Dumbbel squat Worthy alternative to the barbell squat?

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Look up a picture of a dumbbell squat, and in nine of the ten pictures you see someone performing a dumbbell deadlift, not a dumbbell squat. A widespread and persistent misunderstanding is that the deadlift is nothing more than a reverse squat, so this misunderstanding must also be cleared up.

The dumbbell squat is often done by beginners, to familiarize themselves with squatting and because such a large bar in your neck is a bit intimidating. Some cannot do otherwise, namely if they do not have a squat rack.


Well, it must be said. If you were to perform a squat and deadlift with an imaginary weight, the layman would see little difference in the movement. Add the barbell and the difference becomes immediately apparent: the position of the weight. With a squat, the barbell is in your neck, with a deadlift you hold the bar in your hands. In a squat you lift a weight by extending your knees, in a deadlift you lift a weight off the floor by extending your hips.


The squat and the deadlift are two completely different exercises. The first is a knee dominant exercise and targets your quadriceps (front legs), the second is a hip dominant exercise and targets your glutes and hamstrings (back legs). In the bottom position of a squat, your thighs are at least parallel to the floor; in other words, your knees and hips are aligned. In the deadlift starting position, your hips are well above your knees and your thighs are at a 45-degree angle to the floor.


We hope by now you can see that there are significant differences between the squat and the deadlift. The difference is the position of the weight. As a result, the implementation changes. So you don’t perform a dumbbell squat with the dumbbells in your hands, even if you hold them next to your body instead of in front of your body. You may start in the squat position, but as soon as you want to lift the weight off the floor, your butt shoots into the air and your squat becomes a deadlift after all. In a real dumbbell squat, the dumbbells rest on your shoulders.


The dumbbell squat – performed correctly, with the dumbbells on your shoulders – presents you with more or less the same practical problem as the barbell squat when you don’t have a squat rack (see below). You have to get the (heavy) dumbbells on your shoulders first. Without a training partner, that can be quite difficult; you don’t just ‘throw’ a dumbbell of forty or fifty kilos on your shoulder.


A second legitimate way to do dumbbell squats is the goblet squat, where you hold one (heavy) dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your sternum. You will find that throughout the exercise you have to tighten your broad back muscles to be able to squeeze the weight.

Sooner or later the dumbbell or kettlebell becomes the limiting factor in the exercise. In that case, you could put on a backpack with weight in it.


Now the big question is: can a dumbbell squat replace the barbell squat? The answer is ‘no’. The dumbbell squat is an alternative to the barbell squat, meaning second choice. It is not a substitute! Yet there are – believe it or not – countless (commercial) gyms that do not have a squat rack or power cage. As far as we’re concerned, you can’t call yourself a gym at all, but this aside. Or maybe you train at home and you only have access to a barbell and bench, but no rack or cage. What then?


Let’s first discuss the last problem case: you have a barbell, but no squat rack or power cage. The simplest solution is – we like simple solutions – to buy a squat or press rack. A simple rack costs less than a hundred euros. Believe us, it’s the best home gym investment you can make! Maybe you are handy or you know someone who is and you can construct something of a squat rack yourself. Tip: google ‘homemade squat rack’ and get inspired!

This is of little use if you do not train at home, but in a gym where they do not have a squat rack…


Another option is to punch, push and place the weight on your traps – an exercise in itself. The problem is that you have to expel the weight again afterwards. Of course you can also ‘dump’ the bar with weights, but not every bar and weight plates are designed for such use/abuse. In addition, in this case the weight that you can put forward is a limiting factor, even if you were to do a front instead of back squat, which solves the problem of ejection. The average gym goer has never put on a weight and most people won’t be able to push much more than 80 kg above their head. And let’s be honest: 80 kg isn’t that much when it comes to squats.


So we must slowly conclude that there are no practical alternatives to the barbell squat. If you don’t care much about functional strength and only value aesthetics, you can compensate for the lack of the barbell squat by a combination of leg presses and leg extensions. Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates was an avid non-squatter.

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