So, you’re interested in pendulum squats but know diddly-squat about them?
You’re not alone.
With the pendulum squat machine looking more like a medieval torture device than an exercise apparatus, it’s no surprise that lifters avoid it like the plague.
Don’t worry, though. You won’t feel (or look) like a lifting newbie for much longer.
So, what is a pendulum squat? A pendulum squat is a type of squat performed on a machine with a counterbalance, where you squat in an arcing motion. Pendulum squats work your quadriceps, gluteal muscles, adductors, and calves. They’re easy to learn, back-friendly, and amazing at targeting your quads to grow your legs.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the pendulum squat to help you chisel your quads into tear-drop-shaped pieces of granite:
- What the pendulum squat is
- Muscles worked
- How to do it
- Benefits & drawbacks
- Mistakes to avoid
- Who should do them
Let’s dive in!
Pendulum Squat: Overview
The barbell back squat might be the king of exercises, but it doesn’t have to be a tyrant.
The pendulum squat is an excellent squat variation with many benefits of a barbell back squat — without having to use a barbell.
Pendulum squats are performed on a machine similar to a v-squat machine. While standing on the platform, the shoulder pads apply the weight you’ve loaded onto the machine, and then you squat down in an arcing (pendulum)-type motion.
However, the key difference is that a pendulum squat machine has a counterbalance on the opposite end. This unique feature changes the strength curve on the pendulum squat. Unlike a regular squat, it’s easier at the bottom and harder at the top.
The counterbalance can be a fixed weight that is always consistent or a weight horn that allows you to set the weight of the counterbalance.
Thanks to pendulum squats, you don’t have to live and die by the sword barbell.
Pendulum Squat: Muscles Worked
The pendulum squat is an effective squatting exercise that targets many exercises in your lower body. It primarily works your:
- Quadriceps. The quads are a large group of muscles on the front of your thigh. After you descend in a pendulum squat, they’re activated to straighten your knees. Seriously, this is where you’ll feel that spicy burn. Your quadriceps are the main driver of this exercise.
- Gluteal muscles. The glutes (gluteal muscles) are a big muscle group located in your buttocks. The glutes comprise multiple smaller muscles: gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. They help your hips return to a straight position after you’ve dropped it low. Your glute muscles are quite active when you do pendulum squats.
- Adductors. The adductors are a collection of muscles along your inner thigh, but only one is important for the pendulum squat: the adductor magnus. This powerhouse is often forgotten about or mistaken with the hamstrings — which aren’t really active when you squat (say whaaaat!). Like your glutes, the adductor magnus helps straighten your hips, especially when you’ve squatted well below parallel.
- Calves. The calves are a muscle group found on the back of your lower leg. They’re the final muscle group that’s worked when doing a pendulum squat, though they just help to stabilize your knees and ankles as you go down and back up. Without these muscles, your legs would basically be doing Elvis Presley’s iconic “rubber legs dance.”
If you’re trying to work around a hip flexor injury, check out these leg exercises that don’t use the hip flexors.
How To Do The Pendulum Squat
Let’s take some baby steps in this section.
Although the pendulum squat machine can look intimidating, you’ll feel right at home after following these steps.
DISCLAIMER: Pendulum squat machines can differ widely in their design and function. If you’re unsure of how to use yours after reading this section, follow the instructions listed on the machine or ask the gym’s staff for help.
Step 1: Adjust the Pendulum Squat Machine
Before you even step onto the pendulum squat machine’s platform, adjusting it to fit your body is a must.
Most pendulum squat machines have at least two adjustments: the angle of the platform and the height or depth of the shoulder pads. But the best pendulum squat machines also have different stopper heights and an adjustable safety catch.
Adjusting all of these pieces is straightforward, but the most important one is the angle of the platform.
An angle that puts the platform in the middle of its height selector is usually a good starting point. Too flat or too angled will often feel awkward or force you to raise your heels as you squat down, which is no bueno.
Step 2: Load the Pendulum Squat Machine
This is every lifter’s favorite part — hearing those plates clang together as you load ‘em up.
But, don’t get too gung-ho.
If you’ve never used the pendulum squat machine before, don’t put ANY weight on. Trust me, the weight of the unloaded machine itself could be difficult enough on its own.
If you’re a seasoned lifter, feel free to load your weight plates onto the horn that’s typically behind the back pad.
