The squat: the king of all exercises.
That’s patently false. While there are certainly some lifts and exercises that generally have more value than others, I’ve seen and trained more than a few very strong individuals who don’t squat with a barbell on their back.
Your body doesn’t know the difference between a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or a rock. It just knows resistance. As a matter of fact, when we were kids we used to push a truck in a parking lot because we had no sled, and we got strong as hell.
So understand that there’s no need to force a particular lift on a body. Find ones that allow your joints to absorb and produce force optimally, without having to make compensations.
In layman’s terms, if your knees or back hurts after squatting, or you can’t break parallel because of some kind of mobility restriction, you probably shouldn’t be doing that lift as you currently are. Maybe it’s a technique issue, but it could also just be that your body can’t move in that way with that tool right now. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work to improve any mobility or flexibility issues, or that there aren’t other squat variations for you, but in the meantime, back away from the bar.
There are plenty of other lifts that will build muscle and strength. I promise.
I work with a lot of guys who have some wear and tear on them, and the cost of back squatting just isn’t worth the reward, even in a best case scenario. Hell, I work with a lot of high school wrestlers as well, and most of them haven’t earned the right to be able to back squat yet. For these reasons, I hammer the following squat variations with my clients, athletes, and myself in order to maximize strength gains and build muscle mass, without beating up the joints. I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to keep from walking around like arthritic tin man.
1. 2 Arm Suitcase Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
2. Double Kettlebell Front Squat
3. Goblet Squat
4. Front Squat
At the end of the day, there are no sacred cow exercises that you absolutely must perform in order to be strong, powerful, and athletic. Pick some that allow you to train hard but without pain, both during and in the days that follow. To be honest, I snuck in a few back squats in my last training phase for the first time in years, and they didn’t feel very good at all, so I scrapped them.
I regularly front squat, though, and that feels great. I have clients and athletes who front squat 225+ for reps, goblet squat a 125 dumbbell and rear foot elevated split squat the 36 kg bells for 6-8, so the idea that you can’t get strong without a bar on your back just isn’t true. I see it every day, and I have for years.
This doesn’t make back squatting bad, it just doesn’t make it the single greatest exercise ever. If squatting with a bar on your back has been giving you problems, or if you stick to machines because you know you can’t squat in the way you traditionally have due to pain, give some of the above variations a shot. Perform them consistently, and strive to increase your weights, reps, and sets over time.
You’ll get stronger and build a serious set of wheels without pounding on your joints so hard, so you’ll feel better to kick ass at the other things in your life.
Because working out to get better at working out is stupid.