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If you could do only one exercise, which movement would you choose? Bench presses? You do get to recline, and they're great for the chest, triceps and front delts; but that's about it. Barbell
curls? Well, biceps are the "show-off muscle," but come on, now, what about your legs? (That's a direct hint.)
You know the right answer: the barbell squat. It's one heckuva tough movement, but considering its overall growth-producing potential and conditioning effects, it should've been your first choice.
If, however, you're working out in a home gym and you don't have a power rack or some type of squat stand, heavy barbell squats just aren't feasible-or safe, for that matter. You'll have to come up with some alternatives to this wonderful exercise. Don't worry though: These squat substitutes can be just as result-producing as regular barbell squats, or at least pretty darn close.
One-legged squats. If you've been reading this column regularly, you know that one-legged squats are our first choice when regular barbell squats are out. This is a relatively simple movement, yet it's very concentrated because of the one-legged performance. Simply stand on a bench, set the bench-press racks about waist level and place a barbell bar across them. You'll use this bar for balance. Now let your non-working leg dangle next to the bench as you squat to the parallel position while hanging on to the barbell bar. Then drive back up and repeat. Freehand, one-legged squats are pretty difficult, but once you're strong enough, hold a barbell plate or a dumbbell in one hand (same side as your working leg) and use the free hand for balance. Don't bounce out of the bottom position and try to minimize your body English.
Gerard Trap Bar dead lift. Because of its shape, this bar allows you to stand "inside" of it. It's a diamond-shaped barbell bar-you stand in the middle of the diamond-that allows you to deadlift in a much more upright position. This throws more emphasis onto the thighs. No squat racks needed. Just load up the bar and start deadlifting to work your thighs.
U-Bar squat/deadlift. This unique bar allows you to work your thighs in the same manner as the Gerard Trap Bar, but it's not diamond-shaped, it's U-shaped. The same principle is involved here: more upright position during the deadlift, thus more thigh involvement. Barbell hack squat. If you don't have a Trap Bar or a U-Bar, you can do a similar movement off of the floor with a regular barbell. Simply stand in front of the barbell, squat down, grab the bar and stand erect with it behind your thighs. This is a bit awkward because the bar may hit the back of your legs on the way up, but it'll do in a pinch. When lifting heavy poundages, use straps and try elevating your heels on a two-by-four for better stability. Also, don't lock out at the top, and it will give your lower thighs (near the knees) one searing growth burn.
Lunge. The lunge is a good thigh-builder, but it involves a lot of glute muscle in the movement and can cause upper-thigh pain if you're not flexible. Nevertheless, once you get used to it, this exercise can do wonders for your overall thigh development. To perform the lunge, hold a barbell across your traps (as in a squat), step forward with the leg you're working and touch the rear knee to the ground. From this position drive back up without momentum (thigh power only, please) and step back to a standing position. Most trainees alternate legs, but it's best to work one leg first with 10 to 20 reps, rest for 20 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
Cory lunge. Cory Everson popularized this exercise on her "Body-shaping" show on ESPN. The movement is similar to the regular barbell lunge, but instead of stepping forward with the working leg, you step back with the nonworking leg and touch your knee to the floor. This works the muscles even harder than a regular lunge, and it gives you more control over the working muscles, better balance and less chance for injury. Again, it's best to work one leg for the required number of reps, rest, then work the other leg.
Step-ups. This is a tough one, but it really burns the entire thigh area-the glutes get a good going over as well. First, you need something that's sturdy and about the height of a coffee table (a regular bench is probably a bit too high, but it will do). Once again place a barbell across your traps, stand in front of the low bench and simply step up onto it. Then, step back off of the bench with your non-working leg and slowly lower yourself down to the floor. Work one leg for the required number of reps, rest, then do step-ups with the other leg. Be careful not to use momentum; in other words, don't spring off of the floor- make the step-up slow and controlled.
That makes seven squat substitutes, and only two of them require special equipment. Any of the others you can do in the most basic home gym. So if you can't do squats because of injury or lack of proper equipment, or you simply need a change of pace, you may want to give some of these other movements a try. You've got nothing to lose and a lot of thigh mass to gain.