- You don’t need a squat rack in order to squat, as there are many squat rack alternatives (i.e., belt squats, hack squats, and goblet squat variations).
- Instead, you’ll focus on dumbbell squats and other exercises.
- Any movement pattern that causes knee and hip flexion can be a squat alternative exercise.
What are you supposed to do if you have no squat rack? Dilemma… During COVID, a friend and I loaded our barbells onto fortified bins and stacks of wooden pallets — about as good as we could do at that point.
However, there are many alternative squat exercises you can use to develop the lower body without needing a squat rack, including the Zercher, hack, and front squats.
Who needs a squat rack?
Before we start delving into alternative exercises to the regular squat, we first need to understand what the squat is. Simply put, the squat movement pattern needs two things:
- “Knee flexion” means the knees need to bend; more often than not, your knees will point slightly outwards.
- Hip flexion is simply the movement around the hips of the lower and upper body.
As you can see, any ‘squat-like movement’ will work as a squat. Thus, front squats, Zercher squats, the leg press, bodyweight squats, the Hack squat, and so many more all count as a squat. But all differ in one or more ways from the regular back squat.
Squatting (or a squat-like movement) is an essential movement, but not because we need it to grow specific muscle groups. Instead, we need to do them because we’ll keep squatting ‘till the day we die. A little bit of Ronnie Coleman lives in all of us…
When do you go to the loo? Squat.
When do you get in the car? Squat.
When do you sit down at work? Squat.
Squat variations will be with you ‘till they squat down beside your grave to say, “Damn, he had fine glutes” — okay, that’s a bit morbid.
So, in summary, you don’t need to do barbell squats. However, you do need to do some form of weighted squats to ensure you grow your lower body and make sure you can have peaceful poops as a golden oldie.
But this leaves us in a predicament. Most of us don’t have squat racks, and most of us aren’t willing to invest hundreds of dollars to buy one.
So, which squat variation would be best?
Which Squat Rack Alternative Is Best for You?
The first thing you need to do is simply ask yourself, “What do I want?”… besides having a giant pair of thighs that make jeans shiver where they hang.
So, let’s list the things you might be ‘wanting’ here:
I’m Training for Strength
Powerlifter, are we? Well, the leg muscles are some pretty strong muscles. There are folks squatting more than 1,000 pounds, so how do you get that without actually squatting?
Firstly, you won’t be able to get that strong (on the squat) with only squat alternative exercises.
Hack & Zercher Squats
Your best bet would be a combination of a Hack squat and a Zercher squat.
A Hack squat is one of the most brutal exercises in the gym, and while it won’t allow you to train your core, it’ll be the closest relative to back squats that you can get.
You’ll simply position your legs similar to how you would when squatting, you’ll load the machine, and then you’ll squat. Extra hint: You can turn around and hip hinge to make a brutal RDL if you want to train the glutes and hamstrings, too.
If you really want to double down on strength training, why not try the Zercher squat? Commonly known as the weirdest damn squat you can do — well, commonly called that by me.
The Zercher will train every muscle group in the body, from your calves to your traps. Just a note: you might need extra padding on your forearms to actually handle the knurling of the bar — it can hurt quite a lot.
Ideally, you’d also include front squats in the strength group. However, unless you use a clean motion to get the bar up from the ground, you won’t be able to do that particular exercise.
Along with the movements above, you might also need some isolation movements, especially along the glutes and adductors. Two vital muscles that’ll be important for most strength measurements you’ll come across.
I’m Training for Lean Muscle Mass
Training for strength is different from training for size. Sure, training for size or muscle mass will require you to get strong, but the reverse isn’t true. Because we’re only focusing on size and not only on leg strength, we can use movements that focus on specific groups of the legs.
Your first best bet is the leg press, a tried and tested method that’s been one of the best squat alternatives for years. Bodybuilders rarely squat, and those that do are usually folks who were strength athletes prior to the switch.
You can move the position of your feet around to target different parts of the leg. Move them up, and your glutes will be fried. Move them close together, and your quads will be taking a pounding.
You can even do a single-leg press to overload the glutes even more — similar to split squats.
Of course, you can just go ahead and do split squats! These bad boys are one of the most grueling exercises you can do with dumbbells (for the legs).
Wanna know how? Try this one:
- Grab a dumbbell, do a split squat (rear leg raised), and hit failure.
