If you've ever been in a gym or around a set of barbells, you've likely seen someone doing a barbell front squat. It's a stellar move to target the quads and glutes and a solid way to build muscle mass in your legs.
That said, front squats can come with a few challenges. What if you don't have access to barbells? Or what if your wrist mobility isn't quite up to par so gripping the bar this way is problematic?
Enter this list of front squat alternative exercises you absolutely need to know about! Let's go.
The 13 best front squat alternatives you must be doing:
- Goblet Squats
- Box Pistol Squats
- Zercher Squats
- Dumbbell Step Ups
- Dumbbell Squats
- Smith Machine Front Squats
- Landmine Squats
- Hack Squats
- Double Kettlebell Front Squats
- Jump Squats
- Single-Leg Deadlifts
- Bulgarian Split Squats
- Narrow Stance Leg Presses
What Is the Front Squat?
A front squat is where you approach the loaded barbell and step underneath it, so it rests on the front side of your shoulders. You place your fingertips under the barbell, just outside of shoulder width, and keep your elbows up.
Then, keeping your chest up and core tight, you bend at the knees (with a little hip bend too) to lower into a squat until your thighs are parallel (or a little above, not everyone can squat to parallel).
Then you push into the ground to straighten your knees and hips and return to starting position.
Because the weight is front-loaded, it shifts the center of mass forward. This allows you to keep your posture in a somewhat more upright position, making it a spine-friendly way to squat.
Plus, it shifts some of the work from your glutes to your quads, so if you're trying to build those muscles, this is a great lift for you.
TL;DR: Place a loaded barbell across the front of your shoulders and squat. Boom: barbell front squats.
Muscles Worked in a Front Squat
We touched on this, but the main muscles targeted in a front squat are:
Of course, the stabilizer muscles in your calves, ankles, wrists, shoulders, and core are all doing some work here, too. But effective front squats work mostly your lower body and when done right, target your quads especially hard.
TL;DR: Looking to build up those quads? Look no further than front squats (or the squat alternatives in this article).
How Much Should I Squat?
We've answered this question thoroughly in our how much weight you should lift article, but for a cheat sheet, keep reading.
For any strength training move that's new to you, you should always start with less weight than you think you can lift.
For example, if you're brand spanking new to strength training, start squatting with just your bodyweight.
Until you make sure your form is 100% spot on, bodyweight squats are where it's at. You need precise form to avoid injury when you start loading up with weight.
If you've been lifting weights for a while, you likely already have some idea of what you can squat. When you're trying the front squat alternatives in this list, err on the side of about 5–10 pounds lighter than you think you can.
Again — avoid injury. If these movements are new to you, you need to groove the pattern before loading heavy.
If you do it wrong with heavy weight and hurt yourself, you're going to be sidelined for however long it takes to heal, and no one wants that.
TL;DR: New to lifting? Start with bodyweight. Already a lifter? Go a bit lighter and make sure your form is on point.
What Makes a Great Front Squat Alternative?
An effective front squat alternative will work the same muscles as a front squat: that is, your quads and glutes, possibly with your core muscles activated for good measure.
Fortunately, all the moves in this article make great exercise options for those of you who can't access the barbell front squat.
A front squat has a greater forward knee bend in the bottom position, which is what helps it target the quads so effectively.
TL;DR: These squat variations target the quads mostly, but also the glutes and core muscles.
The 13 Best Front Squat Alternatives
Without further ado, here are your 13 best front squat alternatives using a wide variety of equipment and for all experience levels. Here we go!
1. Goblet Squats
The goblet squat works similarly to the barbell front squat in that the load is placed in front of you, so you have that critical upright position and forward knee flexion.
One of the best parts of a goblet squat is that you can use either a kettlebell or a single dumbbell, though we'll go with a kettlebell.
- Start with your feet about hip width apart (or wider, or narrower, depending on what's most comfortable for you in your squat form). Pick up the kettlebell and either hold it by the horns in a two-handed grip or with your hands cradling the lower part of the bell.
- Hike or lift the bell into position at your collarbone, just underneath your chin. Note: don't hold it so high you have to crane your neck over it. Just brace it against your collarbone. This is your starting position.
- Inhale, brace your core, and descend into your squat. Exhale and press evenly into the ground with your feet to stand back up.
Two pro tips for the price of one: First: for more activation in your quads, squat with your heels on 5- or 10-pound weight plates. Second: don't have dumbbells or kettlebells? You can hold a few weight plates in your hands in a similar position as you would a kettlebell.
