We’ve all suffered from a bad back in our lifetime. One of the exercises that becomes impossible to perform is the squat. The heavy load on your back and sitting in the hole is excruciating. So, I’ve curated the 9 best squat alternatives for a bad back.
Not every exercise will work for you. It depends on how severe your back pain is and if it’s a niggle or an actual injury. Therefore, always seek professional help first before embarking on a squat alternative.
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9 Squat Alternatives For A Bad Back
Depending on your back pain, you’ll typically fare better with the front squat vs. back squat. It’s because you’re more upright with the front squat due to the bar placement. This means less stress on your lower back.
The muscles worked are similar, hitting the quads, glutes, and erector spinae, making it the perfect squat substitute . Here’s how to do it:
- Rack the bar in the front rack position. The clean grip front rack position is ideal if you have decent mobility.
- Initiate the front squat by simultaneously breaking at the hips and knees. This will ensure you descend with pressure through the middle of your feet. Push your knees out to allow your hips to sit between your legs.
- As you descend, maintain a high elbow position, which will maintain a big chest position. Stay tight as you catch the bounce, returning to the starting position.
Front squat doesn’t help your back? The belt squat is bound to work. However, it requires special equipment or annoying setups. A belt squat machine is your best option, but they are rare in most gyms.
With no machine, you can use a dip belt and stand on two boxes with the weight hanging between them. It’s not the safest way to belt squat, but it’s better than nothing. The third way is to attach bands to your dip belt, which won’t give you the same loading capacity as weights.
My favorite method is using the flywheel. It overloads the legs like no other exercise.
All athletes I’ve worked with have found this the best squat alternative for back pain. Here’s how to do it:
- Adjust the belt squat machine to your height. Place the belt around your hips and assume your squat stance. You will not be able to stand completely upright as the belt will force you to have some forward lean.
- Descend by pushing the hips back and bending the knees simultaneously. This will ensure you descend with pressure through the middle of your feet. Push your knees out to allow your hips to sit between your legs.
- Push through your full foot to extend your legs and return to the starting position.
Squat To Box
Shortening the range of motion can help reduce back pain if it’s not severe. Squatting to a high box or bench is easier on the back than sitting in the hole.
But don’t turn it into a traditional box squat where you sit back. This will put more stress on your lower back as you bend over further. Instead, perform your regular squat to stay upright. Here’s how to do it:
- Place a bench or box of your desired height where you will squat. Unrack the barbell and ensure you’re close to the bench or box.
- Break simultaneously at the hips and knees and lightly touch the box or bench with your butt. Drive through your full foot to the starting position.
The leg press can be a lower back saver since there is no spinal loading. However, don’t go too deep as the lower back rounding could flare up back pain. A lower foot position on the platform is better for your back since there’s less lumbar flexion. Here’s how to do it:
- Place your feet on the platform so your heels remain flat when you reach your bottom position. Unhook the platform and lower it, keeping tension on your quads.
- Stop the descent once your lower back starts to come off the seat. Drive through your full foot to return to the starting position.
The hack squat is an excellent option if you must squat even with a bad back. Being partially reclined with your back resting against the pad significantly reduces spinal loading.
Bodybuilders often prefer the hack squat to the squat for targeting the quads because you’re stable in the machine, and the upper body isn’t a limiting factor. Here’s how to do it:
- Assume your regular squat foot position and unhook the hack squat. Descend slowly, keeping your feet flat on the platform and keeping tension in the quads.
- Once in the bottom position, drive through your full foot to the starting position.
Bulgarian Split Squat
You don’t have to squat on two legs. It may be preferable to perform single-leg squat variations if you have a bad back because they are easily loaded holding dumbbells, eliminating spinal loading.
The Bulgarian split squat is the hardest single-leg squat variation (other than the pistol squat), making it an excellent squat alternative for hammering the quads and glutes.
The split stance also loads the rear leg rectus femoris and hip flexors in a stretched position, which may lengthen these muscles, reducing “tightness.” Here’s how to do it:
- Holding two dumbbells, place one foot on a bench with the shoelaces facing down.
- With most of your weight on your front leg, descend until your knee is slightly off the floor. Your front shin will be near vertical.
- Drive back to the top with the front leg. You will feel your back leg working, and that is perfectly fine.
The walking lunge is the locomotive version of the split squat. It’s easier for high reps because you alternate legs as you walk versus performing all reps on one leg during the split squat. Walking lunges make excellent finishers because of this.
For example, performing 100 walking lunges at the end of your workout. You don’t need external load, so your bad back won’t be affected. Here’s how to do it:
- Holding two dumbbells, step forward. Immediately lower your hips once your foot hits the ground until your back knee touches the floor.
- Push off with your front foot and bring your leg forward so your legs are together.
- Continue with the other foot.
What Makes A Good Squat Alternative For Back Pain?
This list of exercises isn’t random. They’re picked based on strict criteria, which are:
- They primarily work the quadriceps and glutes
- They are a squat pattern, whether on one or two legs
- They force an upright posture or reduce or eliminate axial spinal loading.
These criteria ensure you work the same muscles as the squat without aggravating a bad back.
Is It OK To Squat With Lower Back Pain?
Always consult your physical therapist to be sure it’s not something serious before continuing to squat. However, if you’re working around back pain because it isn’t severe and you’ve been given the all-clear, squatting with lower back pain is fine.
But you should select an alternative from this exercise list to reduce lower back stress and not make it worse.
Try these squat alternatives if you have a bad back to effectively target the quads and glutes. You can typically work around niggles, and a bad back is one of them. If it’s more serious, get seen by a professional for individual guidance.
1. Yavuz, H. U., Erdağ, D., Amca, A. M., & Aritan, S. (2015). Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. Journal of sports sciences, 33(10), 1058-1066.