Alternatives To Doing Squats

This is an e-mail question I got the other day from one of my online followers. It’s a very common question that I get on a regular basis so I decided to post this one for the benefit of all my readers…


Question:

Lee,

I have a question about squats. Are dumbbell squats as affective as straight bar squats for increasing strength/size in the legs?

I have done the straight bar but prefer the dumbbell squats because they seem easier on my back. But it seems like it is more difficult. I start off with 55lb dumbbells to warm up and then I use 75lb dumbbells in each hand.

Thank You,
Roger

=============================================

Answer:

Hi Roger,

Of all the exercises out there I think I get more e-mails asking for variations to squatting than anything else. People will complain that squats hurt their knees, hurt their back, hurt their shoulders, or that they are just plain scared of doing squats.

And you know what, I think every single bodybuilder, weightlifter, or powerlifter out there has felt all these things to some degree or another.

After all no body in their right mind can get under a loaded barbell like that and say it “feels good”.

I personally hate doing squats, but I love the results they provide. So for one workout a week I just bite the bullet and squat!

Now any squat variation is a good exercise because it’s a big basic compound movement works multiple muscle groups.

arrnold_schwarzenegger_squats
Arnold Schwarzenegger doing Barbell Squats

Squats move your entire body through space while doing the exercise. This really stimulates the central nervous system and triggers a high level of neuromuscular activation compared to exercises where you just move your limbs.

But in all honesty I don’t think any exercise can truly replace the good old fashion barbell squat. It’s a brutally tough exercise and the fact that it’s so tough is what makes it so effective. Now you can mix up the squat variations you do (i.e. a few weeks of dumbbell squats, a few weeks of front squats, a few weeks of back squats, etc.)

You can even change things up from time to time and do leg presses or hack squats as a easier variation. But you should always come back to regular barbell squats as a foundational exercise in your workouts. You’ll find that as you make gains in the squat, the rest of your body will grow in proportion.

Now back to your original question about dumbbell squats; they are ok, but once you work up to any amount of weight at all they can be quite awkward to perform. And squatting deep with dumbbells is hard because the weights usually hit the floor before you truly do a “full squat”.

Dumbbell Squats
Dumbbell Squats

Hip Belt Squats
Hip Belt Squats

An alternative that you may wish to try are Hip Belt Squats. This will allow you to squat big, and squat deep, without placing stress on your back, shoulders, etc. It’s a better alternative to dumbbell squats in my opinion.

IronMind sells the hip belt squat attachments. But if you’d like more info about how to actually get the most benefit from this exercise. My friend and old school bodybuilder Dennis Weis (aka: The Yukon Hercules) has written an informative e-Book called:

Hip Belt Squats ‘The Great Anabolic Equalizer’

Hip Belt Squats e-Book This training guide will show you how to incorporate Hip Belt Squats into your leg workout routines for developing the ultimate in explosive quads.

You will learn in explicitly calculated detail one of the best exercises for blasting your quads and hamstrings into the piston action force of a kangaroo kick.

Build large impressive KILLER QUADS loaded with power and slabs of undiluted muscular refinement. The information in this e-Book training guide is encapsulated for easy, quick reading and effective application.

You can order your own copy now and get instant download access for just $9.95.


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Leave A Reply (48 comments so far)


  1. Bali
    4 years ago

    Yea Lee I used to do dumbbell squats myself…back when I trained at home with just a pair of interchangeable weight dumbbells…. Got kinda awkward to perform once I reached a certain weight… I’ll be holding two big ass dumbbells by my side and their size can hinder the squatting movement when they knock against your legs… plus my grip always gave out before my legs even with straps… So I was more than ready to switch to heavy barbell squats when I joined a gym.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  2. John
    4 years ago

    Lee,
    I turned 50 last week, I have been lifting about 15 years now. At this point can I expect to add any more muscle or should I just be trying to maintain. My best bench was 420, these days though I don’t go much over 300. I look forward to your opinion.

