With all the different squat variations and their own creative names, it’s easy to get mixed up wondering which squat exercises are worth your time, including the suitcase squat.
What is a suitcase squat? The suitcase squat is a squat variation where you hold a dumbbell in one or both hands at your sides like you’re holding a suitcase. You then perform a squat similar to any other squat variation, by sitting down until your hips descend below your knees, then stand back up.
Sounds simple enough, and the name makes sense, but it can be difficult to determine if this is a squat variation you should incorporate into your training. Let’s dive into what makes this variation different or better than other squat exercises.
The suitcase squat works the same muscles as a standard squat, but with a little different emphasis due to the placement of the load.
As you might have guessed, the suitcase squat primarily relies on the quads, glutes, and erectors (lower back), while secondarily relying on the abs, hamstrings, adductors (inner thigh), and upper back muscles.
What makes the suitcase squat unique from the standard squat is the placement of the load in your hands below your waist, rather than across your back, as with a barbell squat. By placing the load in your hands, your upper body is less prone to falling forward, leaving your back and abs with much less stress and less need to work hard.
This can be a positive way to put more emphasis on your quads and glutes, freeing your mind and back from worrying about upper body position as much.
If you perform the suitcase squat with the dumbbell in just one hand at a time, you’ll get added work on the obliques and abs as they work to keep you balanced and upright to offset the weight on the other side of your body.
How To Do A Suitcase Squat
The steps to perform a suitcase squat are simple:
Step 1: Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at your sides
Grasp a dumbbell in one hand or each hand, arms hanging at your sides.
Step 2: Squat until your hips are below parallel
Sit downward, as with a normal squat, until your hips descend below the top of your knee cap.
Step 3: Return to the starting position
Stand back up to your starting position.
Step 4: Repeat for your desired number of reps
Repeat for as many reps as the program calls for.
4 Benefits of the Suitcase Squat
There are 4 main benefits that come to mind as I think about suitcase squats:
- It’s helpful for beginners
- It has great rehab applications
- It can strengthen your stabilizing muscles
- It can strengthen your quads
1. It’s Helpful for Beginners
Because this variation takes the load off of your back and puts it into your hands, it’s a much less technical version of the squat. For beginners trying to get the basics of the movement down, build some initial muscle, and get comfortable with resistance training, this is a great starting point.
I’ve worked with many new lifters who are unable to squat an empty 45lb bar on their first workout. For these lifters, we need to give them an option between bodyweight squats and squats with an empty bar on their back. Enter the suitcase squat.
By using the suitcase squat, the lifter can start to familiarize themself not only with the mechanical motion of the squat but also with doing a squat with a load in their hands. Once they can confidently perform these, they can often make the jump to barbell squats and progress from there.
If you’re a new lifter, you should also try some of my favorite squat progressions to help you get more comfortable with squatting.
2. It Has Great Rehab Applications
For the same reasons it’s great for beginners, the suitcase squat is also a great option as a rehab exercise. Because the load is moved off of the lifter’s back and placed into their hands, lifters coming back from certain injuries can simplify the movement to make it easier and safer to perform.
Obviously, this won’t be the case with every injury, but in many cases, this can be a great option to get athletes moving in squat patterns again, introducing light load, and strengthening them toward reintroducing the full barbell squat.
3. It Can Strengthen Your Stabilizing Muscles
I mentioned before that the back and abs aren’t put under as much stress in this format of the squat, so this benefit might seem like a contradiction. However, when performed with a dumbbell in one hand at a time, this variation can place a unique emphasis on the abs and obliques.
With the load in one hand, your obliques and abs have to work harder to counter the pull of the weight on the opposite side to keep you upright. Since this isn’t a force your body has to work against with a barbell on your back, the suitcase squat uniquely trains these lateral abdominal muscles.
For other ideas on how to train your abs, check out the 9 best ab exercises for powerlifters.
4. It Can Strengthen Your Quads
Finally, now that you’re not worrying about the load on your back, fighting to stay upright, and generally simplifying the squat movement, you can put extra focus on your quads to grow and strengthen them.
You can make this emphasis even greater by taking a narrow stance as you perform these suitcase squats.
For lifters not concerned about a squat PR, or bodybuilders who want some dedicated quad work, the suitcase squat can be a great option to add to your leg day.
2 Drawbacks of the Suitcase Squat
As with every exercise, there are some downsides to the suitcase squat:
- It’s a less valuable trap bar deadlift
- It has limited load potential
1. It’s a Less Valuable Trap Bar Deadlift
When you look at the mechanical motion of the suitcase squat, it’s exactly the same as a trap bar or hex bar deadlift.
Granted, if you don’t have access to a trap bar or hex bar, the suitcase squat can be a good option to get the same stimulus with the equipment you have available.
However, the trap bar deadlift, in my opinion, is a superior selection for this particular movement, because you can increase the weight to a point where you can’t even lift it, whereas dumbbells tend to top out in the low 100s in most gyms.
If you want to seriously progress your suitcase squat, you’re going to run out of load with the dumbbells, so a trap bar deadlift is a better choice.
