In a perfect world, everyone could and would barbell squat as deep as an Olympic lifter to build impressive lower-body strength.
The day-to-day reality of working with numerous athletes looks far different, however.
Kids as young as 15 walk around with diagnosed disc herniations, stress fractures and the back pain that resulted from years of being exposed to inappropriate training methods for their age and developmental stage.
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Even athletes with no medically recorded back issues sometimes complain about low-back pain on Front or Back Squats.
The last thing you want to do with someone like that is throw a heavy barbell on their back and yell at them to “squat lower!”
So what’s the solution?
Use exercises that don’t cause back pain AND that allow you to load the lower body with plenty of resistance.
Here are 5 back-friendly Squat options that do just that.
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1. Front Squat Grip Split-Squat
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I prefer the Front Squat Grip with the barbell racked on the shoulders instead of the back squat position, since the former requires more anterior core strength and it’s easier to bail out if you miss a lift in case you don’t have spotters.
Of course, you can perform Split-Squats with dumbbells by your side and/or with a weight vest. In fact, that’s the Split-Squat variation I use with all my newbie hockey players.
But if you’re training at a gym where the heaviest dumbbells run up to 100 pounds, you’ll eventually run out of them.
And at that point, the only way to increase external resistance is to move on to the barbell.
2. Reverse Lunge
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After learning to execute the Split-Squat (a stationary exercise) properly, you should start mixing in some Lunges in your program.
While Forward Lunges certainly are an option, repeated deceleration in the Forward Lunge may cause knee pain in some people. I’ve yet to see anyone experience that with Reverse Lunges.
That’s why I prefer the Reverse Lunge with dumbbells or a barbell in the rack position over Forward Lunges.
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3. Rear-Foot Elevated Split-Squat
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Lifting the back leg off the ground adds greater instability to single-leg movements.
The Rear-Foot-Elevated Split-Squat (also called the Bulgarian Split-Squat) hits the quads and glutes very well, as evidenced by the often almost crippling soreness in those muscles following a tough training session.
Be sure to maintain a controlled pelvic position without hyperextending through your lower back throughout the movement.
4. Hip Belt Squat
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This has to be the safest bilateral Squat variation that can be loaded.
Powerlifters use Hip Belt Squats as an assistance movement to Barbell Squats when they want to give their spine a break from heavy loading.
Since the hips bear the weight, the stress on the low back is limited.
Another benefit of the Hip Belt Squat is that it’s easier to maintain an upright torso.
Unlike Barbell Squats, Hip Belt Squats are not a good exercise for low-rep, max strength training. But they’re great for higher reps and higher volumes, which makes them perfect for building the quads, so keep reps per set at 8 or above.
5. Walking Lunge
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In our weight room, Walking Lunges are right up there with Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squats as the most hated lower-body exercise.
They’re hard and they hurt (in a good way) where they should—in the quads and glutes.
It’s time to lay to rest the myth that you can’t get strong on single-leg exercises or without performing heavy bilateral Barbell Squats.
An athlete who can split-squat or reverse lunge 300-plus pounds for reps will have developed some impressive lower-body strength.
And for someone with existing back issues, single-leg work may just be the thing that allows them to enjoy a long, healthy, pain-free playing career.
In Part 2, we’ll take a look at a few effective, back-friendly hip-dominant movements that will help build stronger glutes, hamstrings and low back without back pain.