September 03, 2021 1 Comment
The squat is one of seven innate fundamental human movements, so it goes without saying that squatting is a vital part of fitness. And while it’s a natural movement pattern for us as humans, if you don’t use it, you can lose it.
Besides the squat being a foundational movement, it is also the best exercise you can do for lower body strength and muscle mass. Therefore, if you want big, powerful, athletic legs and glutes, squats are a must. This applies to men and women alike.
On that note, we put together this all-encompassing guide to squats. In it you will learn how to do a squat, the benefits of squats, the muscles worked, and all the best variations to employ into your training. We hope after reading this, squats will become one of your favorite exercises!
The squat is a big, compound, multijoint movement that is considered to be one of the key exercises for increasing strength and size of the lower body as well as developing core strength.
A squat involves lowering your hips from a standing position, generally until the tops of your thighs are parallel with the floor, and then standing back up.
During the descent, your knees and hips flex as the ankles dorsiflex, then on the ascent, your knees and hips extend as your ankles plantarflex.
With that, you are working all of your lower body muscles. Moreover, as you must keep your torso upright during a squat, your back and core are being strengthened as well.
When it comes to squats, the barbell back squat is the absolute king of squats. In fact, it is arguably one of the greatest bang for your buck exercises of all.
The barbell back squat is considered one of the big 4 foundational movements in strength training and powerlifting, alongside deadlifts, bench press, and overhead press. It is also a favorite among bodybuilders for how well it packs on muscle.
This variation of the squat provides the highest activation for your quads, hamstrings and glutes at once and allows for the greatest possible load, relative to your strength level. This is why it is used as a test of strength in powerlifting and it is the go-to lower body exercise for any serious bodybuilder and weightlifter.
The barbell back squat comes with many benefits and should be a primary exercise in your fitness plan if you lift weights and you want to build significant strength and muscle.
Of course, there are caveats to this point, such as people with low back issues, for which they can do other variations of squats that are easier on their low back, or people who simply prefer using other less risky equipment like kettlebells, as the barbell back squat, while high reward, is also high risk.
In this guide, we are going to emphasize the barbell back squat because when you think of squats in relation to strength training, it is the back squat that is top of mind and reigns supreme. All other variations of the squat fall below it in terms of building strength, but that doesn't mean they can't be equally as effective for building muscle.
Below you will learn all you need to know about barbell back squats, such as how to do it with correct form, the muscles worked, why you should do it, best rep ranges, volume, load, and more.
For beginners, we will provide you with a squat progression plan, which starts with a bodyweight squat, as you need to start somewhere.
Once we cover all of that, we will get into different variations of squats, of which there are many, such as front squats, sumo squats, zercher squats, and squats using all different kinds of equipment. Knowing different variations of squats will allow you to add variety to your lower body workouts over the course of your fitness journey. Back squats are king, but other squat variations have their place as well as they can help you emphasize certain muscles and weaknesses. Moreover, they can provide you an opportunity to do squats effectively no matter what free weight equipment you have access to, if any at all.
Think of this as the ultimate guide to squats, with a strong emphasis on the barbell back squat to start...
As the barbell back squat is the primary squatting exercise in strength programs, it deserves the most detail on correct form. So, we are going to describe how to do a standard back squat first and foremost.
After, we will go over a progression plan for those who are new to strength training and squats in general, starting with how to do a bodyweight squat.
The other variations of squats will be further below in the article.
How to do a standard barbell back squat:
Some people will feel more comfortable squatting with the bar a little lower on their back and some a little higher.
The same is true with feet width, some will need a slightly wider stance.
The low bar back squat positions the bar on the lower part of the upper traps and rear delts. You’ll need to have decent shoulder mobility for the low bar back squat to keep the bar there.
As for form, your torso will lean forward a bit as you squat down because you will need to send your hips further back, but your spine should still remain straight (no arch). And, your feet will also typically be around shoulder width or wider. The rest of the form cues apply.
The high bar back squat positions the bar on top of your traps, closer to your neck. Your feet will generally be somewhere between just outside hip width and close to shoulder width apart, and your torso will be close to vertical as you squat down. This is because you won’t be shooting your hips back, rather you will be descending more straight down. You’ll also go a little deeper into the squat, past parallel with the high bar squat.
