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Try These 11 Front Squat Alternatives for Powerful Legs and a Stronger Core


The front squat is a staple movement for Olympic weightlifters, CrossFit athletes, and countless other strength-focused lifters. However, some find the unique bar position to be a limiting factor because it requires ample shoulder and wrist mobility.

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Other lifters shy away from the front squat because they can move relatively more weight with other squat variations. Regardless of the reason, while the front squat has plenty of benefits to offer, there are some equally effective alternatives to consider which let you work around any restrictions and find comparable results.

Bruce Lee once talked about “the art of fighting without fighting,” so consider these exercises “how to front squat without front squatting.”

Best Front Squat Alternatives

Front Squat with Straps

One of the biggest limiting factors for many lifters, when it comes to performing the front squat, is holding the bar in the “rack position” — held across the fronts of your shoulders with your arms flexed and your fingertips under the bar.

This position requires flexibility and mobility throughout your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. While those attributes can be improved over time with dedicated work, you can reduce the mobility requirements without compromising results by attaching a pair of lifting straps to the bar. These serve as makeshift handles to offer a slightly adjusted hand and arm position.

When to Use It

The front squat with straps can be used identically to the classic front squat, or any time you need to support the bar in the rack position (across the front of your shoulders). The strapped movement can be programmed with the same sets and reps, and often with the same weights. This exercise is particularly useful for any lifters with pre-existing upper-body joint issues which may restrict their mobility.

How to Do It

Set a barbell in a rack at roughly upper chest-level. Secure a pair of lifting straps to the bar just outside shoulder-width. Grab one strap in each hand with your palms facing each other.

Step to the bar, bending your arms as you unrack the weight with your thumbs near the front of your shoulders. Keep tension on the straps without lifting the bar off your shoulders. Take a small step back and squat, keeping your elbows aimed forward and your torso upright.

Front Squat to Box

While the front squat with straps addresses upper body mobility restrictions, the front squat to box can be used to address lower body mobility restrictions. By using a box to limit your range of motion, you change the muscle recruitment and alter the stress on muscles and joints. (1)

When to Use It

Program the front squat to box if you have hip or ankle mobility issues which prevent you from achieving a deep front squat position. A box can also be used by beginners as a target to ingrain consistent squat depths and technique.

How to Do It

Set up a stable box or series of aerobic steps at a comfortable height, generally above knee-level, a few feet behind a barbell set in a rack. Setup for a standard front squat and carefully step back to position yourself above the box.

Descend under control, lowering your glutes to the box. Don’t rest your full weight on the box — pretend it’s a deck of cards that you don’t want to knock down. Pause very briefly without losing tension. Explode upwards to a powerful lockout.

Safety Bar Squat

If your gym has a safety bar, easily spotted with its thick pads and jutting handles, it can be a key player in building your lower body without straining your joints. (2) The safety bar squat allows a more upright torso and increased upper back engagement, which can reduce lower back stress. The forward-facing handles allow a more natural arm position which reduces stress on your shoulder and elbow joints.

When to Use It

The safety bar squat is an ideal alternative if you cannot maintain the elevated arm position required for front squats. This exercise is also an efficient way to increase upper back training because the thick pads offset the center of gravity and increase trapezius and upper back activation.

How to Do It

Set a safety bar in a rack at roughly shoulder-height. Duck under the bar and position the padded cradle around your trapezius, upper back, and shoulders. Grab the handles and pull your elbows toward your ribs.

Brace your core and pinch your shoulder blades together before unracking the weight. Step back and squat down. Don’t allow the weight to tip your upper body forward. Squeeze the handles and keep you elbows near your ribs as you drive upward to lockout.

Zercher Squat

The unconventional bar position of the Zercher squat, named after American weightlifter Ed Zercher, almost looks like a very poorly attempted front squat. By cradling the barbell in the crook of your arms, you can hold it very close to your body, which  improves your leverage and power output. While the Zercher squat requires little-to-no shoulder or elbow mobility, the strain of the bar on your forearms and elbows can be uncomfortable for some lifters.

When to Use It

Perform the Zercher squat in place of the front squat if you have significant upper body mobility restrictions. The Zercher squat can also be used toward the end of a workout, after first fatiguing your legs with other movements. This will let you get an efficient training stimulus with relatively lighter (and likely more comfortable) weights.

How to Do It

Set the bar in a rack near your belly button or lower chest-level. Step up to the bar and place your elbows on it, curling your arms around the barbell, with your palms up. Brace your core and stand up before taking a step back.

Squat down until either the bar or your elbows gently touch your thighs. Pause briefly before standing upright. Keep your elbows tight to your body and don’t allow the weight to pull you forward.

High-Bar Back Squat

Strangely, sometimes the best front squat alternative is a back squat variation. The high-bar back squat is a useful choice for competitive powerlifters, who must perform the back squat at meets. This exercise allows increased quadriceps recruitment and relatively less lower back strain while maintaining a sport-specific movement.(3)

When to Use It

The high-bar back squat can be used at any point in a training program to emphasize the quadriceps muscles, which can benefit leg size as well as carry over to improved squat and deadlift strength.

