Squats and squat alternatives have always been considered to be one of the most beneficial compound movements that you can do. However, with all the benefits that comes with squats, there can also be some drawbacks—namely that it’s a challenging exercise to do for those who may have knee or hip issues.
If you have knee or hip joint issues preventing you from hitting the squat rack, then there are squat alternatives you can try. These 9 exercises will hit your hamstrings, glutes and quads but without the extra strain on your body. Put a few of these together to make an effective lower body workout.
To give you these 9 squat alternatives to add to your leg day workout, we spoke to online personal trainer Mark Jones and ACE fitness specialist Tasha Ingram about why they make great squatting options and the correct technique to perform them.
Wall squats are a great squat alternative for those who cannot do a barbell squat due to joint or ligament pain. This is because unlike other squat alternatives, the stability ball and wall act as leverage for you to squat down and adds support to your knees and hips without putting added pressure on your joints.
Make sure that you choose the right ball size for optimum results, ensuring that the ball comes around midway between your knees and hips from the floor. When you’ve chosen the ball size right for you, position it between the small of your back and the wall with your torso upright, feet hip-width apart. You can relax your hands by your side or clasp them in front of you with your knees slightly bent.
When you’re ready, engage your core and bend at the knees, squatting down in a slow and controlled movement. As you do so, the ball should roll with you as you descend. “When working with individuals who have knee pain, hip pain or any limited range of movement…my coaching cues would be squat a bit at a time such a starting with a quarter squat, progressing to a half squat, etc,” says Jones, “As long as it is within a pain-free range of motion.” From there, “[take] slight pause at the bottom of the movement before pushing ‘through the floor’ to the start position,” adding that as you do so, “push into the ball for more stability.”
Despite being one of our lesser known squat alternatives, the Spanish squat is a must try. It’s a really great modification to the barbell squat that still works your lower body, without worsening your knee or joint issues as it doesn’t overload the knees.
For this exercise, you will need a resistance band and a sturdy vertical pole, rack or table leg. Step into the resistance band with both legs, also wrapping it around the pole. Ensure that the band is sitting behind your knees and keep your torso straight. Descend into a squat until your thighs are at a parallel level to the ground before coming back up.
Reverse lunges are a great alternative to squats, especially if you have knee or hip joint pain. They’re also effective in working your entire body but particularly your lower body. And the best part is, as Ingram states, they place “limited stress on the knees or hip joints.”
Stand straight, with your feet hip-width apart with your hands on hips. “Next, take a large step backwards with the left foot making sure the opposite knee (right) is at a 90-degree angle,” says Ingram. “It’s important that you are bending the back leg carefully to avoid banging the knee on the floor which can result in potential patella damage.” Then, “pressing through the right heel, return to a standing position.”
For the best results, Ingram recommends 3 sets of 12-15 reps on each side. To level up from bodyweight reverse lunges, try using dumbbells or a barbell for added resistance.
The glute bridge is an ideal exercise to work your glutes and lower body without having to squat. While glute bridges are typically performed as an accessory for other compound movements, as Jones says, “they’re generally good for targeting posterior chain muscles whilst also being lower back and knee joint-friendly,” giving them credit as an individual strength movement as well.
To perform glute bridges, begin by lying on your back on the floor facing the ceiling. Bend your knees so the soles of your feet are planted on the ground and are directly beneath the knees. From there brace your core. Jones explains this movement as “drawing your belly button into your spine and ‘packing’ your abs under your ribcage to minimize spinal extension.”
Once you’ve braced, drive through the feet from your heel to mid-foot. “Fully contract the glutes and hamstrings, driving the hips upward until fully extended,” says Jones. “You should feel the tension in the glutes at the top of the movement.”
One of the other great things about glute bridges is that they can be adjusted to your fitness level. Like a few of our other squat alternatives, you can mix it up by adding weights or a band to the movement.
If the other squat alternatives are irritating your knees, Romanian deadlifts are a great alternative for those with knee pain and cannot squat down but still will effectively target your lower body, especially your glutes and hamstrings.
To perform them, use a dumbbell or kettlebell and hold the weight in front of you, with your arms straight down. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart with your knees slightly bent. Slowly, hinge at the hips and lower the weight toward the floor. Ensure your back remains straight. Keep going until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. While this will differ for each person, typically most people will feel a stretch when the barbell is below the knees. Then, driving your hips forward and pushing through the feet, stand back up until you’re in the starting position.
Trap Bar Deadlift
If you don’t want to overload your back but still want to work your quads, then try incorporating the trap bar deadlift into your routine. They’re also easier on your joints as by using a hex bar instead of a barbell, more weight is shifted to the quads as opposed to your lower back. This also results in less weight on your shoulders and hips as well.
To do this exercise, step into the middle of the hex bar and take a hip-width stance. Hold onto the handles on either side, bending at the knees with your hips sitting back. Keep your chest and shoulders up. Brace and drive through your feet, standing up with the bar. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the position before lowering it back down to the floor. As with all of these squat alternatives, make sure to pay attention to form to avoid injury.
If your limited on available exercise space, skip the other squat alternatives and keep it simple with step-ups. “Step-ups are also a great alternative to a squat movement for those suffering from knee/joint pain,” says Jones. “For starters, it reduces the load going through your back especially when doing weighted movements.” It’s also a unilateral movement so by working one leg at a time, “you’re able to focus on the strength, stability and pain-free range in each individual leg.”
He suggests lowering the height of the step, to begin with, especially if you experience any pain. Then, increase the height as you and your confidence, become stronger.
“One thing I find with clients that have knee pain when it comes to step-ups is that they subconsciously (or by habit) move away from the pain. This means that by cautiously stepping up they actually, in fact, putting more pressure on the knee joint,” explains Jones. “I get my clients to focus on driving their foot ‘through the step’ using their mid-foot to heel. This means the glute is more involved as the prime mover and 9 times out of 10 this helps the extension at the knee to be less painful.”
To do this, first, ensure that you have a strong and stable bench/platform. Remember, start at a low height first and then you can work your way up. Step onto the platform with your leading leg, ensuring that the entire foot is completely on the step. Jones warns against looking down, which will result in your torso leaning forward. Instead, keep your eyes looking up. Then, “drive through the step using mid-foot to heel to…bring up the back standing leg and bring your foot in line on the step.” Step back down to the ground with your leading foot first and then the other side. Make sure to repeat with the other side as your leading leg.
Lying Leg Curls
Of all of our squat alternatives, the leg curl variation is great if you want to focus on your hamstrings. Their importance cannot be understated. By targeting your hamstrings, you can balance out your quadriceps. Not to mention, as Ingram states, “Leg curls use much less energy and are easier to do because they are less technical than squats.” She also adds that “if done with limited loading, there is very little risk of injury to the knees.”
Leg curl machines are one of the more common machines that you can find at a gym and as Ingram says, they can be performed either seated or lying down. We’re going to explain the lying leg curl.
Lie down on the machine with your stomach to the ground. Place your feet under the roller pad, keeping it above the ankle and below the calves. You may need to adjust the seat and pad to do so comfortably, as well as the weight that you want to use. Remember to go lighter so that it’s easier on the knees. Hold onto the handlebars as your curl your feet up, pulling the ankles towards your glutes, ensuring that your hips remain on the seat. Then, lower your feet again to the starting position, so that your legs are straight.
If you want to make this a unilateral movement, then do your leg curls, one leg at a time. While one leg is curling, the other remains rested on the bench.
Lateral Monster Walks
If you’ve tried the other squat alternatives and are looking for something a little different, don’t underestimate monster walks. They’re a killer exercise that’ll work your hips and glutes (particularly the gluteus medius). This is really beneficial for those unable to squat due to knee pain as often it’s “weak glutes [that] lead to poor stabilization in the knees,” says Ingram, “which [then] results in knee and other joint pain.” By improving your glute strength, you can improve these areas in your body as well.
While monster walks can be done moving forwards and backwards, we’re going to focus on lateral monster walks. To perform lateral monster walks, you’ll need a mini-band. Place this around the thighs, just above the knees. “By placing the band higher on the leg as opposed to the ankles or feet, the hips are able to feel more of the resistance from the band,” explains Ingram. From there, keep your feet shoulder-width apart with a slight bend in your knees. You can put your hands on your hips.
Ingram says, “Leading with your knee (not your foot) with resistance on the band, take a small step out to the side. Repeat these steps 15 times on each side paying careful attention that you aren’t dragging your feet or dropping your shoulders in the process.”
To maximize results from lateral monster walks, Ingram advises keeping constant tension on the band, with slow and controlled movements. Only then will it be “effective and target the necessary muscle groups.”
While squats are a great compound movement that effectively works the lower body, those who suffer from knee and hip joint pain may not be able to do them. But it doesn’t mean that you have to skip leg day. Instead, try these squat alternatives that’ll focus on different parts of your lower body where you can still build strength and muscle and combat tightness and pain—even without the squat.