Squats are a staple among weightlifters
The back squat is a fundamental exercise. However, not everyone can perform it. There are a number of reasons that can prevent a person from back squatting, such as:
- It's awkward to do
- No access to a squat rack
As much as I like the exercise, it's not completely necessary. There are many productive variations of the squat. The back squat in particular is effective because it can be done heavy. The same can't be said for squats that don't use a barbell as they get no where near the weight of a back squat. The front squat can be interchanged with the back squat, but front squat progress can be limited by mobility issues. If mobility is adequate, but there's no squat rack, then cleaning it is out of the question. The weight used in a clean will be lower than the actual weight that can be used in a front squat.
- They suffer pain in the upper body such as the low back (lumbar spine) or shoulders
Fortunately, there are variations that can be substituted into training. While single leg exercises and dumbbells or kettlebells can be used, they serve better as accessory work and to build volume. I don't believe they can replace the barbell and vice versa. In the appropriate context, each has their own benefits.
The primary exercises discussed here are suitable to build a strong set of legs. Best of all, a rack isn't needed, there are less compression forces on the spine, and they are fun variations to incorporate - especially when training feels stagnant.
Lastly, I'd suggest new weightlifters wait until trying these exercises - have at least one year's worth of training experience. They would see better progress by developing a strength base and proprioception through employing other squat and deadlift variations along with single leg exercises.
The Jefferson is an odd looking lift. It's not quite a deadlift and it's not quite a squat. It's somewhat like a trap bar deadlift-squat combo, but it's still unique in its own way. And contrary to how it may appear, it's not an asymmetrical movement either - weight distribution is even throughout both legs.
I like it because I've found it's great for driving rotation in the thoracic spine (upper back) and it doesn't require as much mobility as the hack squat - which will be discussed last. With the weight directly underneath the body, reps feel balanced and there isn't a huge stress on lumbar spine. The Jefferson lift is a great option for those who don't have access to a trap bar. Also be warned, if you have short arms this exercise will become much more difficult and will require you to squat down lower and there will be trouble at lock out.
The Zercher squat is often criticized for the bar placement on the biceps' tendons. Although it isn't necessary, this is where having a specialty bar or wrapping a towel around the bar helps. I've found knowing how to settle the bar in your arms makes a difference.
Essentially, keep your arms extended when setting up then ensure the bar is fully placed in the elbow crooks so it doesn't move and rub your skin. When the bar's racked in the arms, it's important the upper arms (humeri) are held close against the torso - think of pinning the elbows against the ribs - and the forearms are kept up. This shifts the weight to the trunk instead of having the arms bear the brunt of the weight.
If there's one exercise that teaches you to brace your core, the Zercher squat is it. The bar's location causes the entire trunk and back to brace during the set. And if you don't have access to atlas stones, this also doubles as a poor substitute for stone lifting.
If I could have it my way, everyone would be able to do back or front squats. Unfortunately, that's not realistic. However during the year, it is practical to implement these other barbell movements and program them into training blocks. They offer a new stimulus to the body that will elicit progress and will still maintain relevance to the squat and deadlift. Not only that, but they will have carry over and translate well when you return to the main lifts.
Mention the hack squat and more often than not, the hack squat machine is what most people think of. There is another exercise known as the barbell hack squat. Its low position requires a little more mobility than the previous two lifts discussed and has some semblance to a Olympic lift start position.
The hack squat is excellent for quadriceps development, especially for the vastus medialis. What I've found best about the hack squat is that there is less stress on the hips in the eccentric portion of the lift. Instead, the focus is extension in the knees and hips. If your hips are beat up from deadlifts and squats, the hack squat serves as a great movement to cycle into a training block and use as a semi-deload from the main lifts.
If you decide to try the hack squat, I advise you to thoroughly warm-up your knees. The hack squat spares the hips, but it can be rough on the knees. Just add a few minutes of cycling and mid-to-high rep bodyweight squats (10-20) to your warm-up and it should do the trick. Similar to the Jefferson lift, short arm lifters will encounter the same problems in the start position and lock out.
Whether you are able to squat or not, be sure to incorporate these movements into your training and improve your leg strength.