No Barbell, No Problem: Training the Lower Body


It’s no secret that barbell back squats have a host of benefits. From increasing strength in the lower body to challenging core stability, they are a staple in many programs. But what if you don’t have access to a barbell? Can you make strength gains with other modalities? YES! Similar increases in strength and hypertrophy (muscle size) have been found with a variety of other exercises, both traditional squat variations and those more outside the box.

Racked Dumbbell Squats

Many times, goblet squats are the go-to dumbbell squat variation. However, this is limited by the amount of weight we’re able to hold with our arms. By moving the dumbbells and “racking” them on our shoulders, we’re able to support more weight and simulate a front squat movement even without the use of the barbell. This variation requires more core stability and upper back strength while providing similar strength and hypertrophy gains in the lower body, compared to the traditional front squat.

The Set Up

I like to set up for these sitting on the end of a bench. This allows me to use my knee to “kick up” the dumbbell to rest on my shoulder and therefore use a heavier weight. Sit on the end of the bench with the heavy dumbbells resting on your knees. Kick them up so the end of the dumbbell is resting on your shoulder and you’re not only supporting it with your arms. Use your comfortable squat stance and, keeping your torso upright and core braced, descend into the squat. Push through the middle of your foot and return to the standing position. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions.

Bulgarian Split Squat

Research has shown that the Bulgarian Split Squat, when weighted appropriately, has a greater quadriceps recruitment than that of the traditional barbell back squat. This can lead to greater hypertrophy and strength over time. In addition, they require greater core stability, making them more difficult.

The Set Up

Holding the dumbbells at your sides, step one leg forward with the second elevated on a step or bench behind you. The distance should be great enough that the front knee does not travel much further than your toe. When you begin the movement, think about sitting back into the bench, not straight down. If we move straight down, we’ll force a stretch in the hip and lower back. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions per leg.

Smith Machine Good Mornings

While the Smith machine is not usually my go-to for traditional squats due to the lack of bar movement, it can be a good choice for good mornings because the bar path is straight up and down. Good mornings are a posterior chain (i.e. glutes and hamstrings) movement that is similar to that of a deadlift. Even when the Smith machine can’t reach the ground for a true deadlift, these would be a quality substitute!

The Set Up

Set up the Smith machine at about shoulder height before you add the weights. As you choose weight, keep it lighter than you think to start and gradually increase. Set up your feet with the middle of your foot under the bar and bend your knees so the bar sits across the back of your shoulders. It should be a little lower than a typical back squat position to protect your neck as you hinge. Un-rack the bar. Keeping your back flat and core braced with the knees bent slightly, sit your hips back toward the mirror. Squeeze your glutes and think about twisting your heels into the ground throughout the entire movement. Use this contraction to return to the standing position. This will protect your lower back, compared to if you did not maintain focus on the core, glutes, and twisting the heels together. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions.

If you have questions on any of these exercises, stop at the desk to ask one of the trainers to walk you through them and check your form in real time. They can also offer specific recommendations for your preferences or prior injuries. It’s not only lower body training, strength and muscle gains can be seen without a barbell for the upper body as well. Stay tuned to next week’s article to learn more!

Key Word: Barbell

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