A lot of trainers think that working out with anything but freeweights is a waste of time. They believe that freeweights are best for stimulating strength and muscle growth. And while barbell and dumbbell exercises are undoubtedly effective, it’s a mistake to think that freeweights are the best way to train.
The fact is that machines can be every bit as effective, especially for hypertrophy. Machines eliminate the need to balance the weight, which leaves you free to focus 100% on the muscles you want to build. Your set will end when the agonists are fatigued rather than prematurely because the synergists fail.
For example, say you’re doing squats. It’s not uncommon for your lower back and core to fail before your legs are fully stimulated. You might be able to crank out a couple more reps with your lower back rounded and your butt winking like crazy, but this increases your risk of injury.
In contrast, doing something leg presses means you can crush your lower body without worrying so much about your lower back.
Yes, if you want to develop functional strength, freeweights are probably best. But, if you are a bodybuilder and not an athlete, machines might actually produce better results.
In this article, we take a look at the pendulum squat machine, so you can decide if it deserves a place in your workouts.
- Pendulum Squats – Muscles Worked
- How to Do the Pendulum Squat
- Pendulum Squat Benefits
- 7 Pendulum Squat Alternatives
- Pendulum Squat – Wrapping Up
Pendulum Squats – Muscles Worked
The pendulum squat is a compound or multi-joint exercise that works many of your lower body muscles simultaneously. The main muscles trained during pendulum squats are:
Known as the quads for short, this muscle group is located on the front of your thighs. There are four quadriceps muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. All four quads are involved in the pendulum squat, but the three vastus muscles are the most active. The quads are the dominant muscle in pendulum squats.
There are three gluteal muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. The Gluteus maximus, which is basically your butt, is your main hip extender and is very active during pendulum squats. The deeper you descend, the more work they have to do.
Gluteus minimus and medius are located on the side of your hip and help stabilize your joints, so your knees do not drop in during the exercise.
The hamstrings work with the glutes to extend your hips. However, because your knees are bending at the same time, the length of the hamstrings doesn’t change much, so their involvement is relatively low compared to the quads. The three hamstrings are semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris.
How to Do the Pendulum Squat
Get more from pendulum squats while keeping your risk of injury to a minimum by following these guidelines:
- Load the machine with the required number of weight plates. Start with a light load if you are new to this exercise.
- Lean backward onto the support and bend your legs slightly so that your shoulders fit under the pads. Press your lower back into the backrest.
- Stand on the footplate with your feet between hip and shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward or slightly outwards as preferred.
- Grab hold of the handles for stability and straighten your legs to release the safety bar. This is your starting position.
- Begin the movement by bending your legs, descending down and forward into a squat. Try to hit 90 degrees at the knees or deeper.
- Extend your legs and return to the starting position, stopping just short of complete lockout to keep the tension on your quads.
- Repeat for the required number of reps.
- Reengage the weight catcher and then exit the machine.
Important Note: There are lots of different pendulum squat machine manufacturers and designs, and each one works slightly differently. Make sure you use the pendulum squat at your gym according to any instructions provided with the machine or as directed by the gym staff.
Pendulum Squat Benefits
Not sure if pendulum squats are worth adding to your leg workouts? Consider these benefits and then decide!
- Great for quads and glutes hypertrophy – unlike barbell squats, your lower back and core are not involved much in pendulum squats. With no weight to balance, you are free to push your quads and glutes closer to failure, which is optimal for hypertrophy.
- Lower back friendly – your lower back is supported during pendulum squats, so there is very little stress on your lumbar spine. That’s good news for anyone suffering from or who wants to avoid low back pain.
- No spotters required – unlike most freeweight exercises, you can take your sets of pendulum squats to failure without a spotter and without worrying about getting crushed under a heavy weight. This is a very safe exercise.
- A comfortable exercise– the backrest and shoulder pads make this exercise very comfortable, even when lifting heavy weights. In c ontrast, barbell squats can be very uncomfortable as the bar presses against your upper back.
- Good for beginners – the pendulum squat guides your movements, so it’s hard to do this exercise incorrectly. As such, the pendulum squat is suitable for all levels of exerciser, including beginners.
- Move your feet to hit different parts of your legs – you can do pendulum squats with a narrow stance to light up your quads or a wider stance to increase glute activation.
- Variety – pendulum squats hit your legs in a very novel way. Because of this, they’re an ideal way to add more variety to your leg-building workouts.
While pendulum squats are a mostly beneficial exercise, there are also a few drawbacks to consider:
- Accessibility – pendulum squat machines are relatively rare, and not all gyms have them. Don’t worry, though; there are plenty of similarly effective exercises you can do to train the same muscles.
- Not very functional – the action of pendulum squats is unlike anything you’ll ever do in nature. As such, this exercise will not transfer well to activities outside of the gym. The pendulum squat is of little use to athletes looking to build functional strength.
7 Pendulum Squat Alternatives
Pendulum squats are a highly effective leg exercise, but not all gyms have one. The good news is that there are several alternatives you can use, so you don’t have to miss out:
1. Leg press
Like the pendulum squat, the leg press allows you to work your legs with plenty of back support and in relative comfort and safety. So, don’t worry if your gym doesn’t have a pendulum squat – the leg press provides most of the same benefits and effects.
How to do it:
- Sit on the leg press and slide your butt down and into the bottom of the seat. Place your feet on the footplates so they are between shoulder and hip-width apart.
- Extend your legs and press the weight up. Flip the safety catches out to the side so the weight sled is free to move. Grip the support handles and brace your abs.
