The 16 Best Exercises to Do Instead of Squats

Lower-body exercises, such as step-ups, lunges and glute bridges, are great squat alternatives that work the same muscles.
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Squats are one of the best exercises for building a strong lower body. However, some people can't perform squats due to pain or injuries. Others may feel bored with squats if they've been working on them for years or their progress has stalled.

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Thankfully, you can still train your lower body even if you're not willing or able to add squats into your workouts right now. Below, we share our favorite squat alternatives to use in your workouts.

Squat Modifications

Some people dislike squats because they're difficult to perform or cause pain. If you're rehabbing an injury and your doctor or physical therapist has instructed you not to squat, you should avoid them for now. Instead, skip to the "hip-dominant squat alternatives" section further down. (FYI: Hip-dominant exercises primarily target your glutes, hips and hamstrings and place less stress on your knees.)

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For the rest of us, it's beneficial to figure out how to perform squats without discomfort rather than removing them entirely from our workouts. Squats mimic many important everyday movements, such as getting up and down out of a chair, picking up a child or using the restroom. If we are unable to sit down and stand up without pain, our daily lives are much more challenging.

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One of the best ways to learn proper squat form and potentially reduce pain is to use external assistance like a suspension trainer, box or light weight. These tools offload some of the weight on your joints, provide useful feedback about where your body is in space and teach you to use your core more effectively.

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If you're really struggling with squats — especially technically complex, heavy squat variations like barbell back squats — take a step back and work on these assisted squat drills.

1. TRX-Assisted Squat

The TRX-assisted squat is a wonderful drill for beginners or those with joint problems, overweight or obesity. Using the TRX takes some of the load off your lower-body joints and lets you use your upper-body muscles to assist you.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Set up the handles of a TRX or another suspension trainer at shoulder height. Grab one handle in each hand and take a small step back from the attachment point. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart.
  2. Initiate the movement by sitting back and down. Think about spreading the floor apart with your feet. As you squat down, allow your arms to extend and your hands to travel out in front of your body.
  3. Squat as deep as you can without pain, while keeping your heels on the floor and your chest tall.
  4. To stand up out of the bottom of the squat, spread the floor with your feet and push your legs into the ground. Use the TRX to help pull yourself up as needed.

2. Box Squat

Many beginners have a hard time figuring out how deep they should squat. Even folks who have been squatting for a while can develop the bad habits of squatting too high or too deep.

Squatting onto a box helps clean up technique and provides an external cue for exactly how deep you should squat based on your body type, injury history and pain levels. For example, if squatting below parallel hurts your knees but squatting slightly above parallel feels good, practice squatting to a box that's a little higher than parallel.

Squatting to a box can also turn the squat into a more hip-dominant movement, which is helpful for people who experience knee pain. You can sit your hips back farther than you would be able to otherwise because the box is there to support and catch your body.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand 1 to 2 inches in front of a box or bench. Ideally, your thighs should be parallel with the floor or slightly below when sitting on the box. Some people may need to use a higher box due to pain or movement restrictions.
  2. Initiate the movement by sitting back and down. Think about spreading the floor apart with your feet. As you squat down, be sure to keep your heels on the floor and your chest tall.
  3. Keep squatting down until your hips tap the box.
  4. You can keep your arms crossed on your chest or reach out in front of you as you squat down.
  5. Stand back up by spreading the floor with your feet and pushing your legs into the ground.

3. Press-Out Squat

One of the primary reasons you may struggle with squats is not understanding how to use your core properly. Your core muscles provide a key foundation of support while moving. They also act as a bridge to transfer force between your upper and lower body.

Learning how to properly create tension in your core can facilitate mobility in your ankles and hip — two of the joints most important for squatting. Press-out squats are a great tool to help build this kind of full-body stability, connection and mobility.

You can do press-out squats using a sandbag, small weight plate, medicine ball or sideways dumbbell. It's important to keep the weight light (10 pounds or less), because this is not a drill intended to be done with a heavy load.

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Region Full Body
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  1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Hold a light weight, such as a medicine ball, weight plate or dumbbell, in front of your chest. If you're using a sandbag, try to rip the bag in half by pulling sideways on the handles.
  2. Initiate the movement by sitting back and down. Think about spreading the floor apart with your feet. As you squat down, press the weight out in front of you until your arms are fully extended. Aim low as you press so the weight ends up in front of your stomach and not up by your face. Be sure to keep your heels on the ground.
  3. Stand back up by spreading the floor with your feet and pushing your legs into the ground. Pull the weight back to your chest.