Step 3: Set Up on the Pendulum Squat Machine
Walk inside the machine’s footprint and set your back against the back pad with your shoulders tucked comfortably under the shoulder pads.
Now that your body’s supported in the tender, loving embrace of the pendulum squat machine, set your feet onto its platform.
Don’t overthink this.
We’ll talk about foot stance later, but just put your feet in the middle of the platform as if you’re setting up for a barbell back squat.
Step 4: Stand Up To Disengage the Stopper
Pendulum squat machines can vary A LOT in their design, so it’s crucial to know where the control lever for the stopper is — unless you want to be calling for your mom or the gym staff at the end of your set.
Usually, the control lever is located along the arm of the pendulum. But it can also be tucked near the handles (if your machine has them) or along the side of the back pad.
When this part is handled, stand up by straightening your knees. The stopper should disengage independently, and you’re ready to start the squat-a-thon.
Step 5: Perform Your Reps
Now the fun begins.
The pendulum squat machine naturally puts you in a leaned-back position, like when you’re in the free fall of a roller coaster ride. Just (a little) less fun.
So, all you need to do to perform your reps is bend your knees.
Squat as low as you comfortably can, then think about pushing the platform away with your feet to stand back up.
That’s one. Do as many reps as you want, hotshot.
Step 6: Re-Engage the Stopper and Exit the Machine
When you’ve had enough “Oh my quad!” action, it’s time to wrap up the squat party.
To finish your set, stand tall and pull the stopper control lever. While holding it, begin squatting down slowly, and the machine should rest against the stopper safely.
Now, exit the machine and take a bow.
*The gym crowd goes wild.*
Pendulum Squat Benefits
Full disclosure: There’s been very little research on pendulum squats. I didn’t find ANY when doing research for this article, and I’m a bit of a nerd.
This is probably because the pendulum squat machine itself is so uncommon — but more on that later.
In the meantime, know that while all the research cited below involves the back squat or hack squat, those exercises are still similar in terms of joint angles and muscles worked.
Because of this, we can probably assume these results apply in some sense to pendulum squats. But if this turns out to be wrong, feel free to put the blame on yours truly.
It Can Grow Your Legs
The first benefit of the pendulum squat is that it can grow your legs. By growing, I mean hypertrophy — increasing the size of your leg muscles.
Since pendulum squats activate your quads, glutes, adductors, and calves, they’ll be the ones that will respond by growing when you perform this exercise.
Ever wondered if squats make your butt bigger? Check out this article to find out!
It Can Strengthen Your Legs
In a similar vein, the pendulum squat can also make your legs stronger.
Strength is force production that is measured in a specific context. And in this context, it’s your ability to lift heavier loads on the pendulum squat.
Remember, though, that strength is also a skill. It’s specific to the joint angles, movement speed, and muscle contraction type during an exercise, just to name a few.
All this to say that the pendulum squat can make your legs stronger, but your strength gains on the pendulum squat are most applicable to pendulum squats (duh).
It’s Easy on Your Back
One of the greatest benefits of the pendulum squat is that it’s easy on your back.
This is because, unlike a barbell back squat, your torso is kept upright and supported against the back pad during the entire lift.
To be clear, the pendulum squat is still loading your spine axially. However, the load is supported comfortably on your shoulders, making it more bearable on your back.
Anyone who said squats are back-breaking work clearly skipped the pendulum squat.
Looking for more squat variations you can do with a bad back? Check out Which Squat Is Best for Lower Back Pain?
It Feels Natural
It’s not uncommon for lifters to feel awkward when they do barbell back squats — a heavy barbell isn’t exactly forgiving, after all.
But thanks to its clever design, the pendulum squat feels natural to perform.
The counterbalance on the far end of the pendulum squat machine makes the movement smooth as butter, which is exactly what you want when grinding out the final reps of a widowmaker set (a set of 20 reps done with a weight you would normally choose for a 10-rep set).
It Offers Variety
Barbell squats are great and all, but as they say, variety is the spice of (lifting) life.
Adding the pendulum squat into your training program alongside, or completely replacing, barbell squats can give your body and mind a nice break.
Changing your exercises gives your tissues a novel stimulus, which can encourage your body to adapt. It can also be mentally refreshing to do a new exercise. It’s a new skill to learn, and a fresh challenge like this is a great way to prevent your program from getting stale.
