There are many benefits to front and barbell squats, including improved muscle development. However, the exercise can be difficult for people with knee or hip problems.
If you’re having trouble squatting because of knee or hip joint issues, then try some of these alternative exercises. These exercises will target your hamstrings, glutes and quads, without putting extra strain on your body. Put together a few of these to create an effective lower body workout.
Front Squat Alternatives
1. Wall Squats
If you have joint or ligament pain, wall squats are a great alternative to barbell squats. The stability ball and wall add support to your knees and hips, taking pressure off your joints.
Be sure to pick a ball size that will give you the best results. The ball should come up to about midway between your knees and hips when you’re standing. Once you’ve got the right size, put the ball between your back and the wall. Keep your torso upright and your feet shoulder width apart. You can either keep your hands by your sides or clasp them in front of you. Make sure your knees are slightly bent.
Slowly squat down while engaging your core, rolling the ball with you. “When working with people who have knee pain, hip pain, or limited range of motion, I’ll have them squat a bit at a time, starting with a quarter squat and progressing to a half squat,” says Jones. “As long as the movement is pain-free, take a slight pause at the bottom of the movement before pushing ‘through the floor’ to the start position. Push into the ball for more stability.”
2. Spanish Squat
The Spanish squat is a squat alternative that is less well known but should definitely be tried. It is a modification of the barbell squat that works the lower body without putting additional strain on the knees or other joints, making it a good choice for people with knee or joint issues.
You will need a resistance band and a sturdy vertical pole, rack or table leg to do this exercise.Put the resistance band around your legs and the pole, making sure the band is behind your knees, and stand up straight. Lower yourself into a squat, until your thighs are level with the ground, then stand up again.
3. Reverse Lunges
Ingram says that reverse lunges are a great alternative to squats because they place “limited stress on the knees or hip joints.”
Complete 10 reps on this side and move to the other side. Firstly, stand straight with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips. Secondly, take a large step backwards with your left foot, making sure that your right knee is at a 90-degree angle. It is important to bend your back leg carefully to avoid damaging your knee. Finally, press through your right heel to return to a standing position. Complete 10 reps on this side, and then move to the other side.
For the best results, Ingram recommends doing 3 sets of 12-15 reps on each side. To make the exercise more challenging, you can try using dumbbells or a barbell for added resistance.
4. Glute Bridges
The glute bridge exercise is a good way to work the muscles in your lower body without having to do a squat. Glute bridges are usually done as part of other exercises, but they can also be done as a strength exercise on their own.
To perform a glute bridge, lie on your back on the floor facing the ceiling. Bend your knees so that your feet are planted on the ground and directly beneath your knees. Next, brace your core by drawing your belly button into your spine and “packing” your abs under your ribcage. This will minimize spinal extension.
When you brace yourself, push up through your heels and arch of your foot. “Tighten your glutes and hamstrings muscles as you drive your hips up until you are in a standing position. You should feel the tension in your glutes at the top of the movement.”
Glute bridges can be adjusted to your fitness level by adding weights or a band to the movement.
The step-up is the best alternative to the squat if you are limited on available exercise space and are suffering from knee or joint pain, according to Jones. It reduces the load going through your back, is a unilateral movement that focus on the strength, stability and pain-free range in each individual leg, and is also great for those suffering from knee/joint pain.
He recommends beginning by lowering the step height, especially if you experience any pain. Then, increase the height as you and your confidence become stronger.
One of the main causes of knee pain during step-ups is that people tend to unconsciously avoid putting pressure on the painful knee. This means that they are inadvertently putting even more pressure on the knee joint. To fix this, I tell my clients to focus on driving their foot all the way through the step, using their mid-foot to heel. This activates the glute muscle, which takes pressure off the knee. In most cases, this helps to reduce the pain.
Start with a low step and work your way up. Step onto the platform with your leading leg, ensuring that the entire foot is completely on the step. Jones warns against looking down, which will result in your torso leaning forward. Instead, keep your eyes looking up. Then, “drive through the step using mid-foot to heel to…bring up the back standing leg and bring your foot in line on the step.” Step back down to the ground with your leading foot first and then the other side. Make sure to repeat with the other side as your leading leg.