2. Box Pistol Squats
The pistol squat is not for the faint of heart — they're definitely best left to those who are experienced lifters.
However, a box pistol squat can be a great alternative to front squats and are a little easier if you're starting out and building strength.
For context: regular pistol squats involve doing a squat, but balanced on one leg with the other extended out in front of you.
You go all the way to the ground (ass to grass) balanced on that one leg and all the way back up. The boxed version reduces the range of motion to make it a bit easier.
- Put the heel of your working leg about an inch away from the box. Extend the non-working leg out as straight/high as you can (the point is to keep that leg off the ground, so if all you can do is hover your heel above the floor, that's okay). Extend your arms straight out for counterbalance. This is your starting position.
- Inhale as you brace your core and descend into your squat on your working leg. Descend only so far until you feel the surface of the box barely touch your glutes.
- Exhale as you immediately press into the foot of the working leg to return to standing.
Hold a light weight in your outstretched hands to help counterbalance you until you get the movement down.
3. Zercher Squats
Zercher squats are a great front squat alternative because they completely remove the need for wrist mobility.
If you have weak wrists or an injury, try throwing a zercher squat or two into your routine.
Bonus: if you don't have a barbell, you can try holding a dumbbell in your crooked elbows or attach a resistance band to either end of a broomstick (and something sturdy on the floor) to provide resistance.
- Approach a barbell like you would in a squat rack, only lower, about chest height. Hook your elbows so the barbell rests in the bend, with arms underneath the bar. Clasp your hands together for added stability and remove the barbell from the rack.
- Get in standard squat position, feet shoulder width apart, back straight, core engaged. Keep a gentle bend in your lumbar spine.
- Inhale as you balance the bar in your elbows and lower into your squat. Keep your knees tracking over your toes as your hips descend back and down.
- Exhale as you press into your feet to return to standing position.
Lift much more lightly than you ordinarily do for a barbell front squat. This front squat alternative uses more balance and places more strain on your biceps femoris and front delts, so do a zercher squat carefully at first.
4. Dumbbell Step Ups
Yay, another lower body exercise that mimics front squats but that doesn't require any special equipment — no squat rack or barbells required for this leg exercise. All you need is a step, whether you use a designed piece of equipment in your home gym or simply a staircase.
- Something to step on
- Take your dumbbell weight of choice, one in each hand. Face your step with feet hip width apart.
- Exhale as you step onto your platform with your front leg, lifting your entire bodyweight up. You can either place the foot of your other leg all the way on the step or lightly tap it before beginning your descent.
- Inhale as you step back down. You can alternate legs or do all your reps on that same front leg before you switch.
Want to make this front squat alternative more difficult? Elevate the height of your step. Try a weight bench or tall box. Alternatively, up your weight. Grip failing you? Try adding a weighted vest.
5. Dumbbell Squats
You can do a dumbbell squat in place of your traditional front squat. All you do is hold the dumbbells in front of your collarbone in a similar position as you would a barbell.
This keeps the center of gravity high like front squats but can help remove some of the extra balance associated with holding a barbell.
- Choose your dumbbell weight and get into squat position, feet about hip width apart, feet firmly grounded, spine neutral and core tight.
- Inhale as you lower into a deep squat. Keep your knees tracking over your toes (not caving inward) and your posture tall.
- Exhale as you press into your feet to return to starting position.
If front squatting with the dumbbells is still too challenging for your wrists, you can brace them on your shoulders for added stability.
6. Smith Machine Front Squats
The Smith Machine front squat is an excellent addition to our front squat alternatives. Why? Because the Smith Machine keeps the barbell steady and in designated tracks.
This removes some of the balance aspect of a traditional front squat, plus it's easier on your wrists.
- Load your machine with an appropriate weight for your squat. Get under the bar like you would for normal front squats. Make sure to keep those elbows forward.
- Inhale as you descend into your squat. Make sure you have an upright torso and your glutes extend out behind you.
- Exhale as you press into the floor to stand back up.
Your feet should be underneath the bar, not too far in front or behind.
7. Landmine Squats
If you're not wild about a goblet squat but still want challenging squat exercises in your routine, look no further than the landmine squat.
As far as lower body exercises go, this one's a great alternative to both front and back squats.
- Hold your loaded and anchored barbell at chest height, similar to a goblet squat position, both hands cradling the end of the bar. Keep your torso upright and feet shoulder width or hip width, whatever's most comfortable.
- Inhale as you descend into your squat. You should be leaning slightly into the bar and your knees will go a bit farther over your toes than you might be used to.
