Beyond the Back Squat: The 7 Best Alternatives

Squat Variations for Big, Strong Legs

Can’t back squat anymore? Don’t enjoy it? No problem. Here are seven squat variations that’ll do the trick.

The squat is essential, but the back squat isn’t the best variation for all lifters or all body types. There are many reasons for this: body proportions, injury history, and preference, for starters.

Somewhere, someone declared the barbell back squat the pinnacle version of the movement, probably because it’s an industry-standard in the competition circuit. And it’ll be that way until someone creates a strength association that uses a specialty bar for the squat, the football bar for the bench press, and the trap bar for the deadlift.

The truth is, the best squat variation depends on what suits you and helps you reach your goals. So, let’s take a look at the other options.

Variation 1: Safety Bar Squat

There’s a reason this is at the top of the list. It’s uniquely useful: it’s a back-loaded position that allows your hands to stay comfortably at torso level. This shoulder-friendly bar position makes the squat much more accessible, especially for larger lifters lacking shoulder mobility.

A growing number of strength coaches and professional athletes are deferring to the safety bar. You can pursue high performance and heavy lifts with less stress on the joints.

Variation 2: Front Squat

The front-loaded position allows the load to be counterbalanced, keeping your torso more vertical and reducing stress on the lumbar spine.

The front squat trains the quads a bit more intensely due to the forward knee tracking and, ultimately, deeper knee flexion. It’s easier to use the full range of motion. It’s also a smarter option for lifters dealing with lower back issues or struggling with long femurs or ankle mobility restrictions.

There are a couple of ways to hold the bar: the clean grip (more common) and the California cross-armed style. If neither feels great because you have shoulder mobility, T-spine, or wrist issues – or your arms are simply too beefy to make the clean grip feel comfortable – use a pair of lifting straps.

Variation 3: Hatfield Squat

This variation is a saving grace for taller lifters who have a long reach, a long way down, and possible mobility issues. It’s the perfect tool to grease the groove for good squat patterning with appreciable loading.

Using the Hatfield method allows you to sit back slightly when squatting to reduce stress on the lower back. Remember, this movement only works with a safety bar. Since the bar is placed on the shoulders hands-free, don’t try this with a barbell since it’s more prone to fall off your back.

Variation 4: Heels-Elevated Dumbbell Squat

This one comes with a lot of benefits. First, it eliminates the need to put a bar on your back or hold the load in front while squatting. If you’re a lifter with limited equipment or have shoulder issues preventing you from comfortably putting a bar on your torso, elevating your heels and holding dumbbells at your sides is a smart alternative.

You can still lift a fair amount of weight with this method. Using a slant board or full wedges under the feet is the real game-changer, however. This enables you to squat deeper than you normally would due to the flexed starting position of the ankle. This creates more space for the knee to travel forward without being stymied by limited ankle mobility.

Go deep enough so that your hamstrings cover the calves on each rep. You want your torso as upright as possible.

Variation 5: Tempo Goblet Squat

Goblet squats are frequently the rite of passage to other squat variations that involve more loading. They’re limited by the strength of the upper body where progressive overload is concerned.

If you’re an average lifter who’s interested in lower body training as well as health, then take a different perspective on weight and loading. Slowly lowering a moderately-loaded goblet squat to make lighter weight feel heavier is a game-changer for your conditioning. Focus on 3-4 second eccentrics to accumulate more time under tension.

If you’re in a poorly equipped gym, this is a smart option to make a workout challenging.

Variation 6: B-Stance Squat

This movement is underrated. It’s a real help for ROM, quad stimulation, and general lower-body development.

The second leg stays out of the way to allow the front leg to do the majority of the work. The kickstand or B-stance squat is easy to load up if needed. Think of it as the middle ground between barbell bilateral stance squats (if you suck at them) and giving up on them altogether in favor of other lifts.

Moreover, this is great for the knees and ankles since it relies on the mobility of both for appropriate range to be reached.

Variation 7: Zercher Squat

To increase core activity of virtually any major movement, simply throw in a Zercher hold where you carry the bar in the crook of the arm.

Doing squats, good mornings, lunges, loaded carries, or even shrugs in this position requires the body to do a whole lot more bracing through the trunk since you’re carrying the bar slightly farther away from the body. For Zercher squats, the bar is positioned in a place where the elbows can comfortably stay down while the knuckles face the ceiling the entire time.

