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5 Squat Variations | Erin Stern

September 18, 2018

The squat is often touted as the "king of exercises," but it's not always the best choice for building an aesthetic physique. If you're not training for a powerlifting competition, it can be detrimental to squat heavy. Many of us have knee or back issues that also make squatting heavy difficult. I've had SI joint issues for the last few years, and every time I go heavy on squats, it takes me at least a few days to recover. Since we need to continue to train to make progress, it makes sense to try and avoid missing the gym due to pain. The answer lies in finding effective squat variations that place less stress on the back, knees, and joints! Here are a few of my favorites. If you've never tried these variations, try it with lightweight or just body weight to get the proper form down first!

1. Bulgarian Split Squat

Single leg squat variations not only allow us to go heavy, but they can help even out any assymmetries. This exercise can also improve balance. All you need is a bench and a plate (optional). Face away from the bench and place one foot on the bench. Your lead leg should be out in front, with enough space to allow you to drop into a lunge position. Your knees should be behind your toes and your upper leg should reach parallel to the ground. If you're using a plate, hold it on the side of your lead leg. For building muscle, you can do 4 sets of 8-10 reps per leg.
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2. Zercher Squat

The smith machine is the best way to learn how to perform this exercise, as it helps with stabilization. Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width, and place the bar in the curve of your elbows. Keep your upper body tall and slowly squat. Your elbows should sink between your legs. Focus on keeping the chest tall as you squat.  The placement of the bar allows you to get a great range of motion and takes pressure off your knees and spine. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps.
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3. Landmine Squat

The only things you need for this exercise are an Olympic bar, some plates, and a sturdy corner. Place the end of the bar into a corner and the other end facing you, grasp the other end of the bar with both hands. Get your elbows under the bar and stand with your collarbone almost touching the end of the bar. Lean forward into the bar slightly. You may have to take a tiny step backwards to get the feeling of leaning in. Place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width, squat down. You can push into the bar both on the way down and back up. The landmine squat is excellent for reinforcing proper form; as it puts you in perfect position with your knees behind your toes, back flat, and upper body tall. For building muscle, try 4 sets of 10-12 reps with a mid-rep pause!
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4. Goblet Squat

Grab a dumbbell and place your palms under one side so the dumbbell is vertical. Your wrists should touch the handle, and elbows should be kept close and under the weight. Hold the dumbbell close to your chest and place feet a step wider than shoulder-width. Squat down to parallel, and keep your weight through your heels. This is another exercise that promotes proper form, and can be done almost anywhere. You can do this exercise on a cable set to the bottom pin, and using the v-bar attachment. 3 sets of 15 reps are great for these.
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5. Cable Squat

Drop the cable down to the bottom pin and use a straight bar attachment. Choose a weight that's around your body weight or a bit more. The idea is to use the stack of plates for balance. Hold the bar, pin your shoulders back, and step away from the machine. Brace against the weight and squat down to just below parallel. On the way up, try to push backwards and up. This will really engage the glutes and hamstrings. Even though the weight is heavy, there's not much pressure on the back or knees when done properly! Try 3 sets of 15 reps here. Slow and steady reps can help with maintaining proper form.
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I may choose variations for squats, but I don't vary my pre-workout routine. I love BetaTOR for helping me get more quality reps and for helping me recover better.

Thanks for reading! Until next time, train hard, y'all!


Erin Stern, 2x Ms. Figure Olympia

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