    Thanks
    John

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  3. Spyder
    4 years ago

    Lee,
    What do you think about using a trap bar as a alternative to squats. I have just ordered one & understand this will take some of the strain off the lower back but is as effective as squats.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  4. Greg
    4 years ago

    Lee, thanks for the squat talk, I am a firm believer in them.
    Also for John, I turned 55 this month and have made great progress this last year. Last summer I did a personal best of 20 chin ups. I firmly belive
    that with proper nutrition, and training, you can stiil make lean gains
    as we get older. My other goal this year is to close the 250 heavy gripper.
    I will do it. Happy training

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  5. Mark
    4 years ago

    I ca n not do squats or hack squats or leg press. Usually not the day of
    but 2 days later, I develop severe pain in back that lasts 1 week. I know
    leg exercises are great for that testoterone increase; but what can I do
    to increase testerone level without leg excerises Mark

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  6. Caelan
    4 years ago

    Hi Lee,
    When i do barbell squats, it hurts my traps so i put a cushion pad on the bar so it doesn’t hurt as much. i have heard that putting a pad on the bar is bad for when yor are squating or it just isn’t as good as doing it without a pad. Why is this?
    Hope to hear from you soon.

    Caelan

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  7. Bryan
    4 years ago

    Are smith machine squats just as effective as regular squats, would I make better gains if I switched? I like using the smith machine because it prevents me from hunching over, I’m able to keep my back perpendicular to the floor I think you feel it more in the front quads. I also like to take a narrow stance, for some reason I feel more in the hips with the wider stance and they ache for days after. So what I’m asking is…..does stance and back angle make a difference and which is best?

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  8. John
    4 years ago

    At one tlme I loved doing squats,but I have sciatic problem and that pain is irritating.I loved doing 225 and 315 for reps,had good form and depth.That was less than 2 years,ago.I just turned 60,but that is a number.I still do leg presses,hack squats,smith,and leg ext. and leg curls.I hope some day I can do the squats,again.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  9. alex
    4 years ago

    I ca n not do squats or hack squats or leg press. Usually not the day ofbut 2 days later, I develop severe pain in back that lasts 1 week. I knowleg exercises are great for that testoterone increase; but what can I doto increase testerone level without leg excerises Mark  (Quote)

    Hi lee I get the exact same problem as Mark each time i squat and I am also wondering how to avoid it as it prevents me from going running for the next few days as my back seems to tighten up no matter what I do to help it with stretching or fascial release. Alex

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  10. Charles
    4 years ago

    But I love doing squats !! And I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Sadly my knees are injured and recovering so I can’t push as much as I’d like.
    I found that walking lunges don’t put as much stress on my knees and do a great job of working out the tights.
    But I do love squats.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  11. Pesi
    4 years ago

    Training alone and strapped for weights, I used a 112 pound sack of pebbles for repetition one-legged squats off an 18 inch box. I also used to run up an up-going escalator though you could hardly call it running because the legs moved very slowly under the load (they move fast when trying to run upwards on a down-going escalator but the resistance there is negligible) Yet another exercise that kept the legs in shape, was to wait for a bus to start moving, and begin to run after it only when it changed to 2nd gear (most times I did manage to catch it). But all that was over fifty years ago. Now, I still train but am more restricted in my lunacy.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  12. leehayward
    4 years ago

    Lee,
    I turned 50 last week, I have been lifting about 15 years now. At this point can I expect to add any more muscle or should I just be trying to maintain. My best bench was 420, these days though I don’t go much over 300. I look forward to your opinion.Thanks
    John  

    Improvement is always possible. Obviously you won’t make rapid size gains like a guy in his 20’s, but you can still work on improving the quality of your physique, balancing out your proportion and symmetry.

