We’ll never say barbell back squats are a terrible exercise—especially since some will argue, convincingly, that the movement is the king of all exercises. But for the average gymgoer, this heavyweight staple might not be the best move for their training wants and needs.
It may sound like leg-day lunacy to even question whether we should be squatting, especially considering the multitude of benefits—from building strength and power, burning fat, improving both core strength and posture to name a few. But unless you’re a pro athlete or a powerlifter whose sole pursuit in the weight room is to lift as heavy as possible (specifically in the back squat!), there may not be as much need for you to rely on the back squat as the backbone of your leg day.
You might even be putting yourself at a disadvantage, especially if your physiology isn’t ideal for the movement, or your goals don’t align with exactly what the back squat will do. According to Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, CSCSand Mathew Forzaglia, NFPT, CPT, founder of Forzag Fitness, there are plenty of effective lower-body exercise options that can provide the same benefits and possibly even do more for you to increase your leg day gains.
“There’s a very, very good chance that for all your leg goals, whether you’re trying to get more athletic, whether you’re trying to get stronger, whether you just want to burn some calories and just want to move a little bit that there are a bunch of exercises aside from the back squats that will be safer than the back squat and still get you all your goals,” Samuel says.
Why Back Squats Might Not Work for You
You Don’t Need to Back Squat if Athletics Isn’t Your Goal
Sorry to break the news to you, but unless it’s your goal to squat religiously like a powerlifter or you’re a top-level professional or amateur athlete who’s training for a particular sport or activity, the back squat don’t necessarily have to be your go-to leg exercise. They do it because it’s part of their job or goals. You on the other hand, can benefit from any other variation without having to get too tied down to squat mechanics.
“Very specific athletes learn the back squat because the back squat itself is a combination of two ideas,” Samuel says. “We have the idea of a squat where we’re driving down, but we also have the idea of a hinge where we’re pushing our butt back slightly and you have to understand completely both of those mechanics before you even think about jumping into the back squat that takes time that is not something you do on your first personal training session.”
Back Squats Might Drag Down the Rest of Your Workout
Back squats are hard. Starting from the setup and holding the bar on your back can be challenging, especially if you have shoulder mobility issues. Stacking a pile of 45s on your back will not only accelerate the discomfort of your shoulders; the stress will target your lower back as well.
“It opens a window for us to shift as we go down into the squat. And when that happens, we start to overload that lower back and it’s not really needed,” Forzaglia says.
Back Squats Are Limited for Athleticism
You may see NFL athletes loading crazy weight to the squat bar for a few reps, but besides these feats meant to test their maximum strength, their workouts aren’t strictly dictated by back squats. What you won’t see on social media are the specific leg and core movements that promote athleticism—they’re not as visually appealing as a 500-pound squat, but equally as necessary. That’s why when it comes to athleticism, you need more than just back squats for your training.
Try These 3 Back Squat Alternatives
3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of you forces you to work from a more upright position while also focusing on keeping your core nice and tight. That makes this variation more spine-friendly than loading a bar with heavy weights on your back. At the same time, you’re also able to blast your legs like a heavy back squat day.
3 to 4 sets of 5 to 8 reps
This specialty bar, which provides handles to help manage the load, eliminates the potential discomfort you may get from the back squat. The safety bar squat gives you more freedom to move your shoulders while still forcing you to create tons of core tension. And like the back squat, you can pile on the weight without the shoulder stress.
●Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
You might know this move as the Bulgarian split squat. This single-leg exercise is extremely useful for helping to eliminate muscle imbalances. And although a pro career might not be in your future, rear foot elevated split squats can certainly help improve your everyday athleticism and functional fitness. You can even go heavy with this move as well.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.