You’ll need good hip mobility for high bar back squats. This is why a lot of people with poor-ish hip mobility prefer or feel more comfortable with the low bar back squat.
While both are good options, and generally people choose the one they are more comfortable with (or a position somewhere in-between), there are some notable differences.
With low bar back squats, your hamstrings and glutes will be more involved. Generally, people are going to be able to lift quite a bit heavier of weight with the low bar position because there is less range of motion and the glutes and hamstrings help the quads to a greater degree. It also involves more core and low back strength, as it puts the bar in a position over the midline.
With the high bar back squat, you will be emphasizing your quads and it is typically easier on the back (and shoulders), which also means it is less engaging for the posterior chain. It is an athletic stance type of squat and more closely resembles squatting patterns you’d do in everyday life. You’ll just need good lower body mobility for this, which is something you’ll want to work on if you don’t have it anyway.
All in all, it really comes down to comfortability. You should see which one works best for you. You may find that a hybrid of the two is best for you (somewhere in-between). Go with what’s natural.
For a very in-depth take on low bar vs high bar back squats, read this article we wrote.
Note: You’ll want to choose accessory/assistance exercises based around whether you do a high bar back squat or low bar back squat. For example, if you do a high bar back squat, you’ll want more posterior accessory lifts after to ensure your hamstrings are getting enough attention.
There are some important cues that apply no matter if you choose high bar, low bar, or a hybrid. So, let’s go over those now...
Hips, Knees & Feet:
You want to have an equal balance between hip and knee flexion as you descend into the squat. Don’t bend at the knees and lean your torso forward, rather bring your hips down and slightly back until your hips are level with your knees. This will ensure your torso remains as upright as possible.
What’s more, you'll want to stay on the heels of your feet. Don’t come up onto your toes. Your knees should be in line with your toes. They shouldn’t pass over your toes (or at least not much).
Keep your spine straight at all times. No arch in your back.
To do this, always keep your shoulder blades pressed together and your chest up.
If your back is starting to arch/round, either you are going to low or you need to really focus on keeping your core tight, shoulder blades retracted, and chest up.
It is normal for people’s knees to buckle inward during squats, especially as you start to go heavy. You don’t want this to happen though. To avoid your knees pushing in, think about driving them out as you squat. Of course, you are not trying to spread them wide open, but as tension is place on your knees, actively press them out.
As a beginner, you will want to first get use to the movement mechanics of the squat. It is best to do this without any external load. So, bodyweight squats should be where you start.
Step 1: Practice Bodyweight Squats
The form for bodyweight squats is just like a barbell back squat, except your arms will not be holding onto any external load.
How to do a bodyweight squat:
Practice the bodyweight squat for a week or two or however long you need. This will help you to both nail down the form and build up lower body strength.
When you are comfortable doing multiple sets for around 20 repetitions, you can move on to step 2.
Step 2: Add an External Load
When you are ready, it’s time to do goblet squats. You can do goblet squats with a single kettlebell or dumbbell. Start light and work your way up in weight for a couple weeks or however long as you need.
How to do a goblet squat:
The goblet squat is more like a front squat or high bar squat (as the load is more at your midline/front), so it will build up your quads, core and back strength and help you to work on squatting while keeping your spine straight and torso more upright.
When you are satisfied with your performance of goblet squats, it’s time to do barbell back squats!
Step 3: Barbell Back Squat
Now you are ready to get under the bar! Start with just the barbell, no added plates. Practice the form with just the barbell until you are confident with the mechanics of the movement. When you start to add plates, start light and progress to heavier loads over time. As a beginner, you should be able to add a plate (~5lbs) to each side each session for weeks and possibly even months. Progression will happen quickly. However, enjoy it while it lasts, because at some point, it will slow down, at which time, you will probably be in intermediate territory and ready for more variety and to play with other training variables.
Adding squats into your routine on a regular basis will provide you with an array of benefits, with the most obvious one being bigger, stronger legs and glutes, so let’s star there...
1. Squats are the best for building muscle mass & strength in the legs & glutes
It’s no surprise that squats, be it a back squat, front squat, or goblet squats for beginners, build serious muscle mass and strength.
While it is essentially, a total body exercise, the main attraction in terms of size and strength is on the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves, so let’s touch on these muscles.
