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First things first… what is a back squat? Well traditionally in a back squat, you’ll start in a standing position with a bar placed on your traps. You’d then break from the hips, then knees (as with a regular, unweighted squat), and lower your hip crease below the knee crease in a controlled manner. Whilst back squats are indisputably great for strength, mobility, core strength and general fitness, issues around mobility, strength or possibly injuries – many rugby players, for example will tend to avoid these to reduce any risk of sustaining or worsening an injury. Luckily, there are plenty of other knee flexion exercises which are worthy of doing, and these may even be beneficial for people looking to vary their training or for gym goers who may have hit a plateau and are looking for variations. Our friends over at Era-Fit take us through the alternative options in this week’s article.
Often looked down on because it is deemed as not as effective as free-weights exercises just like the back squat, the leg press is nonetheless a great exercise. While it may not allow to train stabilising muscles in your joints or core muscles like free weight exercises would, it provides a fixed movement pattern which isolates the exact muscles you’re looking to train. In this case, primarily your quadriceps and your hamstrings and glutes to a lesser extent, allowing you break down those muscles to an extent you may not be able to while squatting. (CoachMag.co.uk, 2018)
The deadlift is not technically a replacement of the squat, although it does mobilise stabilising muscles just like the back squat it mainly targets different muscles (glutes, hamstrings, adductors, quadriceps, core and back). On the other hand, as good as are the leg press, lunges or split squats none of them compare to the deadlift in terms of building explosive full body power. Equally, many with hip, knee or ankle injuries are able to perform the movement with heavy weight without pain. Using a trap bar is also a great alternative for anyone with lower back issues looking to still develop their explosive power and overall strength. (Breakingmuscle.com, 2019).
As the name indicates, the goblet squat is – admittedly – still a squat, however it differs from the barbell back squat. Indeed, to perform it you have to hold a weight (kettlebell, dumbell or weight plate) with your hands at chin level and squat down until the weight is between your legs, while keeping your torso upright all along.
One of the limitations of the goblet squat however is the maximum weight you can perform it with, if you are looking to develop strength this may not be the exercise for you. On the other hand you can focus on higher reps and more volume which is good to achieve hypertrophy or train muscle endurance.
Often overlooked as people can find holding the bar in the front rack position difficult front squats are however a great alternative to back squats. While with the back squat you can hide weaknesses such as imbalances, strength deficiencies and mobility issues, with the front squat you cannot. Indeed the movement forces you to remedy any postural problems, it can be utilised as a tool to identify and correct the following issues:
Bulgarian split squats are an ideal alternative for anyone looking to take the load away from their back. In fact, by placing one foot behind you on an elevated platform (bench, box) and the other foot on the floor and then performing the squat by going down until the back knee touches the floor, the load is passed fully through the legs. As a result, split squats provide benefits in the sense that they are a unilateral movement allowing to train any imbalances, and equally the depth needed to complete the movement can be a good way for athletes to and whilst it can require some balance work, it allows to overload your quads and glutes and work on your lower body strength effectively.
Reverse Lunges, Walking Lunges, TRX Lunges, Jump Lunges, Curtsy Lunges… there’s a whole range of variation of lunges to choose from depending on what you want to work on. They are one of the most popular exercises in the gym for several reasons. First of all they are easy to do and necessarily require any equipment. They are versatile, depending on what you are looking to work strength, speed or mobility. Finally, they have a low injury risk, taking the load away from the spine and requiring little weight in order to be effective.
Another great alternative is weighted step ups. Like many of the unilateral exercises the load required in order to work optimally is lower than that carried during a back squats, the risk of injury is therefore significantly lower. Ideally performed on plyo boxes or a stable bench with either weights in each hand or a barbell on the shoulders it can be suitable for anyone. Equally the exercise is very versatile and can be altered to work lateral movement by doing side step ups or can be used as a plyometric exercise to improve speed and explosive power by using lighter weight and speeding up the movement.
Simple but incredibly effective, sled pushes are deceivingly vicious. With the option to be used for conditioning, fat loss, muscle building or sport-specific training it is a must have piece of equipment for any gym. As a replacement for back squats you will want to look at pushing the sled to mainly target your leg muscles however it can also be pulled or dragged depending on what you are looking to work. Additionally, it is a low impact exercise and you don’t have to carry any weight through your spine which minimises the risk of injury and places little stress on the spine, shoulder and knees.