    I seen a prime example of this at our local bodybuilding competition this past weekend here in Newfoundland. One of the guys who trains at the same gym I do (Randy Head), got into his personal best shape ever and he’s in his mid forties. He was ripped to the bone shredded from head to toe.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  13. leehayward
    4 years ago

    Lee,
    What do you think about using a trap bar as a alternative to squats. I have just ordered one & understand this will take some of the strain off the lower back but is as effective as squats.  

    The trap bar is an alternative to deadlifts, not squats. But both exercises work similar muscle groups (i.e. back, hips, and legs).

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  14. leehayward
    4 years ago

    Lee, thanks for the squat talk, I am a firm believer in them.
    Also for John, I turned 55 this month and have made great progress this last year. Last summer I did a personal best of 20 chin ups. I firmly belive
    that with proper nutrition, and training, you can stiil make lean gains
    as we get older. My other goal this year is to close the 250 heavy gripper.
    I will do it. Happy training  

    That’s impressive, not many guys (regardless of age) can do 20 chin ups. Keep it up!

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  15. leehayward
    4 years ago

    I ca n not do squats or hack squatsor leg press. Usually not the day of
    but 2 days later, I develop severe pain inback that lasts 1 week. I know
    leg exercises are great for that testoterone increase; but what can I do
    to increase testerone level without leg excerisesMark  

    You may want to get things checked out by your doctor to make sure there’s no root problem here that needs to be addressed first.

    But other then that I’d say start off REALLY light and just progress gradually. Even if you have to start squatting the empty bar and go up by just 5 pounds per week. This will eventually build up to decent poundages and will do so in such a gradual fashion that it will strengthen your back at the same time without pain.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  16. leehayward
    4 years ago

    Hi Lee,
    When i do barbell squats, it hurts my traps so i put a cushion pad on the bar so it doesn’t hurt as much. i have heard that putting a pad on the bar is bad for when yor are squating or it just isn’t as good as doing it without a pad. Why is this?
    Hope to hear from you soon.Caelan  

    It’s personal preference, but with experience you’ll be able to squat with no pad on the bar. I actually have a video about this on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4TsD3r3AHQ

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  17. leehayward
    4 years ago

    Are smith machine squats just as effective as regular squats, would I make better gains if I switched? I like using the smith machine because it prevents me from hunching over, I’m able to keep my back perpendicular to the floor I think you feel it more in the front quads. I also like to take a narrow stance, for some reason I feel more in the hips with the wider stance and they ache for days after. So what I’m asking is…..does stance and back angle make a difference and which is best?  

    Smith machine squats are better than no squats, but free weight squats are better than smith machine squats. You’ll work your back and core to a much greater degree by having to keep your body upright and support the weights. This will stimulate more muscle growth all over.

    As for the stance, you can vary it depending on what areas of your legs you want to work on. But for me I generally take a medium width stance and do full squats most of the time.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  18. leehayward
    4 years ago

    At one tlme I loved doing squats,but I have sciatic problem and that pain is irritating.I loved doing 225 and 315 for reps,had good form and depth.That was less than 2 years,ago.I just turned 60,but that is a number.I still do leg presses,hack squats,smith,and leg ext. and leg curls.I hope some day I can do the squats,again.  

    I’d say the key to getting back into squatting again is to just lighten up the weights and build them back up again over time. Everyone has to do this in their training as they get more advanced. For the time being even incorporating high rep bodyweight squats into your workouts maybe able to help. You can do them as a warm up exercise as well as a finishing exercise after all your other leg exercises.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  19. Lee-

    Interesting post. I had never heard of hip belt squats before.

    Personally, I don’t have access to a squat rack, but I DO have a rusty old olympic set that a friend gave me.

    I have to tell you, this past month I have started doing deadlifts a couple times per week, and I feel SO much stronger. Not that I’m moving tons of weight yet or anything, but sometimes I feel like I could just walk up to a car and flip it over!

