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9 Barbell Squat Alternatives At Home With Dumbbells

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The barbell squat could, rightly or wrongly, be considered the king of gym exercises.

Even though it’s got some serious drawbacks, it is still regarded as the one of most important things you can do, not only to pack mass onto your lower body, but to build muscle in general.

To perform the barbell squat safely and effectively, you need a squat rack and an Olympic barbell set.

Many home gym trainers have neither the budget nor the space for that equipment.

Fortunately, there are some effective back squat alternatives you can do at home to work your quads when you don’t have access to a rack and bar.

As a personal trainer, I often train with people in their homes who have very limited equipment. I’ve put together a toolbox of exercises to meet that situation.

With the help of resistance bands, dumbbells, and body weight, these barbell squat alternatives can give you an awesome quad workout even when you don’t have access to a squat rack.


Can you really get an effective leg workout with a squat rack?

When I turn up to train guys through a leg workout with just resistance bands and a pair of dumbbells, I’m often greeted by a skeptical look.

They don’t even have to ask the question for me to know what they’re thinking – how can bands and dumbbells replace barbell squats?

By the end of the workout, they’re no longer wondering that question.

Instead, they’re focused on trying to stay on their feet as their legs quads are quivering in pain (the good sort)!

The answer is, yes, you most definitely can get an effective leg workout without a squat rack.

Keep in mind that your muscle does not know what type of resistance is being used; all it knows is how effectively it is being worked.

So, whether it’s a barbell or a resistance band, it all comes down to how you use it and how you structure the workout.

Remember to focus on form and to use a weight or resistance that challenges you but allows you to complete the exercises with proper form.

With consistency and progressive overload, you can definitely get an effective quad workout without a squat rack.


Intensity-enhancing techniques

Because you can’t use the same kind of resistance with bands, body weight and dumbbells that you can with barbell squats, you need to compensate by making use of certain intensity-enhancing techniques.

Here are my favorite methods…

Increase the number of reps and sets

You can increase the number of reps and sets you perform for each exercise to raise the overall volume of your workout.

Over time, try to progressively increase the number of reps and sets you do, but make sure to maintain good technique at all times. 

I recommend using higher reps to really pump up the quadriceps.

My clients have had a lot of success with sets of 30, 20, and 15 reps, with minimal rest (45-60 seconds) between sets. 

Tempo training

Tempo training involves mixing up the rate at which you complete each rep of an exercise.

You could, for instance, complete a squat with a 3-second descent, a 1-second pause at the bottom, and a 1-second explosive ascent.

This method may promote muscle growth by increasing the amount of time under tension.

Include drop sets

Drop sets involve doing an exercise to failure, then dropping the weight slightly so you can pump out a few more reps.

This continues for an additional two or three drop sets. This is another way of increasing the volume of the workout, and it works really well. 

Use supersets

Supersets are when you complete two exercises immediately after one another with no rest in between.

For example, you may perform a set of Bulgarian split squats immediately after a set of resistance band squats.

By pre-exhausting your quads on the first exercise, this method seriously increases the overall intensity of your workout.


What muscles does the barbell squat work?

Barbell squat - muscles used

The barbell is a compound exercise that targets the following muscles…

Primary:

  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

Secondary:

  • Lower back
  • Erector spinae
  • Abs

Equipment needed for these exercises


9 barbell squat alternatives that replicate the same movement pattern

Barbell squat alternative infographic part 1

1. Dumbbell squat

Equipment needed for the dumbbell squat:

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

How to do the dumbbell squat:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand with your arms hanging by your sides. Keep your head and chest up, and your shoulders back.
  2. Push your hips back and bend your knees to begin the descent. Keep your heels planted firmly on the ground and your weight evenly distributed over your midfoot.
  3. Continue to descend until your hips and knees are parallel. Your back should be straight and neutral, and your knees should be in line with your toes. Keep your back straight and your knees from bending inward.
  4. Push through the heels to drive directly back to the start position. 

Dumbbell squat muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Core

2. Dumbbell goblet squat

Equipment needed for the dumbbell goblet squat:

How to do the dumbbell goblet squat:

  1. Begin by standing with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing slightly outwards.
  2. Hold a dumbbell with both hands at chest level, with your palms facing each other and your elbows pointing down.
  3. Brace your core, keep your chest up and maintain a neutral spine.
  4. Start the squat by bending at the knees and hips, as if you were sitting back into a chair.
  5. Keep your weight on your heels and your knees tracking in line with your toes throughout the movement.
  6. Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  7. Pause at the bottom of the squat and then push through your heels to stand back up, squeezing your glutes at the top.

Dumbbell goblet squat muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Core

3. Bulgarian split squat

Equipment needed for the Bulgarian split squat:

REP AB-3000 Bench

REP AB-3000 Weight Bench
Read our best weight bench guide here

This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.

We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.

Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.

With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.

