11 Squat Alternatives – For Incredible Leg Definition

Woman doing conventional squat

Squats are described as the king of all exercises, and some coaches even go so far as to say that a workout without squats is barely a workout at all! Hyperbole aside, the squat is a very valuable exercise because it works virtually every muscle in your lower body and many upper body muscles too.

Squats are more than just an exercise; it’s also a common movement pattern. It’s hard to get through a day without doing at least a few squats, and most people do a great many each and every day.

Getting out of bed in the morning, sitting down onto and standing up from a chair, walking upstairs, and getting in and out of your car are all examples of squats.

A lot of sports involve squats, too, not least powerlifting and Olympic lifting. Athletes use squats to develop their strength and muscle power so they can run faster, jump higher, and kick harder. They are excellent for toning up and shredding pounds or even kilograms!

There are lots of different squat variations, but the most common is the barbell back squat. However, as valuable as back squats are, there are also plenty of squat alternatives. These alternatives are helpful for preventing training ruts and boredom.

Also, some people find back squats uncomfortable as they can put a lot of stress on your spine. Additionally, not everyone has access to a barbell and a squat rack, which are essential for back squats.

In this article, we reveal the 11 best back squat alternatives so you can keep your workouts productive and enjoyable, even if squats are off your training menu.

Squat Alternatives For Definition

What Muscles Do Squats Work?

Barbell back squats are a compound exercise. That means they work lots of muscles at the same time. In fact, squats work virtually every muscle in your legs and a few in your upper body too. The main muscles involved in squats are:Leg muscles worked doing squats

Quadriceps – These are located on the front of your thighs, the quadriceps extend your knee joints. Known as the quads for short, there are four muscles in this group: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis.

Hamstrings – The three hamstrings flex your knees and extend your hips. The muscles that make up the hammies are; the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus.

Gluteus maximus – Known as the glutes for short, this muscle is the largest in the human body and located on the back of your hip. Its main role during squats is hip extension.

Abductors – These are the muscles on the outside of your hips, the abductors stop your knees from falling inward during squats. The main abductors are the gluteus medius and tensor fascia latae, or TFL for short.

Adductors – The three adductors are longus, brevis, and magnus. These are on the inside of your thighs and stop your knees from falling outward during squats.

Core – The core are the muscles encircling your waist, including the rectus abdominis, obliques, erector spinae, and transverse abdominis. These muscles act like a weightlifting belt to stabilize your lumbar spine.

11 Alternatives to Barbell Back Squats

Can’t squat, won’t squat? Whether you’ve got no squat rack, no barbell, or just don’t like this classic exercise, there are lots of ways you can work your legs that are every bit as effective. Use these exercises instead of barbell back squats to build the lower body of your dreams.

1. Leg PressWoman leg pressing

Most gyms have a leg press machine. This exercise supports your lower back, so you are free to focus on training your legs. Leg presses are much more comfortable than back squats.

How to do it:

  1. Sit on the leg press with your feet on the footplate, about shoulder-width apart. Arching the lower back and brace your abs.
  2. Unrack the weight, bend your legs, and lower your knees down toward your chest. Do not round your lower back.
  3. Push the weight back up and repeat.
  4. Rerack the weight and then rest.

2. Barbell Hack Squat

The barbell hack squat is a very traditional strength training exercise. Named after old-time weightlifter and wrestler George Hackenschmidt, this is a tricky exercise to master, but it’s a viable alternative to barbell back squats.

How to do it:

  1. First you want to place a barbell on the floor and stand with your back to it. Squat down and hold the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Straighten out your arms, lower your hips, lift your chest, and brace your abs.
  2. Without rounding your lower back or bending your arms, you want to stand up, pulling the bar up the back of your legs.
  3. Squat back down and repeat.

Note: You may find this exercise a little easier if you raise the bar 6-12 inches off the floor and stand with your heels on 1 to 3-inch blocks.

3. Goblet Squatman doing kettlebell goblet squat

You can do goblet squats with a kettlebell or dumbbells. They’re much easier to master than barbell back squats, and you don’t need a squat rack to do them. Goblet squats are ideal for home exercisers.

How to do it:

  1. Holding a dumbbell out in front of your chest (a kettlebell works also), so it’s touching your chin. Tucking your elbows down and into your sides and brace your abs. Place your feet about shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward.
  2. Pushing your hips back and with bent knees. Go down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back.
  3. Stand back up and repeat.

4. LungesMan doing lunge

You can do lunges with your bodyweight, dumbbells in your hands, or a barbell on your back.

They work one leg at a time, this means they’re ideal for fixing left-to-right strength imbalances. Lunges are also good for improving mobility and balance.

How to do it:

  1. Stand upright with your feet together. Brace your abs and look straight ahead.
  2. Taking a big step forward, bend your legs, and then lower your rear knee down toward the floor. Make sure your front shin remains vertical, with your knee behind your toes.
  3. Pushing off your front leg and return to your starting position.
  4. Do another rep by stepping out with the other leg. Keep alternating legs for the duration of your set.