    My parents are in their 60s and (thankfully) work out several times per week and are actually in pretty good shape. Their trainer is a nice lady and incredible shape, but she has them doing more the trendy, ‘funcional’ style training with cables, bosu balls, etc.

    I really think that my parents would benefit from doing some good old fashioned heavy (scaled to their abilities, of course) lifting (deadlifts and squats especially), to get the hormones pumping again.

    Do you know of any studies or info on having senior citizens do this kind of training?

    Excellent blog, Lee, thanks for the post.

    -Ian

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  20. leehayward
    4 years ago

    Lee-Interesting post. I had never heard of hip belt squats before.Personally, I don’t have access to a squat rack, but I DO have a rusty old olympic set that a friend gave me.I have to tell you, this past month I have started doing deadlifts a couple times per week, and I feel SO much stronger. Not that I’m moving tons of weight yet or anything, but sometimes I feel like I could just walk up to a car and flip it over!My parents are in their 60s and (thankfully) work out several times per week and are actually in pretty good shape. Their trainer is a nice lady and incredible shape, but she has them doing more the trendy, ‘funcional’ style training with cables, bosu balls, etc.I really think that my parents would benefit from doing some good old fashioned heavy (scaled to their abilities, of course) lifting (deadlifts and squats especially), to get the hormones pumping again.
    Do you know of any studies or info on having senior citizens do this kind of training?
    Excellent blog, Lee, thanks for the post.-Ian  

    I agree with you here…

    No offence to the personal trainers out there, but lifting a barbell will work more muscle then some weird 1 legged, quarter turn twist, while holding on to a cable handle and wobbling around on a bosu ball ;-)

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  21. Bali
    4 years ago

    I’d say the key to getting back into squatting again is to just lighten up the weights and build them back up again over time. Everyone has to do this in their training as they get more advanced. For the time being even incorporating high rep bodyweight squats into your workouts maybe able to help. You can do them as a warm up exercise as well as a finishing exercise after all your other leg exercises.  

    So Lee how do I incorporate this in my workouts? If I can bench 225 should I drop it to 150? Whats the purpose of this? Will the decreased stimulation cause muscle loss?

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  22. Ray Pak
    4 years ago

    Well, I worked out over the summer and I was always trying to avoid straight bar squats because I was afraid that it might stunt my growth? Do squats put so much strain on my knees that I might not grow? I’m around 5′ 7″ I think, but I do want to grow to 6′. I’m 16yo and I really want to get taller. Would doing and squats and deadlifts affect my growing or not? Thanks.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  23. leehayward
    4 years ago

    So Lee how do I incorporate this in my workouts? If I can bench 225 should I drop it to 150? Whats the purpose of this? Will the decreased stimulation cause muscle loss?  

    How much you can bench has nothing to do with how much you can squat. The advice I gave in that post was for a guy who is for a guy who is working around an injury and trying to get back into squatting again.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  24. leehayward
    4 years ago

    Well, I worked out over the summer and I was always trying to avoid straight bar squats because I was afraid that it might stunt my growth? Do squats put so much strain on my knees that I might not grow? I’m around 5′ 7″ I think, but I do want to grow to 6′. I’m 16yo and I really want to get taller. Would doing and squats and deadlifts affect my growing or not? Thanks.  

    Weight training will NOT stunt your growth, chances are you are going to grow to be about as tall as your dad regardless if you lift weights or not. It’s all genetics.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  25. Bill
    4 years ago

    I used to do Squat on monday and Deadlift on Friday, but I found my lower back can’t recover, so I just drop Deadlift totally. I don’t see any set back in my gain since I dropped deadlift, in fact I can now squat much better than before. So this is no doubt the king of all exercise.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  26. William
    4 years ago

    Hi Lee,

    Everytime after I squat, the soreness only comes from my buttocks and inner thigh, I want to grow the side of my leg so it sweeps out, do you think it is better if I do narrow stance partial squat instead of regular deep squat? Thanks.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  27. Eddy Beale
    4 years ago