How to do the Bulgarian split squat:

  1. Stand with your back to a bench, about two feet away.
  2. Lift one foot and place the top of your foot on the bench. Your other foot should be about one to two feet in front of the bench.
  3. Lower your body by bending your front knee, keeping your back knee off the ground. Your back should be straight, and your front knee should be directly above your ankle.
  4. Keep your core engaged and your upper body straight throughout the exercise.
  5. Push back up to the starting position by straightening your front knee.

Need a high-quality weight bench for your home gym? Check out our review of the 7 best weight benches on the current market.

Bulgarian split squat  muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Core

4. Resistance band squat

Equipment needed for resistance band squats:

How to do resistance band squats:

  1. Stand on a resistance band with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the ends of the resistance band with your hands and bring them up to your shoulders.
  2. Lower your body by bending your knees and pushing your hips back as if you’re about to sit in a chair. Keep your weight on your heels, your back straight, and your core engaged.
  3. Continue squatting until your thighs are parallel to the ground or as low as you can comfortably go.
  4. Pause for a second, then push up through your heels to stand back up to the starting position.

Resistance band squats muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Core

5. Pistol squat

Equipment needed for the pistol squat:

  • None

How to do the pistol squat:

  1. Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart, arms extended in front of you for balance.
  2. Shift your weight to your left foot and lift your right foot off the ground.
  3. Slowly lower your body by bending your left knee and pushing your hips back.
  4. Keep your chest up and your right leg straight as you lower your body.
  5. As you descend, extend your arms forward to help with balance.
  6. Go as low as you can while maintaining good form.
  7. Push through your heel and drive your left foot into the ground to stand back up.
  8. Repeat on the other side.

Pistol squat muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Core

Barbell squat alternative infographic part 2

6. Dumbbell lunges

Equipment needed for the dumbbell lunge:

How to do dumbbell lunges:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and a pair of dumbbells held at your sides.
  2. Take a large step forward with one foot, and lower your body down towards the ground by bending your front knee, keeping your chest up and your back straight.
  3. Continue lowering your body until your front thigh is parallel to the ground, and your back knee is hovering just above the ground.
  4. Pause for a moment at the bottom of the movement, then push through your front foot to rise back up to the starting position.

Dumbbell lunges muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Core

7. Wall reference split squat

Equipment needed for the wall reference split squat:

How to do the wall reference split squat:

  1. Stand with your back facing a wall, and your feet shoulder-width apart and a pair of dumbbells in your hands.
  2. Take a long step forward with one foot, and position it about 2-3 feet in front of the wall.
  3. Place the toes of your back foot against the wall, with your heel lifted.
  4. Lower your body down towards the ground by bending your front knee, keeping your chest up and your back straight.
  5. Continue lowering your body until your front thigh is parallel to the ground, and your back knee is hovering just above the ground.
  6. Pause for a moment at the bottom of the movement, then push through your front foot to rise back up to the starting position.
  7. Repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions, then switch legs and repeat the exercise on the other side.

Wall reference split squat muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hip adductors
  • Hamstrings

8. Sissy squat

Equipment needed for the sissy squat:

How to do the sissy squat:

  1. Stand in front of a secure upright structure. Hold onto the structure with both hands out parallel for support.
  2. Lean back so that your upper body is at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. 
  3. Descend by bending at the knees only. Your goal should be to bring the knees as far forward of your toes as possible. 
  4. Push through the heels to return to the start position. 

Sissy squat muscles worked:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hip adductors
  • Hamstrings

9. Front leg elevated split squat

Equipment needed for the front leg elevated split squat:

How to do the front leg elevated split squat:

  1. Stand facing a platform that is 6-12 inches high, with your feet hip-width apart and a pair of dumbbells held at your sides. 
  2. Assume a staggered stance and place your front foot on the platform.
  3. Lower your body down towards the ground by bending your front knee, keeping your chest up and your back straight.
  4. Continue lowering your body until your front thigh is parallel to the ground, and your back knee is hovering just above the ground.
  5. Pause for a moment at the bottom of the movement, then push through your front foot to rise back up to the starting position.

Barbell squat alternatives: The bottom line

By combining the 9 exercises we’ve detailed here with the intensity-enhancing techniques that precede them, you’ll be able to work your quads to the max, even though there’s not a squat rack in sight.

I recommend trialing all nine exercises, then settling on the three or four that provide you with the greatest quad activation.

Use those exercises as the basis for a 14-16 set workout, with rep ranges between 10 and 30.

Another favorite gym exercise for the quads is the leg extension. Check out our rundown of the best leg press alternatives you can do at home without a machine.

Want to improve your home gym?

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  • The 4 items of kit every gym needs
  • What you should avoid
  • Where to find bargains and discounts

Click here to learn more about how to build a home gym.

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Steve is a certified personal trainer, current home gym owner, former gym owner, and copywriter. He joined his first gym at age 15 and, five years later, he was managing his own studio. In 1987, he became the first personal fitness trainer in New Zealand.

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