Glutes: Your gluteal muscles include your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. Squats work all three, but particularly the gluteus maximus, which is not only the biggest gluteal muscle, but the biggest muscle in your entire body. It’s also the most important muscle for overall power production. All in all, squats are arguably the best exercise for the glutes because they allow for the heaviest load potential and they provide the glutes with maximum tension during stretching contraction, which occurs when you lower down into the squat, and stretching contraction (eccentric contraction) is shown to be the most effective for building power and strength. Squats = a strong, big, firm, athletic booty.
Quadriceps: The quadriceps are a group of four muscles, the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris. Squats will build strength and size to all of these muscles like no other exercise, making your quads look thick and defined. Besides looking good, strengthening these muscles will also improve your movement and injury resilience. The quads are the main support for leg extension and they protect the knee from instability. For best development of your quads, it’s important to use a full range of motion. This will allow you to maximize both contraction and stretching tension. Squats = big, thick, strong and ripped quads.
Hamstrings: Your hamstrings are made up of three muscles, the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. While the hamstrings are not being worked to the same degree as the glutes and quads during squats, the hamstrings play an important role in stabilizing the hips when lowering down and they assist the glutes when driving up to a standing position. That said, if you use a low bar squat, your hamstrings will be activated to a considerably higher degree. The way the hamstrings are worked during squats translates to greater power and resilience in real life movements like jumping and running. All that said, while squats are a pretty complete exercise for the quads and glutes, your hamstrings will need additional emphasis from exercises like deadlifts, which place the hamstrings at the forefront rather than the quads.
Calves: As with the hamstrings, your calves, which are made up of the gastrocnemius and the soleus, play more of a stability role. They will be worked during squats for ankle stability and supporting proper lower extremity mechanics. While you won’t feel your calves being exhausted during squat like you will your quads and glutes, you will be increasing ankle strength and mobility, and an overall ability to generate and absorb power through the ground when jumping, running, and lifting. Moreover, having good plantar flexion will keep your knees in good health, as poor mobility causes excessive stress and compensation at the knee joint.
While there are other more isolated exercises that may target these muscles better individually (particularly as you become more advanced, as beginners will get serious development with just squats alone), there is no better and more effective exercise to train all of these muscles at once than the squat. Squats teach these muscles to work in concert, which provides far greater overall lower body strength than any other exercise. Again, this is why it is one of the greatest bang for your buck exercises.
2. Squats increase bone density & joint strength
Squats don’t just build and strengthen muscle, they build and strengthen the entire skeletal muscular system, which includes muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments. This in turn will improve the function of your joints. Squats do this in the most effective manner because they allow for heavy loads and heavy loads are essential for increasing bone density. This becomes more and more important as you get older and naturally lose bone density and strength in your ligaments and tendons. Squats = Longevity.
3. Squats increase testosterone
Big compound, total body exercise with heavy loads like squats increase anabolic hormone release (testosterone and growth hormone). This is why squats are the best for building lower body muscle mass, even if other more isolated exercise target a specific muscle better. If you want to build muscle, a greater production of natural anabolic hormones is essential.
Note: Women won’t see an increase in testosterone, so don’t worry if this is a concern for you as a woman.
4. Squats improve mobility & flexibility
Squats move you through a large range of motion. They are essentially a form of dynamic stretching. So, if you squat with a full range of motion, you are automatically working on mobility and flexibility, and you are doing so in a way that allows you to be flexible and mobile with a load. This is vital for athletes and pretty much anyone who wants to be resilient and strong.
5. Squats increase injury resilience
Squats strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding some of your most important joints, your ankles, knees, and hips, as well as your spine. With that, you are virtually bullet proofing your body.
6. Squats improve athletic ability
There’s a reason why squats are used in athletic training for nearly all sports. Squats translate to improved balance, coordination, power production, sprint speed, and vertical jumping. The squat is a complete functional movement through and through.
7. Squats increase core strength
While ab specific exercises like leg raises and planks are effective, the ultimate core strength exercise is a heavy squat, of which there are many variations to test your core differently.
Your core includes your abs, your obliques, low back, and all the smaller muscles in-between. Squats hit all of these muscles beautifully.
Remember, core work is not just about popping abs and a shredded mid-section, it’s also about building strength and stability so your spine is protected and making yourself more coordinated, balanced, and powerful when moving (or not moving).