- Bend your knees and descend as far as your flexibility and knee health allows. Do not let your lower back round. Instead, keep it pressed into the backrest.
- Without bouncing, drive the weight back up, stopping just short of full knee extension.
- That’s one rep – keep going!
Pro tip: Position your feet according to your training goal. A narrow stance puts more stress on the quadriceps, while a wider stance spreads the load between all of your lower body muscles more evenly.
2. Hack squat machine
The hack squat is another popular leg machine that emphasizes the quads. The pendulum squat works the glutes more than hack squats, but if you want to build bigger, more muscular quads, the hack squat is hard to beat.
How to do it:
- Load the machine with the desired weight and push your shoulders and back against the pads.
- Position your feet at shoulder width, extend your legs, and release the safety catches.
- Slowly lower the weight by bending your legs until your knees are approximately 90 degrees. You can go a little deeper if your flexibility and knee health allow.
- Reverse the movement by driving your feet into the platform and extending the knees and hips.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Pro tip: Make hack squats even more quads-centric by moving your feet backward and allowing your heels to lift off the footplate as you descend. This variation was one of the Quad Father Tom Platz’s favorite leg-builders.
3. Heels elevated goblet squat
Machines aren’t the only way to preferentially target your quadriceps. For example, the heels elevated goblet squat, sometimes called the cyclist squat, does an excellent job of emphasizing the quads without using machines. This exercise is ideal for home lifters.
How to do it:
- Place two bumper weight plates on the floor about hip-width apart. Alternatively, use a length of wooden plank. Stand with your heels raised and the balls of your feet on the floor.
- Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of your chest and just below your chin. Pull your shoulders down and back, and brace your core. Look straight ahead.
- Keeping your torso upright, bend your knees, and squat as deeply as you can without rounding your lower back.
- Stand up, stopping just short of locking your knees to keep the tension on your muscles.
- Descend again and repeat for the required number of repetitions.
Pro-tip: Hit your quads even harder with 1 ½ reps. Descend as usual, come halfway up, descend again, and then stand all the way up. This increases time under tension and training intensity.
Read more on heels elevated goblet squat.
4. Close stance squat
The main disadvantage of barbell squats is that they tend to work all your lower body muscles fairly evenly. One way to mirror the demands of the pendulum squat and make them more quads-centric is to bring your feet in and adopt a narrower stance. Close stance squats require good mobility and balance, but if you can do them, you’ll definitely feel them in your quads more than regular squats.
How to do it:
- Rest and hold a barbell across your upper back/traps. Make sure the bar is NOT across your neck. Stand with your feet hip-width or closer. Experiment to find the stance that works best for you. Brace your core, pull your shoulders down and back, and look straight ahead.
- Keeping your torso relatively upright, bend your knees, and squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back or lifting your heels off the floor.
- Without bouncing at the bottom, stand back up and repeat.
- You can also do this exercise without weights, i.e., a close stance air squat.
Pro tip: Increase quads activation and squat deeper by placing your heels on bumper plates or one to two-inch high blocks.
5. Feet forward Smith machine squat
Doing squats on a Smith machine eliminates the need to balance the weight and allows you to lean back and emphasize your quads. As an added benefit, you can set the weight catchers so that you won’t get trapped under a heavy barbell if you take your sets to failure.
How to do it:
- Duck under the bar so it rests across your upper traps and not on your neck. Stand up and step out into a hip-width stance. Move your feet forward a few inches. Grip the bar tightly and brace your abs.
- Bend your knees and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back.
- Stand back up and repeat.
Pro tip: Use a wider stance to increase adductor recruitment or a narrower stance to hit your quads more.
6. Stability ball goblet squat
Goblet squats are a great way to work your quads, but a lack of balance can be an issue for some people. Leaning against a stability ball eliminates this problem. Also, using a stability ball allows you to push your feet forward, which increases quadriceps activation while supporting your lower back.
How to do it:
- Stand with your back about 24-inches away from a smooth wall. Place your dumbbell on the floor between your feet.
- Put your stability ball between your lower back and the wall. Place your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Your feet should be just in front of your hips.
- Squat down and grab the dumbbell. Stand up and hold it in front of your chest. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Now you’re in position, bend your legs and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Keep your back pressed against the ball. Pause for 1-2 seconds.
- Stand back up and repeat.
Pro tip: You can also do this exercise with a single kettlebell or medicine ball. Alternatively, hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides.
7. Backward sled drag
Most people view weighted sled training as a conditioning workout. While pushing or pulling a sled will definitely pump up your heart rate and burn a ton of calories, it’s also effective for strength training and muscle-building.
Dragging a weighted sled backward is a very knee-friendly way to work your quads. This is a viable alternative if pendulum squats bother your knees or lower back.
How to do it:
- Stand facing your sled with a handle in each hand.
- Bend your knees into a quarter-depth squat and walk backward until your arms are straight and the straps are tight.
- Without bending your arms or leaning forward, walk back while dragging the sled.
- Push off your toes to maximize quadriceps recruitment.
Pro tip: You can also do this exercise hands-free by fixing the straps to a belt around your waist.
Pendulum Squat – Wrapping Up
The pendulum squat is a great lower body exercise and is especially useful for targeting your quads and glutes. Pendulum squats guide your movements and support your lower back, making them safer for some lifters than regular squats.
Unfortunately, not all gyms have pendulum squat machines, but that’s okay as there are several exercises you can do that are more accessible and equally effective.
So, if your gym has a pendulum squat, think yourself lucky and enjoy all the benefits it has to offer. But, if you don’t have access to one, just use one of the seven alternatives we’ve listed in this guide.