“The squat is king.”
We’ve all heard the saying. And it’s true.
The barbell back squat is probably the most important exercise in terms of total body strength, lower body mass, and healthy posture… But that doesn’t mean it’s the only one you should do.
Whether you find yourself at a gym without a squat rack, your squat numbers hit a plateau, or you’re just plain bored of doing the back squat – it’s good to have another set of lower body exercises you can throw in the mix.
These movements all build quality mass and strength in your quads, glutes, and hamstrings – and therefore they can all be used as substitutes for the back squat. They also work as solid compliments to propel your squatting strength forward.
Note: For the purposes of this article I will focus on lower body pushing movements like the squat. This means I will not include any deadlift variations, although they are still an important part of any balanced lifting regimen.
1. Barbell Front Squat
The front squat is a challenging movement that requires significantly more mobility in the shoulders and upper back than the back squat. This is because you must keep your elbows high and tight throughout the entire motion.
While you’re working up to being able to use a full-on Olympic grip (as pictured above), you can take advantage of wrapping towels around the bar and holding the towels above the bar, or using a cross-armed grip. Both of these variations require less mobility to perform.
However, you should still work towards getting the Olympic grip down, because doing so will drastically improve your posture. It’s simply impossible to perform a textbook barbell front squat without having phenomenal upper back mobility – and therefore strong, upright posture.
Note: Don’t expect to be able to load up the bar with as much weight as the back squat, it’s a much tougher movement.
2. Pistol Squat
The pistol squat is a popular movement in the new age world of CrossFit, yet it gets very little play in the old school worlds of bodybuilding and strength training… and this is unfortunate.
The pistol squat is actually an extremely useful tool to have in your arsenal. Not only does it take tremendous single leg strength to perform, but it also requires a lot of hip mobility to complete a full range of motion ‘ass-to-grass’ repetition.
In the process of working up to this full range of motion, you will not only improve your mobility, but also work out a lot of potential imbalances that exist between your legs. This will strengthen your bilateral (two-legged) squats, as well as improving your overall ability to move efficiently in other exercises and general day-to-day activities.
You can work up to a full pistol squat by performing single leg box squats on progressively lower platforms (start sitting back onto a chair, then use a bench, then a stoop, etc).
3. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a grueling movement that builds insane single leg strength… and it most definitely will leave your glutes feeling destroyed for days… in a ‘good’ way, of course.
Make sure you’re performing this exercise with optimal form by following these 2 keys:
- Figure out which of the two following positions feels more natural for your rear foot: face down on the bench behind you (as pictured above), or in a lunge-like stance with your toes tucked underneath
- Avoid turning this exercise into a stretching movement by stretching your quads and hip flexors beforehand: just sink down into the bottom position of the exercise and hold it for 30 seconds per side
Note: Static stretching can be detrimental to your strength when performed directly before lifting, but in this case it’s recommended. It will allow you to reach a full range of motion without feeling unnecessary strain on your quads and hip flexors, and this will allow you to use more weight and get stronger.
4. Step Back Lunges
There are many ways to perform a lunge, but the step back version emphasizes the glutes and hamstrings more than its forward-oriented counterparts such as the walking lunge.
To perform this exercise, simply stand in place and alternate stepping one foot back behind you, and then dropping that knee down to the floor. This can be done with a barbell, holding it on your back or on the front of your shoulders (like a front squat). You can also just grab dumbbells and hold them in both hands (as pictured above).
The key is to make the backwards step in one fluid movement rather than stepping back, pausing, and then dropping the knee down to the ground. If you’re unable to perform it as one fluid motion, chances are you need to drop the weight, my man.
5. Box Squats
Box squats are an amazing addition to anyone’s lifting routine.
Oftentimes people neglect them and dismiss them as a ‘training wheels’ variation of the back squat. But if this were the case, why would the world renowned Westside Barbell powerlifting team use box squats instead of regular squats in ALL of their offseason training?
The reason is because box squats build unparalleled strength and power out of the bottom of the squat, where most people tend to struggle. This is because you pause at the bottom, and rest your butt on the box. This prevents you from using your muscles’ natural ‘stretch reflex’ to bounce back up. It forces you to generate all of the power you need to stand back up from a complete stop.
This is extremely difficult: you can’t use as much weight as you do with a regular back squat. It’s also why you must be sure not to ‘bounce’ off of the box when performing a box squat. Be patient, let your butt rest on the box for a full second, and then power your way back up.