8. Squats burn a ton of calories
Squats help you burn more calories is two ways. First, it’s a big exercise that recruits so many muscles which requires more energy expenditure. Second, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn in a resting state. With that, squats are great for keeping lean.
9. Squats improve posture
With squats increasing leg strength and core strength, another result will be improved posture. Squats will allow you to stand tall, proud and strong.
10. Squats improve workout efficiency
Rather than spending unnecessary time in the gym hitting each muscle separately, you can hit squats and get so many muscles worked effectively at once. This is why squats should be the foundation of lower body training. All other exercises are added around it (and deadlifts) as accessory exercises, just to ensure certain muscles are getting enough attention. Squats = Big bang for your buck efficient exercise.
Although we’ve already mentioned the muscled worked when squatting, let’s look at the primary movers and stabilizer muscles and how each of the muscles are worked throughout the movement.
To start, the primary muscles are:
Note: The hamstrings are more so considered a stabilizer, although they do play a key role in squats.
The stabilizer muscles are:
How is each muscle is worked during squats?
As you lower down into the squat, your knee and hip joints are flexing while your ankle joint dorsiflexes. With that, your quads and gastrocnemius are controlling your knees, allowing them to slowly lower down under tension, as are your glutes and hamstrings with your hips. Your tibialis anterior is controlling dorsiflexion.
When your drive up from the squat to a standing position, your knee and hip joints extend and your ankle plantarflexes. With that, your quads drive power for knee extension, as your glutes and hamstrings do for hip extension. Your soleus pushes through plantarflexion as your gastrocnemius helps and provides stability.
As for the other stabilizer muscles worked during squats, your erector spinae allows you to keep your spine straight and your rectus abdominis and obliques help you to keep your torso upright, stable and strong. During a squat, these muscles are all being worked isometrically, which means they are contracting without movement (without the muscles lengthening or shortening).
And that’s really the basis of it all. Of course, other muscles like your rhomboids and traps are involved in an isometric manner, to keep your shoulder blades retracted, as are your arms and shoulders to a degree to help you keep the bar up on your back. Even your chest is activated to some degree in this sense. Again, this is a total body movement, and this becomes even more true the heavier you go.
This really depends on your fitness level, fitness goals, and overall workout program.
Most beginner strength programs will involve keeping the same rep range and increasing intensity overtime (with intensity meaning a linear progression of weight load). This is because beginners can really do well building strength and muscle mass in a rep range like 5-8 when it comes to squats.
However, intermediate and advanced lifters will typically mix up rep and load ranges to avoid plateaus and challenge themselves if different ways.
The standard rep and load ranges for power, strength, hypertrophy, and endurance for squats (particularly the king of squats, the back squats) are:
No matter what you choose, you want to challenge yourself to get the most out of your reps. This is how you will see gains. But remember to always be safe. Squatting with heavy loads is a very high risk, high reward exercise.
Note: We recommend beginners to stick with a 4-12 rep range, unless you are doing a specific training program that states otherwise. If you are doing 12 reps easily, it’s time to increase the load. You can think of 4-7 as you strength sets and 8-12 as your hypertrophy sets, although you will build pure size and strength in the entire rep range. As for intermediate and advanced lifters, we highly recommend working through various rep ranges to ensure you are well-rounded for power, strength, and endurance. You will also see pure size gains in any rep range with squats, but of course, the hypertrophy range is around 6-12 reps with a load that brings you to or near failure.
Ok, now we are getting to the really fun stuff. Variations of squats involve playing around with training variables. The training variables that make up all the different types of squats include:
Let’s look at each one of these as altering these training variables will change the way loads are stressing your muscles and which muscles are being emphasized. They also make training more fun by bringing variety into the mix.
You can consider the back squat your main lift and all other variations (which alter the training variables) accessory/assistance lifts that are meant to target certain muscles and weakness and help you build strength for your main lift, the back squat.
Load placement is exactly as it sounds - where the load is placed.
The easiest example is a front squat vs back squat. With a back squats the load is on your backside and with a front squat it is at your front. This completely changes the dynamics of the lift, although the movement is still a squat. By placing the load in front, you will be emphasizing your quads more, as well as your core as it is a lot harder to keep the weight up at your front. It also brings your arms into play as your need to stabilize the weight in the front. With all that, the front squat is quite a bit harder and will require you to use a lesser load.