It’s Easy to Learn
I mentioned earlier that the pendulum squat is a very natural-feeling exercise.
This benefit also makes pendulum squats easier to learn than more difficult squat variations. After you learn how the control lever works on your gym’s pendulum squat machine, you have to squat.
Since it’s performed on a machine, the movement is fixed, so there’s no need to balance a bar. You also don’t have to carefully control the balance in your feet as your body travels through space because you’re leaning directly against the back pad the entire time.
If only the pendulum squat were as easy to do as it is to learn!
Machines are inherently safer than free weights because fewer things can go wrong.
There’s no bar to balance. There’s no fancy limb coordinating. There’s no need to drive your pinky toe into the floor while lifting your big toe as you sit your butt back and recite the alphabet backward twenty times in a row.
Any well-designed pendulum squat has a safety catch at the bottom. So if you can’t complete a rep, you just squat down until the machine makes contact against the safety catch. From there, you can weasel out of the machine.
I’ll admit, it won’t be the most graceful thing (getting stuck under a bar never is, either). But you’ll live to squat another day.
It Doesn’t Need a Spotter
The safety catch of a pendulum squat machine actually has a dual purpose — you don’t need a spotter.
A spotter is highly encouraged, and sometimes essential, for certain exercises. For example, you should always have a spotter when doing a bench press outside a power rack. The spotter is there to help lift the bar back safely in case you can’t complete a repetition.
However, the pendulum squat machine has a safety catch built into the machine, so having a spotter to save you from a failed rep is unnecessary.
That said, a spotter isn’t totally useless… because the machine can’t scream in your ear like an angry drill sergeant, “ONE MORE!”
It Matches Your Strength Curve
The nifty design of the pendulum squat machine includes a counter-balance, which plays a more important part than most people realize.
In a normal squat, the exercise feels more difficult at the bottom and easier at the top. This is due to something called the “strength curve.”
The pendulum squat is unique because the counterbalance makes the movement easier at the bottom (where you’re weakest) and harder at the top (where you’re strongest).
Maybe this IS a medieval torture device after all.
Drawbacks of the Pendulum Squat
Even an exercise as beneficial as the pendulum squat has some drawbacks.
So, look at its downsides before you forever swear allegiance to the pendulum squat machine.
It’s an Uncommon Machine
The pendulum squat machine is one of the least common leg machines out there. *sniffles*
Leg press, hack squat, and leg extension machines are extremely popular in commercial gyms — so much so that you’d definitely raise an eyebrow if a gym didn’t have at least two of them.
But the pendulum squat machine’s design takes up an extra-large footprint, which is a tough pill to swallow since floor space is so valuable for a gym.
And to the untrained eye, its what-the-heck-does-this-thing-do appearance might discourage people from using it. (I know, such a sin).
Having a huge machine that no one uses is quite literally a waste of space, so many gyms don’t even bother buying a pendulum squat machine in the first place.
If your gym has limited equipment, you can’t really do a pendulum squat without a machine. But you can do other quad exercises like sissy squats and sissy squat alternatives.
It’s Hard to Lift a Lot
I wouldn’t say that it’s one of the hardest types of squats, but it’s definitely up there.
The fact that it matches your strength curve and allows you to squat ATG (ass-to-grass) tends to make it difficult for lifters to load up the plates.
So if you love the attention of loading up 20 plates on the leg press, just be ready to temper your expectations on the pendulum squat machine.
It Barely Works Your Core
The back-friendly nature of the pendulum squat is also its downfall.
Since it removes all forward lean that usually happens during a squat, there’s barely any work being done on your abdominal and low back muscles.
For example, a study by Clark & colleagues in 2019 showed that back squatting is significantly more effective than the hack squat in developing trunk strength and stability for dynamic athletic performance.
So if you want the double-whammy of working your core while you squat, the pendulum squat isn’t going to cut it on its own.
It Doesn’t Target Your Stabilizers
Similar to barely working your core, the pendulum squat also neglects your stabilizing muscles (abdominals & lumbar muscles).
Don’t get me wrong. There is some activity in your stabilizers that stop your legs from doing the funky chicken.
But compared to any free-weight squat, they’re barely targeted at all.
It Has Limited Carry-Over to the Barbell Back Squat
In a sport like powerlifting, specificity is king. This means that pendulum squats get an instant thumbs-down.
