Build solid legs without the squat rack: switch to single leg mode.
Once the preserve of powerlifters and bodybuilders, the Back Squat seems to have become the go-to lift for anyone on a mission for solid quads and glutes, so much so, that gyms without a squat rack will probably be turning many prospective members away to the competition.
To set the records straight, I am not against back squatting at all, and it features in my own routines, and many of my client's; it's just that I see it performed far too often with poor technique, and by lifters who have clearly bypassed the usual pathways of progression, like mastering a perfect Body-Weight Squat, and loaded variants such as the Goblet and Front Dumbbell Squat.
Whether you use the back squat or not should really depend on your objectives. I see it as an advanced exercise, with a higher risk factor than many of the alternatives. So if your goal, like many gym users, is to firm up or gain a little muscle, it may be wiser not to dive straight into the squat rack on day one. If the objective is to improve your absolute strength, functional performance for certain sports, or you are looking to make significant gains in muscle mass, then the barbell back squat may become an essential lift, but only once you’ve progressed through the more fundamental variants of the exercise.
So what are the alternatives? Well there are many - including machine, free-weight and body-weight exercises. And as someone who has the lower body genetics more suited for endurance work, I have shed a lot of blood and sweat discovering the best movements for legs that are stubborn in terms of muscular development. This journey began in the early days of my fitness career, back in the late 90's, when I had no access to heavy lifting paraphernalia. Instead, I made do with a rack of 2 to 15 kg dumbbells and a variety of high-rep single leg (lunge pattern) exercises, and I used these to very good effect. Since then I have always included these movements in my routines, even when I have access to racks, barbells and plates. In fact, the times when I have taken shortcuts, and only relied on the heavier work, have been the times when I have made the least progress.
My own experience with leg training seems at odds though with the accepted rules for muscle growth, where loads in the 8-12 rep range have traditionally been considered the standard route to muscular development. Results with my own clients shows that this rarely applies to everybody and every muscle group though; some respond well to heavier loads, while some develop better in the higher rep ranges (15 to 25). Experienced clients may also need periods of both, or a mixture in the same session, to break stubborn plateaus. But in all the cases where muscle development or 'toning up' is the goal, single leg work has become a big feature of my lower body workouts. (This is a great article by Dan Ogborn for those interested in the technicalities of hypertrophy response in the three muscle fibre types, when exposed to different training loads.)
But single leg work is a hard sell for some. It is often seen as time consuming, tedious, and not 'hardcore' enough for real lifters. After all, why train each leg independently, when you can work both together in half the time. The time-saving argument in favour of squatting is flawed though, especially if you're someone that responds better to the higher rep ranges. Exercises like the squat place a huge demand on the cardiovascular system due to the volume of oxygen required to support the energy requirements of both legs combined, especially when working to failure through high reps This leads to extended rest periods between sets, costing additional time. Single leg work however places relatively less load on the heart and lungs, allowing you to switch sides with reduced rest time - making the overall time differential far less of an issue.
And even if a set of lunges may take a little longer than a set of squats, there are other very good reasons why working one leg at a time might be better for you…
During single leg movements like Split Squats, there is an element of balance required that you will not experience during a squat. Much of the stability required during movements such as the split squat or lunge comes from the employment of the stabiliser muscles at your hip, which also control the position of your knee and consequently, the stability of your ankle. Much of this musculature forms your rear-end, which also houses much of the muscle that produces the movement during such lifts. This combined muscle stimulus explains why lunge patterns are such effective exercises for this area of the body, and why they are also very good at improving movement in dynamic sports, where stability is key to both injury prevention and functional performance. Strength & conditioning guru, Michael Boyle, uses single leg exercises extensively in his athlete performance programmes - favouring them over bi-lateral leg work. And with his record of preventing injuries, who could argue with his choice.
Another big plus for single leg movements is that the load required to fatigue one leg is significantly lower than when both are working simultaneously. This has huge benefits if you suffer from back pain, or if you want to minimise the risk of developing a back injury, as it greatly reduces the compression and shear loading that your spine is exposed to.
As beneficial as they are though, single leg movements still require good form to be really productive. And the number one bad habit with moves like split squats and lunges, is simply working the wrong leg. In most cases, it is the forward leg that should exert most of the force, and for those that have well-functioning hip and knee stabilisers (your glutes, amongst others), there may be little comparable force applied through the 'resting' back leg at all. But if you are finding that both your legs are fatiguing equally after a single set, then you should take away any external load, and go back to body-weight alone - focusing on that forward leg drive and stability. If you're still wobbly, then try placing one hand on a wall or fixed pole for support. Once your glutes are firing well, and you can perform body-weight lunges or split squats with good stability, you can start progressing unsupported, and with external loading again.
Out of all the single leg variations, the Reverse Lunge (lunging back) and Split Squat have yielded the best results in my PT practice, and this applies to both hypertrophy and strength goals. There are benefits to lunging back instead of forward in terms of knee pain too, which you can read about here. For now though, I'll add some footage below showing both exercises performed with body weight alone which, for many, will still provide the necessary overload to achieve good results in the early stages of training.
So in summary, don't be misled by the hype that the Barbell Back Squat is the only way to fly for buns of steel and herculean thighs. And don't leave your gym, just because they haven't got a squat rack. Embrace single leg exercises and practice good form, then feel the difference this makes to your legs and glutes.