4. Leg Press Machine

The leg press machine is another alternative squat exercise that takes a lot of the stress off your joints while still building lower-body pushing strength. This machine requires you to push and lower a loaded sled in a manner that imitates a squat, and it works your quads, glutes and hamstrings.

It's important to remember that although this machine can help you build strength and muscle in your lower body, it will not build any of the core strength and stability that you get with regular squats. This means it's much less applicable to the activities of daily life. You'll also generally be able to leg press a lot more weight than you can squat.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Before starting, adjust the seat angle or position of the sled as needed based on your height and limb length. Place weight plates on either side of the sled. Then you can sit or lie down in the machine.
  2. Choose your foot position according to what muscles you'd like to target. A lower and narrower foot position will primarily target your quads. A higher and wider foot position recruits more help from your glutes and hamstrings. Whichever position you pick, be sure to keep your entire foot flat on the sled throughout the set.
  3. Initiate the movement by pushing the sled up to fully extend your legs without locking out your knees. Maintaining a slight bend in your knees at full extension will keep the load on your muscles versus your knee joint.
  4. Unlock the safety so the sled can move freely. Bend your knees and lower the sled as far as you can without rounding your lower back.
  5. Finish the rep by pushing the sled back up until your legs are fully extended with a slight bend in your knees — about 10 degrees.
  6. When you've finished your set, secure the safety before lowering the sled and stepping off the machine.

Single-Leg Squat Alternatives

If you're struggling to squat due to knee pain or are very new to lifting weights, the following exercises may not be a great fit for you at the moment. Instead, jump to the "hip-dominant squat alternatives" section below.

However, if your main issue is that squatting causes lower back pain or you're just bored with squats and want to mix up your lower- body training with some fresh new movements, single-leg, knee-dominant exercises may be the perfect solution for you.

Single-leg exercises are easier on your lower back because you can't hold as much weight, and you also typically use spine-friendly loading methods — like holding dumbbells in your hands or in front of your chest (as opposed to loading a heavy barbell on your back). Many people who complain of back pain while squatting are able to train hard and heavy with single-leg exercises without issue.

However, don't be fooled by the lighter loading of these movements. Single-leg exercises can be some of the most challenging — and rewarding — exercises at the gym. They challenge your legs, core, glutes and hips in ways you can't get with most other movements.

Because you have to perform all the reps on both legs, your endurance will certainly be challenged. Single-leg exercises also have tons of real-world carryover to activities, such as walking, running and hiking.

You can do all of these single-leg options with just your body-weight if you're newer to training or need to use less load. Stronger and more experienced athletes can add heavier weights when appropriate.

5. Split Squat

A split squat is a stationary lunge. Split squats are easier to perform than lunges because your feet stay planted on the floor the entire time. This reduces some of the balance demands of the exercise. Everyone should build competency and strength with split squats before moving on to more advanced lunging variations.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Begin in a half-kneeling position. One foot should be out in front of you so your knee forms a 90-degree angle (or slightly less). The other knee should be on a pad beneath you so a straight line forms from your knee, hip, shoulder and ear. Dig your back toes into the ground behind you.
  2. Initiate the movement by driving your front foot into the floor. Stand up as tall as you can while staying up on your back toes. Keep your hips and knees level and don't allow your body to rotate or shift from side to side.
  3. Finish the rep by slowly lowering yourself back down to the pad in a controlled manner.
  4. Be sure to do all the reps on both sides.

6. Reverse Lunge

The reverse lunge is the most joint-friendly lunge variation because you place less demand on your knees and don't need to slow down as much of your body-weight as you step back. Start here if you are new to lunging.

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Region Lower Body
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  1. Start standing tall with both feet together.
  2. Initiate the movement by stepping back behind you with one foot. You should step far enough back that your front knee forms a 90-degree angle (or a little less) as you go down, but not so far that your back knee is way behind your hips.
  3. Drop down in a controlled manner, stopping with your back knee about 1 inch from the floor. Keep your hips and knees level and don't allow your body to rotate or shift from side to side.
  4. Finish the rep by driving your front heel into the ground, standing up tall and bringing both feet back together.
  5. Be sure to do all the reps on both sides.

