ARE SQUATS NECESSARY TO BUILD BIG LEGS?
QUESTION: Are squats necessary to build big legs, or is it possible to achieve an impressive lower body using alternative exercises?
ANSWER: Despite the “hardcore” bodybuilding mentality that often treats squats as the “be-all-end-all” of effective lower body development, the reality is that it IS perfectly possible to build big, strong, impressively muscular legs without them.
A lot of lifters out there tend to get a bit defensive on this subject, but the simple fact is that there’s no direct physiological reason why a squatting movement is specifically required in order for you to add significant muscle to your lower body.
Don’t get me wrong here…
Squats are no doubt an extremely effective leg exercise, and I do recommend that you include them in your lower body routine as long as you’re physically able to.
A basic barbell squat is probably the single most productive leg exercise out there, and if your goal is to maximize your overall size and strength gains, then by all means treat them as a priority movement in your leg workouts.
However, that doesn’t that squats are some sort of “magical exercise” that you absolutely must perform, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t still achieve great results without them.
There are a variety of reasons why you might opt to exclude squats from your leg routine…
For example, you might have an existing injury to your lower back or knees that gets particularly aggravated when you perform them despite using proper warmups and training technique.
Or maybe you’re someone who works out from home and you don’t have access to a proper squat rack in order to do them safely.
Or perhaps you simply don’t identify as a “bodybuilder” and you just aren’t interested in maximizing the size of your quads and glutes and would rather perform other exercises out of personal preference.
Not everyone has the same training goals, and just because the guy next to you at the gym is working on achieving a 405 pound squat along with 28 inch thighs doesn’t mean that you have to as well.
In any case, if you’ve decided to remove squats from your routine for whatever reason, it’s far from the end of the world as far as your leg training is concerned.
At the end of the day, achieving hypertrophy ultimately just comes down to placing a given muscle under sufficient tension using a particular exercise and then progressively overloading that movement using enough volume and frequency. As long as you’re able to accomplish that, increases in muscle mass will follow.
Although basic squats are one of the best movements when it comes to achieving that, it doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other effective options out there as well.
A few examples include…
- Barbell Lunges
- Dumbbell Lunges
- Barbell Step-Ups
- Dumbbell Step-Ups
- 45 Degree Leg Press
- Seated Leg Press
- One-Legged Leg Press
For certain individuals with specific body structures that are not ideally suited for squatting (such as those with very long femurs), exercises like the leg press are not only suitable alternatives but can actually be superior to squats for overloading the quadriceps.
If it’s specifically barbell back squats that you can’t perform, there are a ton of other effective squatting variations you can choose from as well, such as…
- Front Squats
- Split Squats
- Single Leg Squats
- Hack Squats
- Dumbbell Squats
- Goblet Squats
- Machine Squats
These are just a few of many examples.
In fact, recent research has actually shown that split squats are just as effective as regular barbell squats when it comes to building muscle in the quads.
So, what’s the bottom line here?
Yes, basic barbell squats are no doubt an awesome leg exercise, and they’re my default recommendation as the primary lower body exercise for those looking to optimize their gains.
But are squats necessary in order to make great gains?
No, they’re not, and your quads and glutes can be hit just fine using a wide variety of other movements if for some reason you’ve decided to stay out of the squat rack for the time being.
Whether it’s a combination of leg presses and lunges, split squats and step ups, or front squats and one-legged leg presses, there are a ton of different ways to get in an effective quad workout without necessarily needing to do a barbell back squat.
Your hamstrings will be most effectively trained using direct knee flexion and hip flexion exercises anyway (such as leg curls, Romanian deadlifts and glute-ham raises), and if you want to specifically target your glutes, hip thrusts will do a better job of that than squats as well.
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