Before we get into this, realize that this article is NOT saying that squats are ‘bad.’ Squats are called the king of exercises and for good reasons.
But is it possible to build huge legs without squats?
Yes, it’s possible but there are some things you need to understand. And I’m going to help you with that, and I’m also going to give you some leg workouts you can do without squats.
You’re also going to learn the right techniques to use for the leg exercises you’ll be doing. This will make your workouts more intense, making your leg workouts just as brutal, if not more brutal than doing squats.
Reasons to Skip Squats
So, why would you want to skip squats in the first place? There are a few reasons.
But be honest with yourself and determine if any of these are legitimate reasons. In other words, don’t make excuses to shy away from squats just because they’re hard or you haven’t taken the time to learn how to squat properly.
- If you have a back injury, specifically lower back
- If they’re just not for you and don’t fit your body type – Matthew Magnante talks more about this in his article 5 Reasons to Skip Squats on the Fitness Volt website.
- If you have any type of knee injury or pain
- If your primary focus is to build and shape your leg muscles, not strength gains
It’s not that squats do not build muscle. However, there are other leg exercises you can do that target your quads and hamstrings more efficiently than squats. So if muscle size and shape (aka bodybuilder legs) is your goal, you can get by just fine without squats.
Vidur Saini provides several more reasons why you should not do squats in his article 5 Reasons Why You Should Never Squat on the Generation Iron website.
Do These Exercises Instead of Squats
What are the best leg exercises that you can do instead of squats? Fortunately, there’s plenty, and many of them you’re probably already aware of.
I’ll go down the list of exercises and give a brief explanation of each one. These will be basic leg exercises for bodybuilding; however, please read below…
**Just doing these exercises is not enough to build huge legs. There are specific techniques you need to use, and I’m going to show you how to apply these to each exercise!
Leg press is probably the best exercise to replace squats. It allows you to lift the maximum amount of weight. This helps you overload the muscle.
You’re also less prone to injury with leg press than with squats. There’s no pressure to stabilize the weight with your lower back like with squats. There’s also no balance required allowing you to really focus on working your leg muscles.
Leg Press Tips
- DO NOT be one of the many who load up the leg press machine and only go down a few inches. This does absolutely NOTHING for muscle growth. Train your legs, not your ego.
- Use a heavy enough weight to where 12-15 reps are challenging. Quads respond best (for most people) to higher reps.
- Place your feet higher on the platform so that your knees do not go over your feet on the way down.
- Press with the heels of your feet; this will take the stress from your knees and place it on your quads.
- Use controlled reps, especially on the descent/negative.
Leg Press Technique
There are 2 techniques I recommend for leg press to make it more effective for building your quads.
- High reps! Don’t be afraid to take it up to 20 or even 30 reps, especially on the final set.
- Rest-pause sets. This will make your leg press workout brutal! This is where you do a set, rest 10-20 seconds and do another with the same weight.
**Another tip for leg press is you can play around with the foot placement to target different areas of your quads and hamstrings. I have a full post on this here: Leg Press: Different Foot Positions.
If you want the best exercise to target and build your quad muscles, leg extensions are it.
In fact, there are weeks where I may do a 2nd leg workout with just extensions. And rarely do I do a leg workout without them.
Leg Extensions Tips
- Use controlled reps. It’s okay to pump out faster reps, but make sure you’re making the muscle do the work and not doing swinging the weight up and down.
- Flex those quads at the peak of each rep! This is going to really blast your quads and make them grow.
Leg Extensions Technique
Here are some techniques I encourage you to try with leg extensions on your next leg day…
- Drop sets on leg extensions will really help you reach full muscle exhaustion.
- Try one-leg leg extensions every other leg workout. This will help you gain more balance in the look of your quads.
If there’s one muscle that many bodybuilders lack, it’s hamstrings. So do not skip this exercise!
There are different types of machines for this:
- Lying leg curls
- Seated leg curls
- Standing leg curls
There’s also a Hammer Strength plate-loaded leg curl machine that’s a mix of standing and leaning over (this is my favorite leg curl machine!).
The same tips and techniques below apply to any of these machines.
Leg Curls Tips
- Make sure you do leg curls with full range. You want that stretch at the end, and you want to go all the way up.
- Squeeze and contract your hamstrings at the peak of each rep. You can even hold it for a couple of seconds to get the most out of each rep.
- Use controlled reps; don’t rush through this exercise.
Leg Curls Technique
You can apply the same techniques for leg curls as you do for leg extensions.
- Do drop sets or even triple drop sets.
- You can also do one-leg leg curls every other leg day. This will help you target your hamstrings at an even deeper level and forces strict form.
