pain free alternatives to squats and lunges
Options if you have bad knees

Hey, y’all! If you landed on this page, chances are you’ve signed up for Thrillist’s 31-Day Gym-Free Fitness Challenge – I’m so glad you’re taking part! Lots of you have been contacting me about alternatives to squats and lunges, primarily due to your bum knees. I get it. Sometimes these exercises hurt me, too. Below you’ll find a whole slew of options, but I want to make a few notes before proceeding:

  1. If you’re dealing with an acute injury (something that just happened and is causing intense pain), please don’t start or continue the program until you’ve either: 1) talked to a doctor and you’ve been cleared to exercise, or 2) you’ve given the injury time to rest and it’s no longer causing acute pain. Preferably do both.
  2. I’m not a doctor and I’m not there with you to see or interpret which exercises or motions are causing pain. Use your best judgment when selecting alternative exercises and focus on those movements that don’t irritate or exacerbate whatever you’ve got going on. Not every exercise listed below will work for every person. 
  3. When in doubt, rest or stick to low-impact cardio, such as walking, swimming, or cycling. Even if you’re gung-ho to get on track with your exercise routine, it’s best to allow injuries the chance to heal, and it’s best not to exacerbate chronic issues you already have. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to a lifetime of health.

Now that that’s out of the way, feel free to proceed! I’m embedding videos of each exercise (some are mine, some are other people’s) below, with a few quick notes on proper form. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments, on Twitter or Instagram @girlsgonesporty, or through email: contact@girlsgonesporty.com.

Another note! Many of these exercises are unilateral, which means they work each side individually. Make sure you always balance out the exercise by performing the same number of sets, reps, and/or time to each side. If you have questions about this, ask!

Equipment: While the Thrillist exercises are all equipment-free, some of these variations do suggest equipment, namely dumbbells, a stability ball (you can sub sliders or paper plates), resistance band, and a low step or bench.

Squat and lunge modifications if you want to give ’em a try

Squats and lunges aren’t for everyone, so there’s no need to feel bad if they’re completely off-limits for you, but if you can slowly work your way up to these movements, I highly recommend trying. You see, both exercises are compound, closed-chain, functional moves that target all of the major muscle groups of your lower body while also engaging your core. They’re also great for developing and maintaining bone mass through the legs, hips and low back. If you want to try a few modifications, check these versions out:

Shallow squats

Shallow squats are essentially the typical squat movement, but you only perform roughly the top quarter of the exercise. So instead of squatting down until your knees form 90-degree angles, you just press your hips back and lower your glutes a few inches. You can do these up against a table or counter, as shown in the video below, or without, as shown in this video (they wouldn’t let me embed it – sorry!). Just remember, keep your weight in your heels (try wiggling your toes while you squat to prevent yourself from shifting your weight to the balls of your feet), and initiate the movement by pressing your hips back first, rather than bending your knees first.

Wall squat

The wall squat is a static exercise that helps build strength at the exact angle where your knees and hips are positioned. You can perform wall squats with any degree of bend in your knees, so there’s absolutely no reason you have to perform the exercise with your knees bent at 90-degrees. Another advantage is that because you’re pressing your hips and torso against the wall, you remove some of the pressure from your lower body while still challenging your quads, hamstrings, glutes and core.

Chair squat

Chair squats are a good alternative because they focus on the “negative” or eccentric half of the squat, where you control the downward movement as you sit down into a chair. They also help you focus on proper squat form. If you’re working your way up to a regular squat, don’t even worry about how you stand up from the chair after you squat down. Stand up in whatever way feels comfortable to you, reposition yourself, then sit down again, using proper chair squat form.

Reverse lunge (shallow or deep)

Doing a reverse lunge is easier than doing a forward or walking lunge because you maintain more control over your torso and weight placement (your center of gravity doesn’t shift forward with your forward momentum), making it easier maintain proper form, particularly in your front foot. Just make sure when you step backward, you keep your weight in your front heel (remember to do the toe-wiggle, like with squats), so when you bend your knees into the lunge, your front knee remains behind your toes, and aligned with your toes. You can try shallow or deep reverse lunges.

I love this example video, but again, they won’t let me embed it.

Static lunge (shallow or deep)

With the static lunge, you start with your feet staggered, one in front of the other, and you maintain this staggered position throughout the exercise. As you perform each lunge, with a shallow or deep range of motion, you focus completely on proper lunge form without worrying about shifting your center of gravity forward or backward as you would when taking steps to the front or back. As always, remember to keep your weight in your front heel and your torso upright and straight as you lunge.