    Hip Belt squats can be a great alternative, i remember Magnus Samuelson used to do these in his offseason or whenever he had a plethora of injuries from Strongman Training.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  28. Tony
    3 years ago

    I used to do barbell squats, but I was having problems with my back after the weight started creeping up, so I started doing one-legged squats – best thing I ever did! The weights are a lot less, so there is almost no stress on the shoulders or spine and you develop a great sense of balance as well.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  29. nick
    3 years ago

    Lee, I am 63, doing strength training for 30+ years (on and off). I am coming off a year out of the gym and would like to get back into heavy lifting (squats, bench, leg press, etc). Can i do heavy weights at my age (I am healthy, no major back problems) and make gains?

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  30. Jody
    3 years ago

    Agree that squats once a week for 4-8 weeks does wonders, but I’d challenge guys to do a mix of plyos with a high number of unweighted squats, ski jumps, box jumps & lunges…legs will grow like never before!

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  31. Simon Webb
    3 years ago

    Lee,
    As always very sound advice
    As for me I hate squats, Im not afraid to do them,they do hurt my shoulders/trap area but I grin and bear it. What I cant stand is the fact that two days later I can barely walk.
    However, for anyone reading this please be assured that this is only for the first couple of weeks when going back to squats after a break. I know the benefits of squats and will proceed to do them if I am to ever get any gains. My real concern is that I feel after years of training ( with breaks in-between ) Ive made no real gains, I feel better in myself when training though and thats key in my opinion, worst part for me sometimes I think is finding a training partner that can keep up, i’m a weedy 85 kg bloke but when I train im dedicated and push my limits as far as theyll go and some people get intimidated and cant keep up so stop training with me, I always base my training on Lee’s advice and some of the workouts are perfect, some are hard and awkward but No pain No gain always springs to mind when doing them. I will continue to train regardless of all my setbacks and I am confident that hopefully in time I will be happy with my gains when they eventually kick in and I will ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS follow the advice of Mr Lee Hayward, because lets face facts, Lee’s personal appearance is proof that his methods work. Many thanks Lee, keep the vids and advice coming, I shall en-devour to follow your advice and hopefully attain the build I want someday through it.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  32. Rob Sensky
    3 years ago

    Lee, Before I read your answer, I said the same thing. There is no alternative to the squat. And also as you said, I don’t do them because I enjoy the exercise, but because I like the results, not to mention the effect they have on the old metabolism!

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  33. Peter weiss
    3 years ago

    you always show something different to workout

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  34. leehayward
    3 years ago

    Tony:
    I used to do barbell squats, but I was having problems with my back after the weight started creeping up, so I started doing one-legged squats – best thing I ever did! The weights are a lot less, so there is almost no stress on the shoulders or spine and you develop a great sense of balance as well.

    ========================

    Interesting…
    There are several variations of 1 leg squats, how do you do them? Do you have a picture of that exercise you could share?

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  35. leehayward
    3 years ago

    nick:
    Lee, I am 63, doing strength training for 30+ years (on and off). I am coming off a year out of the gym and would like to get back into heavy lifting (squats, bench, leg press, etc). Can i do heavy weights at my age (I am healthy, no major back problems) and make gains?

    ==================

    Yes you can still train hard and push yourself. My Dad is 61 and he still trains hard and heavy. Just listen to your body and work within your pain threshold.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  36. leehayward
    3 years ago

    Simon Webb,

    Thanks for your comment.

    And just to let you know we all go through ups and downs with our training. I’m no different, no one makes non stop progress forwards forever. Last year I had some injuries that I had to work around, including tearing both biceps, which ironically had nothing to do with my normal gym workouts. But they set me back big time.

