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Sports Osteopath Hamilton: A Useful Guide to Alternative Squat Exercises

Pain with Squats

The classic barbell squat is often touted as the ultimate gym movement, but they are not the be-all and end-all that some fitness influencers claim. Nonetheless, I'm glad they attract people to exercise and strength training. We have an increasing number of people at our Osteo clinic in Hamilton coming in with complications with squatting - this blog is for them and anyone else who may find it useful. It covers 7 brilliant exercises that will keep you strong and in the gym. You won't need to do all 7.

It's important to know that barbell squats aren't suitable for everyone, even though many seem to obsess over them, especially when done heavy and with a full range of motion. There are various reasons why someone might not want to go all-in on barbell squats. At our Hamilton Osteopath clinic we find for our people that

  1. Their conditioning might not be up to par yet

  2. Others might find that their body structure doesn't lend itself well to heavy back squats.

  3. Individuals with a history of injuries might find squatting to be less than ideal for them.

In many cases, people experience pain during squats, often in their lower back or knees, but it can also occur in other joints like the hips and shoulders.

If you find that squats cause you pain there are several other exercises you can focus on that might be even better than squats and/or can help you build strength for squats while overcoming the pain. Of course, the descriptions provided here are somewhat general, as proper coaching and personalized advice take time. Nevertheless, they should give you a starting point for further research and asking relevant questions.

1. Front Squats -

Front squats might just become your new best friend if you've got longer femurs that make back squats feel like an uphill battle. The Zombie squat variation is great here too.

How To:

  • Position the barbell across your shoulders, crossing your arms for a secure grip. Or have your arms out in front with the barbell across your front shoulder muscles to achieve a 'zombie' squat.

  • Set your feet shoulder-width apart with toes slightly pointed out.

  • Lower into a squat, allowing your knees to track forward.

  • Push back up through your heels, feeling the burn in your quads.

2. Goblet Squats - Embrace Depth and Stability

Looking for depth without sacrificing stability? Goblet squats got your back! This exercise ensures you focus on achieving proper depth without worrying about losing balance.

How To:

  • Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell close to your chest with both hands.

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes slightly turned out.

  • Sink into a squat position, letting your elbows come between your knees.

  • Rise back up through your heels, feeling those glutes working.

3. Bulgarian Split Squats

When bilateral squats aren't your thing, Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats have your back. They target stabilizing hip muscles and your hamstrings. These are my personal favorite exercise for a variety of reasons. Even if you aren't dealing with pain or squat troubles I highly recommend you include these in your programming. You can do these with a barbell, hack squat, trap bar, dumbbells', bands or even body weight.

How To:

  • Place one foot on a stable surface, like a bench, behind you.

  • Keep the front foot forward, maintaining balance.

  • Lower into a lunge, making sure your knee lines up with your foot.

  • Push through the front foot to rise back up, feeling the burn in your soul.

4. Trap Bar Deadlifts

These are fantastic for reducing the strains on your knees and lower back but not loosing the focus on your thigh glute and lower back muscles. The host of the below video is a smart guy and well worth a follow. I personally very much agree with his stance on barbell movements as over rated for most people.

How To:

  • Stand in the center of a hexagonal-shaped trap bar with feet hip-width apart.

  • Bend down, grab the handles, and engage your core, lock your lats.

  • Lift the barbell with an upright torso, driving through your feet.

  • Lower the barbell under control, keeping your knees aligned with your toes.

5. Hip Belt Squats - A Gentler Approach to Your Hips

Give your spine a break with Hip Belt Squats. By standing on platforms, you transfer the load to your hips, sparing your back from direct axial loading. Whilst this is a great exercise it does require a machine or mucking around with equipment to get the good set up. I was not going to include this exercise in this list BUT my gym recently bought one of these and I've really enjoyed using it!

How To:

  • Attach a belt used for weighted dips or chin-ups to a weight plate.

  • Squat down with a tall torso, allowing plates to touch the floor with full range of motion.

  • Let your hips bear the load without involving extremities or spine.

6. Hip Thrusts: Hip thrusts take the glute bridge up a notch by adding resistance, making it an excellent exercise for building strong, shapely glutes. There are plenty of variations and how to's on YouTube for this one and most people are already familiar with it - so I wont take up bandwidth with a video here.

How To:

  • Sit on the ground with your upper back against a bench or a sturdy surface.

  • Place a barbell or a weighted plate across your hips.

  • Plant your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart, and your knees bent.

  • Push through your heels and lift your hips, creating a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.

  • Squeeze your glutes at the top and slowly lower back down.

  • Aim for 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, focusing on the mind-muscle connection in your glutes.

There is more, much much more!

There are also many many many other exercises you can try. But the over arching point I am trying to make is that 1. Squatting is not the best exercise for everyone ever time, and its probably less amazing than what its made out to be. 2. Just because you are injured does not mean you should stop training your legs all together.

3. You will find that you are less injured less often if you incorporate exercises like these into your training. 4. Really ask yourself why you want to squat so much. There is a good argument that unless you are getting paid to squat, are a competitive weight lifter or have some other need to squat, then you shouldn't put such a huge focus on them - Particularly if they are ultimately holding you back due to recurrent injury or similar.

But what if you really really need to Squat?

If you really do need to keep squatting then there are a number of other tricks our Hamilton Sports Osteopaths use. Some easy tips include raising your heels, using a booty band when you squat, or adjusting your squat stance to a more or less sumo position. I have written a blog about this here . We can also get a pretty good idea about how to modify your squat by testing your calf length, hip tension and hip joint shape, limb to torso ratio. We can then discuss your programming and goals to tailor a solution that suits you.

Finally, Don't forget the basics!!! Sleep, Stress Management, and Nutrition Remember, it's not just about the exercises! Managing pain and gains with squatting goes beyond the gym. Here's what you need to consider:

1. Good Sleep Habits - Rest for Better Gains Quality sleep is crucial for muscle recovery and pain tolerance. Aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep each night to allow your body to repair and rebuild after those intense leg sessions.

2. Stress Management - Find Your Zen Stress can make pain feel even worse. Practice stress-reducing activities like meditation, deep breathing, or yoga to relax tense muscles.

3. Proper Nutrition - Fuel Your Leg Gains A balanced diet supports joint health, reduces inflammation, and provides the energy you need for those leg workouts. Incorporate foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and lean proteins. Avoids sugars and other crappy processed foods.

A word from us

We clearly have a bias against the blind, blunt and routine use of squats because at our osteo clinic in Hamilton we see the damage they can do to some peoples exercise careers. The alternatives discussed here help our people maintain strength. That been said - at TLC we all practice squats. Sometimes body weight, sometimes very heavy. They are a great movement within a wider exercise portfolio. An example I once herd is that you wouldn't make a great curry based on one spice, so don't expect to make a great exercise regime based on just one movement. And if a spice (or movement) isn't doing it for you (too much chilly perhaps..), then you need to mix it up.

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Written By Darryl Jenkins TLC Osteopaths Osteopath, Hamilton

Darryl Jenkins is a friendly Osteopath in Hamilton and co-owner of TLC Osteopaths. His qualifications include a undergraduate certificate in Exercise science from Wintec, a degree in Human Biology from Unitec, and a master's degree in osteopathy from Unitec, where he also completed his thesis on human movement assessment. He also holds a postgraduate certificate in acupuncture from AUT which means he practices osteopathy and acupuncture. He would like to be pursuing the postgraduate certificate in Pain Science at Otago Uni (awaiting spouse approval but should kick off in 2023).

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