Barbell Squat Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
March 29, 2022

The barbell squat holds a prominent place in practically every serious strength training or bodybuilding routine, wherein it acts as the main source of lower body training stimulus and is most often performed for the purposes of growing stronger or bigger leg muscles.

However, despite its popularity and clinically established effectiveness, the barbell squat may need to be substituted with an alternative exercise that fits the training goals or specific requirements of the exerciser or their workout program.

As such, it is fortunate that quite a spread of alternative exercises exist that may recreate the training stimulus, angle, conditioning or complexity of the barbell squat while still meeting the criteria of whatever situation the exerciser finds themselves in.

Issues of the Barbell Squat

Though the barbell squat is generally considered a safe exercise when performed with the proper level of resistance and correct exercise form, several issues related to its particular mechanics may present an issue for the particular bodily proportions, training requirements or strength level of certain individuals.

barbell full squat

This is most noticeable in individuals with particularly long femur to torso ratios, resulting in a longer range of motion than individuals with a shorter range of motion would normally experience.

As such, one of the main complaints made of the barbell squat involve that of the comfort involved throughout the exercise, with certain other compound movements involving the entirety of the lower body possessing significantly less complex form that may be performed with ease.

Other issues found in the barbell squat is its significant loading of the spinal column throughout the entirety of the repetition, either resulting in lumbar or thoracic spinal injuries or exacerbating any that the exerciser has recovered from.

This is in combination with other risk factors found in the squat if performed in an improper manner, such as injuries of the knee, hips, shoulders and even incidences of hernia in cases of far too much weight being lifted.

Who Should Substitute the Barbell Squat with an Alternative Exercise?

Though the majority of healthy individuals with an intermediate understanding of free weight resistance exercises may perform the barbell squat safely, certain health conditions, histories of injury or training goals can be better served with an exercise other than the barbell squat.

As such, athletes seeking a more explosive or power based counterpart to the barbell squat, or those wishing for an extended time under tension that cannot be achieved with simple free weight exercises are among those that can benefit from alternating out the barbell squat.

This also applies to individuals or physical therapy patients with a history or currently recovering from any injuries or impingements of the hips, lower back, ankles, knees, or practically any other part of the abdomen and lower body.

Even in the instance that the exerciser simply wishes for an alternative exercise to the barbell squat out of a simple desire to try a new exercise, a variety of alternatives exist that serve much the same purpose and provide much the same results as the barbell squat.

What to Look for in a Barbell Squat Alternative

A good barbell squat alternative will activate much the same muscle groups in a pattern similar to that of the barbell squat itself - with the primary mover muscles being that of the quadriceps femori, hamstrings and the gluteus muscle group.

squat biomechanics

This is all the more important when factoring in the safety of the alternative exercise, as the majority of free weight compound exercises that activate all the aforementioned muscle groups are generally as complex in form and mechanics as the barbell squat itself, thereby greatly shortening the list of potential alternatives for exercisers needing a safer or simpler exercise.

And finally, one more characteristic of a proper barbell squat alternative is that of one that fits the equipment needs of the exerciser, with individuals that have no access to a gym or gym equipment being better off choosing a calisthenic or bodyweight exercise.

Of course, every exerciser’s needs and situation are unique, and as such other factors that make a potential alternative exercise to the barbell squat fit are numerous and difficult to list in their entirety - with it being entirely up to the exerciser to decide on the best possible alternative exercise for their goals.

How to Program for a Barbell Squat Alternative

Taking such a prominent place in a variety of strength and bodybuilding workout routines, programming for the alternating out of the barbell squat can prove to be quite difficult - especially in cases where the intensity of the alternative exercise is higher or lower than that of the barbell squat itself.

Free Weight Alternatives to the Barbell Squat

The best possible alternatives to the barbell squat share one primary characteristic in common; making use of free weight exercise equipment such as barbells and dumbbells so as to induce the closest possible type of training stimulus.

This will generally result in a similar level of intensity and same pattern of muscle group activation as the barbell squat while still being different enough to fit whatever requirements of an alternative exercise the exerciser may call for.

Front Squats

A common substitute exercise to the squat that places significantly more emphasis on the quadriceps femoris muscle group, front squats are generally performed with a lower amount of weight due to the position of the barbell atop the exerciser’s clavicles - requiring a lower level of resistance be used.

barbell front squat

One of the major benefits that make the front squat superior to the barbell squat is the reduced pressure and shear force placed on the lower back and spinal column of the exerciser, a major issue that is commonly complained about by individuals performing the barbell squat.

As such, the front squat is an excellent alternative exercise for individuals either a history or risk of lower back and spine injuries, or athletes seeking a more significant level of quadriceps muscle group activation - though this will come at the expense of posterior chain activation, of which is more intense in the barbell squat itself.

Zercher Squats

Also an excellent alternative to the barbell squat for the purposes of reducing lower back and spinal column strain, zercher squats are occasionally confused for front squats due to the positioning of the barbell wherein the exerciser places it in the crook of their elbow, visually similar to that of the front squat.

zercher squat

This particular characteristic of the zercher squat forces the exerciser to maintain an upright body with a neutrally braced spine and core, greatly reducing the chance of injury at the cost of significantly reduced resistance as the arm muscles are brought into the exercise in an isometric capacity.

Individuals with a lower level of muscular endurance or those with lesser experience in free weight compound exercises may find that they cannot perform as many repetitions with the zercher squat as they can with the traditional barbell squat despite the lower level of resistance.

