What are some exercises beside squats I can use to train my legs?
I hear this question for a variety of reasons. Maybe you have some knee, hip, or ankle issues that limit your mobility. Maybe it’s a back or shoulder injury. I knew a guy who couldn’t squat because of wrist problems. Maybe you’re getting older (like me) and the heavy weight is starting to wear you down. Maybe you don’t have a squat rack or power cage.
Whatever the reason(s), you need an alternative to loading a bunch of weight on your back and going up and down.
Let’s admit that squats are a great exercise. So great there’s even a program called milk and squats, which is exactly what it sounds like: nothing but drinking milk and squatting. Yes, you can put a lot of size on your legs, but you actually put size on the rest of your body as well.
But, for whatever reason, squats aren’t for you. So here are some things you can do to as squat alternatives to work your legs.
- The vertical sled. This is where the user typical sits below the weight and presses it up with his or her feet through a vertical or diagonal plane of motion. The weights are attached directly to the sled, which is mounted on rails.
- Seated leg press. The user sits upright in a chair or seat with a back and pushes a plate with his or her feet. The plate is attached by means of a cables and a pulley array to a weight stack.
The leg press is quad dominant, although it also activates the hamstrings and gluteus maximus (butt). It doesn’t really engage the posterior chain.
With your feet shoulder-width apart, hold the head of a dumbbell or kettle bell handle with both hands vertically in front of your chest. Keep your back straight and core tight, and squat down until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor (or lower), then return to the starting position.
The goblet squat is very similar in effect to the front squat. Like the leg press, it is quad dominant, but unlike the leg press, it does engage the core and posterior chain.
Smith Machine Squats
I put these in here even though most people who can’t do regular squats also are unable to do Smith machine squats either. The difference between regular squats and Smith machine squats is that the the Smith machine only allows movement through a fixed plane. This prevents ancillary muscles from being activated and doesn’t help develop balance, but it can be useful for individuals with mobility issues.
Your center of gravity doesn’t need to be maintained since the machine stabilizes you. With a Smith machine squat, the knees don’t go as far forward and the depth of the squat is restricted.
Done properly, Smith machine squats can result in less force in the knees and lower back.
Lunges can put strain on the knees, so if you’re avoiding squats because of knee issues, lunges aren’t the answer. Lunges also require good balance, so if you’ve never done them before, start with just your body weight until you get the hang of them.
Lunges are a great exercise that doesn’t overly stress the back and works all the muscles of the legs: the quadriceps, gluteus maximus, and the hamstrings. By varying the length of the lunge (how far you step), you can change the muscle focus. A long lunge hits the gluts more while a short lunge hits the quads.
Plyometric lunges (also known as split squat jumps) are performed by jumping explosively between lunge positions.
To add weight to lunges, you can either grip a dumbbell or kettle bell in either hand or hold a barbell on your upper shoulders squat-style.
There are many types of lunges, including reverse lunges, step-ups, walking lunges, side lunges just to name a few.
In the front squat, the bar is held across the front of the shoulders using either a clean grip or with the arms crossed and hands placed on top of the barbell. While traditional squats place more of a load on the glutes and hamstrings, and compressive force on the spine, front squats place more emphasis on the quads. They do engage the core and posterior chain to keep the lower back upright.
Front squats require more flexibility and upper back strength than traditional squats. The upper back needs to be tight in order to keep the chest up. Shoulders and wrists need to be flexible in order to properly seat the bar.
With the bar placed on the front of the shoulders, front squats can be a problem for anyone with shoulder issues. The front squat also puts the elbows in full flexion and the wrists in full extension, so anyone with elbow or wrist issues would probably find them uncomfortable.
This is another exercise that requires some practice to get the form down.
While they aren’t a leg only-exercise, dead lifts are beneficial in the sense of activating the central nervous system and stimulating the release of growth hormones because of large muscle activation. However, if you’re avoiding squats because of back issues, dead lifts probably shouldn’t be in your stable of exercises.
In short, sumo dead lifts are more quad dominant and don’t activate as much of the posterior chain as traditional squats.
There’s a lot more to the dead lift than can be explained in a few paragraphs. Here’s more info if you want to learn more about deadlifts.
Ed Zercher was a strongman and power lifter in the 1930s. With the Zercher squat, you hold the barbell in the crook of your elbows in front of your body. It’s a great exercise for teaching the squat as it forces an upright posture and allows for a deeper squat.
By taking the the load off the back, the Zercher squat is much easier on the spine while at the same time still working the core. With a high level of activity in the posterior chain, it’s great for developing the glutes and hamstrings.
Zercher squats are very popular with strongmen, as the motion carries over to strongman events such as the stone carry, Atlas stones and the yoke carry.
You might need a towel or pad around the bar to prevent discomfort, especially as the weight gets heavier.
Back in the early days of weight training, there were no machines. So George Hackenschmidt, a wrestler, strongman and athlete, came up with a way to work his legs that ended up being called the barbell hack squat.
You can do hack squats on a machine or with a barbell. A hack squat machine looks kind of like a Smith machine slanted at a forty-five degree angle.
The hack squat primarily stresses the front quads. A nice thing about the machine is that it stabilizes and supports your lower back. It also allows a more narrow stance than when doing it with a bar. The hack squat is a great way to improve their leg and core strength.
You can also do hack squats with a barbell. In the barbell hack squat, you hold the barbell behind your body.
It’s the ultimate quad destroyer. Because of the upright position of the body, it places relatively little stress on the back – much less than traditional squats or dead lifts.
I always had problems doing hack squats because I have to round my back to avoid hitting my upper hamstrings and gluts. Holding the bar like in the image to the right, where the back of you hands rest on your glutes, eliminated that problem, but it changes yor balance and takes some getting used to.
One-Legged Squats (Pistol Squats)
Until I tried pistol squats.
I was squatting 315 for reps. And yet a (not so) simple pistol squat put me on my ass in more ways than one. Pistol squats are the go-to leg exercise for body weight fitness workouts.
Most people will have to start with their body weight, but once you get stronger and more skilled, you can do pistol squats holding dumbbells, kettle bells, or even with a bar on your back. They are a great way to build size, strength, balance and flexibility.
I’ve seen people doing them standing on a bench or stool, or even holding the foot of their extended leg. They really hammer the whole leg, and help develop balance too.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian split squats are similar to lunges, except that the rear foot is elevated. The biggest advantage is the lack of lower back strain. If squatting bothers your back, split squats is an exercise to consider.
In the back squat, the limiting factor is usually the lower back. In the front squat, it’s usually the upper back. The split squat eliminates these limiting factors and targets the legs.
Despite the way it looks, the rear leg also does some work, both with stabilization and the actual up and down movement. You can increase resistance by holding a dumbbell goblet style, holding dumbbells or kettle bells in both hands, or even with a barbell across the shoulders.
So there you go, a whole stack of squat alternatives – one or more of them is sure to work out for you.