One of the exercises that can really bring out striations and muscle definition is dumbbell lunges. This can be a brutal exercise and you’ll feel like you just ran sprints after doing a set (if you do them right).
Dumbbell Lunges Tips
- Make sure your knees do not go over your feet (this will cause knee pain and possible injury!).
- Do not race through these; do them slow and controlled.
- Do not let your knee slam the ground; stop just before it touches.
- Keep the tension on your quads and glutes the entire time.
Dumbbell Lunges Technique
You can do these in one place but I encourage you to try walking dumbbell lunges. This is a more fluid and natural movement.
Another awesome hamstring exercise is stiff-leg deadlifts. This may not be ideal if you have lower back problems.
**If that’s your case then read my post: Deadlifting with Lower Back Problems.
But you really don’t want to go super heavy on these anyway.
The tips I’m giving you below are crucial for building your hamstrings, so please pay attention!
Stiff-leg Deadlifts Tips
- Do NOT round your back on this exercise (or any exercise, for that matter) rep.
- Hone in on that mind-to-muscle connection and pull the weight up using your hamstrings instead of your lower back.
- Use slow and controlled reps.
Stiff-leg Deadlifts Technique
Try supersetting stiff-leg deadlifts with a quad exercise, like leg extensions. This will give you a well-rounded pump in your legs.
**Of course, there are more exercises you can do for legs. But these are really all you need. Again, don’t just go through the motions on these! Use the tips and techniques I gave you.
**Deadlifts are also often done on leg day. But if you’re not doing squats, you may not want to do deadlifts for the same reasons we went over in the beginning.
Calves are a tricky muscle to grow. And some have calves that are more stubborn than others. Either way, you should train them hard!
There’s a variety of exercises you can do for calves (these are just the common ones):
- Standing calve raises
- Seated calve raises
- Calve raises on the leg press
Tips for Training Calves
- Do full range of motion when training calves; no half reps.
- Get a good stretch in your calves at the descent.
- Flex your calve muscles at the peak of each rep.
Techniques for Training Calves
I’ve found that you have to try different techniques for calves, and you also have to change it up often.
- Try every technique you know! Rest-pause sets, drop sets, superset 2 calve exercises, etc. They to building big calves in intensity. You can read more about techniques to increase intensity in my post 7 Weight Training Techniques to Increase Intensity.
- Train calves MORE THAN ONCE A WEEK! (2-3x a week).
- Do extended rest-pause sets (see below).
**There’s a technique called 75s that works amazing for building your calves. It’s basically an extended rest-pause set.
Start with a weight you can do about 20 reps with. Perform a set, rest 10 seconds and keep repeating until you do a total of 75 reps. Yes, it’s brutal!
Leg Workout Without Squats
I’m going to give you 2 full leg workouts without squats. Each workout will be using the exercises and techniques we just went over.
Here are a few things you will notice:
- Because you’re not doing squats, you need to add more sets to these exercises like you see below to ensure you’re getting adequate volume.
- You may see some exercises listed twice with a different variation.
- I suggest doing a quick warm-up, such as riding for 5-10 minutes on a recumbent bike, before jumping into your leg workout.
Ben Johnson, NASM-CPT provides some excellent leg warm-up routines in his article The Perfect Lower-Body Leg-Day Warmup on the Bodybuilding.com website.
No Squats Leg Workout 1
|Sets x Reps
|5 x 15*
|5 x 12**
|4 x 12**
|3 x 10
|3 x 15
|Calve Raises (any)
|7 x 15**
*rest-pause set on the final set
**drop set on the final set
No Squats Leg Workout 2
|Sets x Reps
|4 x 15
|4 x 12**
|7 x 12*
|3 x 15***
|3 x 10
|Standing Calve Raises
|4 x 15
|Seated Calve Raises
*rest-pause set on the final set
**drop set on the final set
***superset with following (below) exercise
****this is the technique we talked about above under ‘Techniques for Calves’
My Feelings on Squats
“What do you mean I hurt your feelings, I didn’t know you had any feelings!”Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Peace Sells
I couldn’t resist the metal quote there! But seriously, I want to give you my true feelings about squats.
I squat (and deadlift) on a regular basis, mostly once a week. And I’m a firm believer in doing squats to build that foundation.
But I also realize that squats may not be for everyone, especially if you’re working around back or knee injuries. So I wanted to provide alternative leg workouts if that’s you.
It’s also a good idea to use periodization with your workout routines. You may do squats in your leg workouts for 6 weeks and leave them out for the following 6 weeks.
ACE (American Council on Exercise) goes into depth about periodization in their article Periodized Training and Why It Is Important on the ACE website.
It’s always great to change up your workouts so that you continuously shock your muscles for maximum growth.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and try these leg workouts without squats, using the tips and techniques for a brutal leg day!
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