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Fitness: Some great alternatives to the back squat

Heavy weighted squats aren't the only way to strengthen your back and legs. Here are some great alternatives that you should try

Try these alternatives to the back squat.
Try these alternatives to the back squat. (Istockphoto)

The bench press, pull-over, shoulder press, deadlift, and the weighted back squat constitute the five main compound exercises. Even being able to do an intermediate level version of these five can be enough to set up a strong fitness foundation. But injuries and setbacks are as much part of the journey as learning and progressively loading on these exercises. 

If that hasn’t put you off from doing these exercise, then sometimes, you just don’t like doing a certain exercise, or are unable to get the hang of it. It is not uncommon to see people being able to execute a strict pull-up with perfect form, but unable to get the squat checklist right. With every failed rep, the frustration increases, and if one is dedicated enough to performing a move right, it suffers. 

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More than a year ago, I injured myself during a back squat, and since then, I have hardly performed heavy squats. It leads to a pang of guilt every time I suggest to someone that they should do some squats. But removing the squat as my primary leg exercise has led me to learn dozens of new techniques that work the same muscles a squat does. The results have been injury-free, with more time to focus on the small muscle groups. There is also more time to work on explosive power, and do bodyweight jumping squats instead. 

If you can do the squat and enjoy doing it, there’s nothing like it. Multiple research suggests that the squat offers a remarkable mix of hypertrophy, speed, balance and acceleration. But if for any reason you can’t, then there are plenty of alternatives to consider.

Start using machines if you’re going to a gym. You can use any of the lever squat machines, hack squat machines, leg extensions and hamstring machines, and the leg press machine for your lifts. With the back fully supported in a lying down position, and a shorter range of motion, you can master the leg press, and also add some variations like a single-leg press and changes in the distance between your feet. 

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“The leg press can add quad strength off the floor in the deadlift. [It] is biomechanically similar to a bottom-range deadlift (at least for the knee joint), and can provide end-range quadriceps strength in a more knee-extended position,” states a T-Nation article titled Leg Press vs Squat: The Final Chapter.

But don’t just use the machines. Start doing more single-leg bodyweight variations as well. The big three in this category would be the Bulgarian split squat, the step-up, and the reverse lunge. These three will build enough strength in the glutes, quads, hamstrings and knees to start training for pistol squats. 

Reverse lunges are especially useful since they are easier on the knees than forward lunges and work the glutes a bit more. “Developing balanced strength on both sides of your body is more important than you may think. Muscle imbalances can put you at a higher risk of injury during other exercises or day-to-day activities,” states a article called How To Do The Reverse Lunge For Lower-Body Strength And Stability.

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Use items in the gym you usually don’t. The battle ropes and the sled push come to mind. Using battle ropes in an isometric half squat is a burner of epic proportions. Whether you are doing rope slams or waves using the battle rope, this is a great addition to adding strength while burning calories as well. 

The two Nordic exercises have become a favourite heavy squat replacement in my schedule. The first, the Nordic hamstring curl, is a very advanced move and takes weeks to get right. But the progressions steps are plenty, and all advantageous and discussed in detail in my article for Lounge titled Strengthen Your Hamstrings With Nordic Hamstring Curls.

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Done with the support of a partner or a place to lock your feet in, the slow, bodyweight-driven, eccentric-focused exercise is worth learning. “Building muscle in your hamstrings is one of the best ways to improve your overall explosiveness and lower body strength,” states an article titled Nordic Hamstring Curl: A Complete Guide, published on

The other Nordic exercise is the reverse curl and is slightly easier to perform. It is still as effective and is performed on the knees, as one leans back with the core engaged, and the back straight, before pulling back into starting position using the strength of the quads. Heavy back squats are usually a staple in the gym. But it isn’t the only way to get stronger and bigger legs.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.

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