Barbell Front Squat Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
January 31, 2022

A relatively popular exercise performed with the use of a barbell and a power rack or squat rack, the barbell front squat is a lower body focused compound movement of the closed kinetic chain variety wherein the exerciser will lift a barbell loaded with a moderate amount of weight to their clavicles prior to squatting downwards.

The barbell front squat is primarily used for the purposes of training or rehabilitating the entirety of the lower body, as well as the posterior chain located along the rear of the body as a whole.

However, certain situations or conditions may require that the exerciser substitute the barbell front squat with an alternative exercise in their workout or rehabilitation program, with the particular exercise acting as a substitute having to be chosen depending on the particular purpose of the barbell front squat in said workout or rehabilitation program.

Can the Barbell Front Squat be Substituted?

Yes, the barbell front squat may be substituted quite easily with a variety of isolation or compound exercises geared towards targeting much the same muscle groups that the barbell front squat itself is meant to target, with the particular intensity of said substitute exercises depending on the method and type of training resistance used.

barbell front squat

The particular substitute used for the barbell front squat will depend on what sort of equipment is available to the exerciser, the original purpose of the barbell front squat (whether for athletic training or physical rehabilitation purposes), the muscle groups that must be focused on as well as any sort of disabilities or injuries that the exerciser may have.

As such, while the barbell front squat may be substituted quite easily, choosing a suitable enough substitute exercise will depend on a variety of factors and not every alternative exercise may fit such requirements.

What Muscles are Worked by the Barbell Front Squat?

The barbell front squat, being a compound exercise, activates a wide range of muscle groups located along the posterior chain and throughout the entirety of the lower body.

Among the largest of these are the quadriceps femoris located along the front of the thigh, the three gluteal muscle heads that make up the buttocks, the various muscles in the hamstrings, as well as the deltoids or the shoulders, of which help stabilize and hold the barbell in place along the shelf of the chest.

Secondary movers as well as stabilizer muscles are the abdominal muscles, the forearms, the various smaller muscles in the calves as well as the erector spinae, all of which help prevent injury and make micro-adjustments to the barbell by stabilizing the exerciser’s body and the resistance equipment itself.

Compound Exercise Alternatives to the Barbell Front Squat

In the event that the alternative exercise to barbell front squats must be substituted with an exercise that is also of a compound nature, several other substitute exercises with differing types of equipment used may also be performed, provided that the exerciser is capable of doing so.

Barbell Squats

The most common compound leg exercise in practically every workout or physical rehabilitation regimen, barbell squats are the heavier brother of the barbell front squat, wherein instead of the barbell resting along the shelf of the exerciser’s chest, it instead rests on the crook behind the exerciser’s neck, atop their shoulders.

squat

This has the benefit of allowing the exerciser to move larger amounts of weight in a single repetition, removing the limiting factor of weight that is normally found in the performance of a barbell front squat exercise.

The barbell squat may be performed in practically every situation where a barbell front squat would instead be performed, save for certain specific spinal or lower back injuries that require no significant load be placed atop the spinal column so as to prevent exacerbating said injuries.

Hack Squats

Either performed through the assistance of a machine or with the use of a loaded barbell placed behind the ankles of the exerciser, hack squats are another excellent substitute exercise to the barbell front squat with quite similar levels of training intensity in practically all muscle groups found throughout the legs.

barbell hack squat

The hack squat is performed by either standing upright in the padded portion of the hack squat machine, disengaging the locks and squatting downwards, or by placing the loaded barbell directly beneath the buttocks of the exerciser, gripping it at a comfortable distance in both hands and thereby thrusting their hips outwards, pulling the barbell towards the back of the exerciser’s knees.

Goblet Squats

The most variable substitute compound exercise in terms of equipment required, the goblet squat may be performed using practically any heavy object or exercise equipment, regardless of whether it is a kettlebell, dumbbell, sack of rice or other weighted implement.

The goblet squat is performed much like a front squat save for the fact that the weighted object being used for resistance is gripped at chest level between both hands of the exerciser instead of atop their collarbones.

Just like in a barbell front squat, the exerciser will assume the neutral squat position with their core braced and their back straight prior to lowering themselves at the knees and hips, reaching at least parallel level between their glutes and their knees to as to maximize muscular activation, before once again straightening their legs and returning to the starting position.

Quadriceps Femoris Focused Barbell Front Squat Alternatives

The quadriceps femoris is located atop the femur (as is evident by its name) and as such receives the brunt of the mechanical tension incurred during a repetition of the barbell front squat, a burden that also imparts a distinctly larger level of training stimuli to the quadriceps than the other muscle groups involved.

This particular focus makes substituting the barbell front squat with an alternative rather difficult, as few exercises place as much an emphasis on the quadriceps as the barbell front squat, though several different compound exercises and one machine assisted isolation exercise can manage to fulfill that role themselves for the most part.

Machine Assisted Quad Extensions

A machine that is either manually loaded with the use of weight plates or with its own built in resistance system, the quad extension machine and its subsequent quad extension exercise is one of the few isolation exercises available for the quadriceps femoris due to the complexity of the rather large muscle group.

