"Put the bar on your back!"
"Lower! Butt all the way to the floor!"
Those were the early days of my weight training journey. Like many skinny kids, I was obsessed with Back Squats. Nowadays fitness information can be found on social media, it is easy to get lost amongst the plethora of posts. I used to see huge CrossFitters back squat tons of weight. It's impressive but little did I know that this was not the only way to train. I remember being so motivated I would go to the school gym to perform Back Squats, and boy, were they atrocious. I had no hip mobility and posterior chain which resulted in bad habits. For all my nerds out there, I'm pretty sure I was performing at best 30 degrees of knee flexion and god knows how bad my hip flexion was (and there was only 95 pounds on the bar.)
Fast forward a few months later to a strength and conditioning session during which I had to perform this strange single-leg exercise. I had to put my back leg on the bench and lower the same rear leg. How bad can it be? In front of a bunch of high school and college athletes, I could not lower my back knee.
Yikes, that's a reality check.
What I was performing was the Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat (RFESS) which turned out to be one of the joint-friendly alternatives to back squatting. Today and I sometimes suffer from minor back pain whenever I perform an axially loaded Squat. Looking back on this experience I realize there are many alternatives to lower body training that don't affect the low back as much. Here are three alternative back-friendly lower-body exercises to try out other than Back Squats.
RFE Split Squat
What is the RFE Split Squat?
Unlike a traditional Squat, the RFESS is a unilateral knee-dominant movement, where an individual performs a Single-Leg Squat while the rear leg is placed on a bench for support. The idea is to load the front leg as much as possible while having as little support as possible from the rear leg. This is great for knee, hip and core stability as well as working on lower limb strength.
What does it work compared to other lower body exercises?
A 2019 study looked into the difference in muscle activation between RFESS and single-leg squat variations (SLS). They measured muscle activity in three quadriceps muscles as well as the glute. In comparison to the SLS, the RFESS had a significantly greater peak and mean muscle activation in the quad muscle.
But what about the back squats you were talking about?
Great question. In 2014 a study looked into muscle activation between a traditional Back Squat (BS) and the RFESS. They had their group do a Back Squat at 85% of 1 RPM or RFESS at 50% 1 RPM of the BS. They took EMG of their glutes, quads, hamstring and calf. What they found was that BS and RFESS at their given loads showed similar EMG activation across the board when they were measured in both the concentric and eccentric phases. What this means is that when one is carrying less load than in the RFESS it is measurable to a heavier BS.
How to perform a RFE Split Squat
- Begin in a split stance position.
- Place your back foot onto a bench. (Think laces down, it will allow for more plantar flexion)
- Keep the weight onto the front leg and descend the back knee to the floor and return to the starting position.
Throughout the intro, I talked about the RFESS but this is a curveball exercise. The second alternative lower-body exercise is called the Belt Squat. This exercise is often done on a machine called a pit shark which can be found in some gyms. However, it can also be set up below with a barbell, landmine or plates. With a bar, grab a belt with a carabiner. Attach the belt to the handle of the bar and place the bar between your legs. The sleeve can be loaded with plates. Once loaded, begin squatting. It's that simple.
But What Does it Work?
A 2014 study compared the belt squat to a Back Squat. What they looked at was muscle activation in the quads, hamstring, calf, glutes and hips. What they found across the board was the same. The only slight difference is that the Belt Squat had more activation in the quads than the back squat.
How to perform a Belt Squat
- Attach the dip belt to your waist.
- Place your feet onto two stable boxes/benches with similar height.
- Attach the landmine or plate to the dip belt and begin to squat.
- In a pit-shark, load the plates and place your hands onto the handles for stability.
The next alternative exercise is called the Hip Thrust which is a bilateral hip dominant movement. This is done by laying the shoulders onto a bench, while the bar is placed on the hips, knees are bent and the feet are laid flat. The goal is to extend the hips and engage the glutes and hamstrings.
Yes, I Know what you're about to ask
A 2015 study looked into the muscle activation between a Barbell Hip Thrust and a Back Squat in the glutes, hamstrings and quads. What they found was that in the Hip Thrust, the glutes and hamstrings had significantly greater muscle activation than the Back Squat. In the quads, the Back Squat showed a slightly higher reading across the board but, it was not significant.
How to perform a Hip Thrust
- Find a stable bench.
- Grab a barbell and load with plates.
- Place a pad on the bar and set it across the crease of your hip.
- Bend the knees and push the floor away.
- When reaching the top of the hip extension, squeeze the glutes and pause for a half-second.
- Lower in a controlled manner.
Risk for Reward
Now that you've read about these three alternatives, let's put things into perspective. It is important to remember that everyone's goals are a little different. Back Squats tend to add more shear force and compression onto the low back which can lead to discomfort or injury. Now is it the worst exercise for you? It depends on who you ask. If you are a powerlifter then it is a must for your program. But if you are a beginner or an athlete who needs strength maintenance through a season, then maybe it is not worth the time and potential risk you are putting yourself through.
Should everyone back squat? No
Am I telling you not to squat? Absolutely not, it is an important motor pattern.
But can you do it? Sure
But if your goals are to get fit and get as strong as possible then there are many other ways to skin the cat. There is no loss in not doing a certain exercise. If there is an exercise that makes you feel good and keeps you injury-free that you can continually load then, it is the right choice for you. So try out different lower limb exercises like the RFESS, the Belt Squat or the Hip Thrust. What do you have to lose?
Knoll, M. (2019) "Comparisons of Single-Leg Squat Variations on Lower Limb Muscle Activation and Center of Pressure Alterations." International Journal of Exercise Science. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6719809/
Lockie, R.G. (2017) "Between-Leg Mechanical Differences as Measured by the Bulgarian Split-Squat: Exploring Asymmetries and Relationships with Sprint Acceleration." Sports. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5968963/
DeForest, B. (2014) "Muscle Activity in Single- vs. Double-Leg Squats." International Journal of Exercise Science. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4831851/
Gulick, D.T. (2015) "Comparison of muscle activation of hip belt squat and barbell back squat techniques." Isokinetics and Exercise Science. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/Justin%20Huynh/Downloads/FinalPublication_comparisonofmuscleactivationofhipbelt.pdf
Contreras, B. (2015) "A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises." Journal of Applied Biomechanics. Retrieved from https://bretcontreras.com/wp-content/uploads/A-Comparison-of-Gluteus-Maximus-Biceps-Femoris-and-Vastus-Lateralis-Electromyographic-Activity-in-the-Back-Squat-and-Barbell-Hip-Thrust-Exercises-.pdf
Photo Credit: Vladimir Sukhachev/iStock
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