    The main thing is to just keep on pushing forward and making the best of your situation.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  37. Simon Webb
    3 years ago

    leehayward,

    I shall certainly try Lee, many thanks four response

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  38. Michael
    3 years ago

    Lee

    Many alternatives are available …. Trap bar squats , goblet squats , lumber jack squats are just a few of my favorites …they take the strain off the back and since i workout in my yard with no rack these lifts can be accomplished … keep up the good work

    Michael

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  39. Earl
    3 years ago

    How about Hack Squats? No pressure on shoulders there!

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  40. David
    3 years ago

    Hello Lee and all you youngsters – or so it seems,
    This comment should answer some of the questions that have been posed.
    About 3\4 years ago I injured myself in the gym whilst squatting. When returning from the squat to the upright position I had cause to slightly modify my upward motion and thought nothing of this at the time. I was wearing a belt and I had a spotter who was the owner and experienced bodybuilder of many years and I didn’t feel any adverse effects. I even went on to squat the following week without feeling any damaging effects. Then, without any further incident, my health deteriorated rapidly where I suffered significantly to the extent that I had trouble walking. This led to me not being able to train for about a year even though I tried to on three seperate occassions. The doctor didn’t do anything really positive and I only had limited support and success from the physiotherapists. Subsequently I visited a local chiropractor and within 3 sessions my health improved to the extent that I was walking better and could return to training. I still have problems but now I have returned to training my legs which include hack squats, leg extensions, leg curls and calves. More recently I have started to do deep front squats, where I am doing 3 sets x 15 reps in strict form with very light weights. At the age of 68, I don’t think I’m doing to bad and I hope to be improving my front squats because in my opinion the squats have proved to me to be the greatest all round performer. So for all you readers BE AWARE there can be a sting in the tail, so be careful. Hope this has proved useful.

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  41. eric
    3 years ago

    can you tell me if doing 4 set of 2 or 3 are better than doing 4 set of 5 or more.my son thins lower is better but i think doing 2 or 3 is not doing a of musle building.
    as well every time i do a heavy bar bell squat,my back goes out for about a month.are hack squats and leg presses goig to give me the same results????

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  42. eric
    3 years ago

    eric,

    i think david answered my last question.i am54 and think i doing ok at trying to keep up with my 35 yr old son

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  43. Sam
    3 years ago

    Hey Lee,
    Useful information: good to know that squatting is a number one exercise.
    Does full back barbell squatting change the shape of your ribcage after 5 or 6 years of training?
    Hope to hear from you soon,
    Sam

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  44. ed
    3 years ago

    i stopped doing squats 2 years ago because itcaused a major pain in my back allways the same musle. i felt brave the other day so i tried it again but the same musle hurt again for about a week. so now i only do hack squats, leg press, and leg extentions.by no means the same but it works for me

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  45. David
    2 years ago

    Hey Lee

    Just also wanted to find out as an alternative, lets say running up and down a flight of steps like say 3 to 4 flours up and down twenty times, what am i working on and how effective is it?

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  46. GW
    2 years ago

    Hi Lee,
    I used the “hip belt Nautilus” machine several years ago. I kept getting light headed, so I asked a trainer to watch me. He said the belt was squeezing my femoral arteries, causing large pooling
    in my legs. So I stopped using the machine and started bar squats without problem.
    Like here in Portland, there are several different bridges to cross the river. In strength training
    there are always different ways for progress.
    Keep up the great information Lee!
    Thanks
    GW

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  47. Chuck S
    2 years ago

    It seems like you could make a small platform out of 2 x 4s and stand on it. The dumbbells could then go lower – below the sides of the platform. I guess do some dumbbells squats and see where the inside part of the dumbbells is at the bottom. Or just make it as wide as the outsides of your feet

      (Quote)  (Reply)


  48. Carlos Nells
    2 years ago

    I’m slightly grateful for my lowback injury from an industrial accident. I don’t have to do squats … just leg press my way through life. I don’t dread those days anymore. There’s a primordial ugliness in squats. The Fear, as Hunter Thompson wrote, that you gotta face. You can lie about it but squats are ugly and they won’t go away.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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