How to Do It

Place a bar at upper chest-level in a rack. Position the bar across your trapezius and upper back. Unrack the back and take a roughly shoulder-width stance. Brace your core, pull your shoulder blades together, and squat as low as possible.

Keep your upper body mostly vertical as you descend. Aim to reach a depth with your hips nearly in line with your knees (thighs roughly parallel to the ground) before returning upright.

Trap Bar Squat

A trap bar can be a versatile piece of equipment, but is commonly used to perform the trap bar deadlift. The neutral hand position (palms facing your body) keeps the weight in line with your body’s center, which helps to reduce joint strain in your back and shoulders. Shifting your body position to keep a more upright torso when performing a trap bar squat will further emphasize the front of your thighs (quadriceps).

When to Use It

Use the trap bar for any type of squat or deadlift variation to decrease joint strain without reducing muscular stress. The trap bar squat can be particularly beneficial for sneaking extra upper body recruitment into your leg training, because your grip, arms, shoulders, and back help support the load during the exercise.

How to Do It

If your trap bar has two sets of handles, one “high” and one “low,” begin using the high handles and save the low handles for a more challenging progression. Stand in the center of the bar with your feet roughly shoulder-width. Squat down to grab the handles.

Be sure to bend at your knees and dip your hips down, to put your legs in an optimal pulling position. Puff your chest up and pull your shoulders back. Think about keeping your head over your tailbone as you drive upward to lockout.

Front Rack Lunge

To reap the core stability and upper back strengthening benefits of a front squat, with increased focus on each individual leg, performing a front rack lunge can be an extremely useful movement. You can build upper and lower body strength with less total load, because the movement is primarily performed unilaterally (with one leg at a time).

When to Use It

Unilateral movements like the lunge help to address strength and developmental discrepancies that can occur from exclusively bilateral (two-leg) exercises. Lunges can also build more complete athleticism and power than over-focusing on two-legged squat movements.(4)

How to Do It

Set up a barbell in a rack at shoulder-height. Grab the bar in the rack position and take a two or three steps backward. Stabilize the weight and brace your core.

Take one longer than normal step forward and plant your foot flat. Squat down until your rear knee lightly touches the floor. Keep your shoulders back and your upper body close to vertical. Drive up through your front foot with maximum force and return both feet together in a standing position. Perform all reps with one foot before switching legs. Re-rack the bar after performing the exercise with each leg.

Goblet Squat

While the front squat supports the bar across your shoulders, the goblet squat is as close as you can get to an identical movement using a single dumbbell. By supporting the weight in front of your chest, you train the same type of front-loaded squat movement which builds core strength and overall mobility.

However, the goblet squat doesn’t require a large degree of shoulder mobility because your upper arms remain pointed mostly downward instead of forward.

When to Use It

The goblet squat is a much more convenient and practical exercise for many lifters, requiring only a single dumbbell instead of a barbell and power rack. It can be performed as part of a general warm-up prior to heavy front squats or it can be trained heavily on its own to deliver a shoulder-sparing squat workout.

How to Do It

Place a dumbbell vertically on its end atop a flat bench. Squat down and place your palms on the bottom side of the top weight plate, getting your chest as close to the dumbbell as possible. Brace your core and pull your shoulder blades back.

Stand upright, supporting the weight with bent arms. The dumbbell should be near your collarbones or neck. Squat as deep as possible while keeping your torso vertical. Don’t allow the weight to pull your arms down or forward during the movement.

Dumbbell Front Squat

The dumbbell front squat could be seen as the next-step progression from the goblet squat. Instead of holding a single dumbbell as your chest, you’re supporting a weight in each hand. This more closely mimics a barbell from squat.

In fact, it puts you in nearly an identical hand and arm position as the front squat with straps, because your hands are in a neutral position (palms facing each other). This reduces the mobility requirements needed to perform the exercise,

When to Use It

Choose the dumbbell front squat if you’re training with limited equipment (such in a hotel gym or limited home gym) because you don’t need a barbell and rack. The dumbbell front squat is also an effective choice for lifters training around wrist or shoulder issues, since the joints are less stressed during the movement.

How to Do It

Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, resting at your sides. Bring the dumbbells up to the front of each shoulder in a hammer curl-type motion. Using some body English to control the swing of the weights is acceptable as long as it’s done with leg drive (as a quick jump), not bending at the waist or heaving with your lower back.

Hold the weights in the shoulder-supported position throughout the exercise. In a wider than shoulder-width stance, squat as deeply as possible. Aim your elbows forward and lean back to keep your upper body vertical. Don’t allow the weights to fall forward or sideways off your shoulders. 