As such, the zercher squat is best used as an alternative exercise by intermediate level athletes seeking a squat alternative that does not affect the lower back as significantly, as well as those wishing to induce a more intense level of quadriceps femoris muscular activation, quite similar to that of a front squat but with a greater level of complexity.

Hack Squats (Barbell)

Generally performed with a machine as opposed to a barbell, the barbell hack squat is mechanically similar to the barbell deadlift save for a large shift of the primary mover muscle’s activation to the quadriceps femoris, allowing it to take the place of the barbell squat in certain workout programs.

barbell hack squat

Because of the positioning of the barbell hack squat and the fact that it also places an intense level of muscular activation on the trapezius, deltoid and forearm muscle groups, it is best used as an alternative exercise in full body workout sessions that may be reprogrammed somewhat in order to make way for the muscle group activation pattern found in this particular exercise.

Otherwise, the barbell hack squat is better left as a secondary alternative option once other exercise alternatives have been exhausted, as though the hack squat activates much the same muscle groups as the barbell squat in a similar or higher intensity - it is also different enough to be unsuitable in the majority of situations.

Bulgarian Split Squats

An excellent alternative for exerciser’s seeking a more unilateral movement than the barbell squat, or those without access to a squat rack or barbell; bulgarian split squats are a lower body compound exercise that activates a single leg at a time, achieving a level of intensity as effective as the barbell squat itself.

bulgarian split squat

Usually performed with a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells, the bulgarian split squat’s only other requirement is that of an elevated surface on which the exerciser may rest their other leg as one is being trained.

This makes the bulgarian split squat not only an excellent alternative for the purposes of achieving unilateral lower body training stimulus, but also one for exercisers without access to significant equipment, or for athletes seeking an exercise capable of inducing better mind-body connection.

Machine Based Alternatives to the Barbell Squat

For individuals of lower experience in resistance exercises or those seeking the many benefits of machine based exercises, quite a few alternatives exist to the barbell squat that can make use of such exercise equipment - though they may also present their own set of drawbacks as well.

Generally, machine based alternatives to the barbell squat shine best in the case of athletes desiring a constant time under tension for their muscles, or for exercisers wishing to avoid activating their stabilizer muscle groups throughout the exercise for whatever reason.

For the best possible training results, however, the exerciser may wish to combine both machine based alternatives and free weight alternatives to the barbell squat so as to achieve full muscle group activation in a sufficient enough intensity.

Leg Press Machine

Perhaps one of the most common lower body compound exercises involving an exercise machine, the leg press is both mechanically and visually similar to the barbell squat save for the fact that the exerciser initially performs the concentric portion of the exercise instead of the eccentric portion, resulting in more quadriceps femoris activation.

leg press machine

The leg press exercise may be used as an alternative to the barbell squat for individuals wishing to remove any stress placed on the spinal cord, lower back and core, as well as exercisers seeking a less complex exercise that may be performed even at a novice level of experience.

The leg press exercise may even be of great use to higher level gym goers wishing to impart a greater level of resistance to their lower body without significant risk of injury, as both safety measures built into the leg press machine as well as its very nature as a machine based exercise can both equate to a much lower chance of the exerciser hurting themselves.

Combination Leg Curl and Leg Extension Machines

Not a single movement but in fact two separate exercises that utilize two separate resistance machines, the combination of the leg curl machine exercise and the leg extension machine exercise create a training stimulus distinctly similar to that of the barbell squat - but in a manner far safer than any of its alternative exercises.

This is due to the fact that both the leg curl and leg extension machine isolate only the relevant muscle groups needed of the exercise, and as such do not involve any extra pressure being placed elsewhere in the body or the use of stabilizer muscles in unstable angles.

Being a pair of isolation exercises, however, the subsequent strength conditioning and muscular hypertrophy accrued from utilizing this combination of exercises may be somewhat less than what one could achieve with a compound type exercise instead.

As such, the leg curl and leg extension machine combination is best performed after another barbell squat alternative exercise so as to finish off the quadriceps femoris, hamstrings and glute muscle groups - completing the muscular activation pattern and fully recreating the intensity of a barbell squat in a safe manner.

References

1. Myer GD, Kushner AM, Brent JL, Schoenfeld BJ, Hugentobler J, Lloyd RS, Vermeil A, Chu DA, Harbin J, McGill SM. The back squat: A proposed assessment of functional deficits and technical factors that limit performance. Strength Cond J. 2014 Dec 1;36(6):4-27. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000103. PMID: 25506270; PMCID: PMC4262933.

2. Coratella, Giuseppe, Gianpaolo Tornatore, Francesca Caccavale, Stefano Longo, Fabio Esposito, and Emiliano Cè. 2021. "The Activation of Gluteal, Thigh, and Lower Back Muscles in Different Squat Variations Performed by Competitive Bodybuilders: Implications for Resistance Training" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 2: 772. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18020772

3. Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM. Evaluation of the Lower Limb Muscles' Electromyographic Activity during the Leg Press Exercise and Its Variants: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jun 27;17(13):4626. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17134626. PMID: 32605065; PMCID: PMC7369968.

4. McCurdy KW, Langford GA, Doscher MW, Wiley LP, Mallard KG. The effects of short-term unilateral and bilateral lower-body resistance training on measures of strength and power. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Feb;19(1):9-15. doi: 10.1519/14173.1. PMID: 15705051.

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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