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Deep squats are a great exercise. But if you have trouble with form or an injury that prevents you from doing them, being told you should 'just do' something you just can't doesn't help much. Does everyone need them and what else is out there?

Deep squats are one bro-science semester on from Bench Press 101, Curl For Guns and Bro, Do You Even Lift? But the problem with things that become rote statements of faith is we forget to examine them.

Deep squats are a good exercise: they’re not the good exercise.

Does everyone - even people with back problems or shot knees - really need to squat deep?

And if not, what can you do instead?

People who start lifting weights tend to one of two routes: they’re either the guys in sleeveless shirts earning the lifelong ire of serious lifters by doing curls in the squat rack, or they start out with a few basic compound movements, get reasonably good at them - and then start preaching. And the one thing that everyone knows is that you’ve got to squat. 

Debate rages about whether squats are the best way to get big arms - because of the hormonal and metabolic effects of using all that muscle - and the old ‘bad-for-your-knees’ chestnut crops up every now and then, but for the most part, squats are widely recognised as one of the best and most worthwhile exercises you can do.

Before we go any further, I’d like to say that their reputation is well-deserved - squats are great, and if you can do them with no issues, there’s no reason in the world to stop!

However, some people do have issues when they squat.

Some people have preexisting conditions, ranging from knee injuries and ankle injuries through to overuse problems and postural defects. And some people have wounds, surgeries or disabilities to work around.

So do all these people need to squat deep?

That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Think of an equivalent - the overhead press. Everyone knows that the overhead press is a great exercise, except if you’ve got shoulder problems, or you lack the ability to extend your thoracic spine well enough to press safely overhead, or when you have lumbar instability… in fact it’s a great exercise, except for when it’s not. Unless you’re specifically training for a sport that requires exactly that movement - Olympic lifting, say - you should be able to replace one movement with another, or with a couple of others, and still get similar results. Squats are a great leg exercise, but they’re not the only leg exercise.

To understand the replacements for the squat, we need to understand what happens when you squat.

In the top part of a squat, your quadriceps are involved in extending your knee joints against the load. You can quarter-squat quite heavy loads without your posterior chain really firing at all. Deeper into the squat the posterior chain starts to fire and by the time you’re breaking parallel, the glutes and hamstrings are involved to a significant degree.

So that’s one way of looking at it - in terms of which muscles are used. So could we replace squats with an exercise for each of the muscles squats use and get similar benefits?

Not really, because squats involve a movement pattern, not just muscles firing in a random sequence, and it’s a very functional and beneficial movement pattern. One reason why you might need a replacement for squats is if you can’t yet do them properly, for whatever reason. As well as firing the posterior chain and quads, squats involve the femoral rotators, low back and core, the hip flexors and more. There’s not much that doesn’t get a stern workout doing squats, which is why they’re so great. But it means a few leg curls and knee extensions aren’t going to cut it as squat replacements. We need something compound, preferably functional - i.e., a cleaned-up version of a movement you might do outside the gym to get something done - and ideally, capable of being loaded.

Finally, when we’re looking at replacing the squat, we want something that has similar training effects to a squat, and that we can program in similar ways.
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