They don’t use a bar. They don’t work your core. And they don’t require you to sniff ammonia, bathe yourself in chalk, and get trap-slapped before you lift.
Jokes aside, pendulum squats are just too different from barbell back squats to increase them.
It Neglects Your Hamstrings
It’s a myth that squats directly work your hamstrings, and the pendulum squat is no exception.
Despite the beautiful squat depths you can reach on the pendulum squat machine and the crippling inner thigh soreness you might feel, any DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) in the back of your legs is actually from your adductors — not your hamstrings
For squat exercises that target your hamstrings, click here.
Pendulum Squat: Common Mistakes
Avoiding these rookie mistakes is key to mastering the pendulum squat.
Not Adjusting the Machine
Not adjusting the machine is the cardinal sin of any machine-based exercise, but it especially rings true with the pendulum squat machine.
Your body has unique limb lengths, mobility ranges, and (maybe) pre-existing injuries that will change how the pendulum squat feels best for you.
Before you start adding weight, take the time to test and adjust it.
Start with a set of 3-5 reps, then change the platform angle based on your ankle mobility. Modify the height of the shoulder pads based on your height.
Pro tip: After finding the right adjustments, write them down to save time. For example, “Pendulum Squat Machine: hole #4 on the platform, lowest shoulder pad height.”
Loading Too Much Weight
Repeat after me, “This is NOT a leg press machine.”
Loading too much weight on the pendulum squat machine is almost guaranteed to have you squat down and have the magical realization that you will not be standing back up.
You could also get hurt, and recovering from an injury can be a time-consuming (and frustrating) process.
Remember, the pendulum squat is more challenging than a leg press due to its matching of the strength curve.
So, start with the empty machine for your first set. If it’s hard enough, don’t add anything. If it’s easy, add 10-15 pounds and reassess.
Not Practicing How to Bail
Not practicing how to bail is another common mistake by pendulum squat newbies.
Listen, I know failing a rep can feel embarrassing. But consider this, very few lifters actually train hard enough to fail a rep in the gym.
So, failing a rep isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you’re training hard and pushing your body to its limit — you should feel proud for going the distance.
But do yourself a favor and practice failing a repetition with the empty machine.
See how the safety catch system works, how low you’ll have to squat down, and how you’ll have to shimmy your feet off the platform.
Trust me, the last scenario you’ll want to figure this out for the first time is during a heavy set.
Not Squatting Low
Not squatting low on the pendulum squat is a mistake — hear me out on this one.
Squatting to depth is essential for powerlifting and encouraged for everyone, but you don’t have to squat like an Olympic weightlifter unless you compete in weightlifting.
That said, most pendulum squat machines have enough adjustments to comfortably squat ATG (ass-to-grass).
And a study by Kubo & colleagues (2019) found that “full squat training is more effective for developing the lower limb muscles excluding the rectus femoris and hamstring muscles.”
Here’s the bottom line: squatting low (preferably ATG) will work your leg muscles more, making them grow more than squatting to a higher depth.
Who Should Do a Pendulum Squat?
There are a few types of lifters who should definitely swing toward the pendulum squat.
I’ll cover each one, so you can decide if a pendulum squat is right for you.
Lifters Just Starting Out
The pendulum squat is great for lifters who are new to strength training.
It’s easy to learn, it feels natural, and the pendulum squat machine is adjustable to fit many different body sizes.
Lifters With Back Issues
Pendulum squats are excellent for lifters with sensitive backs and/or recurring back issues.
They’re back-friendly because they keep your torso vertical and load your spine using shoulder pads instead of a barbell.
This means you can finally look forward to leg day — without having your back hold you back (pardon the pun).
Lifters Wanting to Grow Their Legs
The pendulum squat is a fantastic choice for lifters who want to turn their legs into a pair of tree trunks.
It targets multiple muscles in your lower body, like your quads, glutes, adductors, and calves. And thanks to its deep range of motion, you’ll maximize your output from every repetition.
If you don’t have access to a pendulum squat machine, hack squats and hack squat alternatives are also great ways to grow your legs.
Lifters Wanting a Break From Barbells
Pendulum squats are a serious relief for lifters looking to step away from the barbell for a while.
Whether applying a new physical stimulus to your body or giving yourself a mental break from the repetition of barbell training, pendulum squats can preserve your gains while giving you a new exercise to master.