The quad extension exercise is performed by the exerciser sitting on the cushioning of the machine with the padded lever resting against the crook of their ankles, of which will be the primary point of contact between the exerciser and the resistance.

To perform the quad extension, the exerciser will simply raise their feet upwards so as to draw the padded lever upwards, stopping just beneath parallel level between their ankles and their knees. The exerciser will feel a tightening along the front of their thighs if the exercise is performed properly.

Waiting for a moment at the apex of the repetition, the exerciser will then allow their legs to fall back into the starting position in a controlled manner, squeezing their legs throughout the duration of the eccentric portion.

This completes a single repetition of the quad extension, isolating the quadriceps femoris muscle group and acting as an excellent quads-focused substitute exercise to the barbell front squat.

Pin Squats

A barbell-based compound exercise meant to be performed from a low position so as to maximize the level of quadriceps femoris activation throughout the entire exercise, the pin squat is considered an advanced closed kinetic chain movement primarily used by experienced gym goers and athletes to induce significant training stimuli in the entirety of their legs, though with a particular focus on the quadriceps muscle group.

barbell pin squats

Note: Pin squats can also be performed with the front-squat.

The pin squat is performed much like an ordinary barbell squat wherein the individual places a loaded barbell along the shelf behind their shoulders, save for the fact that the bar is placed low enough that the exerciser can remain in a half-squat position while preparing to begin the set.

This lower initial repetition position will cause a higher amount of the weight to be supported by the quadriceps due to the bent nature of the exerciser’s legs, thereby introducing further training stimuli to the muscle group.

Bulgarian Split Squats

Performed with the use of any free weight resistance equipment, Bulgarian split squats are a single leg compound exercise performed with the use of an elevated surface on which the exerciser may rest their other leg on as they perform the required repetitions.

The Bulgarian split squat is performed by facing away from the elevated surface and placing one foot sole-up on said elevated surface, with the other extended some distance away towards the front of the body, essentially creating a “split” position.

The exerciser will then grip the resistance equipment either in both hands, at either side of their hips or against their back before leaning forward and bending at the knee and hips, bringing the elevated foot’s knee closer to the ground but not quite touching it.

To complete the repetition, the exerciser will then raise themselves one more, straightening their hips and knees until they have returned to the starting position.

Glutes Focused Barbell Front Squat Alternatives

The gluteus muscles that make up the buttocks are also - to a large extent – activated during the deepest portion of the front squat, though admittedly somewhat less than other forms of squats due to the quadriceps femoris taking up a large portion of the resistance.

As such, if the exerciser’s physical therapist or coach has prescribed to them the barbell front squat for the purposes of training or rehabilitating their glutes, several alternative exercises may instead be used that activate the muscles in a similar manner.

Barbell or Plate Hip Thrusts

Activating not only the gluteus muscle groups but also the majority of the muscles located in the hips as well as the abdominal muscles, the hip thrust is an excellent substitute exercise to the barbell front squat for the purposes of training an individual’s posterior without placing undue stress on their spine or knees.

barbell hip thrust

The barbell hip thrust is performed by the exerciser resting with their upper back braced against an elevated surface and a weighted object resting in their lap, of which will be thrusted upwards or otherwise raised so as to induce muscular tension.

Dumbbell Lunges

Another excellent substitute for the purposes of activating the posterior chain of the exerciser, dumbbell lunges are in fact a compound exercise and as such unsuitable for individuals wishing to train their glute muscles without the significant activation of other muscle groups.

Dumbbell lunges are performed by gripping an equally weighted dumbbell at either side of the exerciser’s hips as they stand erect with their feet placed at a natural distance apart.

dumbbell lunges

The exerciser will then face their head forward, activate their core, ensure their back is straightened and subsequently take one extended step forward, creating a half-split position as they bend at the knees and hips, lowering the other knee almost to the ground.

To complete the repetition, the exerciser will then draw the extended leg back to its original place while simultaneously straightening their knees and hips, returning their body to its previous form.

References

1. Dedinsky R, Baker L, Imbus S, Bowman M, Murray L. EXERCISES THAT FACILITATE OPTIMAL HAMSTRING AND QUADRICEPS CO-ACTIVATION TO HELP DECREASE ACL INJURY RISK IN HEALTHY FEMALES: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2017;12(1):3-15.

2. Begalle RL, Distefano LJ, Blackburn T, Padua DA. Quadriceps and hamstrings coactivation during common therapeutic exercises. J Athl Train. 2012;47(4):396-405. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-47.4.01

3. Graham, John MS, CSCS, *D Front Squat, Strength and Conditioning Journal: June 2002 - Volume 24 - Issue 3 - p 75-76

4. Bautista D, Durke D, Cotter JA, Escobar KA, Schick EE. A Comparison of Muscle Activation Among the Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Back Extension and Plank. Int J Exerc Sci. 2020 May 1;13(1):714-722. PMID: 32509107; PMCID: PMC7241624.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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