7. Walking Lunge

Walking lunges are a progression of reverse lunges. Switching to a forward step makes walking lunges more challenging than either stationary split squats or reverse lunges. For this reason, you should get the hang of those exercises first rather than jumping right into heavy walking lunges.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Start standing tall with both feet together.
  2. Initiate the movement by stepping forward with one foot. You should step far enough that your front knee forms a 90- degree angle (or a little less) as you go down, but not so far that your back knee is way behind your hips.
  3. Drop down in a controlled manner, stopping with your back knee about 1 inch from the floor. Keep your hips and knees level and don't allow your body to rotate or shift from side to side.
  4. Finish the rep by driving your front heel into the ground, standing up tall and bringing both feet back together. Alternate sides as you continue to walk forward.
  5. Be sure to do all the reps on both sides.

8. Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat

Many coaches consider rear-foot elevated split squats to be one of the gold-standard exercises for building lower-body strength. This challenging exercise requires an impressive combination of lower-body strength, core strength and balance to perform well.

You can get seriously strong and build lots of muscle using rear-foot elevated split squats as your primary lower-body pushing exercise, even if you never perform bilateral squats again.

You can perform rear-foot elevated split squats using a dedicated foot stand (like in the video below) by placing your back foot on a bench, box, machine pad (like a leg extension or leg curl machine) or with your foot wrapped around a barbell placed in a power rack. You can even place your foot on a couch or chair if you're training at home. Get creative and use whatever equipment you have available.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Begin in a half-kneeling position. One foot should be out in front of you so your knee forms a 90-degree angle (or slightly less). The other knee should be beneath you so a straight line forms from your knee, hip, shoulder and ear. This foot should be hooked on a foot stand or positioned securely on top of a box or bench.
  2. Initiate the movement by driving your front foot into the floor.
  3. Then stand up as tall as you can. Keep your hips and knees level, and don't allow your body to rotate or shift from side to side.
  4. Finish the rep by slowly lowering yourself back down as far as you can in a controlled manner.
  5. Be sure to do all the reps on both sides.

9. Step-Up

One final single-leg squat alternative is the step-up. Because step-ups use your lower body in a different manner than split squats and lunges, some people who cannot perform those exercises without pain may be able to use step-ups as a squat alternative.

For best results, start with a box that places your thigh no higher than parallel with the ground. You shouldn't need to swing your arms or propel yourself off the foot on the ground to step up on the box.

Advanced athletes can experiment with doing step-ups onto a higher box so long as they are able to control their body throughout the entire rep.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand facing a box or bench.
  2. Place one foot flat on the top of the box. Don't allow your heel or any other part of your foot to hang off the box.
  3. Lean forward slightly and push your foot down into the box. Imagine you're trying to crush an aluminum can with your foot. Push yourself all the way up with this leg until you're standing tall.
  4. Once you stand up fully, you can lightly place the other foot on the box as needed for balance.
  5. Finish the movement by lowering yourself down to the ground in a controlled manner. The leg that you stood up with should be the same leg that lowers you back down.
  6. Be sure to do all the reps on both sides.

Hip-Dominant Squat Alternatives

Sometimes, like if you're dealing with pain or injury, you need to take a step back from knee-dominant lower-body pushing exercises like squats, lunges and split squats. In these situations, you can still train your lower body and core using exercises that primarily target your glutes, hips and hamstrings and place less stress on your knees.

Any of the following exercises can be used in place of knee-dominant lower-body movements. For example, if you see a barbell back squat in your workout, you could substitute trap bar deadlifts or hip thrusts. If you see a lunge, swap it out for a single-leg glute bridge.

Continue to also prioritize other hip- and hamstring-dominant exercises like Romanian deadlifts, leg curls and good mornings whenever possible. These will help keep your knees healthy and your legs strong.

You can perform most of these hip-dominant squat alternatives with just your body-weight if you are newer to training or need to use less load. Stronger and more experienced athletes can add heavier weights when appropriate.

10. Glute Bridge

The glute bridge is a great exercise for people who are just getting started with their fitness journey or who are returning to training after an injury. It works well as a squat alternative because you still focus on pushing through your lower body but without as much stress on your joints.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, arms on the ground and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Initiate the movement by driving your heels into the floor. Squeeze your butt tight and raise your hips up into a bridge position.
  3. Don't hyperextend your hips or lower back at the top of the bridge. When viewed from the side, your body should form a straight line through your shoulders, hips and knees.
  4. Hold the bridge for 1 to 3 seconds before returning your hips back to the floor.

