These days everyone is extra jazzed up about the “big 3” powerlifting movements. Back squats, deadlifts, and barbell bench presses are making it into more and more training programs around the world. For the most part, this is a great thing. These movements represent three variations of the foundational squat, hinge, and pressing movement patterns. Therefore, doing these movements consistently is sure to increase your general strength and athleticism. However, people often get a bit up in arms about how these exercises need to be performed.

Take the back squat for example. Powerlifters have their reservations about what constitutes a true and honest rep. The hips must descend below parallel and the weight must stay firmly planted on your back in order for the rep to count. Have the audacity to squat to parallel or even slightly above and you’ll be ridiculed by the purists of the world. But should this really be the case? Is back squatting ass to grass really necessary for everyone? In truth, countless variations of the squat pattern can be extremely effective in training. In fact, getting away from competition style back squatting can be a good thing even if you are looking to compete in powerlifting. Overall, it pays for just about anyone to incorporate some alternatives to the traditional back squat into their training.

 

The Back Squat Isn’t for Everyone

First, let me explain why someone would even want to perform any alternatives to the back squat. There is no doubt that the back squat is generally one of the most effective and beneficial exercises out there for lower body development. The strength and muscle mass you can build with back squats is relatively unmatched by other exercises. But, despite these lofty accolades, there are times when people are better off leaving back squats out of their training program.

For instance, a beginner who lacks the coordination and/or technique to perform the back squat should opt for something less complex. Once they build up the squat pattern with alternative exercises, they can progress to the more challenging and complex back squat movement. Unfortunately, many people do not employ this strategy. Instead, they power through the early stages with compromised form, resulting in either injury or a feature on the quarter squat gang social media page. Either one of those is an event that you might never fully recover from.

Another reason to try some alternatives would be to incorporate basic movement variety and variation in the training program. Back squats are an awesome exercise, but too much of a good thing can start to have a negative effect. If all you ever do is back squats for lower body development, you will eventually stall out and likely experience some sort of issue. Changing the stimulus and working the musculature/pattern in a different way is a fundamental quality of a good training program. This will allow you to develop a more well-rounded physique and strength pattern given the different motor pattern and muscle recruitment you will experience from other exercises. In the end, you actually end up improving your back squat and leg development to a greater extent when you switch things up from time to time.

 

Worthwhile Alternatives

Now that I have explained some of the reasons that you might want to change up your exercise selection, let’s talk about the most beneficial alternatives. The one that is best for you will come down to your experience level, end goal, and current phase of training. And while the following exercises are some of the best alternatives to the back squat, this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list.

Front Squat

A simple change to the bar position in a squat can make a world of difference. While it is likely that you have to use a lighter load in the front squat compared to the back squat, the change in stimulus makes up for the difference. Front squats require a more upright torso and place more emphasis on quadriceps strength. This makes it a great exercise to work on weak quads as a substitution for back squats in the offseason. It can even be included as an accessory movement in the weeks leading to competition peaking. However, just as with the back squat, this movement can be difficult for beginners and so must be used appropriately based on experience level.

Safety Bar Squat (SSB)

Many people struggle to find the mobility to perform front squats or perhaps are dealing with a pec, shoulder, or elbow injury. In steps the genius of the safety squat bar. Although the bar is placed on your back, handles extend out with allow you to comfortably control the bar without torquing your arms in an uncomfortable position. Additionally, the bar is cambered in a way that shifts the center of gravity towards the front of your body, similar to a front squat. You can usually load up the SSB much heavier than a front squat, which makes it a good pick for heavy training and intensification phases. Many powerlifters even use it in the final stages of their meet prep. Also, given its ergonomic design, it may actually represent a more user friendly variant for beginners compared to the traditional back and front squat.

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