Overall, there are various ways to play around with load placement with squats, as you will see.
With the standard bilateral barbell squat, you have around 5 different load placements. But when you bring other equipment and body positioning into the mix, this increases. Pay attention to load placement with each variation below as it will help you to make sense of why certain muscles are being emphasized more.
With squats, body positioning mainly relates to your stance.
You, of course, have the normal bilateral stance, which can be wide, narrow or normal.
Then you have the split squat, which positions your legs in a fixed lunge position, and the Cossack squat which positions your legs in a lateral lunge stance.
There are even more options for body positioning as you are going to see.
Regardless, each body positioning changes the way your muscles are stressed during a squat.
With squats you have various options for equipment, which can really make a big difference. For example, you can do squats with dumbbells and squats with kettlebells, which will give you different load placement and overall just a different feel in terms of loading a squat.
The main equipment used for squatting are:
Even resistance bands, plates alone, landmines, sandbags, and medicine balls can be used for squats.
All in all, we are going to show you plenty of different squats using these types of equipment, that way you can do squats effectively no matter where you are and you will have options to mix things up for your assistance/accessory exercises.
As we go through all of the variations of squats now, we will explain how they target the muscles and your body differently based on the above training variables.
Have a look at all of these squat variations to see what unique benefits they offer.
The barbell back squat is the king of squats. This should be the staple of your lower body workouts, pending you don’t have any low back issues.
As we’ve already covered the benefits and muscles worked in depth, we won’t say any more on that front. However, we will look at some techniques that you can play around with, some of which we’ve already touched on...
We’ve already told you what you need to know about the high bar back squat, but just to reiterate, it involves leaving the bar high up on your back, basically on top of your upper traps near your neck. With that, the bar is more at the midline of your foot when squatting. This will keep your torso much more upright, which places emphasis on your quads and requires good hip and ankle mobility. If you have good mobility, you will be able to comfortably go deep with the high bar, which will also be great for your gluteus maximum.
To reiterate the low bar, it involves leaving the bar lower down on your back, at about the rear delts and lower part of your upper traps. With that, your posterior chain will be activated to a higher degree, which is why most people can squat heavier in a low bar position. The only other thing to note is that your torso will lean forward more during a low bar squat, so you will need good low back strength, but this also means it will help you to build it too.
Wide Stance & Narrow Stance
The normal stance for a squat is about shoulder width apart.
If you go a little wider than shoulder width apart, you will be performing greater hip abduction, thus activating more muscles around your hips (your hip abductors). It can also help to improve hip internal rotation mobility and stability. However, most often, people use a wide stance simply to combat poor ankle mobility, allowing for a deeper squat.
If you use a narrow stance, you will increase tensile forces on the knee joint, which means your quads will be activated to a higher degree. It also involves the hip adductors a little more. You will need good ankle and hip mobility if you want to use a narrow stance.
Speed & Tempo
You can also play around with speed and tempo when squatting. This can be ideal for building explosive power, speed strength, hypertrophy, or simply to break through a plateau.
The slower your tempo, the more hypertrophy benefits you will get as you will be eliciting more time under tension. Generally a slow descent followed by a normal ascent is good.
The faster your tempo, the more you will be developing power.
Pause reps (aka pause squats), where you hold the bottom position (parallel), incorporates some isometric contraction to your squats, allowing you to build increased strength in the bottom range of your squat. It’s also great for simply upping the time under tension and thus building muscle.
For strength, usually just lifting heavy is best, but if you are stuck at a weight, slowing down your tempo can help you push to the next level.
Range of Motion
When it comes to back squats, there’s an age old debate of whether to go to parallel or “ass to grass”.
In our opinion both are good and you can mix it up.
Ass to grass is truly a full range of motion squat. It will help you to build strength in deep knee flexion, which can be great for athletes. It will also place more tension on the hips and glutes, so if you want to build up your booty, ass to grass is good.
Squatting to parallel means you stop when your thighs are parallel with the floor. Generally this is a safer option, at least for those who lack mobility, as the deeper you go, the more your form can breakdown (i.e. rounding of the back). Moreover, going to parallel is a good way to place more tension on your quads, as you will need to stop and press back up from a position where the quads are most activated.
