Learn how to do the pendulum squat and why it’s an excellent alternative to the barbell squat.
Many tout barbell squats as the “king of all exercises.” No doubt, barbell squats are one of the most effective exercises for targeting your lower body. It’s a free-weight movement that engages your core and stabilizers and lets you load up a barbell with heavy weight. However, that’s not to say you should only focus on free weights when trying to build muscle and strength in your lower body. Machines have a place too. One of the best machine exercises you can do for your lower body is the pendulum squat.
The pendulum squat won’t target your core as much as free weights, but it will give you a greater range of motion and keep the tension on your lower body. In this article, we’ll dig into the effectiveness of the pendulum squat, how to do them, and why they’re a great alternative to the barbell squat.
Pendulum Squat Technique and Muscles Worked
The pendulum squats are performed on a machine similar to the hack squat. But it allows for a greater range of motion. The pendulum squat is a compound machine movement that works your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Below we’ll cover the steps on how to perform them.
- Load the machine with plates.
- Get yourself into position by supporting your back on the back padding and your shoulders underneath the shoulder pads. Extend your arms to grab the handle in front of you and spread your feet shoulder-width apart on the foot platform below.
- Squat down as far you can go (past parallel).
- Press through your heels to raise and return to the starting position.
*Note: Don’t lock out your knees to protect your knees and to keep the tension on your quads. Also, it’s worth noting that there are various pendulum squat machine designs. So follow the directions of the machine your gym has specifically.
Pendulum Squat Benefits
The pendulum squat has a few benefits, including specific benefits that separate them from the standard barbell squat. Studies have shown that machine squats are equivalent to free-weight squats and increase your jumping squat more than free-weight squats (1). Below are other benefits of the pendulum squat.
Greater Range of Motion
The biomechanics of the squat pendulum machine allows you to squat much lower than a traditional squat. Therefore, you’ll get a greater range of motion, targeting your leg muscles more deeply.
Safer for Your Back and Knees
The angle at which you squat on the pendulum squat places less stress on your knees. And since you’re using a machine that doesn’t require as much stability and balance as free weights, it’s overall safer. In addition, you don’t have to worry about a barbell sliding. And the machine squat variation places less strain on your back.
Can Use Heavier Weights
Compared to the barbell squat, this exercise lets you load up with more weight since it’s done on a machine. The machine takes out the stability your core, hips, and knee would need on the barbell squat and only engages your legs.
Foot Variation to Fix Lagging Muscle Groups
You can also hit different angles of your thighs, knee joint, and hip joint in this exercise since you can adjust the position of your feet (2). For example, you can opt for a wider stance to target your adductors (thigh muscles) and glutes or a narrow stance to target more of your outer quads. You can also position your feet higher or lower to target your hamstrings and glutes or to hit more of your quads. The different foot variations will help correct muscular imbalances and strengthen your lagging muscle group.
Pendulum Squat Alternatives
Only some gyms will have a squat pendulum machine. Therefore, it’s essential to have some backup exercises that will yield similar benefits.
The hack squat most closely resembles the pendulum squat from all the alternatives. This movement will activate your entire lower body (glutes, hamstrings, quads) with a focus on your quads. You won’t be able to get as much range of motion on this exercise compared to the pendulum squat.
Most gyms will either have a sled leg press or leg press machine (or both). The difference with this exercise is that you’ll be seated. However, it’s another great multi-joint compound movement that will strengthen your quads, hamstrings, and glutes (3).
Goblet Squat (Heels Elevate)
The goblet squat is a free-weight alternative that requires one dumbbell. You’ll hold the dumbbell with both hands on one end of the dumbbell head while the dumbbell is perpendicular to the ground. You’ll then squat down and perform a standard squat. This movement will be as safe for your back as the pendulum squat. Plus, it will activate more of your core. And if you want to activate more of your quads, you can perform this exercise with your heels at an incline resting on top of plates.
Smith Machine Squat
The smith machine squat closely mimics a barbell squat. But since it’s done on a machine, it will be safer and allow you to get more comfortable with a squatting movement with a barbell resting on your traps. You can also do a close and wider stance like you would on the pendulum squat to target different angles of your legs. It’ll engage more of your core than the pendulum squat, but you won’t get as deep of a range or motion.
Below are some common questions and considerations when performing the pendulum squat.
- Is it safer than barbell squats?
Yes, the pendulum squat is safer than barbell squats because it’s performed on a machine, gives you more stability, and protects your back.
- Is the pendulum squat as effective as other squat variations?
Depending on what your goal is and fitness level will determine which squat variation is best for you. Studies have shown that machine squat variations are equally effective for athletic performance as free-weight squats (1). In addition, they increase your jumping ability more compared to free-weight squats. Moreover, pendulum squats allow you to squat deeper than other squats.
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- Schwarz, N. A., Harper, S. P., Waldhelm, A., McKinley-Barnard, S. K., Holden, S. L., & Kovaleski, J. E. (2019). A Comparison of Machine versus Free-Weight Squats for the Enhancement of Lower-Body Power, Speed, and Change-of-Direction Ability during an Initial Training Phase of Recreationally-Active Women. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(10), 215. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7100215
- Lorenzetti, S., Ostermann, M., Zeidler, F., Zimmer, P., Jentsch, L., List, R., Taylor, W. R., & Schellenberg, F. (2018). How to squat? Effects of various stance widths, foot placement angles and level of experience on knee, hip and trunk motion and loading. BMC sports science, medicine & rehabilitation, 10, 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13102-018-0103-7
- Goncalves, A., Gentil, P., Steele, J., Giessing, J., Paoli, A., & Fisher, J. P. (2019). Comparison of single- and multi-joint lower body resistance training upon strength increases in recreationally active males and females: a within-participant unilateral training study. European journal of translational myology, 29(1), 8052. https://doi.org/10.4081/ejtm.2019.8052