Squat Substitutes for the Home Gym- Yes you Can Build Big Legs without Back Squats

Squats, specifically the back squat, are an excellent lower body developing exercise, but if you work out at home and don’t have a power rack, how are you supposed to do them safely?

There are a number of solutions, some requiring basic carpentry skills, and others nothing more than the ability to set up a sawhorse. If you are handy, building a rack from two by fours is a cheap solution, if you have the space available. The sawhorse solution is a possibility, but they are inevitably too short to be practical (you usually have to squat all or most of the way down to get under the bar.) Another possibility is a self-spotting system with rope or chains hanging from the ceiling. (See: http://www.mosladder.com/2011/05/want-easy-to-adjust-homemade-suspension.html )

But unless there is a powerlifting meet in your future, why not just substitute alternative leg exercises for the back squat? The back squat is not a magical exercise. It focuses on your lower body and calls into play stabilizing muscles all over the body. It is one of the best compound barbell exercises in existence,  but it is not irreplaceable. Here are some good home gym substitutes for the back squat. Just like with the back squat, the real results come from effort, so work hard if you want to build big, strong leg muscles.

Weighted Step-ups: Set up some cinder blocks, a plyometric box or similar object so that when you step up, your thigh is parallel to the object. With a dumbbell in either hand, step up, standing tall at the top, and back down again. Repeat for as many reps as desired, doing one side at a time, or alternating legs each rep.

You can hold the dumbbells at your sides, but with heavier weights, the arms might get tired before the legs. If this is a problem, clean the dumbbells (or kettlebells) to your shoulders and then do the exercise.

Lunges:  Even better, since there is no need for a platform to step up on. Hold the weights by your sides or at the shoulders, or even use a barbell across the back of your shoulders. Step forward until the thigh is parallel to the ground and push back to the standing position.

Deadlifts: While it is hard to hit the quads as well as the squat with this exercise, they still get put to work, along with the lower back, hamstrings, glutes, and to some extend the biceps, lats, traps, well you get the idea; and all you need is some floor and either dumbbells or a barbell.

Now this is one exercise I prefer to use a barbell with, but dumbbells will suffice if they are the available tools. Experiment with putting them in front or at the sides of your legs; the former will hit the lower back and hamstrings harder, the latter will get the quadriceps working more.

Want to emphasize the hamstrings? Do the Romanian, or Stiff-legged Deadlift, where the legs stay straight through the concentric and eccentric part of the lift.

Pretty sure his legs are working here.

-Skateboard or Medicine Ball Squats: Thanks to Scoobysworkshop (scoobysworkshop.com) for the skateboard idea. With this squat, you put your back on a skateboard against a wall, hold dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides, and squat to parallel and back up. If you do not have a skateboard, or would prefer to keep the board off your walls, try using a medicine ball or swiss ball. A great quad workout which still engages the core for stabilization.

-Front Squats: Cleaning a barbell to your shoulders takes some practice, not to mention wrist flexibility to hold it there. When you master this skill, light to moderate weight front squats are an excellent sub for the back squat. They also make it easier to keep your back straight while squatting.

Crossing the arms for the Front Squat

You can also do these by crossing your arms and resting the barbell on your shoulders. This works well if you have some sawhorses for stands. For some reason, it is easier to ‘unrack’ and ‘re-rack’ the weight for the front squat, so be sure to give this one top priority.

Wow, Crossfit does teach fine form…

-Pistols or Airplane Squats:  The Pistol is squatting on one leg with the free leg extended in front of you. The Airplane Squat has the free leg trailing behind you, usually with the arms out to your sides (the wings.)

These usually start as bodyweight exercises only, but when they become easy, simply hold a dumbbell, kettlebell or sandbag in or at your chest while squatting. There is a lot of instruction available for this movement, so I won’t go into it. Just remember not to discount the strain put on your leg muscles when performing either one. Aim for a specific number of sets and reps, and if you cannot do a full set of 6 or more, add in one of the exercises above or some basic bodyweight squats.

Here are some other moves that get honorable mention, but for one reason or another, don’t make this list

Plyometric squats, split jumps, box jumps, etc.: While definitely amazing (and frequently painful) exercises for developing power, these movements have limited potential as muscle and strength builders. A good addition, but not a substitute for squats.

Atlas/Sandbag or other Odd Object Lifting: By definition these movements require nearly every muscle in the body to execute, including the leg muscles. For this reason, they are not ideal back squat substitutes. Instead, try dedicating an entire workout once a week to one of these lifts. They demand that kind of dedication.

There you have it! A few simple exercises that make great substitutes for the back squat and will develop  your leg muscles just as well; IF you are willing to put in the effort!

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