5 Squat Alternatives That Don’t Use a Barbell

Mar 29, 2023 | Strength & Conditioning

Athletic couple doing kettlebell goblet squat exercise during cross training in gym.

Squats are a staple in most training programs. But what if you don’t have access to a bar, are dealing with an injury, or just flat-out hate barbell back squats? Give these five barless squat alternatives a try instead.

Jayden Pollard is a passionate powerbuilder (powerlifting bodybuilder) with a background in strength training and sports like basketball and wrestling. He runs the fitness blog SHREDDIT, writing about various health and fitness-related topics. Here he explains why squats are essential along with five variations to shake up your typical leg day routine.

Matthew Styf
jayden pollard

Change the Way You Train

Barbell or Not, Squats are Awesome

Squats are awesome! They build tons of muscle, get you hella strong, and give you mega street cred (within the gym anyways).

There are tons of different squatting variations. Of course there’s the classic back squat, but there’s also the front squat if you struggle with hitting depth, the Zercher squat if you don’t have access to a rack, and the SSB (safety squat bar) squat if you’re looking to get a better stimulus-to-fatigue ratio.

Those are all great exercises that I would recommend to everyone. However, the one negative about these exercises is that they all require access to a bar.

Whether it be a standard 20 kg Olympic barbell, a safety squat bar, a fixed bar, or a 15 kg Olympic barbell, you need access to a bar to do any of these moves.

But what if you don’t have access to a bar? Or maybe you just want to try something new? Well, prepare to be amazed because I’m about to reveal the five best ways to squat without a barbell (or any bar in this case).

So strap in and start taking notes! There’s a lot to take in here.

A Quick Note on Barbells

You might want to squat without a barbell for a number of reasons, whether it be fatigue, injuries, limited equipment access, or even boredom.

Whatever your reason, just know that you can still build awesome legs without having to use barbells; however, the process is much easier if you do include some barbell work into your routine.

Although these five barless squat variations are great, I want to take a quick moment to talk about the standard barbell back squat for a bit (just to let you know you’re missing).

Pros of Barbell Squats

The classic barbell back squat is an amazing movement that’s very hard to replace, as it has so many benefits.

Pros of the barbell back squat (these will apply to almost every other squatting variation that requires a bar as well):

  • It builds tons of size and strength in your lower body, specifically your glutes and quads.
  • It’s great for building hip, knee, and ankle mobility.
  • It has amazing athletic carryover due to its stability and balance-building benefits.
  • It’s easy to progressively overload and track improvement over time.
  • It’s part of the big 3 and is essential for anyone with powerlifting aspirations.

These squatting variations cannot and will never fully replicate the benefits of a barbell back squat. So before you decide to ditch the barbell back squat entirely because you read an article on TrainHeroic telling you that you don’t need a barbell to squat, just know that you shouldn’t ditch the exercise unless you absolutely have to.

1. Bulgarian Split Squats (Dumbbell)

Bulgarian split squats are easily the best exercise on the list, but also the hardest. I believe they’re the only exercise on this list that match barbell squats in both effectiveness and difficulty.

You get the obvious benefits, such as:

  • Great lower body size and strength gains
  • Stability and mobility benefits that are arguably better than the standard back squat
  • And very good athletic carryover

You also get other benefits that are unique to the Bulgarian split squat, such as:

  • Grip training
  • Unilateral leg work

This exercise is great if you are looking to fix imbalances and/or if you wish to squat without a barbell.

Bulgarian split squats are an amazing squat alternative that, when combined with another exercise on this list, totally make barless squatting a viable option.

2. Belt Squats

Belt squats are another great barless squatting option. Due to the weight being loaded via your hips with a belt rather than your torso or arms, your legs are going to be doing all of the work here.

You can’t cheat by hinging or leaning forward. You’re only able to squat the weight up, which makes this movement excellent for gaining muscle and overall lower body hypertrophy.

