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The barbell squat is arguably the best exercise for building strength and mass, but they aren't the easiest. The barbell squat can be difficult for people for various reasons, including core balance issues, lack of mobility, muscle imbalances, and joint or muscle injuries. Luckily, there are several alternatives to the squat that can be used to target the same muscles. In this article, we will teach you the seven best squat alternatives and tips on using them.
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When looking for the best squat alternatives, we look for exercises that have a similar range of motion and target the same muscle groups as the squat. Below are the seven best squat alternatives.
The leg press is the most popular leg exercise and squat alternative, likely because it's incredibly easy to use. Aside from the stability of a machine, the biggest difference between barbell back squats and leg presses is the seated position compared to standing upright.
Rack the desired weights and adjust the seat in the Leg Press Machine.
Leg presses are among the best lower body exercises, primarily working the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. They work the calves to a lesser extent.
If you want to add a leg press to your home gym, check out our favorite picks for best Leg Press Machines.
Hack squats are an excellent squat alternative, but they require a machine, so they aren't as accessible. They combine the leg press and back squat, as the upper body is in an upright position (like back squats) but with the stability of a machine (like the leg press). Hack squats use a sliding platform with a backrest to keep your body stable while making a motion similar to the squat.
Hack squats primarily target the quads, hamstrings, and glutes; secondary muscles include the calves and the core for stability.
Bulgarian split squats are a single-leg exercise that targets the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core for stability. You only need a bench or elevated surface and the desired weights (body weight works, too!).
Feel free to start this exercise with just your body weight until you are comfortable with the movement. Since you are only using one leg, it requires more balance and core stability than regular squats. Bulgarian split squats are great for people with back pain because they place less stress on the cervical spine compared to barbell squats. As always, focus on maintaining proper form, keeping your weight mid-foot, and activating your core.
Goblet squats are an excellent exercise and squat alternative, especially for beginners or those who struggle to squat. You can use a dumbbell, kettlebell, or medicine ball.
Goblet squats mainly work the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and core for stability. It also slightly engages the shoulders and upper back and traps from holding the weight. To learn more, check out our article The Ultimate Guide To Goblet Squats.
Leg curls are another lower-body exercise that can be used in addition to other squat variations. Leg curls and their alternatives specifically target the hamstrings, so they should be used with other lower-body exercises for a complete workout.
Leg curls primarily work the hamstrings, with the calves as a secondary muscle. These should be performed later in a workout, after a more compound movement.
Step-ups are a great alternative that are pretty straightforward and doesn't require any special equipment. You only need a box, bench, or elevated surface.
Stand tall on top of the box to reach the top position.
Because of the upward motion, step-ups primarily target the quads, but they also work the hamstrings and glutes. They work the core for stability and the calves to a lesser extent. These should also be performed later in the workout, after compound movements.
Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) work the posterior chain, which is the muscle groups on the back of the body from your upper back down to the calves. This includes the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart.
RDLs use the hip hinge to move the weight, whereas squats bend the hips and knees. RDLs primarily work the hamstrings and glutes. They also work the lower back, core, and erector spinae.
The barbell back squat is one of the best strength training exercises for building lean muscle mass, as it works the entire lower body and parts of the upper body.
With the weight hooked on a squat rack, the user places the bar across their back and then lowers it into a seated position. You then explode through the heels to lift the weight and return to the rack position.
Squatting is great for both men's and women's health, as it can improve daily life conditions. However, the downside is that it can be difficult for many people, which leads them to seek squat alternatives.
Squats primarily build lower body strength, but they work the entire body. They are one of the best exercises for building core strength and stability, as they require balance to hold the weight.
Primary Muscles Worked:
Secondary Muscles Worked:
Besides the obvious of gaining muscle, squats have several other benefits, including:
For more information, check out our article, Squats Guide: How To, Muscles Worked, Benefits, and 15 Variations. To learn more about the relationship between squats and testosterone, check out our article, Do Squats Increase Testosterone? What Science Says.
In this section, we will discuss a few tips for maximizing your gains and making your workouts more efficient.
It depends on the exercise, but you should always strive to do an exercise using free weights. Free weights allow for a greater range of motion and, therefore, greater muscle activation. Free weights require core strength and stability, especially for squats, whereas machines take that aspect out. Free-weight squats or squat alternatives activate important stabilizer muscles in the core and lower back that machines can't work. It's incredibly important to build the stabilizer muscles because they help the body maintain proper form, especially for heavy squats.
One study compared the difference in hormonal response, particularly post-workout, of the barbell squat to the leg press. After performing six sets of ten reps, the squat group had significant testosterone and growth hormone increases compared to the leg press group. They concluded that free-weight exercises like the barbell squat cause a greater hormonal response to resistance training than machines.¹
You should always start your workouts with compound exercises (squat, bench press, deadlift) first and isolation exercises second. Studies have shown that doing large muscle groups first and progressing to smaller muscle groups results in the greatest anabolic response.² For compound exercises like the leg press or deadlifts, you should perform 10-12 reps. You need to do high reps when training legs because the legs have greater muscle endurance from supporting us all day.
Proper squat form calls for the user to take a deep breath at the top of the squat in a standing position and hold it throughout, exhaling as you return to the starting position. The idea is to breathe as deep as possible into the stomach to create pressure, which helps to stabilize the core and protect the spine. This is especially important for those that train heavy with fewer reps.
Unless you're a professional athlete, there's no reason to push your body to a dangerous point. There is nothing wrong with using a Smith Machine or other alternatives to the regular squat. There are plenty of safer, more comfortable options, so don't feel obligated to do barbell squats.
Bulgarian squats, leg curls, step ups, and the leg press machine are the best lower body exercises if you have a bad back.
If you have knee pain, the best leg exercises are leg presses, leg curls, step-ups, and Romanian Deadlifts.
The best squat alternatives to build the glutes are any type of deadlift (RDLs especially), step ups, lunges, and a high or wide foot position on the leg press machine.
Barbell squats, along with the deadlift, are one of the best core and leg exercises you can do for building strength. Exercise science shows that squats have greater muscle activation since they target so many muscles, which leads to a greater increase in testosterone and growth. Squats are also one of the most difficult exercises, but luckily, there are several squat alternatives that work the same muscles. The best alternatives to squats include the leg press, hack squat, goblet squat, leg curls, step-ups, deadlift variations, and Bulgarian split squats.
To maximize muscle growth, do the compound exercises first in the workout, ideally at least ten reps. Remember to focus on breathing and maintaining proper form for all exercises, as form is more important than weight. Be sure to include a few exercises per workout to hit all aspects of the leg muscle and watch your trunks grow!
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