The Pendulum Squat: Bridging the Gap Between Strength and Safety

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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When it comes to squatting, barbell squats are at the top of the list. There’s no doubt that free weight movements engage more stabilizer muscles and build functional strength, but squatting machines have their place too. And the pendulum squat machine is one of the most underrated ones in the gym. 

It’s an excellent way to build leg size and strength because it takes your core and stabilizers out of the equation. Add this kind of leg-focused exercise to your leg day routine, and you should see a noticeable difference. Let’s dive into a more detailed explanation. 

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What Is a Pendulum Squat? 

The pendulum squat is a variation of the traditional squat, done on a pendulum squat machine. It uses a counterbalance system to help you lift weight without the usual worries that come with barbell squatting. 

Because the pendulum squat has a somewhat different body position and range of motion than regular squats, it can only be performed on the machine. And if you’re wondering about the unusual name, it’s because the machine performs a pendulum-like movement to activate the counterbalance system during the squat! 

How to Do a Pendulum Squat 

If your gym happens to have a pendulum squat machine, here’s how to use it to maximize your leg gains. 

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1. Adjust the Machine to Your Body 

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If someone quite a bit taller or shorter than you used the machine before you did, you won’t be able to get a good workout using it as is. Depending on the machine your gym has, there can be two to four different adjustments

  • Height of the shoulder pads 
  • Angle of the foot platform 
  • Stopper height 
  • Safety catch height 

Some machines don’t have an adjustable safety catch, but every one will allow you to adjust the shoulder height and foot plate angle. It’s important that you find the right platform angle for you, because you don’t want your heels to lift off the platform as you squat. 

2. Add Your Weight 

If it’s your first time using the machine, we recommend using it without weights. This will give you a chance to get used to the feeling of the movement, because it’s different to what you might expect. 

Once you’re used to it and you know you can add a bit more weight, you’ll want to stack your weights before you get onto the machine. Start light. The weight goes on the two weight horns behind the back pad. 

3. Get Into Position 

Walk “into” the machine and stand with your shoulders under the pads, resting your upper back comfortably against the pad. Some machines have two handles, one above or to the side of each shoulder, for you to hold. Others have a bar in front of you, which you place your hands on. 

Once you’re in this starting position, step onto the platform. Try to keep your foot position on the platform as you would for a normal barbell squat—with your feet at shoulder-width to hip-width apart and your toes pointing slightly outwards. 

Push upwards and unlock the safety handle. It’s a good idea to check before you get on the machine how the stopper/safety works, so you can do it easily when you reach this point. You’re now ready to perform your squat. 

4. Squat With Good Form 

Your first pendulum squat is likely to feel very strange. Just bend your knees and you’ll squat into the platform. You might be shocked at how low you can go on this machine! 

Once you’re at the bottom of your squat, pause for a second, and then drive your feet into the foot plate to push yourself up again. Aim for a controlled movement—there’s no need to be explosive. 

Continue for the required number of reps. Once you’ve hit your rep count, re-engage the safety and make sure it’s on before attempting to get off the machine. 

The Pendulum Squat Machine: A Game-Changer 

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It might seem like “cheating” to use a machine for squats, but trust us, you’re missing out if you haven’t tried the pendulum squat machine. Although its biggest disadvantage is that it’s not common, the benefit of pendulum squats are great if you can find a machine! 

Targets the Quadriceps & Glutes 

If you’re looking for maximum quad and glute engagement, the pendulum squat will give it to you. Because of the way you’re positioned and the fact that your stabilizer muscles get a nice break, this squat really nails those two muscles. 

Experimenting with your foot stance can change up your muscle activation. A narrow stance will target the quads better, while a wider stance really gets the glutes working. And because of the reduced activation of your stabilizer muscles, you’re free to really push them hard, which is excellent for hypertrophy

Full Range of Motion 

It’s difficult to get a full range of motion with a barbell squat. In many cases, it’s due to either hip immobility or ankle inflexibility, and the pendulum squat machine puts you in the perfect position to get around these issues. 

Thanks to the unusual position you’re in, you can squat much lower on this machine than you might be able to with free weights. Increasing your range of motion can help you build knee strength and explosiveness, and full-range-of-motion squats also get more glute muscle activation than partial range of motion squats. 

Provides Back Support 

One of the biggest benefits of pendulum squats is that they support your back throughout the movement. While free weight squats recruit those stabilizer muscles, those with back injuries or pain might struggle to do them properly or safely, and certainly with a high amount of weight.

The pendulum squat machine might not actively strengthen those stabilizers, but it supports the back so there’s little chance of hurting it with poor form. You can lift heavy on a pendulum machine and lower your risk of injury thanks to extra support. It’s a win-win squat-uation. 

Eliminates Joint Strain 

The pendulum exercise machine’s unique positioning of your body takes some of the load off your joints, so it’s a good choice for those who struggle with knee, hip, and ankle pain during regular squatting. 

This exercise is a good way to build up knee strength and strengthen the leg muscles, which will help to stabilize the knee and ankle. You may even be able to reduce joint pain this way. 

Safer Than Free Weights 

Free weights might be good for activating a bunch more muscles (think stabilizers), but the pendulum machine’s controlled environment is safer than heavy barbell squats. Firstly, you can go a little heavier without the worry that your form will fall apart, because you’re held in position by the machine. 

Secondly, you’ve got built-in safety devices on the machine, which act as spotters. So you can go hard and heavy much more safely than you’ll ever be able to with free-weight squats. 

