6 Best Squat Variations And Alternatives To Improve Size And Strength

The barbell back squat is one of the most tried and true exercises to build bigger stronger legs. But with so many squat variations and alternatives, which exercises are the most effective for your training. We’re going to talk about the best squat alternatives and variations to help you keep building more muscle and adding more strength.

What Are Squats 

Squats are a lower body compound strength training movement. Traditionally performed with a barbell, placed behind your neck, the squat has several alternatives and variations that can be used in place of the barbell back squat to stimulate and contract the muscles in the posterior chain, such as quadriceps, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings.

Compound movements are multi-jointed exercises, that recruit multiple muscle groups at one time. The squat utilizes several muscles and joints, which can improve functional strength, mobility, and mid-line core stability and strength. Functional strength training movements, mimic specific patterns used for everyday activities such as hip rotation, muscle stabilizers, flexor muscles, and ensure your joints are moving through a full range of motion. 

Form, as with any strength or resistance training exercise, is extremely important to avoid serious injury. Squats can be a difficult movement to perfect. They require impeccable mind-muscle connection, proper bracing and breathing, and constant repetition to derive the full benefits of the exercise. If performed the wrong way, squats cause serious injury.

Squats can place a large amount of stress on the lower back, core, and muscles in the posterior chain. Small inconsistencies in form, can move the stress of the load,

The 6 Best Squat Alternatives And Squat Variations 

Getting under the squat rack with a heavy barbell is one way to add significant muscle and strength to your lower body. Stronger legs and a stronger lower body distribute better performance across all functional strength training movements. Squat alternatives and variations, can help improve your range of motion, place less stress on your lower back and joints, as well as improve form, to help you build a bigger barbell back squat.  Now, let’s get into some of the best squat variation and alternatives for your training program.

1. Front Squat 

Front squats are a type of squat variation, however instead of having the barbell placed on your back behind your head, the barbell is placed in front rack position, with the load anteriorly loaded. Front squats are a compound functional strength movement, simulating multiple joints, muscle groups, and stabilizing muscles all in one motion. 

Front squats make for a great squat alternative due to the load positioning. Your squat can still be performed with less chance to injure your lower back. Front squat will also help brace your core and improve midline stability with full range of motion. 

How to Front Squat

  • To start, set up a barbell on the uprights of a squat rack. You’ll want this right around mid-chest.
  • Grab the barbell with an overhand grip just beyond shoulder width.
  • As you lift the barbell off the rack, lift your elbows in front of your torso to form a 90-degree angle at your shoulders, with your upper arms perpendicular to your torso. This is called the front rack position, and the barbell should sit nicely in the groove of your deltoid muscles.
  • Loosen your grip and allow the bar to roll from your palms to your fingers. If this is difficult, you want might want to read how to improve your wrist mobility. It may seem awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it.
  • Step back from the rack as you would for a conventional back squat, with your feet shoulder-width apart, and toes pointed forward. Make sure your elbows are high.
  • Your hips will descend back and down, until your upper thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Keep your torso as upright as possible, with your lumbar curve maintained.
  • Keep your heels down and the weight balanced, with your knees in line with your toes.
  • Push back up to the starting position
  • Push your weight into your heels and keep your back straight.
  • Perform for the prescribed reps and sets

2. Hack Squat

The hack squat is a compound strength movement and squat variation and alternative. However, instead of using free weights the hack squat is a machine-based exercise. The hack squat is an excellent auxiliary movement that can assist in developing better squat form and improve strength and mobility, without added pressure on your lower back. A hack squat machine works just like a traditional barbell back squat, yet with a few variations. The hack squat is positioned at a 45-degree angle, which provides for a more controlled movement, placing less physical demand on your joints, and providing a deeper range of motion. Range of motion is a key contributor to muscle growth; therefore, the hack squat can benefit you by achieving more strength and gaining more lean muscle mass in a controlled and fixed motion.

How To Hack Squat

  • Load the machine with your desired weight.
  • Step onto the platform and place your feet shoulder-width apart with toes slightly pointed out.
  • Place your shoulders firmly under the pads, retract your scapulae and grip the bars.
  • Keep your back on the pad and head up at all times.
  • Inhale, brace your core, and disengage the safety bars on the machine.
  • Keep your legs straight without locking your knees.
  • Descend keeping your form and movement smooth just below parallel, slightly less than a 90-degree angle.
  • Begin to raise and push the machine back up through your heels and exhale.
  • Fully extend your knees and hips.
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.

3. Landmine Squats

Landmine squat is a strength training squat alternative that affixes one end of a barbell to the floor, with the other end attached to a landmine grip. This movement is a very beneficial accessory leg exercise, providing less impact on your joints, and placing more emphasis on form to help build strength in your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. 

What makes the landmine squat so great, is that with one end affixed to the ground, the barbell, follows your natural squatting pattern, assisting in better form and range of motion.

