The back squat is readily viewed as one of the most simplistic and traditional exercises taught by many strength coaches to new, able bodied clients.
The truth is, it’s a bit more complex an animal than people give it credit for. Some lifters may not be able to back squat properly due to their anthropometry, mobility, injury history, or a variety of other reasons.
However, the truth is you can only put your gains on hold for so long while endlessly trying to “perfect” your struggling technique.
In the meantime, you need alternatives. Other effective exercises that can serve as a substitute if your back squats aren’t pretty. That’s where I come in.
1. Front Squats
I’ve found that lifters who have longer femurs benefit from switching things up to the front squat. Lifters with longer lower limbs will have to allow their knees to travel farther forward during the back squat.
When a bar is loaded on the back, this can cause the upper body to pitch forward in order to compensate and ultimately maintain the body’s centre of gravity.
The end result is a back squat that resembles a good morning due to anthropometry woes.
Front squats allow for a more upright torso and greater quad activation due to forward tracking of the knee.
2. Goblet Squats
If you’ve got depth issues, goblet squats are a great way to fix this problem and encourage a neutral spinal position.
The front load and low elbows allow a lifter to focus on depth without having to worry about much else. Not only that, they can be a good conditioning tool, especially amid back injuries.
3. Zercher Squats
Zerchers are hardly used due to their difficulty level but they’re a gym gem if you can master them.
If you can be man enough to load a barbell in the crook of your arms, you’ll reap serious benefits from doing so.
The good thing about this movement is the fact that the compression on the spine is kept to a minimum, since the bar is loaded in the extremities and not on the axial skeleton.
I personally had success using this method with a D1 Football player who had SI joint issues and was sidelined from back squatting for those reasons.
Remember to make sure the knuckles face the ceiling at all times. Also, as the bar moves further away from your body, the shearing forces begin to increase and your spine is placed in a more precarious position.
4. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats
If bilateral stance squatting is out of the question, then this is the number 1 exercise I personally recommend for lower body training.
The single leg emphasis will hit stabilizing musculature of the hip, including those of the inner thigh.
Performing this exercise to full range of motion for sets of 8-10 reps is a great way to develop the quads and glutes while diffusing load through the lower spine due to the split stance.
Use a dumbbell load, and remember that it doesn’t take much weight to hit the legs hard. Always prioritize full range of motion before adding to the load.
5. Trap Bar Deadlifts
It’s important for people to understand the geometrical differences between a conventional deadlift and a trap bar deadlift.
The trap bar deadlift doesn’t involve a bar blocking the shins from travelling forward, allowing for much more forward knee tracking and a lower hip position.
The result is higher levels of quad activation coupled with less spinal shear to promote a back-friendly pull.
Adding a deficit (by elevating the feet on a platform that’s 1-2 inches high) and using a narrower “duck stance” with the toes pointing out and heels facing in can accentuate these differences and make it a wonderful way to attack the legs while keeping your spine safe.
The above will ring even more true when performed by long-legged lifters who struggle with back squat mechanics.
6. Bottom - Up (Anderson) Squats
If back squats must be avoided due to low back pain, try bottom up squats.
- Set the pins in the squat cage around waist height and unrack the bar in a standard back squat fashion.
- Lower the bar slowly all the way to the pins with good form, and let the bar rest on the pins for 3 seconds.
- Take that time to readjust your body under the bar to ensure the best position, and then drive up under the bar to the lockout position.
This lack of compressive forces at the lowest, most difficult point in the lift will be a back saver and highly beneficial to grooving the squat pattern while remaining injury free.
Once it gets easier, instead of adding weight, lower the pins a notch.
7. Hip Belt Squats
Still getting low back stress and discomfort from the above variations?
Well, try out this last variation by standing on two platforms or bench while doing hip belt squats and see how your low back holds up.
Take a belt used to do weighted dips or chin ups and load with the desired amount of weight. Squat down with a tall torso, and make sure there’s enough clearance for the plates to make it all the way to the floor while achieving full range of motion without being blocked by the ground.
Now your hips are bearing the load without any direct axial loading or use of your extremities. Say bye-bye to back pain.
For a visual, here’s my boy Ben Bruno cranking them out.
Squat Smart and Stay Safe
Sometimes being bad at an exercise is a good thing because it exposes weakness and gives you something new to work on.
In the case of squats, all of the above lifts can translate into better quality back squats if you choose to use them.
So, do the right thing by choosing the lifts that your body responds best to - don’t let chronic pain, gangly limbs, or joint immobility slow you down.