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Did you know that not everyone should do squats? Some people have bad knees or are recovering from injuries. Others just don’t have enough strength yet to do it safely.
If you’re a trainer, a squat is likely a go-to exercise for its efficiency and number of muscles targeted. Know which clients should not be squatting and use these alternatives to get them just as fit and strong.
For newbies to strength training, it may be surprising how many exercises fall under the category of a squat. Simply put, a squat is the motion of sinking toward a sitting position. The hips lower and shift back, and the knees bend.
The standard squat is a front squat. Typically, you hold a barbell across your chest to do this squat, but it’s not necessary. You can do it holding dumbbell weights or with no added weight at all. Examples of variations on a basic squat include:
Bodyweight squat, using no additional weights or adjustments
Back squat, with weights resting over the shoulders and upper back
Overhead squat, holding the arms, with or without a weight, over the head
Jump, or plyo squat, jumping up between each squat
Wall squat, resting your back against a wall
Single-leg squat, squatting on just one leg at a time
Wide squat, with the legs out wider than shoulder-width
A squat is one of the most basic compound strength training moves. It works several muscles at once, improves functional movements, and can also elevate your heart rate for a cardio workout.
This is primarily a strength training exercise. As a compound exercise, it works several muscles at once:
You’ll even get a little bit of a core workout with this move. You need to engage several abdominal and back muscles to balance.
Compound exercises are often better than isolating muscles because they elevate the heart rate more and burn more calories.
The squat is also a functional movement, basically the act of sitting and standing, so it makes day-to-day movements easier and safer. It builds strength for these daily movements and also increases flexibility and mobility in the hips.
For those clients really interested in how their glutes look, try this series of glute exercises to get maximum results.
With so many benefits, why wouldn’t you do squats? Unfortunately, they’re not for everyone. As a trainer, you need to be able to evaluate clients and determine which exercises they can do safely.
For instance, if you have a client strength training for the first time, they may not be strong enough yet to do a squat safely. A weak core, for example, forces the trunk to lean too far forward during a squat.
As beneficial as a squat can be, with weak muscles and without good form it can cause harm through injuries and muscle imbalances. Doing a squat improperly can cause pain or injury in the lower back and knees in particular.
If you or a client already has injuries in these locations, a squat may exacerbate them. Someone with limited hip or knee mobility, with lower back pain, knee injuries or surgeries, or temporary muscle injuries may not be able to do squats safely.
Knee pain is a huge risk of doing squats. For your clients struggling with this common issue, offer these knee stretches and exercises.
Some people can work up to squats with good form and get the benefits. For these clients, work on safer exercises that strengthen the legs, glutes, core, and back. Then, move onto unweighted squats and focus on proper form.
Other clients may never be able to do them. If you have a client with joint or back issues, and they’re not sure if they can work up to a squat, have them talk to their doctor about it before you try. For these clients, use alternatives to squats that strengthen the same muscles.
The good news is that there are plenty of alternatives to squats. As a trainer, you can guide your client through many other exercises that strengthen the same muscles. Whether they need to build strength before trying squats or have prohibitive injuries, alternatives can help.
For extra support and to take pressure off the knees, try modifying squats this way. Place a large stability ball between your back and the wall while in standing position. Slowly squat down while pressing the ball into the wall.
If your clients have knee issues, go slowly with this one. Start with a small range of motion and increase the depth of the squat if they don’t have knee pain.
A straight-leg, or Romanian deadlift, involves hinging at the waist to lift dumbbells or a barbell off the ground and back to full standing position. Legs are straight for this exercise but not locked at the knees.
With the right form, this is one of the most powerful movements for safely activating and strengthening the posterior chain of muscles. It works the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back without putting stress on the knees. It’s an effective and efficient compound movement.
Focus on proper form first, which may mean not using any weights to begin. Progress the movement by adding weights. You can also make it more challenging by doing single-leg deadlifts. This also works the core because it requires balance.
A lunge is another good compound exercise, but as with standard squats, it can cause knee pain with too much pressure on the joint. A reverse lunge works many of the same muscles—glutes, quads, hamstrings—but is easier on the forward knee.
To do a reverse lunge, instead of stepping the front foot forward, step the reverse leg back. Start without weights and limit the range of motion until your client feels comfortable and has good form.
A glute bridge targets the glutes, of course, but it also strengthens the hip flexors and improves hip mobility. It’s easy on the knees and also takes pressure off the hips and lower back.
For a basic glute bridge, lay on a mat with knees up and shoulder-width apart and feet flat on the ground. With arms down by your sides, lift the hips up and squeeze the glutes.
You can make this move more difficult as you or your client progresses. Add a barbell across the hips as you lift or do single-leg bridges, lifting one leg off the ground.
This is another move that takes weight off the joints. Laying on a mat, arms at your sides, rest your calves on top of a large stability ball. Lift your hips off the ground and bend at the knees and hips as you roll the ball toward your butt.
You should feel this in your hamstrings and glutes. You can do this move slowly to get a bigger burn. If your client is struggling to do it, start with the hip movement only. With legs on the ball, have them lift their hips up and squeeze. Once they have the hang of that movement, add in the rolling motion.
This move may not be right for everyone, but it doesn’t require as deep of a knee bend as squats. If your client’s primary concern with squats is knee pressure, they may benefit from swings.
Good form is essential with this move. Bad form can definitely hurt the knees and also the lower back. Start slowly with clients using no weights at first and limited range of motion in the knees. Focus on pushing the hips back and keeping the chest up when swinging. Progress the move by adding a weight and heavier weights as needed.
If you work with your client in a gym, try the leg press to work on leg strength. Machine exercises are great for isolating muscles, but they can also cause injury if done incorrectly or without the addition of compound exercises.
Be very careful about form when doing leg presses with all clients, but especially if they have back and knee problems. With good form and without too much weight, this exercise is great for leg strength with less pressure on the joints.
A squat is a great exercise for many. If you or a client can’t do a squat, though, you have plenty of other options. Know which clients should avoid squats and how to get them strong with other movements.
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