Al Painter Jr
5 Back Squat Alternatives For Cyclists
Updated: Apr 4
Depending on how you view it, the back squat is either the gold standard way to build bilateral lower body strength or it is the fast track to riding your bike less because things are starting to hurt because you're doing it wrong. On the one hand it is an old school body building staple and gold standard lift in the NFL for a reason, it just works and builds a crap ton of strength. Like its “prettay, prettaay, prettaaay, prettay good” at how it helps you get stronger. The flip side is that it is a pretty technical lift that requires several areas of joint mobility moving in unison to be able to pull it off correctly. And let's be honest, cyclists and joint mobility go together about as well as cold + instant + decaf. Meaning? People who regularly ride a bike don’t have the best ranges of motion (or flexibility if I must which absolutely kills me btw) because of the repetitive stress nature of the activity. Plus, the Oly bar version is typically done on two legs and cycling is a unilateral single leg dominant activity. Here are the most common ocular lactic acid accumulators I see people do with the barbell back squat that could lead to potential negative unintended consequences:
The bar is sitting on the base of the cervical spine. Even with a pad, this is a dicey proposition. A Safety Bar can sidestep this because it puts the load on your traps.
The elbows are behind the bar internally rotating the shoulders. Again, the Safety Bar is a great alternative here.
They lean over way too much on the way down and do a "squinge" (squatting hinge).
Their weight shifts toward the toes as they sit which is a straight shot to the quad activation to stand up.
Their lumbar spine moves up before the legs drive the floor away to stand.
They don’t get full hip extension and glute lock out at the top.
They move their heads forward or up and down instead of locking down the muscles in the front of the throat that connect your core to your glutes and stabilize your spine.
They don’t have a full five fingered death grip (particularly pinky smash) on the bar. Without that, you can't effectively transfer strength from the hands to the feet. This little digit is HUGE for total body strength building.
Their lats aren’t engaged to get a vertical forearm position. This also further locks down the core to support the load.
The lats aren't "pulling the bar" into the hole to preload power to come back up.
People can't stabilize their body from the ground up. If the load of the bar driving down ISN'T felt in your feet, your body isn't distributing force correctly and you need to do something else.
But other than that….
Again, I’m not poo pooing on the back squat. Its damn good lift that builds total body strength in a big way.
Its just a very technical movement that has a ton of requirements to do it correctly. If you ride a bike, you’ve got the proper ranges of motion to safely pull it off and don't commit any (or very few) of the above mentioned movement miscues, then have at it and get strong as hell off your bike. Just be sure you're adding in the split stance version to make it more cycling specific.
However, 16 years of working with cyclists has shown me, the movement quality/static postural positions BEFORE the lift takes place, let alone doing actually doing it, generally need some work. There are some great alternatives to the back squat, and here are five that are pretty damn effective. Goblet Squats This exercise is pretty full proof and really hard to screw up. If you pick the right load, it will pretty much make your body move correctly. You'll build some great hip mobility in addition to glute and core strength as the loads get heavier, and that's never a bad thing.
Goblet Position March This activates the forces you need to lock down your core on one leg while your diagonal loading patterns do there thing to keep you upright. Sounds like a whole lot of elements that help you ride better to me.
Goblet Position Crossover Curtsy Lunges All the benefits of the versions above with the added bonus of both opening up the hips while you're resisting rotational forces at the same time. This can help you build more strength to fly through corners and switchbacks to have more control of your bike.
Bulgarian Split Squats Remember, your engine on your bike is only as powerful as the single leg stability driving it. Meaning, you generate all of your strength into the pedals with a single leg, train accordingly. This exercise is probably the absolute best way to do that for cycling.
Split Stance Kettlebell Goblet Squat
Split stance work is never a bad idea for bike riders. It forces the legs to move in the same way that you ride: with one leg producing power. Good stuff!
Again, Oly bar back squat, good exercise IF YOU'VE GOT the proper ranges of motions in your shoulders, elbows, hips and ankles to pull it off. Not to mention some pretty good static posture before you move as your foundation.
But riding a bike does more to improve your cardiovascular fitness than it does to enhance joint mobility. The alternatives above can help you effectively manage this.
If you're a cyclist, and you need help dialing in your core strength workouts, contact me and let's put 21 years of training experience to work to build you the best program possible.