The 7 Best Exercises if You Can't Squat

Don't let an inability to squat hold you back from getting into great shape.
 

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Squats are the King of the Gym. No question there. Entire training programs are built upon them, and there’s no better way to build an enviable physique than frequent sets of squats with challenging weights. Good stuff.

The problem is that most people simply can’t squat.

  • Maybe they have a hip, back, shoulder, ankle, or knee limitation
  • Maybe they don’t know how, or can’t do it well
  • Maybe they don’t have access to equipment
  • Maybe they simply don’t like squats, so they ignore them (and see poor results)

The majority of personal training clients that I work with just can’t squat on Day 1. Sometimes we just need to find effective exercises to train while we address any deficits in flexibility, balance, or core stability. If so, our goal as strength coaches is to get results and work hard in the gym while we’re taking our time to teach the squat.

 

And other clients will never squat, based on their injury history or the demands of their particular sport and/or sports position. For example, hockey goalies often don’t perform squats because of a high risk of injury to the hip joint.

At Optimize Fitness & Performance, our main specialty is injury post-rehabilitation. We help people find ways to strength train, even when they have a lengthy history of injuries.

Many people get injured and are left clueless after physical therapy about how to get back into great shape. They try and return to their old workouts, only to re-injure themselves. It’s a frustrating cycle.

Ex-crossfitters, washed up meatheads, and injury-prone lifters – we’re talking about you right now. But we’re also talking about regular people with irksome injuries. Our clients come to us with limitations like:

  • Herniated discs
  • Fractured vertebrae
  • Torn menisci (sometimes repaired, sometimes not)
  • Reconstructed ACLs
  • Spondylosis and/or Spondylolisthesis
  • Strained hamstrings, hip flexors, and/or groins
  • Labrum tears

 With each client, my job as a coach and post-rehabilitation specialist is to determine which exercises are safe to do. Second is picking effective exercises.

We would never condemn you to a lifetime of quad extensions, machine leg curls, and mind-numbing leg squeezes on the innie-outtie machine.

Not everybody will get to squat. It’s just not safe for them. That’s OK. If that’s you, you can still get into killer shape in other ways.

Like me. I rarely squat these days. I have a partial labrum tear in my right hip and a tendency to strain my right groin.

Don’t get me wrong – I love heavy squats. They just don’t love me back. I’m jealous (seriously) of my clients that can squat consistently.

But I still have the strength to squat over 1.5x my bodyweight on any given day – even though I don’t train squats.

And I still can’t find a well-fitting pair of jeans to save my life, thanks to my quads and glutes.
(Thanks for nothing, Levis, Wranglers, and the skinny jean trend.)

No squats, no problem. 

The 7 Best Exercises to Replace Squats

Criteria:

  1. It needs to be effective
  2. It can match the intensity of a squat, or come close
  3. It needs to be safe
  4. It needs to promote muscle balance and reduce the risk of injury

The following 7 exercises are the ones that I use most often for myself and for my clients. They also make excellent assistance exercises for people who can squat, but need to address weak points or want variety.

  1. Trap Bar Deadlifts
  2. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats
  3. Barbell Hip Thrusts
  4. Weighted Step Ups
  5. Step Downs & Single Leg Squats
  6. Skater Squats
  7. Goblet Squats

Keep reading for detailed tutorials for each exercise!

 

What if tight hips are stopping you from squatting?

If you suspect that your tight hips and stiff hip flexors are stopping you from squatting, give the following 7 exercises a try.

But you should also check out “Unlock Your Hip Flexors”. It’s an insanely detailed guide on how to finally improve your hip mobility and get your hips feeling great. Click here to check it out.

Exercise #1: Trap Bar Deadlifts

AKA:  Hex Bar Deadlifts, DeadSquats

Equipment Needed: Hex Bar / Trap Bar / Deadsquat Bar

The Trap Bar Deadlift is my vote for the perfect lower body exercise. I broke into a 405lb deadlift with a hex bar at 170lbs – not impressive by powerlifting standards, but excellent for somebody that just wants to be stronger and look better naked.

Intensity – Most people can trap bar deadlift more than they will ever be able to squat.