How To Landmine Squat

  • Place one end of the barbell into the landmine device and stand facing the other end of the barbell.
  • Stand with your feet hip or shoulder width apart, with a tall stance and slight bend in your knees with a neutral spine and neck.
  • Evenly distribute your weight and grip the floor with your feet to create a stable foot position.
  • Using a full grip, clasp the end of the bar with both hands. Your elbows should be close to your ribcage.
  • Engage your core and slightly tuck your pelvis. All repetitions should begin from this starting position.
  • Begin the downward or shortening motion by bending your hips, knees, and ankles. Lower until your legs are parallel slightly below parallel to the ground. The weight on your feet should be evenly distributed. Pause at the bottom position, activating your glutes.
  • To begin the eccentric or upward movement, push your feet into the ground to initiate standing. Place emphasis on pushing through your mid-foot and heel while keeping your toes and glutes engaged.
  • Keep your chest high, squeeze your glutes, and allow your knees to straighten and your hips to travel forward. As you finish the movement, squeeze your glutes and quadriceps while maintaining a neutral spine.
  • Repeat the landmine squat for your desired number of repetitions.

4. Box Squats

Box squats are a squat variation, used to help develop form and power. A plyobox is positioned behind you while performing a barbell back squat. Once you start the eccentric phase or decent of the squat, you sit on the box, pause, and explode back up driving the weight to starting position. Box squats are not typically programmed in training programs, because most lifters do not know how to execute a box squat correctly. It’s not just as simple as sitting then standing back up. The box squat can greatly develop power by focusing on technique and explosiveness. 

How To Box Squat

  • Squat depth is dictated by the height of the box or platform. Therefore, ensure your surface placed behind you is at optimal height to achieve full range of motion and that your depth is parallel to the floor.
  • Position yourself with a wide stance at hip distance, with toes slightly pointed out.
  • Get under the barbell, with your neck pushed into your traps
  • With a wide grip pull the bar tightly into your traps while also engaging your lats and pulling your elbows up.
  • Brace your core pushing your abdomen into your belt, and taking a deep breath in.
  • Lift the bar from the rack keeping your core stabilized and tight against the belt and lifting your chest up as you step back.
  • On the descent, or eccentric phase, break at the hips, pushing your glutes and hips back like you’re sitting back a chair not down. This will place more emphasis on your hamstrings, glutes, and hips as opposed to your quads dominating the movement.
  • When the back of your legs make contact with the box, and you find your self paused in the static or seated position, relax your hip flexors while still bracing your core and posterior chain muscles.
  • In an explosive contraction, you will begin the concentric phase or ascent of the lift by standing moving your head first, followed by your glutes and hips.
  • Make sure your core is tight, pushing your abs against the belt, driving your head back and upper back and traps into the bar.
  • Drive your feet outward, push straight up back into the bar, and jump off the box keeping your chest high and pushing up and into the bar and floor, squeezing your glutes pushing forward

5. Bulgarian Split Squats

The Bulgarian-split squat is a single-leg squat variation. Compared to a traditional barbell squat, it removes all the pressure and load from your lower back and places it directly into your legs. The stabilizing leg of the Bulgarian split-squat is elevated behind you, which allows greater range of motion and depth, to achieve greater muscle hypertrophy, and strength gains in your glutes and quadriceps. Bulgarian split squats are key for not only building a bigger barbell back squat, but for building quadriceps and glutes, midline stability, and it offers an awesome range of motion movement for the hip flexors.  

How To Bulgarian Split Squat

  • Start with your feet hip-width apart. with the right foot forward and the left foot placed back behind the body on a bench or box that is about knee-height, or just below knee height.
  • Keeping your shoulders stacked directly above your forward-facing hips, begin to descend into a lunging position. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in both hands in a vertical position hanging on each side of your body.
  • Keep your back straight while lowering your left knee towards the floor
  • Go as low as you can while still ensuring your chest is staying open and the front knee is not protruding out in front of your toes.
  • When your left knee lowers, press your right foot into the ground, pull back on the right knee, and push the top of the left foot into the box to return to standing.

6. Jefferson Squats 

The Jefferson squat is a compound functional strength training movement, created by Circus Strongman Charles Jefferson over 100 years ago. Like the barbell back squat the Jefferson squat helps strengthen your posterior chain muscles, including your hamstrings, quads, and glutes. However, the Jefferson Squat is truly unique offering a culmination of benefits. The positioning of Jefferson Squat, places more emphasis on your core, improving balance and stability. Lifting from the floor as opposed to lifting from the rack also changes the dynamics of loading and planes of motion of the body. 

How To Jefferson Squat

  • To start, take a split stance over the barbell with a light yet easily manageable load to start.
  • With your front foot forward, make sure your back foot is angled around 90 degrees with a wide stance.
  • Ensure your shoulders are square as you grab the barbell with an over-under grip
  • Take a breath in, brace your core, and stand the weight straight up keeping your back straight, and trunk tucked behind you, pushing evenly through your feet, avoiding any twisting.
  • Reverse the movement after you complete the prescribed reps on one side. Switch your grip and switch your foot position and perform the same number of reps on the opposite side

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