You may also want to do quarter squats.
For some, this may seem like a BS low range of motion squat, but it actually has its merits, so long as you are also doing regular proper range of motion squats. The quarter squat can be done to help you build explosive strength in the upper range of motion, which can translate to serious improvements in spiriting and vertical jumping. This is because you can use a heavier weight. We all have a natural strength curve, so squats are hardest in the lower range of motion (since our joints are at a mechanical disadvantage) and easier as we come to the top. Because of that, we can’t use a challenging enough weight for our top portion of the lift as we won’t be able to squat up from the bottom portion where it's the hardest. The quarter squat can help take care of this. It allows you to train the upper portion of the squat with an appropriate weight load.
Banded Back Squats
Banded back squats are a similar concept to quarter squats. Basically, resistance bands have variable resistance, or in other simpler words, the more they stretch, the more tension they provide. So, when doing a banded squat, in the lowest range of the squat (the bottom), the bands won’t be adding much resistance at all, but as you come up, the resistance increases more and more. So, when you reach a point where your joints are at an advantage (the top range of the squat where it's the easiest), the band is adding enough resistance to challenge your muscles appropriately. Like the quarter squat, this translates to improved power and strength in the top range of motion, where normally your muscles are not adequately being challenged. This is great for overall explosiveness, power, jumping and sprinting.
Note: Most squat racks will have something to hook the band to at its base, so you likely won’t need to use dumbbells as seen in the pic.
Learn how to use bands with barbells: Resistance Band Training Guide
Another way to use bands is to hang them off the barbell sleeves with a plate or kettlebell attached to them. The hanging weighted bands change the dynamics of the lifts by significantly increasing stability demands. This is a great way to help you train all those small stabilizer muscles of the squat, strengthening them up to make yourself more stable, strong and resilient when doing regular squats with heavy weight.
Some people wonder if the front squat or back squat is better and if it’s necessary to do both. We say, both are necessary when you reach a certain level, and they are quite different so it shouldn’t be a case of whether to do one or the other.
The front squat is more of a technical exercise that requires a bit more mobility. Put simply, it is harder, especially if you are lifting considerable loads. So, we recommend most beginners just stick with the back squat for a while and then add the front squat in when ready.
The front squat is an awesome exercise, so at some point you will want to incorporate it into your routine. It is great for developing some killer quads as the majority of the tension and resistance is shifted to your front side. Most intermediate to advance lifters use the front squat as an assistance lift to their low bar back squat to allow for enough quad stimulation.
The front squat can also be really good for the glutes because it keeps your torso upright, allowing you to go deep. You can have a really big range of motion with front squats. Another great thing about the front squat is how well it builds core and back strength. Keeping the bar in the front load position is challenging!
Before attempting front squats, make sure your hip and ankle mobility is good. Depending on your grip position, you may also need to seriously work on shoulder mobility.
Front Squat Clean Grip
The clean grip front squat requires great shoulder and wrist mobility. You need to keeping your wrists bent up with your hand down (palm facing you) to hold the bar against your front delt/upper chest and your elbows need to be up in line with your shoulders. This is a lot easier than it looks, especially in the lower range of the squat. Overall, this grip can be quite hard on the joints, so work on wrist and shoulder mobility and always warm them up before doing front squats.
Note: There are assistance straps that can be used for front squats that allow you to do a clean grip without all the wrist and mobility demands. These are the straps.
Cross Arm Front Squat
The cross arm front squat is a good option for those who are new to front squats and have yet to develop good wrist and shoulder mobility. Basically, you just rest the bar on your anterior delts from the rack position and then cross your arms and place your hands on the bar pressing against your shoulders. The downside to the cross arm front squat is you definitely can’t go as heavy as you can with the clean grip, as it just won’t feel as safe, and rounding of the back is a common issue, so you’ll need to always keep the cue of “chest up and scapula retracted” top of mind.
Zombie Front Squat
This is more so a different variation of the front squat, rather than a grip, as it basically is a no grip front squat. The zombie squat positions the bar on your front delt right up near the bottom of your neck. With that, you keep your arms fully extended forward so the bar can’t roll off. The zombie squat places serious demand on your core and thoracic spine. It will require absolute stiffness in the core and upper back to maintain good technique. This is a good way to teach yourself to remain upright during a front squat. If you want to try this one, go very light to start (even lighter than the cross arm front squat).