Effectiveness – It challenges every muscle in the body, similar to a squat or a deadlift.

Safety – Trap Bar Deadlifts are safer than both squats and conventional deadlifts. It’s the preferred exercise for athletes, fat loss clients, and everybody who isn’t a powerlifter or competitive crossfitter. Even renowned strength coach Mike Boyle, who once famously despised the deadlift, will teach the right athlete to trap bar deadlift.

Key Points:

  • The higher hip position reduces the stress placed on the lower back, reducing the risk of a lower back injury. This also makes it easier on the hip joint, making it my go-to exercise for people with hip labral tears, like myself.
  • Trap bar deadlifts require less flexibility and hip mobility than a squat or a conventional deadlift. Similar to a rack pull, but easier to setup and much simpler to learn the “feel” of.
  • Perfect lift for tall people because of the higher handles. And people with tight, stiff hips.
  • All of our beginner deadlifters start with the trap bar. It’s Step 2 of our deadlift progression for clients with good flexibility, coming in after kettlebell deadlifts.
  • I find that it’s easier on the knees than squatting, again because of the higher starting position.
  • The neutral grip handles makes it easier to maintain an upright torso, but also allow for more weight to be lifted without the grip requirements of a conventional deadlift. I find that I can push much farther on a trap bar deadlift before my grip stops my muscle & strength development.
  • I can also use the trap bar for heavy farmer carries, a phenomenal full-body exercise that is very challenging for the upper back, core, and grip.
  • Trap bar deadlifts are hip dominant and emphasize the posterior chain (the muscles of the backside: glutes and hamstrings).Newsflash: most lifters have weak butts. A weak posterior chain can wreck on the lower back, hips, and knees. Trap bar deadlifts help fix this.

Exercise #2:  Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS)

AKA: Bulgarian Split Squats

Equipment Needed: A Single Leg Squat Stand or a Bench

Somewhere, somebody with incredibly sore quads and glutes just shuddered in fear. These will make you SORE like nothing else the first time you do them. (And, according to my clients, every time afterwards).

The RFESS is great for both strength and physique goals. It’s a great alternative to heavy squats. It’s quad-dominant, just like a squat.

At Optimize Fitness & Performance, we use the RFESS in place of heavy squats for clients with lower back or hip limitations.

It matches the range of motion of a parallel squat, while sparing the pelvis and lower back. I’ve found that many clients that can’t squat to parallel can perform a full-range RFESS.

In Mike Boyle’s “Functional Training for Sports”, he reports having athletes match their squat max on the RFESS. If you don’t believe me, check out this video from Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning of coach Ben Bruno (who wrote the “American Sniper” training plan for Bradley Cooper AND trains Kate Upton, so this guy gets results!) performing the RFESS with 305lbs for 6 reps!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMQi0qA_V-k

From a “look great naked” perspective, the RFESS fits the bill. Remember, there are three main mechanisms for muscle growth (hypertrophy):

  1. Intensity (how hard a muscle works / how much weight is used)
  2. Muscle Damage (how sore it makes you the next day)
  3. Metabolic Stress (how badly it burns while you do it, what bodybuilders call “the pump”)

All three help build a strong body. (Just don’t go for all 3 at once.)

You can perform the RFESS with very heavy weights (intensity). It stretches the muscle while it works (soreness). And when done for high reps, it burns like crazy (metabolic stress).

Our clients begin on day 1 with 8 repetitions per side. Day 2 is 10 reps, Day 3 is 12 reps, and Day 4 is 15 reps per leg.

After that, we begin adding weight and generally stick to the same range of 8-15 reps for beginners. Of course, strong clients will begin with weight and will work in rep ranges of 3-10 reps.

Sample Progression:

  • 3 sets of 8-15 repetitions per side performed with bodyweight only
  • 3 sets of 10 with weight
  • 3 sets of 6-10 with weight
  • 3 sets of 5 with weight

Extra Points:

  • The RFESS is an excellent last-step before progressing to Pistol Squats, Skater Squats, and other true Single Leg Squat variations
  • It’s excellent for resolving strength imbalances between the right and left leg, which are common
  • Perfect for athletes, especially female athletes, as it promotes knee stability and functional hip strength
  • It can be made more difficult by adding a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell for resistance. MBSC frequently uses heavy dumbbells with weight vests to keep it simple.
  • I highly recommend Perform Better’s Single Leg Squat Stand. Worth every penny if you do these frequently.
  • We use an Airex pad to cushion the knee.