Barbell Squat Alternatives
The barbell squat is an amazing exercise, but replacements can make you a better lifter. These movements will improve absolute strength, functional strength, and muscle growth.
1. Barbell Front Squat
Alternate setup with a cross-arm front squat:
There is another squat variation that is not as well known, which is the barbell “front” squat. This movement is highly effective and is a favorite of top conditioning coaches. Many people believe that it is a better movement than the back squat, especially for athletes.
If you want to do a front bar back squat, you need to put the bar in front of your body so it rests on your shoulders. This is called the rack position. You will be more upright when you go down, which means your knees will bend more. This will be easier on your lower back and you will build core strength.
Be aware that the front squat requires a high degree of mobility, including upper-body mobility.
- Squat Rack
- Weight Plates
How to Perform
- Setup a rack in the same manner as a back squat EXCEPT you will likely want the bar slightly lower around chest height. The foot position will be more straight than a regular back squat.
- Stand up the bar so that you can place it on your upper chest
- Create a “rack” with your arms by bringing your elbows up and placing your fingers on the bar
- You do not fully grasp the bar. Just a few fingers will do. They. are mainly there to maintain balance
- Make sure to keep your elbows high the entire movement
- Unrack the bar and set the feet in a slightly narrower position then your squat
- Come down by bending at your knees and maintaining a vertical torso
- Once you hit bottom, come back up.
2. Zercher Squats
Although Zercher squats are no longer a popular exercise among lifters, they could be the new stimulus you need for full-body development.
The exercise is performed using the same equipment as a barbell squat, except that instead of holding the barbell at shoulder level, you hold it in your arms using the crook of your elbows. This creates an intense stimulus for your upper body and core.
The Zercher squat can be uncomfortable, so you may want to use some sort of guard, especially when you first start. Many people consider the Zercher squat to be the best way to improve your squat form, as it doesn’t allow for poor form. This makes it a good corrective exercise to do, as it will help you identify any underlying issues that are preventing you from squatting correctly.
- Squat Rack
- Weight Plates
How to Perform
- Rack a bar in a much lower position than normal. It should be slightly lower than the height of your elbow.
- Place knee or elbow sleeves over your arms if desired
- Walk up to the bar and place it in the nook of your elbows. Wrap your arms around. Many people will cross their arms
- Step back and perform your squat
- Be sure to maintain back stability
- Start with low weights. You’d probably benefit from just using a bar to start
3. Landmine Squats
Landmine squats are a type of squat that is easy to set up and uses a combination of machines and free weights. This exercise uses your full body and your stabilizing muscles to control movement. Landmine squats are great for any level of athlete. Some benefits of this exercise include that it is easy to set up and learn, and it is very effective.
One way to train your whole body quickly is to use landmine exercises.
- Landmine Attachment
- Weight Plates
How to Perform
- Setup your landmine
- In one motion, lift the bar up so that the end is in your chest
- Grab the end of the barbell with both hands interlocked. The bar should sit in a “cup” made by your hand
- In the starting position, keep the barbell up against your chest
- Stand back up
- Be sure to keep the barbell close to the body during the entire movement.
4. Leg Press
The leg press machine is versatile and practically indispensable for any trainer, even those who are very anti-machine. The leg press is great for a variety of reasons.
This posture decrease the amount of force going through the spine, which is good for people who have back pain and makes it less likely for them to hurt themselves.
Second, you can do many different exercises with this machine. For example, you can stand with your feet closer together, turn your feet, or press the weight with one leg at a time.
This exercise can also be beneficial for people who are not athletic enough to do regular squats.
Some clients just aren’t able to perform squats because they require a certain level of skill and athleticism. The leg press is a great alternative because it allows the client to lift heavier weights with minimal risk of injury. A common practice is to use lightweight barbell squats in conjunction with a heavy leg press.
- Leg Press
- Weight Plates (If plate loaded)
How to Perform
- Set up the leg press machine
- Place your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart
- Angle your feet out slightly
- Push up and unrack the load
- Allow the weight to come down by tucking your knees back
- Your knees should go slightly outside of your body
- Push the load up
Even if you are already able to do traditional squats perfectly, you can still improve your strength by doing these other squat variations. No matter what your fitness goals are, barbell squatting will help you achieve them.