Are Barbell Back Squats Mandatory To Build Muscle?

Embracing alternatives for effective muscle building

How often have you heard that the squat is the king of exercises? The barbell back squat is a muscle-building favorite that targets several major muscle groups, including the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. It’s become an unwritten rule that should be included in your leg day workout, especially if you want to get bigger. But are squats mandatory? It might seem like blasphemy to question an exercise that has been a staple in the industry for decades, but this question is important for those who cannot physically perform a squat. Let’s look at why squats are so popular, the key to muscle hypertrophy or growth, and whether squats can be substituted for another exercise.


Where did this idea that squats are mandatory come from? Why is it that we squat in the first place? Barbell back squats meet three essential criteria for muscle building:

Targets Several Muscle Groups: You’re getting the most bang for your buck regarding muscle activation. The back squat is a compound exercise that demands a lot from your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, calves, and abdominals. It also drives higher levels of testosterone and growth hormone, which can support muscle building.

Allows for Full Range of Motion: Aside from activating several muscle groups, the barbell back squat takes your body through a full range of motion in the sagittal plane. This will improve your ability to flex at the ankles, knees, and hips, increase the weight you can comfortably handle, and support muscle building.

Heavy Loads Can Be Used: Since the barbell is resting across the trapezoids, you can load it up with far more weight than you could by holding dumbbells. Studies show muscle growth can be effectively triggered when using 85% to 90% of your one-repetition maximum for several sets of fewer repetitions. This is something that barbell squats can allow you to do without breaking yourself with countless repetitions.


There’s no disputing that barbell back squats can provide a fast track to achieving your muscle and strength goals; however, you might want to substitute them for a few reasons.

Previous Injuries or Surgeries: If you’ve been injured, gone through surgery, or wear a weightlifting belt to help with one of the two, then barbell back squats might do more harm than good. More specifically, if you’ve had an injury or surgery on your neck or back, the barbell back squat might aggravate the area and result in another injury. If you’re someone who has had a previous injury or surgery and squats are something you can’t part with, at least be sensible and use a high-quality squat pad.

Not Built for Barbell Squats: We’re all built differently. Some of us have a body structure that goes along well with exercises like squats and deadlifts, and others feel, look, and perform awkwardly during a squat. This isn’t to say you need to avoid squats altogether, however, due to the complicated mechanics of a barbell back squat, another exercise, such as the Bulgarian split squat, maybe a better substitute for you.

Your Age Can Be a Factor: When you’re young, throwing a barbell across your traps is easy. As we age, especially those with a long history of weightlifting, connective tissue, muscle tissue, and bones don’t hold up like they used to. Older adults are at a higher risk of injury from a barbell back squat, especially at the shoulder, neck, and lower back. If you’re an older lifter, you can still squat, but it might be time to turn in the barbell for dumbbells or kettlebells.


The premise behind squatting for building muscle is that it allows you to activate several muscles and maximize the volume needed for growth. Surely squats aren’t the only exercise that can do that. Let’s review five exercises that would make for a perfect substitute for the barbell back squat. Unlike heavy squatting, a weightlifting belt isn’t required, but you can still use one.


Activating the same muscle groups as the barbell back squat, the Bulgarian split squat offers a unique challenge as you isolate one leg at a time. You will feel this one across the entire quadriceps muscle as you challenge your stability.


Another exercise that utilizes the same muscles, the walking lunge, has a few advantages you won’t get with the barbell back squat. Walking lunges increase hip flexibility, support functional movement patterns, and improve overall mobility. Did we mention that they will be one hell of a workout for your quadriceps?


If you’ve been injured or had neck or lower back surgery, a barbell is probably out of the question, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on squatting. The hex bar, which is often used for quadriceps-focused deadlifts, is an excellent way to target the same muscle groups without the risk of neck or lower back injury. Best of all, the weight is centered with a hex bar so that this one might feel more natural than a barbell back squat.


Like a barbell back squat, the weighted step-up will be felt primarily in your quadriceps and glutes. Unlike the walking lunge, this exercise will do more than build your leg muscles. It also supports functional movement patterns, increases hip flexion and mobility, and improves overall balance.


The kettlebell swing is a squat with a front arm raise while holding a heavy, odd-shaped weight. It’s one of the safest ways to build lean muscle on your legs while improving your flexion at the ankles, knees, and hips – much like the barbell back squat. If your gym has kettlebells that reflect higher numbers, you can use this as a primary exercise. If you’re limited to 15 pounds, consider this a warm-up exercise. Love to squat, but do you want to mix things up? Check out our article on the top 10 squat variations.


From the exercises above, except for the hex bar squat, you aren’t going to be able to use the same amount of weight as you would with a barbell back squat (assuming you were squatting heavy). With that said, you can still tap into similar volume by adding a few more sets and repetitions. You can also slow down your tempo to increase muscle demand. For example, if you were moving the weight at a 2-second lift, 0-second pause, and 2-second lower tempo, you can change this up to reflect a 2-second lift, 2-second pause, and 3-second lower. Another way to ensure you’ll build more muscle without back squats is to target the legs twice a week. Try out this no-barbell back squat workout, and post your results on our Instagram.


Warm-up exercise: 

Kettlebell Swing: 2 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions

Working sets: 

Bulgarian Split Squats: 3 x 8 to 12

Walking Lunges: 3 x 8 to 12


Warm-up exercise:

Kettlebell Swing: 2 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions

Working sets:

Hex Bar Squat: 5 x 3 to 5

Weighted Step-Ups: 2 x 8 to 12


In short, you don’t need to use the barbell back squat to build muscle. But should you squat? Absolutely. Assuming you have no physical limitations that could put you at risk for injury, we highly recommend making the barbell back squat a part of your muscle-building workouts. If you’re using the squat, how is your form? Are you feeling stress in your lower back? Not sure if you’re performing the exercise correctly? Check out our article on how to master the back squat.


Are you a person who will never give up the barbell back squat? Do you use your squat-free leg workout? Have a video or picture of you crushing your leg day workout? Tag us on Instagram to let us know!