It is no secret that the squat, in particular, the barbell squat is considered the king of all strength and muscle building exercises. Placing a heavy bar on your back loads the spine and requires just about every muscle in the body to fire when executed correctly, with a heavy load. It builds tons of muscle and strength and elicits a heavy metabolic hit leaving you exhausted, and burning fat for hours.
Unfortunately, heavy barbell squats can come at a cost. If you don’t have the proper mobility and flexibility required to perform this exercise, compensation is inevitable thus potentially causing pain and injury. The lower back tends to take the brunt of the load and the legs are not worked at maximum capacity. People with previous and current knee issues must also be cautious when squatting but still need to get stronger. The barbell squat does not seem to be very favorable with this population.
The barbell front squat is also a marvelous lower-body exercise that hammers the thighs and core. It builds trainloads of muscle, has great carryover to athletics, and for some, is a little safer and easier to perform than the traditional barbell squat. But the barbell front squat does come with some downsides as well. It also requires substantial mobility and a decent strength base. The front rack position can also be difficult to maintain for new lifters and aging lifters with some miles on their body.
I have worked with many clients that simply can’t do these squatting movements due to various factors such as these. They want to build a lot of strength and muscle in the lower body but must avoid squats due to pain in the lower back and knees the next day.
For the athletes I work with, I must also weigh out the risk to benefit ratio. I am not training them to become professional weightlifters. My job is to help them build a strong and reliant lower body to reduce the risk of injury and improve performance. So, performing the traditional squatting exercise is just not worth it.
But for both types of clients, I must find a way to get the job done. There is an abundance of lower body exercises that can build muscle, build resilience and improve performance. You just need to be selective.
Below are my top 5 lower body exercises that are not squats, but are phenomenal at building the lower body.
This is my go-to exercise for all of my clients to build a powerful lower body, pending that the lower back is healthy. You can load this exercise for high reps to increase fat loss and endurance, or load it up heavy to build strength, muscle and power. It is a versatile exercise for both physique and sports athletes. It’s easy on the knees and when performed correctly, improves hip and low back health.
The hip thruster, in particular, the barbell hip thruster on a bench, has exploded on the scene in recent years. Many athletes favor this exercise with its solid risk to benefit ratio. Bret Contreras has also shown us via science that it activates and builds the glutes better than any other exercises. Much better than the squat, without the risk of low back and knee discomfort. There is a learning curve to this one, so be sure to take the time to learn the movement before loading it.
There is no replacing the squat to build tree trunk thighs, but the reverse lunge is a great alternative that is much easier on the knees and low back. You can load it with dumbbells at your sides, a kettlebell in the goblet position (holding it with two hands by your chest), and even a barbell in the front rack and on your back position. I like to go high reps on this one, as the quads tend to respond well to this.
Single Leg Deadlifts
The body can become asymmetrical quite a bit, especially in the hip area. The single leg deadlift acts as both a “corrective” exercise and a muscle builder. I prefer to go heavier on this one as form starts to suffer when you bump up the reps.
Trap Bar Deadlifts
The trap bar deadlift is the perfect alternative to squats. While it is primarily considered a hinge movement, hitting the glutes and hamstrings hard, it also mimics a squatting pattern thus working the quads quite a bit. It has a small learning curve compared to the traditional barbell deadlift and requires less hip mobility to perform. It also hits the quads a little bit more.
The No Squat Leg Routine
Below are two different lower-body routines that I suggest you alternate. Make sure to rest at least 48-72 hours between each workout, performing each one during the week.
Exercise Sets-Reps Rest
Trap Bar Deadlifts 5 sest, 5-8 reps, 2 minutes rest.
Reverse Lunges 3 sets, 10-12 reps each leg, 1-minute rest.
Single Leg Deadlifts 3 sets, 8 reps each leg, 1-minute rest.
Exercise Sets Reps Rest
Kettlebell Swings 5 sets, 25,20,15,10,10 reps. 1-minute rest.
Hip Thrusters 4 sets, 12,10,8,6 reps,2-minutee rest.
Reverse Lunges 2 sets 15 reps each leg, 1-minute rest.
Justin Grinnell is the Owner of State of Fitness in East Lansing, Michigan. State of Fitness opened up just four years ago and is already one of the leading training facilities in the Midwest. State of Fitness has over 450 members who train every day under his leadership. In addition to being a facility owner, Justin has his own blog at www.grinnelltraining.com (link below), and has been a featured writer for over 6 years in the magazine Healthy & Fit and is a writer for Muscle & Fitness.