Can’t squat? Me too. Here are 3 alternative moves to strengthen your glutes, hips and hamstrings

TThe squat is one of the most popular moves in fitness. Even if you have only a passing interest in exercise, you’ve probably encountered it at some point in your life.

Because by simply bending your knees and lowering your hips toward the floor, you can fire up your glute complex, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and abs all at once. And if you up the ante and grab a barbell for overhead squats or back squats, your shoulders are engaged, too.

But for those of us who can’t squat, what should we do?

Every time I join a group fitness session where squats play a central role, I find myself on a roller coaster of emotions. It’s frustrating that I can’t squat like I used to. There are times when I feel completely alone and abandoned. But I take a deep breath and remind myself that this workout is for me too.

My fitness life hasn’t always been this limited. I am a former professional dancer, NASM certified personal trainer, and longtime group fitness instructor.

In 2009, I was hit and run over by a bus. My right leg was crushed and nearly amputated. All the bones in the other leg were badly broken. The skin was destroyed by the tire burn. After months in the burn ICU, my right leg was literally rebuilt. I have new skin from ankle to inner thigh. My back muscles were transplanted into my leg to support blood flow, and my right hip bone was grated into my left leg so I could walk.

I used my dance and fitness experience to figure out how to walk and move back into my newly rebuilt body. However, there has been a lot of trial and error. There has also been a lot of acceptance of what I can and can’t do, including the ubiquitous squat exercise.

Yet, as a fitness instructor who focuses on post-traumatic growth, my patience is wearing thin as I endlessly watch squat-based fitness videos online. I often find myself shouting into the phone, what about me?

I know I’m not alone. So I’ve put together some alternatives that strengthen the same squat muscles that I can bring out when everyone else starts squatting, whether I’m at home or at the gym.

Three alternatives to squats

Ball Bridges:

  1. Lie with your back on the floor and your feet hip-width apart on a physical therapy ball or chair.
  2. Lift your pelvis into a bridge and hold for five seconds. Make sure you’re engaging your core: Imagine pulling your rib cage together and contracting your abs.
  3. Repeat for 8-10 reps.

First progression: At the top of the bridge, straighten your legs to roll the ball away from your hips and then return to a neutral position.

Second progression: Lift your arms straight up throughout the exercise. This will encourage more grassroots engagement.

Third progression: Bridge with one leg straight in the air. (Just remember to switch sides.)

Seated Front Leg Raise:

  1. Sitting on a physical therapy ball, lift one leg 90 degrees from the hip. Hold the position for five seconds. The unstable surface of the ball engages both the quadriceps of the working legs and the core. Keep your spine in a neutral position.
  2. Perform 12 to 20 repetitions of this isometric exercise for hip flexor and quadriceps strength without any pressure on the knee joint.

Variation: If balance is an issue, sit on the edge of a chair or step instead of a ball.

Hip Thrusts:

This is one of my favorites for building strength in the glutes and hamstrings.

  1. Rest your elbows and forearms behind you on a bench or exercise chair. Feet are hip-width apart, firmly on the floor, toes pointing forward. The hips are raised in line with the bench. The knees are bent at 90 degrees.
  2. Slowly drop your hips as close to the floor as possible with your feet still firmly on the ground.
  3. Lift your hips for a count of four.
  4. Squeeze your glutes up for five seconds and rest.
  5. Repeat for one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.

First progression: Place a weight or body bar on the top of your pelvis. Make sure you keep your core engaged to support your pelvis.

Second progression: Extend one leg straight to the ground. Keep the second foot straight on the floor, with the knee bent 90 degrees. Lower your pelvis from this position. Make sure you keep your hips aligned and your abs engaged. Remember to switch legs after one to three sets.

Watch the author demonstrate each of these moves:

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