Secondly, with dumbbells in your hand, you’re more likely to cut your depth short and miss out on some of the range of motion you should be getting. With a trap bar deadlift, you’ll be touching the floor with each rep, giving you a consistent range of motion with each rep.
2. It Has Limited Load Potential
Not only is this a downside when comparing suitcase squats to the trap bar deadlift, but it’s generally true compared to most other squat variations. Dumbbells only get so big, and eventually, you’ll probably need more load than the suitcase squat allows.
I’ll admit, there are people out there that will never hold a 150lb dumbbell in each hand to perform suitcase squats, no matter how long they do them and progress them a little bit each week. But for most serious lifters, you’ll want more freedom when it comes to improving your squat and growing your legs.
For this reason, you’ll want to leave the suitcase squats as a supporting variation, not the primary squat movement in your program.
Suitcase Squat Mistakes to Avoid
When you do perform suitcase squats, be sure to avoid these common mistakes:
- Ignoring upper body position
- Not progressing it
Ignoring Upper Body Position
Just because the load moves from the top of your back to your hands below your waist doesn’t mean you can ignore your upper body position. In fact, the fact that your back and abs don’t have to strain as hard to hold position means you should hold yourself to an even higher standard of upper body positioning.
With the load hanging at your sides, you can keep the load centered over your midfoot for the entire movement, so you can keep your upper body relatively upright the whole time. The only limitation is in your ankle mobility, so your chest will need to dip forward to keep your feet flat on the ground at the bottom of the squat.
Because of this advantage, you should use it as an opportunity to really dial in what good upper body positioning feels like so that you can carry that feeling over to your barbell squats. If you’re ignoring your upper body position, you’re just developing poor habits which can also carry over to your barbell squats.
Torso angle in the squat will depend on your overall build, height, and limb and torso positions. Learn more in Best Squat Back Angle For Your Size & Build (With Pictures).
Not Progressing It
As with every exercise, the suitcase squat is only effective as long as it’s challenging. That’s why we use progressive overload, or gradually increasing the load, reps, sets, or intensity steadily over time.
If you really want to see results, don’t just perform suitcase squats one time on a leg day. Commit to it, find a good starting point with a weight, rep range, and number of sets that is challenging, and then add to that week over week.
For example, if your first week is 35lb dumbbells in each hand for 4 sets of 10, you might bump to 45lb dumbbells in week 2 for 4 sets of 8. In week 3, you can keep the same reps/sets, but bump to 50lb dumbbells. In week 4, keep the 50lb dumbbells, but add your 2 reps back from the first week for 4 sets of 10 reps.
The way you progress is less important than progressing it at all, so hold yourself accountable and keep making things challenging to see real progress.
Who Should Do A Suitcase Squat?
I can think of 4 types of lifters who would benefit from regular suitcase squats:
- Beginning squatters
- Rehabbing squatters
- Traveling squatters
- Quad growers
The suitcase squat is a great starting point for beginning lifters. If the barbell squat is too difficult, too heavy (even with an empty bar), or too intimidating, the suitcase squat offers a simpler, easier variation to get things started.
Obviously, we want to help that lifter move on to the barbell squat, which is arguably more effective and valuable to a lifter. But if we can’t do that at first, we need to start somewhere.
The simplified, less technical motion that the suitcase squat offers provides a great beginning alternative to learning the mechanics of a squat.
Beyond that, when programmed correctly (see above notes on progressing it), new lifters can develop significant quad muscle to set them on a great path forward in their lifting career.
Because the suitcase squat moves the load off of your back and simplifies the mechanics, this is a great option for lifters who are coming back from an injury.
If your injury limits your ability to put load on your back or hold a bar firmly on your back with your hands, this might be a great option.
Beyond that, you can start squatting again with a much lighter load just by holding dumbbells in each hand, limiting the risk you put on yourself as you start to get back into things.
If you’re experiencing pain in your lower back, try some of these other squat variations for low back pain.
I am a competitive powerlifter and coach, but I also travel for my software job several times a year. Sometimes, I find myself in places where the hotel gym is the only place I can get to for a workout.
In these scenarios, the suitcase squat has come in handy when poorly equipped hotel gyms only offer me dumbbells, an adjustable bench, and a few weight stack cable machines to build a workout around.
For anyone else in a similar situation, any squat workout is better than no squat workout, and the suitcase squat is a great tool in my arsenal to check the boxes and make the most of that situation.
But don’t be fooled – even for a guy who’s squatted 650, I’ve developed a gnarly pump and made myself nauseous with just 50lb dumbbells for sets of 16 reps on narrow stance suitcase squats!
To add to my experience shared above, the suitcase squat can be a great squat accessory movement for growing the quads. The reason they make me nauseous is that they are so effective at targeting the quads that when you do a bunch of them (and you don’t do them often, like me), they can really pack a punch.
For lifters wanting to program them regularly (as you should, not like me using them in a pinch), you can do them enough to avoid the nausea and really build your quads for size.
