The squat is often referred to as “the king of the gym lifts”—for good reason, too. If you want to get stronger, squats will help. If you want to get bigger, squats will help. If you want to lose weight, squats will help. As such, most good programs will include the squat.
So why would anyone need an alternative to the barbell squat? As important as the squat is as an exercise and movement pattern, no other exercise is performed as badly by so many.
The squat requires movement at the hip, knee, and ankle at the same time. Anybody with movement restrictions at any of these joints will have a tough time squatting correctly and adding load in this instance is not a good idea.
Injury is another instance where the squat may not be the appropriate movement. A back, knee, ankle, or hip injury often results in pain during the squat—even a shoulder injury makes holding the bar problematic for many. In this case, the available options are to push through the pain which I certainly do not advise, or to seek alternative exercises.
To find the best alternative exercises we simply need to find exercises that involve these joints in order to work these muscles:
The Bulgarian Split Squat
If you have never tried this exercise, you should. They are brutally hard, and as such are a fantastic exercise for leg hypertrophy. Simply place your rear foot on an object behind you (a foam box, bench, barbell in a rack, etc.) and have your front leg at a 90 degree bend. The key is not to move forward in each rep, rather straight up and down.
Lunges are one the best exercises you can perform in the gym, period. What I love about them most is their versatility. They also involve the hip, knee, and ankle and as such are a perfect alternative to the squat. As is the case with the BSS, the lunge allows many people with a hip or back injury to perform the exercise pain free.
For anyone experiencing knee pain, the lunge is a fantastic exercise. If performing a lunge still causes pain in the knee, simply perform reverse lunges.
While the deadlift is not a squat (it’s a hinge), and so it isn’t truly a squat replacement, it is an exercise you should absolutely continue doing if you can. Why? Because as fantastic as lunges and split squats are, they cannot compete with the deadlift for building explosive full body strength.
Many with ankle, knee, and hip injuries are able to deadlift heavy weight without pain, and continued, careful exposure to these loads even while injured means the return to training is much less troublesome than taking a complete layoff.
The sled is one of the greatest training innovations, ever. It’s brutally hard, nearly impossible to do wrong, and it doesn’t cause much lasting soreness. Sleds are loved by coaches and hated by athletes all over the world, and if used correctly are a fantastic way to increase your lower body training volume without squatting.