The front squat is a highly effective exercise that helps improve overall sport performance, posture, strength, and muscle growth.
However, it’s a difficult exercise to learn because it requires a high level of mobility and body awareness to execute properly. In addition, some people find that it can cause shoulder or wrist pain because of the grip and position required.
As such, you might be looking for front squat alternatives that still have the benefits of the overall movement. So I’ve researched the best front squat alternatives from basic and advanced exercises that include both dumbbell, barbell, and single-leg variations.
The 10 best front squat alternatives are:
- Cross-Arm Front Squat
- Goblet Squat
- Narrow Stance Leg Press
- Front Rack Barbell Split Squat
- Front Foot Elevated Dumbbell Split Squat
- Box Pistol Squat
- Dumbbell Step-Up
- Zercher Squat
- Safety Bar Squat
- High Bar Pause Squat
Let’s review each of these exercises now!
Once you’re done this article, you’ll want to read my Ultimate Front Squat Guide. This guide covers everything from how to perform the front squat, front squat progressions, muscles used, benefits, mistakes to avoid, and general squatting tips.
Basic Front Squat Alternatives
Any front squat alternative should place a greater loading demand on the quads.
This is because it’s been shown that the front squat requires a greater forward knee bend in the bottom position. As such, the quad muscles are used a lot more to extend the knee from that position.
1. Cross-Arm Front Squat
The closest alternative to the front squat is the cross-arm front squat. This exercise would be ideal for those people who enjoy front squatting, but simply don’t have the required mobility in the wrists yet to get into the ‘front rack position’.
How To Do It
- Walk into the squat rack and place the barbell on the front part of the shoulders
- Cross your arms in front of you and grab the barbell with an overhand grip inside the shoulders
- As you perform the squat, it’s important to keep your upper arms parallel to the floor as much as possible. This will ensure the barbell stays on the shoulders throughout the movement.
If you’re doing the cross arm front squat because of a lack of wrist mobility, then you should work to improve these mechanical limitations. The following video is the best wrist mobility routine that I’ve found.
Note: I would only suggest implementing the first 4:30 minutes of this 10-min routine.
2. Goblet Squat
The goblet squat is a great front squat alternative for those who don’t have access to a barbell or simply want to practice the front squat mechanics without the high learning curve.
Other benefits of the goblet squat include helping to reinforce the ‘chest up’ position that is required in squats, placing a greater emphasis on the quads, and allowing you to easily find your balance in a front-loaded squat position.
How To Do It
- Grab a single dumbbell with two hands and hold it underneath one of the ends
- Bring the dumbbell up to about chest height, and keep your elbows tucked into your body and slightly forward
- The dumbbell should be pressed tightly against your body and not move while squatting
If you want more activation with your quads, then simply place your heels on 5lb or 10ls plate and squat as deep as you can. This will force your knee to travel a greater distance, which places a larger loading demand on the quads to extend the knee.
Take a look at my article on the Front Squat vs Goblet squat to see whether you should do one or the other, or both based on your goals.
If you struggle with placing your hands on the barbell during front squats, you may benefit from doing the Front Squat With Straps. Check out my guide that explains how to do this properly.
3. Narrow Stance Leg Press
The narrow stance leg press is an exercise that isolates the quad muscles, which makes it an ideal candidate for being an effective front squat alternative.
The reason why you want to use a narrow stance over a wide stance while leg pressing is that the narrow stance uses more quads and closely mimics the activation seen in the front squat.
This was demonstrated in a study by Escamila et al (2001) who looked at the muscular differences between differences stance widths and placements during the leg press.
How To Do It
- Use a decline leg press and find a foot placement that feels comfortable. It doesn’t matter if your feet are high or low on the pads.
- Place your feet no wider than shoulder-width apart. Point your toes forward or slightly outward.
- Take the leg press through the full range of motion ensuring your low back doesn’t round in the bottom position.
Perform this movement with a slower eccentric tempo (3-4 seconds). This will place greater time under tension for your quads, which will stimulate greater muscle hypertrophy.
Check out my article comparing the eccentric vs concentric squat, and how tempo impacts the technique.