Force yourself to perform them with a narrower stance and exaggerate the range of motion by touching the DBs to the ground with each rep, and you’ve got a great exercise for growing the quads.
Wondering if squats are enough to grow your quads? We discuss the reasons why you may or may not want to just do squats (and deadlifts) for your legs in Are Squats And Deadlifts Enough For Legs? (Pros & Cons).
How To Program A Suitcase Squat
When adding suitcase squats to your program, you likely wouldn’t want to make them your primary squat exercise, unless you’re brand new or coming back from rehab. If you are, you likely have a trainer or coach helping you with programming, so I won’t speak to that group here.
For everyone else, the suitcase squat is best programmed as an accessory exercise you can do after performing a few sets of barbell squats in some variation.
Generally, when building a workout, you want to start with warm-ups before doing your heaviest, most technical lifts, like the barbell squat. We want to be fresh and focused for these exercises.
After we perform those warm-up sets, we move on to variations of that main exercise and accessories or exercises which target the same muscles we used in the first movement. This is where the suitcase squat comes in.
I would recommend using suitcase squats as a variation or accessory movement for high reps. Having done your heavy squats, you can now focus on burning your quads out with suitcase squats to get added volume and focus more on the quads themselves.
In another scenario, like my hotel gym situation, there’s nothing wrong with making the suitcase squat your main squat/quad movement with a lack of other options. But in a normal scenario where you do have other options, the suitcase squat best belongs in the family of accessory movements to be done later in the workout to really burn out your quads.
4 Alternatives to the Suitcase Squat
If you aren’t able to do suitcase squats, or just plain don’t want to do them, here are a few alternatives you can try to get similar benefits:
- Trap bar deadlifts
- Cannonball squats
- Goblet squats
- Farmer carry or suitcase carry
Trap Bar Deadlifts
I elaborated on this above, but the mechanical motion of the suitcase squat is virtually identical to the trap bar deadlift.
With the weight at your sides, in your hands, it’s the same as holding on to the trap bar. The weight stays centered on your body the entire movement, simplifying things so you can just focus on your lower half and not worry so much about upper body position (though as I discussed above, you do still need to pay attention to your upper body).
The trap bar will allow you to load much more weight than dumbbells in each hand, and many trap bars have two different grips to increase your range of motion. You do have more options with the trap bar in my opinion.
Similar to suitcase squats, the cannonball squat is performed with dumbbells, but rather than holding them down at your sides, a single dumbbell is held in both hands under your chin/against your chest.
They are also performed with a narrow stance and often call for your heels to be elevated on a plate or some other 1-2” platform to allow for more range of motion without your heels coming off the platform. These can also be done with a barbell on your back.
This variation moves the load back to your upper body. By holding the weight in your hands in front of you, you bring the emphasis of your upper body position back into the equation. It can also be viewed as a lighter version of a front squat for this reason.
Additionally, you lose the potential to train your lateral abdominal muscles and obliques that come with one-handed suitcase squat variations because the weight is held in the center of your body, removing the need for your muscles to compensate for the load on one side of your body.
Goblet squats are similar to the cannonball squat but typically done with a wider stance. The single dumbbell can also be held in both your hands between your legs and below your waist instead of up against your chest and below your chin.
Farmer Carry or Suitcase Carry
For those interested in training your obliques or lateral abdominal muscles, you can get the same effect by performing farmer’s carries or suitcase carries with a dumbbell, kettlebell, or specific farmer carry bars in one hand.
Perform this by picking up the load in one hand and, while bracing your core to remain stable and upright, walking in a straight line for a set distance, like 50 ft, or a set time, like 60 seconds.
It’s a great alternative to train those same muscles without performing the up and down squatting motion.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Suitcase Squat?
A suitcase squat is a squat variation where the lifter holds a dumbbell in one hand or one in each hand, hanging at their sides. The squat is then performed similarly to other squats, with the lifter sitting downward until their hips descend below the top of the knee cap, and standing back up to the erect position.
Are Suitcase Squats Effective?
Suitcase squats are an effective variation for many lifters. By moving the load from a barbell on your back to dumbbells in your hands, the suitcase squat simplifies the technical requirements of the squat to still allow for effective training of the squat motion and quad muscles.
Other Squat Exercise Guides
- Lumberjack Squat: What Is It, How To, Benefits, Common Mistakes
- Frog Squat: What Is It, How-To, Benefits, Common Mistakes
- Steinborn Squat: Does This “Circus Like” Squat Have Benefits?
- Kneeling Squat: What Is It, How To, Benefits, Common Mistakes
- Anderson Squat: What Is It, How To Do It, Benefits, Drawbacks
- Tabata Squats: How-To, Common Mistakes, & Workout Sample
- Isometric Squat: How-To, Benefits, & Should You Do It?
- High Box Squat: 5 Reasons Why It Makes Sense
- 6 Cambered Squat Bar Benefits (And, How To Train With It)
- Hatfield Squat: What Is It? Technique, Benefits, Muscles Used
- 1.5 Squats: How-to, Benefits, And Should You Do It?
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.