The squat is king…
Err the deadlift is king…
Or just maybe… I’m the king?
Just about every bodybuilder, powerlifter, strength coach, and personal trainer agrees the squat and the deadlift are two movements that everyone should be doing. They move the most weight – and therefore develop unparalleled strength. They require, and thus cultivate healthy, strong posture. They’re both fucking great.
I don’t dispute this point. In fact, I progress all of my training clients to these two movements if possible. But there are situations when you shouldn’t – or can’t – be doing them:
- If you have a lower back issue like a herniated disk that’s chronic or that you’re currently recovering from (in this case you should still consult with your doctor before doing the exercises below, or any form of exercise for that matter)
- If you have a lower GI issue that will be made worse from the high levels of intra-abdominal pressure that come with these movements (this is my current ailment and the reason I’m writing this article)
- If you don’t have access to heavy enough barbells to challenge yourself
- If you’re a new lifter and simply uncomfortable loading heavy ass weight on your back or picking it off the floor (…Then MAN UP, but developing some lower body strength before hitting the big movements is not the worst thing you can do)
If any of these conditions applies to you, then I offer you my 3 favorite alternative exercises to efficiently develop strength and muscle in the lower body:
1. Single Leg Squats
Single leg squats will challenge both your balance and your strength.
Begin with a single leg box squat by sitting back down onto a chair while holding one of your legs off the ground and in front of you. Keep the heel of your grounded foot planted the entire time:
Progress by dropping the height of the box you’re using until it’s just a small stoop… And once you can do 8 quality reps on the stoop then remove it and progress to an all-out pistol squat (and watch the heads turn):
…And if you’re a legitimate beast you can make this harder by holding a dumbbell up by your shoulders in one of your hands.
2. Dumbbell Walking Lunges
Another way to crush your legs without squatting or deadlifting is by using lunges.
The most basic way to implement lunges into your routine is through walking dumbbell lunges. Simply hold a dumbbell in each hand, keep your chest up, abs tight, and take wide strides – pushing through your front heel to raise your body up from the ground with each step.
Pick a weight that’s tough to complete 16 reps (8 per side) with. Oh, and expect your booty to be quite sore the next day:
3. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats
AKA the bulgarian split squat. Despite the name, these more closely resemble a lunge than a squat.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand, place your back foot onto a bench, drop your back knee down to the ground, and then push your body up through the front heel (keeping your abs tight and chest tall throughout the movement).
Use a weight that makes it tough to do 8 reps per side.
4. Goblet Dumbbell Squat
While still technically a squat, the goblet squat only requires a dumbbell or kettlebell, so it’s quite different from the standard barbell squat.
Simply hold a dumbbell up to your chest (as shown below) and drop down as deep as you can (keeping your chest up and stomach tight), then press up (keeping your feet flat against the floor).
While barbell squats and deadlifts are the most efficient way to build your lower body, they are definitely not for everyone. Using these three movements you can still build quality muscle and develop solid strength in your lower body… And these movements also will cultivate superior balance and stabilization.
Are these recommended for a) those with knee issues (torn meniscus) or b) hip chain imbalances (e.g., I have a lean to the left due to tightness). I’ve found single leg to be tougher but maybe like Milo if I started with a single leg squat with a stool or something I could progress?
a) If your have a torn meniscus you should get clearance from your doctor for exercise in general as well as for unilateral (single leg) movements. Oftentimes unilateral work needs to be avoided when knee issues are present.
b) With imbalances I believe stretching and strengthening work always needs to be done. Assuming no pre-existing injuries, then some light single legged work should be ok, only adding weights when the movement becomes natural.
Hope that helps.
Really appreciate this post. I’m in transition to a home-based routine, and there’s no way I’m giving $50/month to a gym again, in order to listen to bad music and watch unattractive people sit on machines and benches for 2 minutes between sets.
I’m just a hunter and a climber, don’t need to knock down guys in football any longer.
For my legs I’ve been doing cycling and running, but it’s not enough. These look like three great exercises.
You’re welcome, check back in after you try them
I’m a big fan of the goblet squat, especially after a lower back injury (L5S1) from barbell back squats a few years back.
From my experience maintaining growing with these movements is possible, however don’t expect strength gains from alternate exercises to reflect directly on your traditional squat/deadlift.
e.g. even after placing emphasis on my front squat and gaining a decent amount of strength my back squatting progress remained stagnant, still not really worth the risk of further/reinjuring the lower back though.
SJ, I couldn’t agree more. If you’re not a powerlifter who competes AND you have a lower back issue, it’s not worth it to push your limits with traditional squats and deadlifts.
Movements like these can be loaded enough to stimulate a lot of lower body growth WITHOUT compromising an already compromised lower back.
gonna try these. i hate squats these days
Goblet Dumbbell Squat
Can i do it and i have a herniated disk !?
You should check with your doctor or physical therapist
How many sets of each exercise would you recommend?
I plan on doing 8 reps of each exercise, but I’m not sure how many times I should repeat it.
If you’re doing 8 reps, then 304 sets is ideal.
However, it made me think about kettlebell lifting.
I think kettlebell lifting is extremely underrated, especially at the West.
When you do classical kettlebell exercises like jerk or snatch, you train the entire body, including the legs.
In my experience, kettlebells very well develop the muscles of the back and legs, with less risk of injury than in deadlift or squat with a large weight.
Since these are very large and dynamic exercises, they contribute to a large release of testosterone and other anabolic hormones.
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This is supposed to be a workout with no barbell squats…first exercise is barbell squats!