Single Leg Front Squat Alternatives
Single leg exercises can be a great alternative to the front squat for two reasons:
First, they don’t require as much load to have a high training effect. This means that you can generally recover quicker between workouts.
Second, they can work muscular imbalances between the right and left leg, which will improve balance, strength, and overall performance.
It’s important though when selecting a single leg variation that the exercise still places a greater loading demand on the quads (not glute or hamstrings).
4. Front Rack Barbell Split Squat
The front rack barbell split squat is a front squat alternative that allows you to practice the “front rack” position. However, because you will be using a lighter load than the front squat, your wrists can adapt to being in that position first before loading them with a regular front squat.
The front rack barbell split squat also teaches you how to keep your elbows and chest up while squatting, which is an important technique principle that you must learn if you want to progress to the front squat.
How To Do It
- Walk into the squat rack, place your hands outside of shoulder-width, and set the barbell at the base of your neck.
- Take one foot forward and one foot back, and begin squatting while keeping your elbows and chest up.
- Ensure that the front leg is at a 90-degree angle in the bottom position, with the back leg lightly touching the floor.
If you find that using a barbell still hurts the wrists or you don’t have access to a barbell, you can use a single dumbbell by placing it in a goblet position (as previously described). This is a more basic variation, but still highly effective.
5. Front Foot Elevated Dumbbell Split Squat
The dumbbell split squat with the front foot elevated is a great exercise for isolating the quads in a single leg movement pattern.
You don’t need to have a large elevation for the front foot either. Even just a few inches can drastically increase the activation of the quads. The key part in isolating the quads is that you need to purposely push into your front leg causing greater forward knee flexion.
How To Do It
- Grab two dumbbells, one in each hand.
- Take one foot forward and one foot back, and place the front foot on a slightly elevated surface.
- As you squat down, push into the front knee causing it to travel forward. The back knee will only slightly bend.
When you’re holding onto dumbbells for a single leg movement, your grip might be challenged because you’re holding the weight for an extended period of time. If your grip is failing, then you can substitute the dumbbells for a barbell or you can use a weighted vest.
6. Box Pistol Squat
There are many variations of the pistol squat; however, if you’ve never tried this exercise the one I recommend you start with is the box pistol squat. The box pistol squat works almost every muscle in the lower body. But, the lower you go in the range of motion, the greater your quads will be activated.
In particular, the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO) is highly stressed in the pistol squat, which is basically your inner quad muscle. This part of the quad is important for proper tracking of the kneecap. So if you have a tracking issue, the pistol squat might help.
Furthermore, by doing pistol squat your knees will become stronger so when you do work your way up to performing front squats, you’ll be in a better position.
How To Do It
- Set up a box or bench behind you
- Take one leg off the floor and keep this leg straight in front of you.
- Bend the leg that remains on the floor until your glutes touch the bench.
- Don’t place your full weight on the bench, and push through the floor to return to standing
There are several ways to progress the pistol squat. One of my favorite pistol squat variations to try after the box variation is the Ring or TRX Pistol Squat. Check out my article on Pistol Squat Progressions to help you get your first pistol squat.
If you don’t have access to a TRX strap, then check out my Top 5 TRX Alternatives.
Note: The box variation is where you should start, but aim to make it more difficult over time until you’re performing a full-depth unassisted pistol squat.
Wondering whether front squats improve other exercises? Check out my article: Do Front Squats Improve Deadlifts?
7. Dumbbell Step-Up
The dumbbell step-up is a classic single-leg exercise that can provide an effective alternative to the front squat. This exercise is not complicated to execute. You simply need a box or step and a set of dumbbells.
The only factor you may want to consider is the height of the box that you step onto. The best height will be somewhere around a 90-degree knee angle when your front foot is on the box.
However, it’s important that when you step up onto the box that you don’t assist with your back leg. You want to only use your front leg. So if you can’t do a body-weight step up with your front leg at 90-degrees, then you might want to consider lowering the box height until you get stronger.
How To Do It
- Place your front foot on a box or step, ensuring the foot is flat and the knee is at 90-degrees.