Even though the exercise seems harder due to its isolating nature, it’s much less fatiguing and easier on the joints than a regular squat. It’s a great option if you want to elevate fatigue from back squats without losing strength and size in the legs.

To do this movement, you either have to make a DIY belt squat set-up or have access to a belt squat machine. The machine is much better and safer than the DIY setup (obviously), but you can still make great leg gains with the DIY setup.

Coach’s Note: For safety purposes, you may want to go with a lighter weight and higher reps if you’re doing the DIY version.

3. Goblet Squats

Goblet squats are a great exercise if you don’t have the base mobility or strength to get under the bar yet. They’re also great if you have limited equipment access (or just need a break from barbell squatting).

Goblet squats can be done with either a dumbbell or a kettlebell. They are best done for moderate to high reps, and you should try to hit depth every time.

Now if you outright replace barbell back squats with this exercise, your leg size and strength will take a hit as this is simply an inferior movement.

You need to pair this movement with one of the other ones on this list, or just accept putting your leg gains on hold (for the most part).

If you’re a beginner using these to build a base level of strength and mobility, switch over to back squats as soon as you can, as you will see exponentially faster progress once you do.

4. Hack Squats (Machine)

Hack squats (with a machine) are a great accessory movement for your legs. Now as a primary leg movement, they’re alright. If you want to replace back squats with the hack squat machine, pair it with another exercise on this list (preferably split squats).

Hack squats are great for hypertrophy and isolating the quads; however, they do lack the stability, balance, strength, and athleticism-building components of barbell squats.

If you’re a strength athlete or play a competitive team sport, I recommend sticking with barbells or doing split squats and belt squats (plus other accessories).

But if you’re lifting only for aesthetic purposes, have decent leg genetics, and only care about muscle growth, you can probably get away with just doing hack squats and a couple of other leg accessories.

5. Sissy Squats

Sissy squats are hands down the best bodyweight squatting option. If you are very limited in equipment access, sissy squats with a heavy backpack work wonders on your quads.

If you do have gym access, don’t just dismiss sissy squats as an inferior squatting variation, as they bring many unique benefits to the table. Reduced joint stress, a great stimulus-to-fatigue ratio, and amazing quad growth are a few of the most notable benefits.

Even though they are a lot less stressful on the body than standard barbell squats, that does not make them any easier to perform. Sissy squats require a good amount of mobility and a base level of strength and stability to perform properly.

Combine these with a great glute-building and hamstring-building exercise and achieve leg gains that rival Tom Platz himself.

Nothing compares to the classic barbell squat, so keep that in mind if you’re subbing it with other movements.

But when you’re in a slump, dealing with an injury, or limited in equipment, you can still make some leg and booty gains by doing a few of these squat alternatives instead!

Find Your Perfect Training Plan

Sometimes all you need to reach your destination on your fitness journey is an expert guide. We've got you covered. Browse from thousands of programs for any goal and every type of athlete.

Try any programming subscription free for 7 days!

Related articles

How to Do Leg Extensions Without a Machine

How to Do Leg Extensions Without a Machine

Short shorts are the new stinger tanks. Rocking those big tree trunks with canyon deep cuts is so hot. Leg extensions are a bodybuilding staple—they isolate your quads, the front-facing muscle group of your thighs, by flexing (bending) and extending (straightening)...

read more
Tried-and-True Methods to Fix Plantar Fasciitis

Tried-and-True Methods to Fix Plantar Fasciitis

What is Plantar Fasciitis? If you’re new to running or returning to it after a break, you might have been blighted by plantar fasciitis, a fancy name for an annoyingly common foot problem. It’s when the band of tissue that connects your heel to your toes (the plantar...

read more

Join the community

Sign up for the latest training news and updates from TrainHeroic

Made with love, sweat, protein isolate and hard work in Denver, CO

© 2023 TrainHeroic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mockups of the TH library on mobile.
Plans written by expert coaches and delivered through our app.