Lifters Healing From a Back Squat Injury
The pendulum squat can be a helpful exercise for lifters healing from a back squat injury.
Injuries can be complex, and you might need to regress your lower body training to the hack squat or leg press machine before trying out the pendulum squat.
However, the pendulum squat is a back-friendly squat variation that will allow you to squat deep in a safer way — which can do wonders for your peace of mind while you heal from a back squat injury.
Tips for Performing the Pendulum Squat
I have first-hand experience using a pendulum squat machine, so here are my best tips for doing this exercise.
Experiment With Different Foot Positions
Like any squatting exercise, you should pick a squat stance that feels best for you.
There are three ways to adjust your feet on pendulum squats: stance width, toe angle, and foot placement on the platform.
As a rule of thumb, I suggest that you stick to your regular squat stance and place your feet on the platform based on comfort in the bottom of your pendulum squats.
For an in-depth breakdown of each stance, check out the article Hack Squat Foot Placements.
Try Heeled and Flat Shoes
Even though the platform on most pendulum squat machines can be adjusted, I encourage you to try different footwear.
Although you might feel strongest using a flat shoe during back squats, you might feel your quads are targeted better when you wear squat shoes.
The easiest way to figure out which one you prefer is to try both. Just remember to use the same load on the pendulum squat machine during your experiment, or you’ll muddy your results.
Ditch the Lifting Belt
A lifting belt can be a valuable training tool for barbell squats, but I’d recommend you not use one for pendulum squats.
Lifting belts make your torso more rigid by increasing your intra-abdominal pressure, which is exactly what you want while leaning forward with a heavy bar on your back.
However, the pendulum squat puts very little shear stress on your back since it keeps your torso vertical. This means that a lifting belt isn’t very helpful and is possibly just cumbersome while you lean against the back pad.
Do Sets of 6-12 Reps
Unlike powerlifting, no competition tests your pendulum squat 1-rep max.
And while nothing is stopping you from training in the classic 1-6 rep range to focus more on strength gains, I recommend you do sets of 6-12 reps instead.
The pendulum squat can be a fantastic exercise to accumulate the volume needed to grow your legs, but it does so without letting your back be the limiting factor.
For this reason, I suggest that you use it as a tool for hypertrophy instead of pure strength gain.
How To Program Pendulum Squat
When it comes to how to program the pendulum squat, here’s what I suggest:
- Add it to your program once a week
- Perform 3-6 working sets per workout
- Stick to sets of 6-12 reps
- Take each set within 1-4 reps from failure
3 Alternatives to the Pendulum Squat
If your gym doesn’t have a pendulum squat machine, no biggie.
Try a pendulum squat alternative listed below.
The V-squat machine is similar to the pendulum squat machine but without the counterbalance.
For this reason, it’s the closest alternative to the pendulum squat machine.
Hack Squat Machine
Some people use the hack squat, and pendulum squat interchangeably and may even combine the exercises into one by calling them a “pendulum hack squat.” However, the exercises aren’t the same.
The hack squat machine is a hybrid between the pendulum and leg press machines. When comparing the pendulum squat vs. the hack squat, the hack squat is not as similar to the pendulum squat. Still, it makes for a solid pendulum squat alternative because it works many of the same muscles.
Smith Machine Squat
The Smith machine is extremely common in gyms, but the difference between it and the pendulum squat machine is night and day.
Even though it’s a machine, it uses a bar on a fixed track. This means it’s pretty dissimilar to the pendulum squat machine. It makes a decent pendulum squat alternative, but the options listed above are better choices.
Check out 9 Smith Machine Squat Variations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the Pendulum Squat Safer Than Barbell Squats?
Pendulum squats are safer than barbell squats. The pendulum squat machine balances the weight for you, so tipping sideways isn’t a concern. Also, there’s often an adjustable safety catch at the bottom, so you can safely escape if you fail a rep.
Is the Pendulum Squat as Effective as Other Squat Variations?
The pendulum squat is as effective as other squat variations. The pendulum squat can be incrementally loaded, the machine is highly adjustable, and it targets many of the same muscle groups in your lower body as other squat variations.
The pendulum squat is an excellent squat variation. It’s back-friendly, easy to learn, and still targets the same lower body muscles as a regular squat.
It’s a rare machine that offers a unique way of loading the squat pattern, so consider yourself lucky if you have access to one!
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach and copywriter, residing in Calgary. When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict.