasoning behind each grip.
- For now, I am going to assume you are using a two-finger clean grip. (Most commonly used by athletes).
- Walk closely to the barbell and place it very close to your neck.
- Bring your elbows up and the barbell should be resting on the raised anterior deltoid muscles. You are now holding the bar with what’s called a “front rack position”.
- With your front rack, lift the bar off the hooks. I recommend a staggered stance to lift the barbell off the rack.
- Take 2 steps back and set your feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Toes slightly pointed out.
- Maintaining a strong front rack, take a deep breath, and brace the core.
- Initiate the squat by hinging the hips back and bending the knees simultaneously.
- Descend into the squat with control until your hip crease is slightly below the knee. (Most professionals consider this to be parallel or just below parallel).
- At this point, the core should be braced, the front rack strong, elbows up, and the lifter is ready to drive out of the “hole” and stand the weight back up.
- Keep a balanced foot with a strong arch, drive through the heels, and drive the hips until you are back at the top of the movement and ready for the next rep.
- Clean grip with 1 or 2 fingers. This is the most common grip used by Olympic lifters and athletes. This trains the specific position the bar would be in at the catch of a clean and therefore very advantageous for these athletes.
- Crossed arms. This is a common grip for athletes that want all the benefits from the front squat but may not have the flexibility or need for a finger grip.
- Lifting Straps. This allows the lifter to get the front rack position, engaging the upper back musculature, and takes a lot of stress off the fingers and wrists.
Be patient with your flexibility. Persistence and working hard on your flexibility will pay off with Front Squats. Remember to always warm up prior to any lifting session. Work on flexibility drills during warm-up sets as well. After your session, use cool-down techniques, foam roll, stretch, and hydrate.
- Leg Press Machine
How To / Coaching Points
Instructions on how to do Leg Presses are going to be extremely dependent on the machine itself. All Leg Press machines do not function in the same way. It’s actually quite the opposite. I would guess there are at least a dozen different designs that all work differently.
With that being said, instead of specific instructions, I’m going to give you some somewhat universal tips when it comes to Leg Press.
- If using a Leg Press Machine you’re unfamiliar with, always start with no weight on the machine.
- Make sure you know how to unrack and rack the safeties as well as do a full rep before adding weight to the machine.
- Go up in weight slowly. No need to make a big jump and get yourself pinned and potentially hurt.
- Do NOT overextend your knees. Learn how to fully extend your legs without locking out your knees.
The main benefit of a Leg Press is that you can build leg strength without having to load weight on your back (axial load). This is extremely benefit for anyone who may have back issues that prevent them from being able to Back Squat or even Front Squat.
Leg Press can also be beneficial for beginner lifters who are not yet comfortable with their Back Squat technique. I would rather a beginner Leg Press safely rather than Back Squat with improper form.
Trap Bar Deadlift
- Trap Bar (also known as a hex bar)
- Plates (Preferably bumper plates, but iron plates can also be used if necessary.)
- Step inside the trap bar.
- Place feet roughly shoulder-width apart.
- Slightly turn their feet outward (engaging the glutes).
- Take a deep breath to brace the abdominal muscles.
- Hinge at the waist and bend at the knee simultaneously until you’re able to grab the bar handles.
- As you pull yourself down into the setup position, maintain a neutral head posture, with eyes fixed on something about 1-2 feet in front of you.
- In the final setup position, pull the chest up, and shoulder blades back, while still maintaining a brace in the abdominal muscles and get ready to lift.
- Start by pulling the “slack” out of the bar. This is where the lifter needs to create tension by slightly pulling into the bar and pushing their feet into the floor before maximal contraction/attempts.
- Once this tension is created, the lifter drives their feet through the floor, drives the hips forward, keeping tension in the abdomen and upper back (DO NOT ROUND YOUR BACK), maintaining the hand position over the midfoot, the lifter stands tall with the barbell, and locks the repetition in.
- It is important that each repetition is locked in and controlled at the top of the movement. This is considered an isometric hold. This hold generally only needs to be about 1 second.
- After locking in the repetition for about 1 second, the lifter is ready to lower the weight. Take in a big breath, maintaining a braced core and shoulder blades pulled together. The hips will push back and the knees will bend simultaneously.
- The weight should be maintained in a position over the midfoot. The athlete will continue to lower the barbell until the weights rest on the floor and prepare for the next repetition.
Easily the most common mistake for Trap Bar Deadlifts is allowing the back to round, placing unnecessary stress on the back. Keep the back flat throughout the movement and the core braced.
Do not bounce the bar off the floor between reps. Yes, bouncing the plates off the floor into the next rep may make the lift easier to do, but it’s also a good way to allow your technique to break down. Reset for each rep.
Unlike barbells which have a standard weight, hex bars weight can vary from one bar to the next. Keep this in mind if using set weights off of your training program.
Single Leg Squat Off Box
- An extremely stable box or bench
- A partner who will hold down the side of the box if needed as a counterweight.
- Stand tall with one leg down and the other straight drifting off the side of the box.
- Initiate the squat by hinging at the waist and bending at the knee simultaneously.
- Descend until the hip crease is just below the knee.
- Keep the heel flat and center of mass over the mid-foot.
- Keep the torso as vertical as possible. Sometimes holding the arms straight out from here will help with balance and torso positioning.
- Once you reach depth, drive through the heel, keeping the foot flat, and stand tall.
Single Leg Squat Off a Box is by far one of the most difficult variations of single-leg training. A proper progression needs to be followed in order to prepare the athlete for a movement like this.
- Squat Rack
- A very stable surface to step up to. (Ideally, a box or bench that is stable, heavy, and well balanced)
- Set up the barbell at the height you would normally use for back squatting.
- Use the high bar back squat position for this exercise.
- Use a box height that is going to allow your hip and knee flexion to be as similar as possible to your stride while sprinting or bounding.
- Unrack the weight, place one foot on the box, and drive the other leg’s knee up.
- The leg drive should be fast and explosive. (Quick note: keep the up leg’s foot pulled up toward the shin).
- Engage the glutes and pause for a brief second at the top of the movement.
- Carefully lower the leg back down and prepare for the next repetition.
A stable box cannot be overstated here. If the box is not stable, do not do Barbell Step-ups.
- Grab two dumbbells, one in each hand
- Squeeze the shoulder blades and engage the lats to create a stable back to help with bracing the upper body
- Once you’ve created enough room for yourself from the dumbbell rack (or wherever you pulled them from) you can begin the movement.
- Step forward with one leg, giving yourself enough room to be able to drop into a lunge comfortably without feeling overextended.
- Keep the chest as upright as possible and drop the back knee to roughly one inch from the floor.
- Now drive through the heel and midfoot of the front foot to drive yourself back up tall.
- Repeat on the opposite leg and alternate back and forth until all reps have been completed.
Coaching Points (Fixes to Common Mistakes)
When you step out for Dumbbell Lunges, make sure to keep the feet shoulder-width apart. If you’re feeling very off-balance in your lunge there is a good chance that you are stepping the lead foot directly in front of the back foot (essentially placing yourself on a tight rope).
- Kettlebell (Dumbbell can be used as well)
- Grab a kettlebell and hold it at chest level, cradling the bottom of the bell in both hands*.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, chest out, lats engaged, eyes straight ahead.
- Before descending into the squat, fill the abdomen full of air and brace the core.
- Start the start by pushing the hips back first.
- Bend the hips and knees, keeping the chest up and knees pushed out until the thighs become parallel to the floor.
- Now push the feet through the floor and drive yourself back up to the starting position.
- Repeat for the designated number of reps.
*It’s also acceptable to hold the kettlebell on each side of the handle (as shown in the image above).
As with any squat, the most important aspect of Goblet Squats is to keep the core braced to protect the spine and to maintain proper posture – chest out and lats engaged.
- A Wall (any object that is tall enough, flat enough and sturdy enough to hold you can also work)
- Find a good, sturdy wall that will be able to safely support your body weight
- Lean back against the wall and place your back flat against the wall.
- Walk your feet out and plant your feet firmly into the ground, shoulder width apart, a few feet from the wall (how far exactly will depend on limb length)
- Slide down the wall until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Shin angle should now be vertical, ankles just below the knees.
- If you need to quickly reset to adjust the distance your feet are from the wall, do that now.
- Once you are in the sitting position, hold that position for the designated amount of time (or as long as possible)
- Keep hands off legs throughout the sit. They can be held in front or placed on the sides.
The biggest mistakes I see with athletes when doing Wall Sits all come from the setup. The thighs should be parallel to the floor with the ankles directly below the knees.
Having the hips too high or the feet too far in front of the knees will take strain off of the quads. Athletes inherently know this because these are two of the best ways to try to ‘cheat’ if it’s a competition. (If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’, right?)
- Make sure you have plenty of space to be able to safely flip the tire.
- Start with the tire laying on the ground on its side.
- Stand with toes almost against the tire, feet roughly shoulder-width apart.
- Drop the hips and reach under the tire.
- Once you have a good grip under the tire flatten your back and brace your core.
- Drive the feet through the ground and aggressively begin to extend the hips.
- If the tire is heavy, you can slide one knee under the tire to help with leverage once the tire is high enough.
- When the tire gets above stomach height, flip your hands around so you can begin to push the tire.
- Push the tire forcefully forward – extending with both your arms and legs.
- The tire should land on its side. Repeat for the designated amount of distance or reps.
The biggest key to Tire Flips is perhaps in finding the right tire.
Every school I’ve ever worked at had big tires that were used for Tire Flips. However, the size and weight of these tires have all been drastically different. They’ve ranged from tires that were barely heavy enough to be worth using to tires that took two and sometimes even three football players to flip.
Just like with Deadlifts and Power Clean, it’s extremely important to drop the hips, use the legs and keep the back flat. Once fatigue starts to set in I generally see athletes resort to using more back than legs. If form reaches this point then it’s time to stop flipping the tire.
- Prowler sled
- Bumper or iron plates
- At least a 20-yard stretch of turf
- Proper footwear. Shoes with a good grip or cleats (if turf is available) are ideal.
- Set your prowler in an area where you can push it at least 20 yards without hitting anything.
- Load the prowler with weight.
- Get behind the prowler and grab the high handle position.
- Hinge at the waist, bend the knees and extend your arms.
- Drive your legs and push the sled forward.
The Prowler Push is a full body movement. Keep the core tight, nice neutral spine, and keep those arms extended (Arms can be bent when focusing on heavier loads).
Focus on a strong knee drive and pushing through your feet to keep the prowler moving. Your body angle will be very similar to how you start a sprint. So the lower body action should be very similar to running.
Back Squats are an incredible exercise for developing both size and lower body strength. However, sometimes you may need an alternative for Back Squats.
And, when you do, hopefully at least one of the exercises that I’ve listed above can work for you as a Back Squat alternative.