5. Bulgarian Split SquatsWoman doing Bulgarian split squats

If you are comfortable with lunges, this is the next exercise to try. It involves a larger range of motion, puts more stress on your front leg, and requires better balance. Like lunges, split squats can be done without or with extra weight.

How to do it:

  1. Standing with your back to a knee-high exercise bench or step. Then bend one leg and place your foot on top. Hop forward into the split stance.
  2. Then bend your legs and lower your back leg knee down toward the floor. Keep your torso relatively upright.
  3. Stand back up and repeat. Rest a moment and then switch sides.
  4. Do the same number of repititions on both legs.

6. Step-UpsCouple doing step ups on park bench

Step-ups are like lunges, except that you move vertically instead of horizontally. The higher you step, the more demanding this exercise becomes. Like lunges, you can do step-ups with or without extra weight.

How to do it:

  1. Stand facing a knee-high step. Bend one leg and place your foot flat on the platform. Push down through your leading foot and step up. Try not to push off your trailing leg.
  2. Step back down and either do another rep with the same leg or switch sides and alternate.

7. Front Squatswoman doing front squats with barbell

Front squats allow you to maintain a more upright torso than back squats, and this may help take stress off your lower back while giving your quads a bigger workout. On the downside, front squats require more upper body flexibility, and most people can’t go as heavy.

How to do it:

  1. With a barbell in the rack you want to hold it across the front of your shoulders. Stand with your feet around shoulder-width apart.
  2. Pointing your elbows forward, so that your upper arms are almost parallel to the floor. Pulling your shoulders down and back, brace your abs, lift your chest, and look straight ahead.
  3. Bending your knees, squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back.
  4. Stand back up and repeat.

8. Hack Squat MachineWoman on hack squat machine

The hack squat machine is a lot like a standing leg press. It’s a good alternative to back squats because it provides plenty of support for your lumbar spine. This means you are free to focus on working your legs to the max!

How to do it:

  1. Put your shoulders under the pads, your back against the backrest, and your feet on the footplate. Your feet should be between hip and shoulder-width apart. Brace your abs.
  2. Unrack the weight and then bend your knees. Squatting down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Note: Take care and don’t round your lower back or let your knees move beyond your toes.
  3. Stand back up and repeat.
  4. Rerack the weight at the end of your set before exiting the machine.

9. Squat Jumps

Squat jumps are a plyometric exercise. That means they involve a rapid stretching of the target muscles, followed by an even faster, more powerful contraction. Athletes use plyometric exercises to increase muscle power. As an added benefit, squat jumps require no additional equipment, so they’re ideal for home exercisers.

How to do it:

  1. First you want to stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, and your toes turned slightly outward. Then you are going to squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor, and swing your arms behind you.
  2. Jump as high into the air as you can, using your arms for extra momentum.
  3. Land on slightly bent knees, descend and repeat.

10. Box Jumps

If squat jumps have a disadvantage, it is that jumping into the air and then landing puts a lot of stress on your joints. Box jumps are much more joint-friendly, so you may find them more comfortable.

How to do it:

  1. Stand facing a knee-high box or bench. Make sure it’s stable and won’t flip over easily.
  2. Squat down and then jump forward and up to land on the top of your platform. 
  3. Step (don’t jump) back down and repeat.
  4. The higher the platform, the more challenging this exercise becomes.

11. Pistol SquatsMan doing pistol squats

Bodyweight squats are too easy for many exercisers, which is why they gravitate toward back squats and other weighted leg exercises. Pistol squats are very challenging without the need for external weights.

How to do it:

  1. Stand on one foot and extend your other leg out in front of you, heel just above the floor. Reach forward with your arms.
  2. Squat down as far as possible, whilst keeping your non-working leg out in front of you, foot off the floor.
  3. Then stand back up and repeat.
  4. Do the same number of reps on each leg.

Bottom Line

Squats are an all-but essential exercise. Whatever you are training for, squats will help you get there faster. Bodybuilders do squats to build bigger legs, while athletes do them for increased performance for sports. Powerlifters do squats because they’re the first lift in any powerlifting competition.

However, just because squats are such an important exercise doesn’t mean that you have to do barbell back squats. They ARE an excellent exercise, but there are plenty of variations and alternatives you can use to build the lower body of your dreams.

No barbell or squat rack? No problem! Try goblet squats, squat jumps, and box jumps. Prefer to work out using machines? Give the leg press and hack squat machine a try. Need to work one leg at a time? Lunges, Bulgarian split squats, and step-ups are the perfect solution.

All of these exercises are largely interchangeable and work the same muscles as back squats. So, while the squatting movement is all-but essential, back squats are not; there are plenty of exercises you can do instead.

Keep your leg workouts fresh, interesting, and safe with these 11 barbell back squat alternatives. Each one works the same muscles but uses different training equipment or a slightly different movement, learn more here at WL Fitness & Health.