Barbell squats can offer many benefits but you may want other options. What are some alternatives to barbell squats with similar benefits?
The barbell squat, more particularly barbell back squat, is one of the most popular leg compound exercises, and for a good reason.
Among other benefits, barbell squats can strengthen your leg and core muscles, they allow you to use very heavy weights, are low-impact, improve balance, etc. In turn, this means that barbell squats can help you build muscle mass, burn calories, and offer other typical exercise benefits.
Whether you don’t enjoy barbell squats, you don’t have a barbell, you want a more knee-friendly alternative, or you want an alternative for any other reason, these alternatives to barbell squats can offer you some or all of the same benefits.
Keep in mind that implementing these alternatives can offer benefits but like any exercise, there is always some risk of injury. Implement a good technique to keep your injury risk low. When in doubt talk to an expert.
1. Other weighted squat variations
While the barbell back squat is one of the most popular weighted squat options, there are plenty of other types of resistance and types of squats you can do. As an example to do a dumbbell goblet squat take the following steps:
- Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width right in front of a vertically standing dumbbell.
- Slowly lower your hips by bending your knees. How far depends on different factors like knee health but at your lowest point you ideally want your hips to be at or lower than your knee height. Keep your back straight throughout the exercise.
- Pick up the dumbbell and hold it at the top weight against your chest with your hand palms facing up.
- Push yourself up again into starting position by stretching your legs.
- Alternate between the positions in step 2 and step 4 while holding the dumbbell.
Other types of squat equipment include dumbbells, resistance bands, a cable machine, kettlebell, smith machine, sandbags, separate weight plates, etc.
You can also hold the barbell or these other types of weights in different places. Some examples include on the front of your shoulders, in your hands beside you, against your chest, in your hands behind you, overhead, etc.
Most of these barbell back squat alternatives will still mainly focus on your leg muscles. There are however some small differences in the ratio of muscle engagement, how much your core muscles have to work, how challenging they are when it comes to balance, etc.
2. VMO dips
For this next exercise, you want a platform that is slightly elevated, even something like 6 inches (15 cm) works, above the floor. An example of a suited object is a low stepper. Once you have that to do VMO dips take the following steps:
- Stand straight up on the edge of the platform, feet full on it, with your toes facing the lower surface.
- Move one foot forward so that it hovers over the edge.
- Fold the knee of your support leg in a controlled motion until your heel of the other foot touches the lower surface.
- Slowly stretch your support leg again.
- Repeat the same number of repetitions with your other leg as the support leg.
The vastus medialis oblique (VMO) is one of your four quadriceps (front upper leg) muscles. If your knee hurts when doing exercises like barbell squats it is possible this particular muscle is not yet strong enough.
This is where VMO dips can help you strengthen the VMO muscle so that over time you can go to regular barbell squats and other effective leg exercises that require knee folding.
3. Leg presses
The leg press is a weighted resistance exercise that is often done on the leg press machine. To do one seated leg press take the following steps:
- Adjust the machine for your requirements. Put the desired weight on the dedicated holders of the leg press machine. If you are not sure how much would be right for you, start small and build up from there.
- Take place in the leg press machine. Make sure your feet are flat on the pushing surface and at about shoulder-width apart.
- Slowly push up the weight until your legs are slightly less than stretched.
- Lower the weight gain into the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
Leg presses are a barbell squat alternative that allows you to train your leg muscles without having to use your lower back and other core muscles too much.
This leg gym machine also makes it so you don’t have to worry about balancing yourself. In turn, leg presses can help you focus more on training your leg muscles which can lead to more leg muscle gain faster.
4. Bulgarian split squats
For this next exercise, you want a step, bench, or any other stable object at about knee height. Once you have that, to do a Bulgarian split squat take the following steps:
- Stand in front of the stable object with your back towards it. Keep about half a leg distance between you and the box.
- Move one leg back and put the foot of this side on the object. The top of your foot should lean on the surface of the object.
- Slowly lower your hips by bending the knee of your stretched leg until your hip is at about the height of your knee of the previously stretched leg. Use your arms for balance if needed.
- Push yourself up again into the position of step 2.
- Repeat the same number of repetitions on the leg of the other side to keep your muscle distribution balanced.
Bulgarian split squats are a great barbell squat alternative if you do not have a lot of extra weights. This is because you make it so most of your weight rests on one leg. Training one leg at a time can also help you avoid muscle imbalances.
There are also downsides to training your legs separately. These types of exercises can be more challenging when it comes to balance. They also generally take longer since you have to do repetitions on each side.
For the next barbell squat you likely need external weights, preferably a barbell. You can also use other free weights and even resistance bands. To do a deadlift take the following steps:
- Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width in front of a weighted barbell.