- Exhale to press back to standing.
Make sure to keep the bar close to your chest throughout the movement.
8. Hack Squats
To do a hack squat, you do need a hack squat machine.
That said, if you have access to one, it makes a very spine- and wrist-friendly alternative to front squats.
The benefit of the machine is it removes the stabilization requirement so you can really zero in on your quads and hamstrings.
- Load the machine with your preferred weight. If you've never used this machine before, get familiar with the movement first before adding a ton of weight.
- Step into the machine, placing your feet shoulder width apart and your shoulders and back against the pads.
- Inhale and lower yourself, bending your knees until they're about 90º or whatever depth feels comfortable for you.
- Pause for a moment then exhale to push through your heels to extend your legs straight again.
The hack squat is great if you have limited ankle mobility, and if you want to take it to the next level check out our hack squat alternative list.
9. Double Kettlebell Front Squats
This one's pretty similar to the dumbbell front squat, except you use kettlebells instead. Actually, it's exactly the same as that.
- A pair of kettlebells
- Follow exactly the same steps as the dumbbell front squat, only holding kettlebells. That's it.
- Okay, the only difference is you'll be holding the kettlebells by the horns and bracing them on the outsides of your forearms. Otherwise, I promise, it's the same.
Kettlebells have a potentially odd center of gravity so again, go lighter until you nail the movement.
10. Jump Squats
Want an element of cardio to your lower body workout? Enter the jump squat. This is a bodyweight move but don't be deceived — it can be a killer.
- Get into normal squat position (feet hip width, neutral spine, etc.). Descend into your squat.
- As you begin your ascent, do so with explosive speed so at the very top of your movement, you jump and your feet leave the floor briefly.
- Immediately upon your feet returning to the ground, descend into the next squat and repeat.
This is a fast movement, so watch your form carefully. Make sure your knees aren't caving in, your torso stays tall, and you land gently.
11. Single-Leg Deadlifts
Nothing ups the ante of leg day quite like doing movements with only one leg. Single-leg deadlifts are just that: deadlifts you do while balanced on one foot instead of with both feet on the ground.
- A dumbbell or kettlebell (or a pair of them)
- Start with your right leg planted, foot flat, spine tall. You can either hold the weight in your left hand or, if you're using two, one in each hand. Pull your shoulder blades/lats back and down, like you're holding an orange in each armpit.
- Inhale as you hinge at the hips to lower the weight(s) toward the floor, lifting your left leg off the ground and out behind you. Keep your hips square (don't tilt to one side or another), back leg straight, and your lats and core tight. You'll have a slight bend in your right leg.
- Exhale as you squeeze through your glutes and hamstrings to return your back leg to the ground.
If balance is difficult for you, you can lightly hold onto something until you build up those stabilizing ankle muscles. Or, you can do a kickstand deadlift where you lightly brace the toes of your back foot on the ground instead of lifting the leg up (just be careful not to bend both knees so it turns into a single leg squat).
12. Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian split squats are surprisingly challenging. You're basically doing a lunge, except your back foot is raised on a platform.
- A bench, table, or other stable surface on which to brace your back foot
- Brace the top of your back foot on the bench with your ankle off the edge. Step one stride away with your feet at least hip width if not shoulder width apart.
- Inhale to lower the knee of your non-working leg toward the ground. Stay more upright to target your quads. Try to keep your front knee at a 90º angle.
- Exhale and push through your planted foot to return to upright posture. Make sure to keep your torso upright.
Once you're a pro at a Bulgarian split squat with bodyweight, you can add weight. Try holding a dumbbell in each hand, or you can even do a rack barbell split squat by loading a barbell on your shoulders.
13. Narrow Stance Leg Presses
You need a leg press machine for this one, but it's a great alternative to front squats.
- Sit in the bench with your lower back and glutes pressed into the padding. Place your feet together so your legs are closed, toes in line with knees. Extend your legs to release the safety catch.
- Inhale as you lower the platform toward your body. Stop when your knees are about 90º.
- Exhale to press the platform away from you. Hold the contraction at the top for a moment.
Bringing your legs together when doing your leg press is key to targeting those quads.
The front squat is a great leg exercise, there's no doubt about it.
But, if you're new to lifting weights these front squat alternative exercises will help you build the muscles and confidence you need to properly perform any squat exercise you want.
Plus, if you suffer from wrist or shoulder pain, these front squat alternative exercises can come in handy.
But, I strongly suggest you seek medical help, instead of avoiding doing front squats altogether.