11. Feet-Elevated Glute Bridge

You can make glute bridges more challenging by elevating your heels on a box, bench or a sturdy couch or chair if you're training at home. This increases the range of motion of the exercise, which makes your muscles work a little harder.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, arms on the ground and feet elevated on a box or bench.
  2. Initiate the movement by driving your heels into the box. Squeeze your butt tight and raise your hips up into a bridge position.
  3. Don't hyperextend your hips or lower back at the top of the bridge. When viewed from the side, your body should form a straight line through your shoulders, hips and knees.
  4. Hold the bridge for 1 to 3 seconds before returning your hips back to the floor.

12. Hip Thrust

Hip thrusts are a more challenging glute bridge variation that requires greater glute, core and hamstring strength. To do them, you can use a hip thruster machine if your gym has one, which is specifically designed for this exercise. However, you don't need special equipment if you have access to a bench, couch or sturdy chair.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Sit with your back to the hip thruster machine, bench or sturdy couch. Sit as upright as possible so the surface of the bench makes contact with the bottom half of your shoulder blades. It should not be up by your neck.
  2. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor a little bit wider than hip-width apart.
  3. If you're using weight, place your hands on the weight to keep it in place. If you're not using weight, bend your elbows, make a fist and drive the back of your upper arm into the bench.
  4. Initiate the movement by driving your heels into the ground. Squeeze your butt and drive your hips up into a bridge. At the top, there should be a straight line running through your shoulders, hips and knees. Don't arch your lower back. Look straight ahead of you throughout the rep.
  5. Finish the movement by relaxing your hips back to the ground.

13. Single-Leg Glute Bridge

If you can't perform lunges, split squats or step-ups but still want to build single-leg strength, single-leg glute bridge variations are your best option.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, arms on the ground and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Pick one foot off the floor and pull your knee in toward your stomach. Keep this leg in this position while you push with the other side.
  3. Initiate the movement by driving your heel that's on the ground into the floor. Squeeze your butt tight and raise your hips up into a bridge position.
  4. Don't hyperextend your hips or lower back at the top of the bridge. When viewed from the side, your body should form a straight line through your shoulders, hips and knees.
  5. Hold the bridge for 1 to 3 seconds before returning your hips back to the floor.
  6. Be sure to do all the reps on both sides.

14. Single-Leg Foot-Elevated Glute Bridge

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, arms on the ground and feet elevated on a box or bench.
  2. Pick one foot off the floor and pull your knee in toward your stomach. Keep this leg in this position while you push with the other side.
  3. Initiate the movement by driving your heel that's elevated into the box or bench. Squeeze your butt tight and raise your hips up into a bridge position.
  4. Don't hyperextend your hips or lower back at the top of the bridge. When viewed from the side, your body should form a straight line through your shoulders, hips and knees.
  5. Hold the bridge for 1 to 3 seconds before returning your hips back to the floor.
  6. Be sure to do all the reps on both sides.

15. Single-Leg Hip Thrust

The single-leg hip thrust is an advanced movement that helps build impressive levels of glute and core strength. This is a fantastic exercise for people who are looking for a more challenging, knee-friendly squat alternative.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Sit with your back to the hip thruster machine, bench or sturdy couch. Sit as upright as possible so the surface of the bench makes contact with the bottom half of your shoulder blades. It should not be up by your neck.
  2. Bend your knees and place one foot flat on the floor in front of your hip. Pull your other knee in toward your stomach so that foot is off the floor.
  3. If you're using weight, place your hands on the the weight to keep it in place. If you're not using weight, bend your elbows, make a fist and drive the back of your upper arm into the bench.
  4. Initiate the movement by driving your heel that's on the floor into the ground. Squeeze your butt and drive your hips up into a bridge. At the top, there should be a straight line running through your shoulders, hips and knees. Don't arch your lower back. Look straight ahead of you throughout the rep.
  5. Finish the movement by relaxing your hips back to the ground.
  6. Be sure to do all the reps on both sides.

16. Trap Bar Deadlift

A trap bar is a hexagonal bar that can be used for deadlifts, rows, carries and other exercises. Many people have an easier time deadlifting with a trap bar than a traditional straight barbell because the trap bar makes it easier to use good form.

Trap bar deadlifts look somewhat similar to squats, especially if you allow your knees to bend more as you reach for the bar. This makes the trap bar deadlift a great squat alternative for folks who are unable to squat.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand in the middle of a trap bar with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Unlock your knees and reach your hips back until you can grab the handles of the trap bar with straight arms. Wrap your fingers around the handles and grip tightly.
  3. With a tall chest and shoulders down, push your legs into the ground and stand up tall.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering the bar in a controlled manner. Unlock your knees, reach your hips back and keep your chest tall.

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