What Muscles Does It Target? 

The main muscles targeted by the pendulum squat are the quadriceps and the gluteal muscles. You can shift your muscle engagement more from one to the other by narrowing or widening your stance on the platform. 

Other lower body muscles that get worked to a lesser extent during the movement include the hamstrings, adductor magnus, the calf muscles, and the tibialis anterior. 

Unlike a regular squat, there’s very little (if any) activation of the erector spinae muscles and the core, thanks to the strong back support the machine provides. 

Tips for Maximizing Pendulum Squat Gains 

Ready to use pendulum squats to make some serious leg gains? Here’s how to make sure you get the most out of them for muscle mass and strength. 

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Use the Full Deep Range of Motion 

Don’t be shy to get all the way down. It might be a lot deeper than you’re used to, but that’s one of the reasons pendulum squats are such a great exercise. It should feel almost like you’re trying to sit on the platform. 

Lower the Weight 

Note that you might need to lower the weight in comparison to what you usually squat, especially if you aren’t used to going so deep. Dr Mike Israetel, an exercise scientist with a PhD in Sports Physiology, recommends starting with less than half of what you can do on the bar. 

Control Your Descent 

“Dropping into” the squat and allowing the weight to push you down is missing an opportunity for muscle gains. Control the descent and you’ll be able to do the movement more safely as well as engaging that mind/muscle connection. 

Pendulum Squat Alternatives 

Don’t have a pendulum machine at your gym? Not to worry—these pendulum squat variations are highly effective exercises and can give you a great workout with many of the same great pros of the pendulum. 

Leg Press 

The leg press machine is a much more common squat variation than the pendulum, and it provides a lot of the same benefits. You’ll have strong back support, safety mechanisms in place, and although it works in a slightly different way, it still targets those quads and glutes. 

Hack Squat Machine 

The hack squat machine is close to the pendulum in body positioning, but the movement is a little different. Whereas the pendulum squat has you moving in an “arc”, the hack squat exercise has you moving in a straight line. 

You can experiment with hack squat foot placements as well for slightly different muscle engagement, although it doesn’t get as much glute activation as the pendulum. It’s an excellent move for building the quads. 

Smith Machine Squat 

The Smith machine may get a bad rap, but using it for squats takes away the need to stabilize the weight, giving it similar benefits to the pendulum squat. Stand with the bar resting on your traps and your feet forward a little more than feels comfortable. 

You want to be able to squat deeply in a straight line, without your feet getting in your way. You’ll still need to engage your core here to squat properly, and make sure you aren’t rounding your back. Although it’s easier to stay in a straight line, there’s also more room for error here as you have no back support. 

Pendulum Squat: Common Mistakes to Avoid 

If you do it right, the pendulum squat can be a valuable addition to your leg day repertoire. But if you do it wrong, you could be missing out on the benefits and increasing your chance of injury. Avoid these mistakes. 

Forgetting to Adjust It 

Exercising on the machine when it’s been set to someone else’s body can be both ineffective and dangerous. Take the time to figure out how the machine needs to be set up for you. You may need to experiment a little the first time you use it, with both the shoulder pad height and the platform angle. 

Once you know how to set it up for you, make sure you check every time before getting on it. It takes just a few minutes to set it up for your body and it could save you pain and improve your range of motion. 

Lifting Too Heavy 

Because this particular movement uses a unique motion, it has a different “strength curve.” This means the parts of the movement where the weight feels the heaviest and the lightest differs from the regular squat. 

If you put heavy weights on this machine, you might just find you can’t stand up again once you’re down. Continuing with a higher weight may mean you compromise on your range of motion, so you won’t be getting the full benefit of the movement. 

Limiting Your ROM 

Regardless of what weight you’re lifting, if you aren’t squatting as low as you can go, you’re missing out on muscle activation and may as well do a barbell squat. You should be squatting as low as you can go without your heels lifting off the platform. 

Those with poor ankle mobility or hip mobility may struggle to go low. If this is the case with you, we recommend working on your joint mobility and continuing to work on the pendulum squat to see how it improves. 

Not Knowing How the Safety Lever Works 

Make sure you’re very familiar with how the safety catch works in case you need to engage it mid-movement. Don’t wait until you’re mid-set and realize you don;t know how to engage your own spotter. 

Even if you know how it works, it’s a good idea to practice getting off the machine if you fail a rep. Do this without weight so you know how to maneuver yourself to get out without hurting yourself. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Still wondering about the pendulum squat? Here are some of the most common questions we get asked about this move. 

Pendulum Squat vs. Hack Squat: Which Is Better? 

Both the pendulum squat and the hack squat are safer and more stable than a barbell squat. The pendulum squat is a better option for those with poor knee health and lifters wanting to target both quads and glutes with the squat. The hack squat is a good choice for those without knee problems who want to target the quads and not the glutes

Is the Pendulum Squat Safe? 

Yes, the pendulum squat is a safe squat version, especially in comparison to the barbell squat. Thanks to the extra back support and the reduction of strain on the joints, the pendulum squat is safer on the body. Plus, it features a safety catch that gives you an “out” if you fail a rep, unlike traditional squats. 

How Often Should You Do Pendulum Squats? 

You can do pendulum squats 2 to 3 times a week as part of a lower body training program. However, make sure you’re giving your muscles enough time to rest and recover between workouts. We recommend once or twice a week for newer lifters and up to 3 times a week for experienced weightlifters

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About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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