We’ve heard it often enough that the squat is the king of all exercises. By squat I mean the barbell squat with the bar behind the neck. This article isn’t about this exercise but about alternatives.
You may want to look beyond the squat if any of these apply to you:
- You stop progressing from the squat, i.e. you’re unable to add more weight;
- Your quads never feel sore the next day, no matter how heavy you lifted;
- Your back, hamstrings or other muscle groups get tired first;
- You don’t enjoy it anymore or it doesn’t feel as great as before.
The squat is a great fundamental exercise but because of this, it doesn’t place stress on just the quadriceps but on many other secondary muscle groups to a significant extent. This may be why your quads don’t get enough stimulation from this exercise after a while. So here are other leg exercises you may consider to vary your workout.
Another compound exercise for the legs but without having to worry about keeping your balance. I love this exercise because you are able to go extremely heavy without worrying about balance or even being able to complete your rep. Since your hands are free, you can do forced reps, partial reps and negative reps as well. Just make sure you don’t round your spine at the bottom of the exercise. The leg press movement is very similar to the squat, in fact, it is a simpler movement since it involves only the legs and not the whole body, as a result, this exercise is not too dissimilar to the squat and you may want to try something else.
Before moving away to something different, let’s mention this one which is like the traditional barbell squat but with the bar in front of you resting on top of your collar bone or wrapped in your arms. It’s a very uncomfortable exercise to do, which is why you rarely see people doing it. it is also impossible to go as heavy in this position. However, the benefit is more emphasis on the front of the legs – the quads. Try it when your legs are already tired so you don’t have to go heavy.
source: hack squat on bdybuilding.com
This is my favourite leg exercise for emphasis on the front of the leg while still stimulating the rest – glutes and hamstrings. The weight rests on your shoulders with pads to make it more comfortable. When you lower yourself, ensure your feet are sufficiently forward on the platform so your knees are not beyond your toes when your legs are bent. As you go up, push down and back against the back rest to stabilise your spine. The machine is slightly inclined backwards. Unfortunately, many gyms don’t have this machine.
Smith Machine Back squats
If your gym doesn’t have the hack squat machine, you can do the Smith Machine back squats instead. This is a more free weight style where you don’t have a back rest to push against to stabilise your back and make the movement easier. Again, ensure your feet are sufficiently forward to prevent your knees from jutting out beyond the vertical. I like to place a low bench under me to know how deep to squat, ideally no deeper than the thighs parallel to the floor. It’s too easy to get lazy and stop before, so I don’t stop until I feel the bench under me. It’s not advisable to squat deeper than that in the back squat because your spine will be under excessive pressure as the Smith Machine means your body has to follow the path of the bar, rather than the other way round. In the hack squat, you are able to squat deeply because the back rest provides support for the back.
Lunges are very different to any squatting movement and at first appear very easy. But due to the stretching involved, they’re actually much harder and also very beneficial. Lunges work both your hamstrings and your quads to a high degree. As you lunge forward, don’t let your knee go past the vertical once again.
There are many ways to perform the lunge. You can do walking lunges, going forward as if walking giant steps instead of stepping back every time, or you can step forward on a BOSU ball, making it very unstable. You can do lunges with or without weights, with dumbells in your hands or a bar on your shoulders, under the Squat machine going up and down or with the rear leg raised on a bench. I prefer the simplest way – walking lunges where you just need enough space to keep walking. I use no weight but rest very little. Do it after your heavy weights and you will feel the pain.
See this related article: http://www.ironsimba.co.uk/why-you-should-not-underestimate-lunges/
Most if not all of us have done them. If your quads are not feeling stimulated enough by the squat, try pre-exhausting them with heavy sets of leg extensions. Don’t do the leg extensions as a warm-up but to failure so as to tire your quadriceps. When you next move to the squat or any squatting exercise, you will find that you don’t need to go heavy at all to get your quads heavily involved. In fact, you won’t even be able to go heavy. If you are limited in your squats because you don’t like to go heavy for fear of losing your balance or not being able to get up again, this technique works really well as you’ll be squatting with a light weight that will feel very heavy. That’s the best use of leg extensions I can find. Other than that, I don’t like the movement being dictated by the machine.
This exercise definitely won’t work your quads but it’s great for the hamstring and I prefer it to the leg curl machines out there. The stiff leg deadlift is a very difficult exercise to get right though in terms of technique and all too easily the lower back ends up doing all the heavy lifting literally. In order for you to place the emphasis on your hamstrings and not your back, bend at your hips and not the waist. Don’t bend the knees so you really stretch deeply your hamstrings. Also use your mind-muscle connection to concentrate on pulling back up with your hamstrings instead of your lower back. Don’t be afraid to really bend all the way down as much as you can – that’ll stretch your hamstrings even more. Sometimes I get lazy and don’t go all the way down. If the bar touches the floor too early, stand on a raised platform. Finally, it’s inevitable to recruit the lower back in this movement. Just try to minimise it.
So here are some of my favourite alternatives to the traditional squat exercise. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do, perhaps not the front squat which I included just to give you more choice.