Smith Front Squats
You can do front squats on a smith machine. This will help you get the mechanics of the movement down without needing to worry about the bar coming forward. This is a good option for beginners or those who really want to focus on their legs rather than the core and back as well. It’s by no means better than a barbell front squat, but it can make sense to do smith front squats from time to time.
Here is the zombie version of the smith front squat too!
Dumbbell Front Squat
You can do front squats with dumbbells too. This is a great way for beginners to get comfortable with front loads. Simply grab a dumbbell in each hand and hold them up at shoulder level with your elbows shooting forward. Perform a squat as you normally would.
Kettlebell Front Squat
Kettlebell front squats are essentially the same thing as dumbbell front squats but they may actually be easier to manage considering the way the kettlebells are loaded. The front load with kettlebells is called a front rack position, and the front rack allows the kettlebells to be resting on the outside of the forearms with your elbows tucked to your sides. You may find this to be more comfortable and easier to hold for squats than dumbbells.
Resistance Band Front Squat
You can use resistance bands for front squats. We like to do resistance band squats when we are on the road, at home, or as supersets just to really burn out the muscle.
Related: Resistance Band Squat Variations
The sumo squat involves a wide stance, about 1.5x shoulder width (approximately a foot wider on each side), with your feet pointed out at a 45˚ angle. With this stance, you will be able to keep your torso more upright, dropping more straight down into the squat.
This is an effective and popular variation that brings extra focus on the inner thighs and abductors (similar to a wide stance squat). With your feet rotated outward to 45˚, you automatically get more hip abduction since your hips are externally rotated.
As with other squats, the sumo squat does a good job of activating your quads, glutes and hamstrings. In fact, it brings your hamstrings into play to a higher degree as well.
What’s more, the sumo squat stance puts you at a greater biomechanical advantage, lowering your range of motion, so you may be able to go even heavier than a traditional squat. Overall, we like to add this one into the routine from time to time to work on the inner and outer things and side glutes (gluteus medius and minimus).
Dumbbell Sumo Squat
The dumbbell sumo squat is a great option for those who are using the sumo squat as an accessory exercise after some big leg movements like barbell back squats and deadlifts. They are also good for beginners. Simply hold a dumbbell in a vertical position with both hands down at hip level and perform the sumo squat as normal (wide stance, feet rotated outward).
The zercher squat is just like a regular squat, stance wise, it just changes the load placement. With a zercher squat, you will have the bar held in-between the crease of your elbows and pressed up to your core. This makes it quite similar to the front squat in terms of muscle activation. You will get an increase in quadricep engagement, sometimes even more than a front squat. It’s a lot easier to go deep with a zercher squat. It is also great for improving squat mechanics, core strength, and reinforcing postural integrity. Moreover, you get some additional isometric arm and trap work to maintain the barbell’s position.
Generally speaking, the zercher squat is used as an alternative to the front squat. All in all, it’s really badass total body exercise with emphasis on the quads and core.
Related: Zercher Squat Exercise Guide
Smith Zercher Squat
You can do the zercher squat on a smith machine as well. As the zercher squat can feel a bit awkward at first, this might be a good place to start before moving on to a free weight barbell.
The hack squat is almost like a backwards deadlift. You will be picking the weight up from the ground with the bar behind you. However, the mechanics of the movements are the same as a squat.
The load placement places the focus on your quads. Basically, it is a quad-centric squat. So, if you need more quad development, this is a great option.
A lot of intermediate and advanced lifters choose the hack squat as an accessory exercise because the squat just doesn’t fully hit their quads enough to keep growing. The hack squat takes care of that in a major way.
Another great thing about the hack squat is it is easy on the body. This is because you aren’t place the weight directly on your spine. As long as you don’t round your lower back, it's very safe.
Smith Machine Hack Squat
You can do a hack squat with a smith machine in the same way you do it with a barbell OR you can do it as seen in the pic above. This puts your body pretty much in the same position as a barbell hack squat, allowing the major emphasis to be placed on your quads. If you want to try this exercise, position your feet forward more, which will have you leaning back slightly when standing up. When you squat down, your butt should be aligned with the bar, rather than behind it. This will put the focus on your quads. We don’t recommend regular back squats with smith machines due to the bar path being straight up and down, but hack squats like this are good.
