When I think of the top exercises for strength gains and muscle development, the back squat is one of the first that comes to mind. It's also an exercise that I hardly prescribe, and only will for those interested in the sport of powerlifting.
Now why is that?
Although it's a great movement for the previously mentioned reasons, the risk to reward just simply isn't worth it to me. The back squat requires a ton of mobility at numerous joints (ankles, hips, thoracic spine, shoulders) and most individual's anatomy simply won't let them get into a good position. If you start in a less than optimal position, there's no way you can finish in one.
While it is a sexy exercise, the 9 to 5 desk jockey in the squat rack next to you that resembles the Hunchback of Notre Dame has no business loading a bar on his back. If you do plan on back squatting at some point down the road, seek out a skilled coach to assess your movement limitations and correct them to prevent injuries.
In the meantime, here are my go-to alternatives that will provide similar outcomes to the back squat, while minimizing risk for injury.
1.) Kettlebell Goblet Squat
The anterior load of the kettlebell in the goblet position makes it extremely easy to hammer your squat with good technique. This is always my go-to when teaching the squat, but what if you don't have heavy enough kettlebells once you get the hang of it?
2.) Kettlebell Front Squat
By adding a second kettlebell to the mix, you're required to create much more tension through the upper back, otherwise the bells would fall forward each rep. Fair warning, these are not easy whatsoever.
Once you've mastered these, only then would I load you with a barbell. Enter the barbell front squat, where I'll gravitate to two different options depending on the client.
3.) Barbell Front Squat
This is my typical three month progression for most individuals that are looking to squat heavy. For a general population client, like most of you reading, I might not even take you to the barbell unless you really wanted to learn it.
Heavy kettlebell goblet squats and front squats are all you truly need if your goal is physique. Don't believe me? Get your hands on a pair of 35-pound kettlebells and try front squatting them. I guarantee that it's the hardest 70-pound squat you ever attempt.
If you're not ready for a bar on your back, keep it off your back. There's plenty of variation that will elicit the exact same training effect and keep your joints healthy for your training career.