Barbell Back Squat Alternatives

While squats are a staple of any well-rounded workout program, they sometimes need to be modified in order to fit your needs! Whether you are training around an injury, mobility restriction, or other limitation, you should know what alternatives you have at your disposal to get all of the benefits of squatting without the discomfort.

leg press

What Makes a Good Back Squat Substitute?

Before diving into alternatives, we need a solid understanding of the basic barbell back squat. Let’s take a look at these different considerations to help us choose appropriate substitutions.

  1. Muscles targeted

Squats are an amazing lower body exercise that mostly target your quads and glutes. They also hit your adductors, hamstrings, and hip flexors.

  1. Joints involved

The squat is a compound or multi-joint movement. Unlike a leg extension where you are only moving at the knee, the squat incorporates your knees, hips, and ankles to complete the movement. 

  1. Equipment & loading

Back Squats traditionally use a barbell placed either on the traps or rear delts. Squat alternatives can feature modified bars, a front rack position, or even machines to replicate the squat, but loaded in different ways. Some of these different loading mechanisms can allow you to safely train around back or knee irritation which is a nice benefit. For instance, the belt squat loads the weight from your hips instead of on top of your spine.

Best Barbell Back Squat Alternatives

Choosing the right alternative to a back squat will depend on why you’re making the modification in the first place. Are you unable to complete a back squat due to mobility? Do you have injury restrictions? Are you weak in a certain part of the squat so you need to address it? You’ll need to be able to answer that question before choosing the right movement for you. The list below goes over some great options along with rationales on why you might do them instead of back squats (or in addition to).

Front Squat

The front squat offers a few great benefits. For one, you aren’t directly loading your spine as you do on a back squat. Instead, the bar is resting on the shelf of your front delts. This reduces the compressive forces on your lower back while challenging your core and upper back instead.

Another benefit for those cautious about their low back, is that it allows you to keep a more upright torso. If you try and front squat with excessive forward lean, you’d simply dump the barbell and fail the lift. With that in mind, front squats do require a lot of lat and wrist mobility otherwise it might be difficult to comfortably rack the bar throughout the squat.

In terms of muscle target comparison, front squats are very similar to the back squat. You will hit your quads slightly more on a front squat than a low bar back squat, but they achieve about the same activation as a high bar squat. We’d still favor the high bar squat in terms of quad growth since you’d be able to load it them more.

Overall, if you are looking for a low-back friendly and very challenging squat variation, you can’t go wrong with the front squat. Many programs will include a main squat day and a squat variation day where you’d be able to prioritize front squats as the main movement.

Box Squat

The best part about box squats is that they give you an adjustable target for depth. If you have a range of motion restriction, you can simply use a box with a height that fits your needs. As you gain more mobility, you can use a shorter box. It also allows athletes to use a wider stance and focus on perpendicular shins. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with forward knee travel, but again, if you have achy joints, being able to sit back into a squat might be more comfortable for you than squatting straight down. Overall, we think box squats are a great alternative. You can load them up heavy or use them to teach new squatters about form and depth. It’s also great for taller athletes where the risk/reward ratio probably isn’t there for them to do heavy regular squatting.

Pro tip: make sure not to rock back and shift your weight at the bottom of the squat! Sit back and down onto the box, pause, and explode back up.

Hack Squat

Unless injured, we’d say that the hack squat is probably a better complement to the barbell squat as opposed to a true alternative, but we wanted to include as an option since it’s very joint friendly on both the knees and lower back. You don’t have to worry about stabilizing the barbell and you can maintain an upright torso. You also have a large platform to play around with foot positioning to see what feels most comfortable to you.

Belt Squat

We love the belt squat! Unfortunately, not too many gyms have them. Belt squats load the weight to your hips and include a handle so that you sit back into a variety of squat patterns. You can load them up heavy or do them for high rep sets. Mess around with sitting straight down into a squat or sitting back to hit more of your posterior muscles.

Goblet Squat

We wanted to include at least one true beginner movement and the goblet squat is our favorite intro to squatting technique. The DB in front of you acts as a counter balance allowing you to drop into a full squat without falling. If you have ankle mobility issues, you can also try elevating your heels to get further depth. Goblet squats are most appropriate for high rep sets since you will be more limited by the weight you can hold and not necessarily the weight you can squat.

Barbell Split Squat

¬†Single leg movements can still be considered squats! You are flexing at the knee and extending at the hip, it’s just one leg at a time. Every program should include at least 1-2 unilateral movements per workout. These movements are helpful for identifying muscle imbalances and over-compensation patterns. The barbell split squat is a great movement since you’re able to load it heavy without having to worry about your grip strength.

Safety Squat Bar Squat

If your gym has an SSB, then you are training at our kind of place! Not a lot of commercial gyms carry these speciality bars, but they are an incredible tool. The handles in front of the bar are perfect for those who have elbow and shoulder issues when squatting with a traditional straight bar. The load on your back feels a bit different, so the squat will take a bit to get used to, but it’s another great option!

Leg Press

Lastly, the leg press. Also not a true alternative, but a lot of people who aren’t quite ready for squatting can build some serious muscle and strength doing this simple movement. We prefer to do leg presses with moderate to high reps (8-15).

Tip: make sure to keep your back flat against the padding (don’t let your butt come up when bending your legs).