- Complete the same number of reps on the other leg.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells that are half the weight of the first dumbbell.
- Do double the number of reps as walking lunges.
- Don’t cry.
I’ve been doing these for a couple of weeks now, and the forward lunge soon turns into a forward-falling motion…
Front & Heel-Elevated Goblet Squats
If you’d like to isolate the quads, then your best bet would be the front squat, but since we probably won’t be able to do those, we’ll go for heel-elevated goblet squats.
Because of the elevation of the heels, your knees can move way more forward. This increased flexion will move the stimulation toward the quads from the hamstrings and glutes.
I’m Training for the Performance
You wanna run a sub-11 second 100-meter dash, do you? Well, you’re going to have to train your legs — big surprise. Unlike training for pure strength or size, you have to think about strength combined with endurance without adding too much weight.
Bulgarian Split Squat
First and foremost, Bulgarian split squats are going to be your bread and butter. These squats train the glutes and quads extremely effectively, both of which are vital for sprinting or even long-distance running.
You might want to play around with raising the front and rear foot when doing Bulgarian split squats, though, as doing this can move the stimulation from the quad to the glutes, respectively.
You can also throw in some squat jumps, a great plyometric movement that’s been proven time and time again to help with performance. You can alter between jumping split squats as well — just don’t fall.
Another great option is the belt squat, an odd choice considering most athletes don’t usually use a lot of weight plates in training. See, belt squats take the load completely off the back.
Unlike back squats or front squats, you’ll actually be able to recover. This means you can spend more time doing what you do best — sprinting. Just know that lifting weights shouldn’t be the base of your training, but you can (and should) still practice progressive overload.
Lastly, you can also do dumbbell step-ups. You simply set a bench up at knee height and then step up upon it while holding a weight (if you can). It’s a great exercise for lower body strength that allows you to track the strength difference between one leg and the other.
By knowing stress differences, you can go straight ahead and work on improving strength on the other leg. This is exactly what you need for improved athletic performance, as an imbalance can lead to injuries and poor performance.
Now that we have the basics covered about which movements to do for each demographic, we can discuss the isolation exercises we might need to include in our training program (if we only had squats and squat variations).
Lateral Glute Movements
One of the important movements since no squat will actually move the leg in a lateral motion. This is still an incredibly important factor. Strength athletes might need to do loaded carries, physique athletes need full glute development, and athletes need to be able to change direction.
You can use cable ‘side’ kicks, or you can do dumbbell step-ups with your legs moved slightly across the body.
Other Glute Movements
The glutes are massive, and chances are, you’ll still need isolation exercises for the glutes.
The adductors are massive muscles on the inside of the thighs that are important (surprise) for the adduction of the legs (bringing them towards the body).
Most squats will train the adductors a lot. However, almost every bodybuilder, strongman, and sprinter will do extra adductor work.
You kinda only have one option — the adductor machine.
The barbell squat is known as one of the most brutal compound movements because it trains your entire core. By removing the normal back squat from your program, you might need to do some extra core movements to allow for the development of the core, lower back, etc.
You can opt for weighted planks, leg raises, and weighted crunches.
If you want to overload just the hamstrings or quads, both leg curls and leg extensions are your best options. Both work by only causing knee flexion, and they’re extremely effective at training the respective muscles.
Overall, your movements should all be focused on getting stronger through progressive overload. Adding a small amount of load or volume as the weeks go by is the number one way to get the muscles to grow in size and in strength.
Strength athletes might use lower reps (1 – 5 reps), while other athletes might use more reps.
Do I Need a Squat Rack to Do Squats?
Absolutely not! Unless you’re a professional powerlifter or someone looking to have one hell of a barbell squat, then there’s no need to purchase a squat rack.
You can do perfectly fine with the following rack-free squat variations:
- Any front squat variation as long as you can get the barbell up (be careful)
- Goblet squats are a great variation to overload the quads
- Bulgarian split squats are a good exercise as long as you can handle the pain and you have the mobility
- Trap bar deadlifts will put you through a similar movement pattern to a normal squat
- And, of course, the good ‘ol Hack squat, a crushing exercise that’ll be the most similar to a normal squat but will require you to have a fairly expensive piece of equipment
By combining these exercises (and a few of the isolation ones mentioned), you’ll be able to develop big and strong leg muscles that are ready for the deadlift platform, stage, or field.