There’s a lot of over cautious advice out there about squats. Most of it is about it bulking you up (aimed at people trying to stay slim), but some of it is about the wear and tear it puts on your body.
We know the first is a load of crap, because bulking is all about what you eat, but what about the second? Are squats dangerous?
As I’ve said before, ALL exercising is dangerous when done incorrectly. A squat at the appropriate weight with good form isn’t going to blow out your back or knees, contrary to what you might here.
Yes, a life of consistent lifting will put some wear on your joints, but so does just about every exercise but swimming. That’s just life.
The benefits of an active lifestyle far outweigh the drawbacks.
Do You Have to Do Squats?
But let’s say your back or knees are already injured. You have chronic pain now and you can’t hit leg day like you used to.
Can you build a solid lower body? Can you still have good legs? Do you have to do squats?
Short answer, You can build a solid lower body with no squats.
So for you unfortunate wretches with back pain, there is a silver lining: You don’t have to squat.
Often, ditching the barbell is enough to alleviate the pain, but for some, any load bearing squat is enough to trigger it. With that in mind, here’s how to train legs without squats.
How to Train Legs Without Squats
There are three questions to keep in mind when choosing the right leg exercise.
First, where is the weight? A lunge with a bar on your back can be just as risky as a back squat. However, if you hold dumbbells by your side, you’re golden.
Second, what are you back muscles doing? Deadlifts hit your quads (just not nearly as much as hamstrings), but your back is obviously doing a ton of work. Bad alternative. Pick something that takes your back out of the equation.
Finally, is it compound or isolated? Leg extension are a popular quad exercise, but they are entirely isolated. Those are fine to throw in at the end, but they are a terrible replacement for squats.
Choose an exercise like weighted step ups to incorporate more muscle groups.
The No Squat Leg Routine
Below I’ve detailed a fairly thorough leg workout for someone that wants to avoid squatting for back pain, or to avoid back injury. There’s a little bit of low risk back training in there, which should already be part of your rehab. Again, if your knees are more of the problem, this is not for you. You’re not really going to be able to replace squats.
If you’re avoiding squats just because you hate them as a movement and only care about growing your chicken legs, this will work too.
- Dumbbell Walking Lunges – 3 sets, 10 on each leg
Note: This is the focal point of the workout. Go hard here if you really want to make up for lack of squats. However, we’re not going to mess with low reps. Even lunges can hurt your back if you go too heavy.
- Prone Leg Curls – 3 sets, 10 reps
Note: There are only a few good hamstring exercises that don’t hit your back. While I normal avoid machines, this is your best option.
- Sled Push – 3 sets of 100 feet
Note: If you don’t have a sled at your gym, skip this one. However, sled pushes are a fantastic conditioning exercise. Adjust the distance based on your fitness level. Since there are no weights to drop, you can go to you can’t push another inch.
- Step Ups – 3 sets, 10 sets on each leg.
Note: Avoid coming down to hard. Stay in control. Heavy impact can jar your back.
- Supermen – 3 sets, 10 holds for 5 seconds each.
Note: If you’ve done physical therapy for your back, chances are they ran supermen into the ground. I had a client that could hold one for minutes at a time because he had been in PT for a back injury the year before.
- Leg Press – 3 sets, 10 reps
Note: If you’re dying to get some heavy weight on your legs, do these first and do 4 sets of 6 reps. However, a lot of people have a tendency to try and use their back to push harder. That’s why I’m not recommending them for heavy work.
Dealing with a back injury is hard. While a lot of the dangers of squats are overblown, your spine isn’t something you should mess around with. But if you don’t have a history of back pain and are just afraid of squats, I’d say suck it up and at least do some goblet squats.
For what ever reason you choose not to squat, you don’t have to keep those chicken legs forever. Squats are one of the best movements for nice legs, but EVERYTHING has an alternative.
Also be sure to check out our deadlift alternatives.