Exercise #3: Barbell Hip Thrust

AKA: Shoulders Elevated Hip Thrust, “that exercise that makes my glutes cramp up”

Equipment Needed: 18” Bench, a hip pad, a barbell, and resistance bands

Guess what? Squats aren’t that great for your butt. Those memes and “She Squats” instagram posts lied to you. (Mostly).

However, it’s not hard to find somebody with an impressive squat and unimpressive glutes. Enter the Barbell Hip Thrust.

Bret “The Glute Guy” Contreras, who literally has a PhD in exercise physiology based on his research on the glutes, is the champion of the barbell hip thrust. He created his own garage lab to study it. The man is dedicated, for sure.

Why does that matter? Well, Dr. Bret has determined that the Barbell Hip Thrust is the top exercise for the glutes.

It hits all 3 criteria for muscle development. It can be trained super heavy – most of our female clients reach 135lbs for 10 reps within 6 weeks of learning it. It makes you sore, and it burns like crazy for high reps – especially against a heavy resistance band.

I’m not kidding when I talked about glute cramps. 20+ reps against a 2” band followed by a 30-60 second isometric hold gets me every time.

We made the investment for Bret’s “Hip Thruster” bench (http://www.thehipthruster.com/). We own one of 6 in the state and are even on the Hip Thruster directory. It’s been worth every penny, as it makes setup far simpler than it would be otherwise.

Here’s why we use the Barbell Hip Thrust with our clients that don’t squat:

  • For our clients that can’t squat or deadlift, this exercise is where they are able to train the heaviest
  • Easy on the lower back and the knees
  • The option of using band resistance makes it easy to setup on the fly, especially if you don’t like the feel of a barbell on the hips
  • Incredible tool for developing a fully rounded look for the glutes
  • Can be performed on a single leg for extra functional benefit and difficulty
  • Posterior-chain dominant – perfect for people with weak glutes (looking at you, 9-5 desk jockeys!) and hamstrings

It’s not uncommon for our new clients to perform hundreds of bodyweight repetitions in the early phases of a program.

This strengthens the legs and helps up teach them to squat and deadlift faster. Especially in cases where weak glutes and hamstrings are causing their inability to squat properly.

Recommended Equipment:

  1. Hip Thruster Bench, if you’re fancy. (Or just come use ours – seriously, e-mail me. It’s a shame that more people don’t use this thing locally and are suffering at their local gym on an awkward bench!)
  2. If that won’t do, use a 18-20” bench propped up against a squat rack.
  3. Barbell with Bumper Plates to allow for proper setup height
  4. Resistance Bands
  5. Squat Sponge to protect the hips
  6. Bret’s Guide here: https://bretcontreras.com/anatomy-of-the-perfect-hip-thrusting-station/

Master the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift

Coach Devin here. I’ve learned a TON from Bret Contreras over the years.

He’s not just the Glute Guy – he’s an expert on muscle building, strength training, and biomechanics. He’s also one of the three hypertrophy experts that I trust most.

That’s why it’s easy for me to recommend Bret’s “2x4: Maximal Strength” program to you.

It’s a 14 week training program guaranteed to improve your Squat, Bench, and Deadlift.

It even includes a “Safer Exercise Guide” with full descriptions, cues, and video tutorials for the 36 safest exercises. So if you really can’t squat because of an injury, you’ll become the expert on how to train your body for best results anyways.

Plus, Bret includes:

  • Video tutorials for the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift that are insanely detailed and thorough
  • An exercise guide with over 140 exercises with full descriptions, cues, and videos
  • Sample meal plans so that you can build muscle, lose fat, and look incredible
  • A 60-day, Money Back Guarantee

If you want to be an expert on the Squat and the Deadlift, you can’t afford to say no.