Alternatives to squats and lunges

If for any reason, you want to ditch the squats and lunges suggested in the Thrillist 31 Day Gym-Free Fitness Challenge, that’s completely fine. Here are some options for you to consider. Not all of them will feel comfortable for everyone, so give each movement a test to select the ones you like the best. The first five exercises listed below are compound in nature, targeting more muscle groups at the same time, while the last couple exercises do more to isolate the hamstrings and glutes. You can also sub in single-leg deadlifts or bridges, both of which are already included periodically in the Thrillist fitness challenge.

Step-ups

Step-ups are very similar to lunges in terms of the muscles worked, but because you have control over the height of the step and the change in forward momentum and center of gravity shift due to an overall smaller step-width, they tend to be easier on the knees. Start with a low step – about 12- to 18-inches tall, and work your way up to a taller step or bench as you feel ready. As always, remember to keep your weight in the heel of your front foot. Also, step down carefully from the step, fully controlling the downward motion.

Lateral box step-ups

Lateral box step-ups are a good alternative to squats, with the added bonus of greater engagement of the abductors and adductors. Start slowly with a low step, about eight- to 18-inches in height, gradually working your way up to a taller step or bench. Remain in a “baby squat” with a slight bend in your hips and knees throughout the exercise, and make sure you’re fully planting your foot on the step, with your weight in your heel, before shifting your weight to perform the lateral movement. As you get stronger, you can progress to a lateral step-over (shown below), crossing up and over the box.

Bear squats

Personally, I’m a huge fan of bear squats, as they’re a full-body exercise that takes you through the same range of motion as traditional squats, without placing as much weight on your lower-body joints. That said, they’re not for everyone, especially since they require a decent level of core strength and shoulder flexibility. The key thing to remember about bear squats is that your knees never touch the ground.  You start in a high plank position, then press your hips back toward your heels as you bend your knees and extend your shoulders. It’s as if you were performing a traditional squat, but from a plank position rather than a standing position. When you’ve squatted back as far as you can (never letting your knees touch down!), you press through the balls of your feet and extend forward, returning to the plank.

Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts

Dumbbell deadlifts are a great way to work your posterior chain – the muscles along the back half of your body. Make sure you focus on form – this exercise should primarily work your glutes and hamstrings, using them to “pull” you to the standing position, rather than relying on your back to do the bulk of the work. As with most of the exercises on this list, remember to keep your weight centered over your heels, and be sure to initiate the movement by pressing your hips backward, keeping your core tight and strong throughout.

Lateral band walks

Lateral band walks aren’t a perfect substitute for squats or lunges, but they do engage many of the same muscle groups while also working the abductors. If you can, lower yourself into a shallow squat while performing the band walks, pressing your hips back and bending your knees slightly (doesn’t have to be much!) as you perform the movement. As you step to the side, your center of gravity will shift, so move slowly at first, focusing on form, without allowing your momentum to take over.

Stability ball or slider hamstring curls

To target your hamstrings and glutes, try performing a modifed hamstring curl using a stability ball, sliders, paper plates, or even a towel. I’m including several sample videos below so you can see the differences. The main thing to remember is that your hips should remain lifted, glutes and core engaged, before and during the entire hamstring curl movement. These are surprisingly challenging, so stop if or when your form starts to suffer.

If you choose to use paper plates, a towel, or sliders, make sure the apparatus moves smoothly across the floor. You don’t want it to awkwardly stick or catch during the exercise.



Quadruped hip extension

Quadruped hip extensions are great for targeting your glutes unilaterally. Really concentrate on squeezing the glute of the acting leg, controlling the exercise throughout. Consider adding a resistance band for a greater challenge. Remember to keep your hips level and as steady as possible throughout the exercise.

Cardio alternatives if you need ’em

There are some cardio-based exercises included in the Thrillist fitness challenge that might not be comfortable if you have a hard time with squats and lunges. Consider subbing in the following, as needed.

Jumping jacks (jumping or stepping)

Select between the higher-impact, traditional jumping jack, or the lower-impact step-out version.

Side slides (slow or fast)

You can perform side slides fast, as shown, or you can slow them down and step them out for a lower-impact, lower-intensity option.

Bear crawl

Bear crawls are already included in the Thrillist challenge, but they’re a great alternative to burpees or mountain climbers if your knees can handle ’em.

High-knees

Step them out like an overexaggerated march, or jog them out at full speed.

Butt kicks

The video only shows butt kicks at-speed, but you can also slow them down to a walk, reducing the impact and intensity. Just make sure to swing your arms as you do the exercise to help get your heart rate high.

Inchworms

This exercise is included in the upper body days of the Thrillist challenge, but it’s a good substitute for more lower-body focused cardio. If you have some space to move, try the version shown in the second video.

Crab walks

If you don’t have shoulder pain, this is another good alternative for lower body-focused cardio.

High-low planks

Your lower body maintains static strength, while your upper body and core get a killer workout.

Lateral walking planks

This active motion is great if you have a strong core and shoulders. If you tend to have shoulder pain, this wouldn’t be my first substitution suggestion.

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