How To Build Big, Strong, & Thick Legs Without Squats

Joe Pietaro
Written By: Joe Pietaro
March 13th, 2015
Updated: June 13th, 2020
166K Reads
How To Build Big, Strong, & Thick Legs Without Squats
Even though squats may be the best leg exercise, you can still gain big muscle with these other lower-body exercises, and the sample workouts included.

Squats are the king of all bodybuilding exercises. They build up overall strength and are done by people training at all different levels for all types of goals. When you reach ‘Leg Day,’ it is a given that you will begin with a good number of sets of squats. But is it possible to get the same results for your lower body without squatting?

The answer is yes, and you may be surprised at the reasons why.

First of all, it is undeniable that squats are the best way to build a powerful set of wheels. To try and say that would be dishonest and sound incorrect. But there are certain situations when performing squats properly is detrimental and doing so may cause you to miss valuable gym time with an injury or extended soreness.

Your entire body is taxed when you do squats and it puts a lot of added pressure on your knees and lower back. Wraps and a belt will help, but will not totally prevent an injury. And it's not even a case of having bad form; you can blow a knee out even when performing a repetition properly. Improper form, on the other hand, is usually the catalyst for nagging lower back pain.

Athlete Posing

For whatever your reasons, squats may be an exercise that you would like to discontinue, but yet want to keep your quads symmetrical with the rest of your body. This is possible and you need to be a little creative in order to do so. Here are some suggestions for you to take to the gym the next time that you are scheduled to do legs:

Smith Machine Squats

Before you give up on squats totally, try doing them on a Smith Machine and see if that has any different effect on you.  By having the weight being balanced and guided for you with the side rails, you can really get a good workout on your thighs and not have to be concerned with some of the other discomforts that come with regular squats.

Hack Squats

If you can’t perform regular or Smith Machine squats, then a great alternative would be hack squats. The 45-degree angle of these will allow you to keep your knees very slightly bent at the top position, keeping the tension square on your thighs. Also keep your head and back on the pads and you should go down until your hamstrings are just below the parallel mark with the floor. You’ll know when you are low enough by taking a quick peek to check if your knees and toes are lined up together.

Hack Squat

Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is similar to a lunge in some ways but with a much higher difficulty level due to the back leg being on a lift and using just your toes to balance it. You probably have seen people using a bench for this, but that is a little too high and you are better off using a shorter stanchion – no more than six inches. When the elevation is too high, it will compromise your range of motion and balancing ability. Line up your knee and foot on the front leg as a guide to help keep your body straight as you go up and down.

Leg Extensions

This is more of an isolation exercise for detail than a bulk builder, but it should always be a part of your leg workout for its effectiveness. Extensions will help you get that teardrop look that every bodybuilder longs for and you can beat your legs up good by locking out your knees and pausing at the top of the rep for a second or two.

Leg Extensions

Leg Press

Use either the 45-degree or old school 90-degree variety to get a real deep stretch and this is an exercise where you can put up some heavy weight for overall strength and power. Take a shoulder-width position with your feet on the platform and lower it until you are making a 90-degree angle at your knees with your upper and lower legs. Push it back up and stop right before locking your knees out before beginning the next rep.

Walking Lunges

While many people choose to use dumbbells for this movement, a barbell is actually the better way to go. It brings your stabilizer muscles and balancing into the equation and will make you work harder to complete each rep. But walking lunges may in fact aggravate your existing injury or out you in risk of one just as squatting will. So in that case, grab a set of dumbbells and play it safe. You still will get the benefit from lunging, which will give your quads a great two-way workout – stretching on the down leg and flexing on the up leg.

Walking Lunges

Dumbbell Step-Ups

You can really up the reps on each set of dumbbell step-ups by alternating legs in two ways, meaning that you step up with the right and step down with the left and then do the reverse. So you will be working both legs, but with a higher impact/lower impact formula. Start off fairly close to the bench, as this will work your quads better. If you have to take a longer step to get there, then your glutes are engaged and begin to take over.

Besides your quads, you also have to work on the other lower body muscles – hamstrings and calves. Here are two exercises for them:

Stiff-Leg Deadlifts

By keeping your legs stiff, the stiff-leg deadlift will stretch and work your hamstrings like no other exercise. This is a great power movement and will also help your overall strength, so including it is a wise choice. Deads will also work your glutes and your stabilizer muscles.


Standing Calf Raises

The worst thing that you can do is to work your legs hard but ignore your calves. You will throw off your symmetry and weaken what can be strength for ground-based exercises. The staple movement for calves is the standing raise and you can really extend your range of motion and pause at the top of each rep when doing them. Point your toes in or out to hit the calves from different angles.

So if you doubted the possibility of building or maintaining quality legs without squats, we have shown you a number of different exercises that will show you exactly how it can be done. Here are a few examples of what you can do for your thighs on Leg Day to get the job done. Be sure to also include hamstrings and calves after quads are worked.

Sample Workouts

WORKOUT 1 Sets Reps
Smith Machine Squats 4 12,10,10,8
Dumbbell Step-ups 4 12
Leg Extensions 4 12
WORKOUT 2 Sets Reps
Hack Squats 4 12,10,10,8
Walking Lunges 4 10
Leg Extensions 4 12
WORKOUT 3 Sets Reps
Leg Press 4 12,10,10,8
Bulgarian Split Squats 4 12,12,10,10
Leg Extensions 4 12
Posted on: Wed, 03/25/2015 - 12:22

Hi Joe,

Would you consider sumo deadlifts to be another alternative? I have read that they really work the inner quads even though it is a ham and glute targeted exercise.

Posted on: Mon, 03/16/2015 - 03:37

Thanks for the article. Both my ankles need reco surgery & one knee is shot, so my instability & inability to retain good form mean squats & lunges are out for me. It's good reassurance reading that I can still gain some size from the limited exercises I am still able to perform.