5 Squat Variations and When to Use Them

Using one of these variations in your program will definitely help you become a more well rounded athlete.

The Squat is a staple of just about every strength and conditioning program, and the Barbell Squat is the most commonly performed variation of this muscle-building exercise.

But not everyone is capable of safely squatting with a barbell on his or her back or shoulders, thereby limiting the payoff from Barbell Squats.

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The Squat is a staple of just about every strength and conditioning program, and the Barbell Squat is the most commonly performed variation of this muscle-building exercise.

But not everyone is capable of safely squatting with a barbell on his or her back or shoulders, thereby limiting the payoff from Barbell Squats.

With that said, here are five highly effective alternatives to the Back Squat and reasons why you should perform each.

RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About 5 Barbell Squat Variations

Goblet Squat

The Goblet Squat is the go-to exercise for any athlete starting to train at O.B. Training & Sports Performance. Not only does it allow athletes to squat safely, it also forces them to engage their core, which is a key to advancing to heavier loads.

  • Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of your body at chest level.
  • Pull your shoulders back and set your hips in a neutral position—not tilted forward or backward.
  • Start the descent by leading your hips back, and lower yourself to the bottom position.
  • Maintain good posture throughout the full movement and keep your hips in neutral alignment. Loading the weight in front of your body also forces you to engage your core, making it easier to keep your pelvis from going into anterior pelvic tilt (sticking your butt out).

Often the limiting factor with this exercise is an athlete's upper-body strength and relative ability to hold the weight comfortably at chest height. If upper-body strength becomes a limiting factor, it's time to move on to another exercise.

RELATED: The Best Squat Variations for People With Back Issues

Landmine Squat

Landmine Squat

The Landmine Squat is a great exercise for any athlete who has reached his or her upper-body strength limit with the Goblet Squat. It is also a great exercise for any athlete who has movement dysfunctions that do not allow other squat variations. Also, the Landmine Squat can be used as a teaching tool to get athletes to learn the importance of keeping their weight back. Due to the position needed to hold the bar, it is very difficult to fall into the common habit of shooting the knees forward when squatting. It almost forces the athlete to begin the movement by leading with the hips.

  • Stand directly over the bar with your feet in a shoulder-width stance.
  • When you descend to grab the bar, your hands should be in the middle of your legs.
  • After you grab the bar, forcefully stand to the top position by driving through the middle of the foot.
  • In the top position, you should be tall with shoulders back and hips in natural alignment. The bar should rest in your hands directly in front of your pelvis. It's important to stand tall, as the bar's position will cause you to lean forward.

RFE Split Squat

RFE Squat

The Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat is another great variation to increase performance and overcome movement restrictions. If you've read any of Mike Boyle's books or articles, you know how important it is for an athlete to train on one leg. In just about every sport, in most situations and most of the time, an athlete generates power off one leg. It simply makes sense that athletes train on one leg too.

RELATED: 3 Squat Variations for Endurance Athletes

For our adult athletes or athletes who have a movement deficiency or injury that doesn't allow a heavy load, the RFE Split Squat is a great substitute. Obviously, squatting on one leg versus two means that lighter loads must be used. The beauty of this is what has been described as "bilateral deficit," which is when the sum of force produced by two muscles independently is greater than the force produced by them in combination. In other words, an athlete may not be able to safely squat 200 pounds when standing on two feet but can squat 100 pounds when squatting on one leg at a time.

  • Set up for this exercise with a box or a bench to elevate your back foot.
  • Holding weights in your hands is an easy way to increase resistance without the risk of loading the spine. I prefer to have our athletes start in the bottom position to make sure that their legs are positioned correctly.
  • The front leg should be at a 90-degree angle when in the bottom position while maintaining proper alignment in the hips.
  • The height of the box may need to be adjusted to maintain proper hip alignment. Similar to a normal Squat, drive through the mid-foot while keeping a vertical posture throughout. Wear a weight vest if you need more resistance.

Safety Bar Squat

Safety Bar Squat

The Safety Bar Squat is a great tool for anyone who desperately wants to squat with a barbell but simply cannot safely hold a barbell on his or her back or in the front rack position. The handles on the front of the bar allow the athlete to control the bar position through a full range of motion without compromising posture or shoulder positioning.

Besides its use as a substitute for the standard Barbell Squat, the Safety Bar Squat can be used to load an athlete in other bilateral and unilateral squat variations. It allows an athlete to overcome limiting factors not directly related to strength (e.g., grip strength, mobility, etc.)

Be mindful of how the bar sits on your shoulders, the position of the bar throughout the movement, and the way in which the bar is loaded. These factors will determine your center of mass throughout the movement. It's important to let the bar move naturally as you go through the squatting pattern so that your weight does not get shifted too far forward or backward. In a nutshell, it takes a little getting used to.

Single-Leg Squat

SIngle-Leg Squat

The Single-Leg Squat, like the RFE Squat, is a great way to develop single-leg strength. This exercise is more advanced, because the athlete must rely solely on the stabilizing muscles in the stance leg to remain balanced. Squatting on one leg with a few dinky weights isn't as appealing as loading up a barbell with 500 pounds, but the athletic benefits can't be denied.

A traditional squat pattern does not effectively work most of the smaller, stabilizing muscles. The Single-Leg Squat forces an athlete to use these muscles, which can be huge for injury prevention. Don't believe me? Just check out Mike Boyle's injury stats for the athletes training at his facilities over the last 10 years.

We generally have an athlete start by standing on a bench so his or her unloaded leg can hang off. Often, we find that poor range of motion in the non-stance leg stops the athlete from keeping that leg held high enough when standing directly on the floor. Descend into the squat position, holding your hands in front of you to help maintain balance. You can increase the resistance by holding small weights or wearing a weight vest.

Next time you hit the gym try changing things up. Think outside the box, try one of these squat variations if you're working around an injury, if you're looking to develop some serious athletic strength or just need to do something different. Either way, using one of these variations in your program will definitely help you become a more well rounded athlete.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: SQUAT | BARBELL EXERCISES | EXERCISING