Single-Arm Kettlebell Front Squat

A classic kettlebell exercise, the single-arm kettlebell front squat emphasizes core strength just as much as (possibly more than) leg strength. The “imbalanced,” single-sided load forces your abs and lower back to fire constantly to resist the sideways pull. This builds serious core stability which can play a key role in reducing the risk of lower back injuries. (5)

When to Use It

Because your core strength will likely be the limiting factor for most lifters, it may be more beneficial to treat the single-arm kettlebell front squat primarily as a core-building exercise that delivers leg size and strength as an added benefit, rather than primarily as “a leg exercise.” Improved core strength and stability can carry over to stronger lifts.

How to Do It

Bring a kettlebell to shoulder-height, either by performing a kettlebell clean or using your free hand to get the weight into position. Your thumb should be nearly resting on the front of your shoulder with the ball of the kettlebell resting on your forearm.

Stand upright, without leaning sideways into the weight or excessively counterbalancing to the opposite side. Take a relatively wide stance, beyond shoulder-width, and descend into a deep squat. Hold the kettlebell close to your body and don’t allow it to shift your torso. Perform all reps on one side before switching hands.

Front Squat Hold

This front squat alternative doesn’t actually involve any squatting at all. By reinforcing the locked out position, you create significant tension in your core stabilizers, as well as actively stretching the muscles directly involved in holding the rack position. This cumulative effect can lead to a stronger and more stable front squat.

Because static holds put you in the strongest mechanical position, you can also “overload” your system with heavier than normal weights, which can stimulate strength gains.

When to Use It

The front squat hold should be the first exercise performed on a lifting day, after a general warm-up. Not only will it help to recruit more muscle units in the training to follow, but performing the hold with any muscle fatigue can drastically increase the risk and decrease the benefits.

How to Do It

Set up for a standard front squat, with the bar in a rack near shoulder-level. Unrack the bar and take one or two small steps back. Instead of commencing a squat, hold the top position with maximum focus.

Concentrate on fully engaging your core and upper back. Flex your glutes and legs to further reinforce the lockout position. This exercise is typically performed “for time” (often three to five seconds, up to 10 seconds) rather than for multiple repetitions.

Benefits of Front Squat Alternatives

While the front squat is an essential movement for certain strength athletes like Olympic weightlifters and CrossFit athletes, front squat alternatives can be used by many lifters to deliver key benefits when the primary movement is no longer an option.

Reduced Mobility Requirements

Some lifters have crossed the front squat off their list of potential exercises because they cannot get their arms into the rack position needed to support the weight or because their hips or knees don’t allow the type of deep front squat commonly associated with the exercise.

black and white photo of person performing front squat
Credit: xamyak / Shutterstock

Several front squat alternatives allow lifters of any mobility level to benefit from the squat squat movement by reducing the mobility and flexibility requirements. These alternatives can also address and improve restrictions over time, which can progress to a full front squat.

Decreased Lower Back Strain

One key benefit of the front squat is its reduced lower back strain compared to the back squat. Each front squat alternative preserves that back-sparing advantage, making each movement a potential exercise choice for lifters prone to lower back issues.

Quadriceps Size and Strength

Front squat alternatives continue to emphasize the quadriceps, on the front of the thighs, relatively more than the glutes or hamstrings. (6) This is a key reason why many physique-focused lifters prioritize the front squat over the back squat. These alternatives are equally effective in emphasizing the quads, while back squats and deadlift variations are more commonly used to focus on the hamstrings and glutes.

Get Back to Front Squatting

The front squat can be beneficial for strength athletes, physique-conscious lifters, and any gym-goer looking to build lower body strength and muscle, a stable core, and a stronger lower back. If you’re not yet ready to tackle the Olympic-level movement, choose the variation that best suits your individual needs and start racking up the results.

References

  1. Kubo, K., Ikebukuro, T., & Yata, H. (2019). Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes. European journal of applied physiology, 119(9), 1933–1942.
  2. Hecker, Kara & Carlson, Lara & Lawrence, Michael. (2018). Effects of the Safety Squat Bar on Trunk and Lower-Body Mechanics During a Back Squat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 33 Suppl 1. 1. 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002912. 
  3. Glassbrook, D. J., Brown, S. R., Helms, E. R., Duncan, S., & Storey, A. G. (2019). The High-Bar and Low-Bar Back-Squats: A Biomechanical Analysis. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 33 Suppl 1, S1–S18.
  4. Speirs, Derrick E.1,2; Bennett, Mark A.3; Finn, Charlotte V.4; Turner, Anthony P.2. Unilateral vs. Bilateral Squat Training for Strength, Sprints, and Agility in Academy Rugby Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 30(2):p 386-392, February 2016. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001096
  5. Huxel Bliven, K. C., & Anderson, B. E. (2013). Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports health, 5(6), 514–522.
  6. Coratella, G., Tornatore, G., Caccavale, F., Longo, S., Esposito, F., & Cè, E. (2021). The Activation of Gluteal, Thigh, and Lower Back Muscles in Different Squat Variations Performed by Competitive Bodybuilders: Implications for Resistance Training. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(2), 772.

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