Exercise #4: Weighted Step Ups

Equipment Needed: 12-24” Platform, Barbell / Dumbbell / Kettlebell

Barbell step ups are a great option in place of squats. Easier on the lower back and they don’t require much flexibility at all to perform.

I’ve gone as heavy as 225lbs onto a 12” step, with good results. I don’t program them for long durations, as it can become stressful on the knees if performed for too many weeks.

For clients with poor balance and/or weak glutes, these are a great option. We start as low as 4” and will progress up to 12” – which is my preference for height in most cases. Past this and many people of average height begin compensating by sidebending at the pelvis.

The single leg nature of the exercise helps promote strength and muscle balance in the hips. Good accessory exercise for athletes and essential for people with general fitness goals.

It’s quad-dominant as well.

We use these for moderate to high reps (6 reps and up).

Watch the video and learn how to perform Weighted Step Ups.

Exercise #5: Stepdowns and Pistol Squats

Equipment Needed: Box, anywhere from 6-24”

Stepdowns are like step ups, but upgraded. They’re excellent for “bulletproofing” an athlete’s knee, as they improve the eccentric control of the knee.

In English – they help you keep your knee stable, balanced, and centered over your ankle. All three help prevent injuries, especially to the ACL.

In fact, looking at an athlete’s stepdown is a key test for predicting knee stability and injury risk.

Start with a 6” and work up to 12”. 8 reps per side does the trick.

From there, you can begin practicing pistols by using a taller box. If you’re able to perform pistol squats, you can make them tougher by adding weight vests or kettlebells for loading.

An excellent progression from the High Stepdown is the Pistol Squat.

Exercise #6: Skater Squats

Another favorite of strength coach Ben Bruno, who is impressively strong on these as well.

He’s written extensively about his knee and lower back injuries that stop him from squatting. These are one of his go-to exercises for replacing the squat.

Placing an Airex pad behind you helps to cushion the knee, although it isn’t necessary. A weight vest and dumbbells are the easiest and safest ways to add external resistance.

We use them primarily for moderate reps (6-10), although stronger individuals can use them for high-rep bodyweight conditioning.

Our clients work up to these once they’re able to perform regular lunges. They also make a great alternative for pistol squats because they don’t require nearly as much flexibility.

Our Lunge Progression:

Be able to perform each variation for 15 repetitions per leg before advancing.

  1. Assisted Split Squats
  2. Split Squats
  3. Reverse Lunges
  4. Walking Lunges
  5. RFESS
  6. Skater Squats

Exercise #7: Goblet Squats

Forgive us for getting cute with this suggestion, but goblet squats are the best way to fix a lousy squat.

Dan John has written extensively about using these to fix ugly squats and to teach beginners how to squat. They’re easy to coach and hard to perform incorrectly.

(In other words, they make us look like great coaches with little effort.)

Goblet squats are so effective for two reasons.

1 – They’re held in front of the body.

Goblet Squats teach core bracing this way. A weak core is one of the most common reasons for a lousy squat.

To confess, we don’t do a lot of direct abwork at Optimize Fitness & Performance. Yet our clients have strong, tight, and hard midsections without doing situps or crunches. Our secret is the goblet squat.

If you’ve never done them, grab a moderately heavy dumbbell and perform 10 reps.

That burning you felt in your midsection? That’s because goblet squats force your abs to work during squats!

2 – They help you balance.

The goblet squat gives a counterweight. This makes it easier to sit back into the hips during the squat.

For many of our clients that simply want to look good and feel great, the goblet squat is as advanced as they ever need to go. There’s no reason for some people to be forced to squat with a barbell if it’s not in their interests.

 

Those are my 7 Best Exercises for You if You Can’t Squat.

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Devin Gray

Devin Gray

Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach

NSCA-CSCS, FMSC, Pn1 Certified
B.S. in Exercise Science – Texas A&M University, Cum Laude

Devin is the owner & head coach of Optimize Fitness & Performance. He is an exercise geek, with a long list of certifications and coursework for personal training, nutrition coaching, and injury post-rehabilitation. In his personal workouts, Devin combines gymnastics drills, free weights, and kettlebell exercises to stay fit.

You can e-mail Devin at [email protected]

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