- Press into the front foot without using your back leg to hoist your body upward. It’s okay if your knee bends forward, so long as your foot stays flat.
- Return to the floor, leaving your front leg on the box or step as you cycle through reps.
Rather than trying to increase the height of the box to make it more difficult, leave the box at the same height but use a heavier weight. If you find your grip failing, you can substitute the dumbbells with a barbell or weighted vest.
Advanced Front Squat Alternatives
Advanced front squat alternatives will provide you with extra loading capability because they include specific barbell variations.
You should only attempt these variations if you already have proficient technique in the front squat, and have experience with the other front squat alternatives on this list.
These variations are typically used by powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and Strongman athletes to build quad strength.
8. High Bar Paused Squat
The high bar paused squat will place a similar emphasis on the quad muscles as compared with the front squat.
The benefit of this exercise on the quad muscles will be more valuable if you typically squat in a low bar position because the high bar squat requires greater forward knee travel. Therefore, you’ll get more quad activation than you normally do when squatting.
In addition, when you implement a 1-2 second pause at the bottom of the squat, you’ll place greater time under tension on your quads when they are most activated.
How To Do It
- Place the barbell on your upper traps.
- Bend your knees and squat down so that your hips travel below the plane of your knee.
- Pause for 1-2 seconds while keeping your body motionless before driving up to return to standing.
The deeper you squat, the greater your knees have to travel forward, and the more your quads need to work. If you’re struggling with getting deep in a squat, read my article on tips for squatting deeper.
9. Zercher Squat
The Zercher squat is probably the most difficult front squat alternative. It’s used by Strongman athletes who need to mimic certain competitive movements, such as picking up a stone.
However, if you’re not a Strongman athlete, this is still a fun variation to learn, which will challenge your core, balance, and overall lower body strength.
Instead of holding the barbell on your shoulders like a front squat, you rest it in the crack of your elbows. It removes the strain on your wrists, but causes more stress on the biceps and front delts.
How To Do It
- Set up the barbell on a squat rack where you can comfortably place your arms underneath.
- Place the barbell in the crease of your elbow, and think about keeping your fists under your chin by flexing your biceps
- Walk the barbell out of the rack, squat down and ensure you’re squeezing your core tight.
- When the barbell touches your thighs you can raise yourself to the start position.
Use a lightweight when you first try this exercise. Your core, biceps, and quads will be noticeably sore the next day regardless of the weight used. The core strength and balance you acquire by doing the Zercher squat will transfer immensely to other squat variations.
Check out this complete guide on Front Squat Mobility: 17 Must-Do Exercises
10. Safety Bar Squat
The safety bar squat requires a specialty bar, which not many gyms may have.
The safety bar squat is a cross between a high bar squat and front squat. It’s like a high bar squat because the weight is on your back with the barbell resting on your upper traps. However, it’s like a front squat because your elbows are forced to be up and forward.
The safety bar squat is a great front squat alternative because of its emphasis on keeping your chest up and the noticeable engagement of the quads.
However, it’s an advanced alternative because there is little room for error while squatting. If you lose your balance or move out of the optimal bar bath, then the movement goes from being management to impossible very quickly.
How To Do It
- Place the safety bar on your back in a high-bar position
- Walk the weight out into your normal squat stance, ensuring your core and upper back are engaged
- Pull on the handles to keep your elbows forward, and maintain a “chest up-elbow up” position while squatting down.
To prevent yourself from losing your balance or moving out of the optimal bar path, ensure you breathe and brace properly to activate your core. As soon as you lose your core brace, the lift will become increasingly difficult.
Check out my comparison of the Safety Bar Squat vs Front Squat.
A good front squat alternative either mimics a similar movement pattern as the front squat or engages similar muscle groups, such as the quads.
Many of the front squat alternatives discussed are good pre-cursors to the front squat. So once you master these variations, you’ll be in a better position to feel confident and strong during the front squat.
If you’re performing a front squat alternative because you get pain in your wrists or shoulders while front squatting, I encourage you to deal with these underlying issues rather than avoiding the front squat altogether.
Check out our other articles that discuss alternatives to popular lower body exercises: