Tired of Squats? Try These 7 Lower-Body Exercises Instead

The squat and all its variations (front, back, goblet, sumo, etc.) is one of the all-time best moves for your lower body. This compound exercise hits just about every muscle from your hips to your toes — mainly the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves — which also means healthier hips, knees and ankles.

You don't need to do squats to get a good lower-body workout. (Image: LeonidKos/iStock/GettyImages)

The squat is also a basic, primal movement you do in everyday life, says Joshua Thomas, NASM-certified personal trainer and Alpha Coach with Life Time in Las Vegas. (Think: Sitting down and standing up from a chair.)

So if you hate squats (or they make your back or knees scream), there are alternative exercises that work the same muscle groups. The following expert-recommended exercises will give your lower-body an effective workout — no squatting required.

1. Step-Up

The step-up is a functional exercise (think: climbing stairs) that builds single-leg strength in the quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves.

  1. Stand in front of a box or bench.
  2. Plant one foot firmly on a box or bench so your knee is directly in line with your ankle.
  3. Lean your torso forward slightly and push through your lead foot to stand on the box or bench until your leg is fully extended.
  4. Lower your opposite foot to the floor with control and repeat.
  5. Do all your reps with one leg before switching to the other.

Tip

To make the exercise easier, lower the height of the box or bench. To make it harder, hold a dumbbell in each hand down by your sides or in racked position at your shoulders.

2. Static Lunge

Performing lunges in place (aka static lunge) tends to be friendlier to the knees than squats or forward lunges, Thomas says.

  1. From standing, take a big step back with one foot. Shift forward so your weight is on your front leg and your back heel is lifted.
  2. Bend your front knee to create a 90-degree angle, lowering your back knee toward the floor.
  3. Once you can't comfortably lower yourself any further, push through your front foot to return to standing.
  4. Without moving your feet, bend your front knee to start the next rep.
  5. Perform all reps on one side before switching.

Tip

For an added challenge, hold a dumbbell in each hand down by your sides or in racked position at your shoulders.

3. Glute Bridge

Although squats work the glutes and hamstrings, the glute bridge exercise places extra emphasis on these posterior muscle groups, says Thomas.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart on the floor. Bring your heels in behind your glutes. Let your arms hang down by your sides.
  2. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes to lift your hips off the floor until your body creates a straight line from knees to shoulders. Don't arch your lower back.
  3. Hold the top position briefly before lowering your hips back down to the floor, and repeat.

4. Lateral Step-Up

Many exercises have you moving in a single plane of motion (mainly, front-to-back), says Thomas. By stepping side-to-side, you'll work your quads, as well as muscles on either side of your quads and hips — namely, the gluteus medius (also known as "side-butt") and hip adductors — that don't typically get much attention.

  1. Stand so your body is perpendicular box or bench.
  2. Step your inside foot to the side and plant it firmly on the box or bench. Your knee should be directly in line with your ankle.
  3. Push through your planted foot to stand on the box or bench until your leg is fully extended.
  4. Lower your opposite foot to the floor with control and repeat.
  5. Do all your reps on one leg before switching to the other.

Tip

As with some of the other exercises above, you can hold a dumbbell in each hand down by your sides or in racked position at your shoulders to advance this exercise. Or to make it easier, lower the height of the box or bench.

5. Lateral Lunge

Like lateral step-ups, lateral lunges will work your lower-body differently than your typical squat. "Anything that works the outsides of your quads would be great in order to work that muscle group in a different plane of motion," says Callie Exas, certified personal trainer and founder of Callie Exas Nutrition and Wellness in New York City.

  1. Stand tall with feet hip-width apart.
  2. Keeping your feet parallel, take a big step to the right with your right foot.
  3. With your left leg straight, sit back into your hips and bend your right knee until your right thigh is parallel to the floor.
  4. Push through your right foot to return to starting position.
  5. Repeat on the left side and alternate sides for reps. Keep your chest up and back flat at all times.

Tip

To add resistance to this move, hold a dumbbell in each hand down by your sides or in racked position at your shoulders. Keep them at your shoulders or bring them to either side of your right foot as you lunge to the side.

6. Trap Bar Deadlift

The trap bar deadlift (also known as a hex bar deadlift, thanks to the hexagonal shape of the bar) is another great squat alternative that's friendlier to the knees, Thomas says. Also, because the move keeps the weight closer to your center of gravity and allows you to stay more upright, it's easier on the back than squats — or even conventional deadlifts.

  1. Stand in the center of a trap bar with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keeping your chest high and shoulders down, squat down to grasp the handles on the sides of the bar.
  3. Push through your feet to stand up with the weight.
  4. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement, but don't allow your lower back to collapse.
  5. Return the weight to the floor and repeat.

7. Seated Leg Press

This machine-based move is focused on activating many of the same muscles you use in a squat — without putting as much pressure on the knees, Exas says.

  1. Sit on the leg press machine with your back and tailbone pressed flat against the backrest.
  2. Place your feet on the resistance plate so your heels are flat. If necessary, adjust the seat so your knees are bent 90 degrees. Hold onto the handles to help stabilize your upper-body.
  3. Brace your core and — keeping the heels flat — push the resistance plate away from your body until your legs are fully extended. Don't lock-out your knees, round your lower back or lift your glutes off the seat.
  4. Pause briefly before bending at the knees and allowing the resistance plate to return to the starting position.
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