- Slightly fold your knees and tilt your upper body forward to grab the barbell on the ground.
- Stretch your knees and tilt back your upper body at the same time until your upper body and legs are stretched in one straight line. When doing a deadlift it is very important to keep your back in a straight line during the exercise.
- Slowly move back into the position of step 2.
Good technique is important in any exercise to avoid injuries but especially so for deadlifts. Before trying to deadlift the heaviest weights it is smart to improve your technique first by starting with light or no weights at all.
Deadlifts are similar to a barbell squat in that they train your leg muscles. On top of that, this exercise also engages your back muscles. Another benefit of deadlifts is that you do not need a squat rack to do them.
6. Hip thrusts
Hip thrusts are similar to glute bridges but instead of doing them on the ground, you will need a bench or any other stable object of the right height. To do a hip thrust take the following steps:
- Sit right in front of the bench or other object you will use with your back slightly over the edge. Make sure the object is stable. Place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width in a position where your knees will be at a 90-degree angle in the next step.
- Move up your hips until your body is in a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.
- Slowly lower your body again.
One of the most common ways to add extra resistance to hip thrusts is with the help of a barbell.
Hip thrusts mainly engage your glute, also known as your butt, and hamstring muscles. This makes the hip thrust a good barbell squat alternative if you are mostly interested in strengthening your glutes.
7. Leg extensions
For this next barbell squat alternative you need suited resistance bands and an anchor object. Once you have these to do a resistance band leg extension take the following steps:
- Anchor the resistance band somewhere close to the ground. If you are using a chair you can anchor it at the back chair legs.
- Sit on the object you chose with your back to the anchor. Anchor the other end of the resistance band behind your feet. Make sure your folded leg already feels a pull from the resistance band.
- Slowly stretch your legs with the resistance band until they are fully stretched.
- Move your feet back to the position in step 2 in a controlled motion.
You can also do leg extensions on the specific gym machine made for this exercise, with a cable machine, or with ankle weights.
Leg extensions are an exercise to isolate your quadriceps muscles. So if you don’t like the compound aspect of barbell squats this could be a suited alternative to work out one specific muscle group.
Besides that, leg extensions are also a more knee-friendly way to train your quadriceps compared to barbell squats.
Walking lunges are a great alternative to barbell squats, especially if you make the effort of putting your weight mainly on your front leg. To do two walking lunges take the following steps:
- Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width.
- Take a big step forward so that you get into a position where both of your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Your front foot should be flat on the ground, your back foot should only touch the ground with the ball of the foot (front).
- Move your back foot forward and get into the same position of step 2 but with your other foot in the front.
For weighted lunges you preferably have no- or one-handed weights like dumbbells or kettlebells so you can still use your arms for balance.
One downside of these types of weights as a barbell alternative is that they have a lower weight ceiling. By putting most of your weight on one leg at a time this becomes less of a problem.
Even if you cannot reach quite the same intensity as a barbell squat with something like dumbbell lunges, you can still do lunges with a barbell too.
9. Back extensions
It is generally recommended to use the back extension machine or roman chair at your gym for this next barbell squat alternative. To do a back extension with the dedicated machine take the following steps:
- Take place in the back extension machine. Keep a straight back for now. Make sure you are locked in place safely.
- Slowly bend down as far as you can while keeping your back straight. The bending movement comes from your hips, not your lower back.
- Move up your upper body in a controlled motion until your body is in a straight line.
There are many ways to make back extensions weighted and in turn more challenging for your muscles. Some examples include a weight plate, dumbbell, barbell, etc.
This option is a bit more of an unusual barbell squat alternative. Back extensions are a more knee-friendly way to train your lower back, glute, erector spinae, and hamstring muscles compared to a back squat.
In turn, this exercise doesn’t really train muscles like your quadriceps and calves.
For step-ups you need a stable object or platform strong enough to stand on. The plyo box may be a good option depending on how much pressure you want to put on it.
If you want to use a lot of external weight, you may need to look for a concrete platform. Once you have a suited object or platform, to do a step-up take the following steps:
- Stand upright in front of the object facing toward it with your feet at shoulder-width.
- Raise one foot and put it on the surface of the object. Make sure your sole is entirely on the surface.
- Raise your body by exerting pressure with the leg of the foot that is on the object.
- Put your second foot next to the other one.
- Step down with the first foot.
- Step down with the second foot.
- Do a repetition with the other foot first.
Step-ups are another great barbell squat alternative for when you don’t have a barbell or a lot of other weights available. This is because most of your weight will be on one leg.
You can also easily do step-ups at home, possibly with dumbbells, other fitness equipment, or even just a heavy backpack or grocery bags.