I like putting my hands together and linking the fingers to help enforce this. This can be a bit tough on the elbow/ante-cubital region, so wear a hoodie to do this exercise.

Pro tip: Put Fat Gripz on the bar where the elbows go. It’ll increase the surface area and disperse the pressure. They’ll feel great.


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This is great. I was posting elsewhere that squats were sneaking up on me even in places I wouldn’t immediately suspect: one day of squats was wrecking my elbows to where I didn’t want to do any upper body work the rest of the week. I finally got an SSB and it cleaned everything right up (including my motivation!).


I’m a big fan of the Pit Shark (belt squats). I think it’s got most of the benefits of a back squat minus the back issues.


I’m also a belt squat fan. I also like that I can really play with my stance and depth in a way I can’t with a bar - crushes my quads


My left legs adductor longus is completely messed up from an old soccer injury from before I even took the gym seriously (could be a complete tendon rupture, could be a good old fashioned chronic tear, still haven’t found solid answers I can be 100% sure of). Because of this, I believe I’m approaching a point where I should just give up on squats.

I’ve worked up to decent numbers on conventional squat before and I’m one of the few people who seems to actually enjoy them! What I don’t enjoy is constant feelings of retearing outside the gym potentially caused by squatting. I need to somehow train my legs sufficiently in a way that’s safe for me, and doesn’t occasionally leave me in pain at rest. This is also whilst working with a physio and continuing rehab despite it being a LONG time since I’ve had this injury.

I have seen @Gareth_Sapstead talk about heel-elevated Trap Bar Deadlifts, but I’m unsure of if that is as a more quad-dominant deadlift variation or as something that could replace squats. I am also planning to get more explorative of a super narrow leg press.

I would love both of your big brain inputs around this. I’m not expecting or asking for medical advice, just a bit of lower body planning input that will stress my adductors less whilst still giving good results. It’s messing me up so much mentally at the moment. I’ve had a lot of 2 steps forwards, 3 steps backwards with my leg training this year.

Great stuff !! As an extremely tall person ( 6’5”) and ancient……back squats were out. My focus is kettlebell front squats & Zercher squats with complete ROM. After a ten week cycle I go to trap bar deadlifts. As you age you fear loss of mobility. Push - Pull - Legs routine keeps me going

Great info. Another favorite squat of mine is the Landmine squat. They are tough because you do not have much wiggle room with the end of the bar stuck in the corner. I used Landmine squats yesterday and my quads are still barking! Try them, you’ll like 'em!


Same here. Squats tend to wreck my shoulders which makes benching and OHP harder later.

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Agreeing with the belt-squat advocates here (definitely the free-weight version performed while standing on two boxes, with a dedicated belt-squat belt, and the weight hanging down between the legs, on a vertical stem—NOT attached to a lever-unit on a squat rack). The resistance is at your center of gravity, so your spine is spared. The belt encourages proper opening of the hips and tracking of the knees (it’s basically impossible for the knees to collapse inward when you’re wearing a belt). You don’t have to worry about holding onto the weight as you do when you goblet squat or front squat, or shouldering the weight (which many people find uncomfortable on the shoulders) as when you back squat. It’s also safe—if you can’t get a rep, no problem: squat low and the weight simply lowers to the floor. No danger of getting pinned. Belt squats for the win!


Belt Squat Monday: HEAVY.

Hack Squat Wednesday: Platz style, duck stance, 12 reps, full ROM.

Pendulum Squat Friday: Platz style, duck stance, 20 reps, full ROM.

GHR on Mondays before the Belt Squat; Seated Leg Curls before Hack Squat and Lying Leg Curl before Pendulum Squat.

Works wonders.

I’d definitely see the heels elevated trap bar deadlift as an alternative to squats. For example you could cycle as your primary lift:

6 weeks high bar squats
6 weeks front squats
6 weeks heels elevated trap bar deadlifts

However, based on what you’ve mentioned then I’d be more inclined to avoid conventional front and back squats altogether. You need to ask what the purpose is of you squatting. If it’s solely to build your legs then you might be better off using narrower stance squats in the smith machine, leg presses with feet lower and narrower, and possibly the heels elevated trap bar deadlift, as well as a snatch grip deadlift (possibly stood on a plate). All will strain that adductor group less.


Awesome, I really appreciate the response, and am psyched to hear the heel-elevated trap deadlift can be a legitimate replacement