The squat is generally known as the “king of all exercises” because of the massive muscle size and strength it can build. However, squatting isn’t a great exercise for all trainees. Lower back or knee problems, body structure not conducive to squatting, or even just bad form could mean other exercises would be a better option. Read on below for seven squat alternatives that can allow you to still build an awesome lower body.
Though not solely a leg movement, deadlifts are generally considered right behind squats in terms of potential overall strength and size development. By using the trap bar, you transfer much more of the emphasis to the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and hips than with straight bar variations. If you’re indeed looking for squat alternatives, this should be at the top of your list.
One of the best squat alternatives for the quads are step ups. By stepping onto a box or bench at just above knee height, you’re putting the quadriceps (especially the teardrop shaped VMO muscles just above the knee) in a position where they have to produce near maximum contractile force from the very beginning of the movement. This not only builds more muscle, but furthers athletic strength.
Lunges are probably the most complete single leg movement you can do. This is because they actually work both legs at once (though in different fashion), hit the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, and promote not just muscular contraction, but mobility and a good stretch. At the same time, unlike other squat alternatives, you have to be able to produce high levels of force at extended ranges of motion. This makes your legs not only stronger, but more athletic, too.
Though generally considered a cardio or conditioning activity, pushing a really heavy prowler or sled is actually one of the best single leg squat alternatives out there. It forces the quads, hamstrings, and glutes all to contract hard. Leaning forward to maximize leverage puts you into a very athletic position, and the fact that there’s no eccentric motion makes it much less damaging to the body and easier to recover from than you might think.
Another activity that’s done for cardio and / or conditioning purposes, steep hill sprints are probably one of the most under-utilized squat alternatives available. However, these aren’t always easily done, as you need to have a very steep hill nearby that you can sprint up. And it does need to be steep – any hill below a 60-degree angle really isn’t steep enough if leg development is your primary goal.
At the same time, you’d be best served if the hill was grass or dirt and you were wearing cleats. Just like you have to really dig into the ground to push that sled or prowler, you have to really dig into the ground with the balls of your feet to sprint up such a hill. Every step up the hill is almost like a running version of step ups done in a leaned over prowler / sled pushing stance. Do enough of these, and it’s almost impossible not to build an impressive set of wheels.
If you’re interested in legit squat alternatives, then you have to work the whole leg at once. Leg extensions and leg curls are the best lower body isolation movements you can do, but they only work the quads and hamstrings respectively. However, if you stack them together in a superset, you get the muscle quality improvements from doing isolation exercises, while still working both the anterior and posterior parts of the leg.
One of the biggest issues many lifters have with lower body work is that they suffer from insufficient glute activation. Doing glute bridges can not only rectify that, but build stronger glutes, hips, and hamstrings. They may not hit the entire leg like other squat alternatives, but the improvements in muscular activation will carry over into other exercises and activities, improving your results with them. At the same time, they can go a long way toward preventing injuries.
While squats are an excellent exercise, they’re not totally necessary to build a strong and well-developed pair of legs. You could instead use posterior chain movements like trap bar deadlifts or glute bridges. Single leg work makes you strong and athletic. And choosing the right conditioning activities can build great legs, too. Put sufficient effort into any of these, and you’ll have a strong, powerful, and muscular lower body.
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