The Jefferson squat is actually an old-time strength exercise. It was created by Charles Jefferson who was a circus strongman back in the late 1800s. It’s a very unique exercise and definitely one that takes some time to learn.
To do the Jefferson squat, you will stand over the barbell with your feet on either side of the bar. Your front foot will be facing forward and your back foot will be behind the bar and rotated outward at about 90˚ relative to the front foot. Your foot stance should be at a good distance, so that when you squat down your knees are directly about your ankles and your feet can remain flat to the floor throughout the lift.
Work on your stance form before attempting to do the Jefferson squat with the barbell. Once you find your optimal stance, you can begin.
When grabbing the bar, you will use a mixed grip and your hands should be at an equal distance apart.
Keep your knees out and chest up as you ascend. Then, on the descent, move slowly and very controlled until your thighs are below parallel.
Be sure to work both sides evenly, so on your next set or rep, switch the front and back foot.
In regards to the benefits of the Jefferson squat, it is an asymmetrically loaded squat so you will get improved core stability through anti-rotation. It’s also a multiplanar exercise, so you will build strength through all three planes of motion. As for muscles worked, the emphasis will be on your quads, glutes and hip adductors (inner thighs), and it does a fantastic job of hitting these muscles.
Overall, this is a fun variation of the squat to mix into your routine to challenge yourself (and your muscles) in new ways.
The split squat is a great assistance and accessory exercise for the traditional squat and lower body muscle mass and strength.
You will unrack the bar just like you would a squat, but when you step back, you get into a lunge stance. If you’ve never done a split squat, practice it without the barbell first. Your feet position should have both your thighs bent at 90˚ when at the bottom of the squat. Make sure both of your feet are pointing forward during a split squat and keep your torso upright.
This is a great exercise for addressing muscular and movement imbalances and asymmetries. It has a lot of application to sports too, as it helps your build unilateral strength.
It’s also fantastic for building muscle. The emphasis will be on your quads and glutes, but your hamstrings will also be worked to a significant degree. And, of course, it requires a lot of core strength to maintain balance and a firm stance, so its great for your core muscles too.
Box squats, or bench squats, entail squatting down until your butt sits on a box or bench behind you and then driving up to a standing position.
In terms of form, you will break at the hips first, not the knees, by pushing your glutes and hips rearward. When you sit down, your shins should be perfectly perpendicular with the floor (straight up and down). When you sit down, relax your hip flexors for a second, then drive yourself up from the box by contracting your glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors and performing hip extension. You want to do this in an explosive manner. So, you are sitting down onto the box in a slow and controlled manner, and then exploding up.
The benefit of the box squat is that you are activating your posterior chain to a much higher degree. The exercise is very glute and posterior chain focused. The box squat is also great for building explosive strength out of the squat, which is great for athletes and powerlifting.
Another reason the box squat can find its way into someone’s routine is if they have knee issues. Because you are sitting further back and your shins are straight up in down in the bottom position, it puts a lot less pressure on your knees (which is why it also activates your lower quads less).
Overall, the box squat is one of the easiest and safest ways to develop explosive strength by increasing maximal strength as well as honing in on the posterior chain.
Dumbbell Box Squats
You can practice barbell box squats by doing dumbbell box squats first. This is also a great option for beginners or those who simply don’t have access to a barbell.
Related: Box Squats Exercise Guide
The kneeling squat pretty much takes the quads out of the equation as there is no knee flexion. So, the movement is basically like a hip thrust, which is all hip extension. With that, you will be targeting your glutes and hamstrings.
This is a good variation if you want to have more glute and hamstring strength and hypertrophy.
Related: Kneeling Squats Exercise Guide
If you want a true total body exercise, the overhead squat is it. It involves your triceps, deltoids, traps, core, low back/spinal erectors, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, quads and calves.
Sounds great right? Well, it’s a very technical and difficult exercise.
To do the overhead squat promptly, you need really good shoulder and upper spine mobility first of all. You also need a very strong core as it requires a lot of core and spinal erector strength. Keeping your body upright while performing a squat is difficult.
Needless to say, you also need good hip and ankle mobility.
With all that talk about mobility, you can imagine why the overhead squat is so good for working on mobility. This is actually one of the main reasons why people do overhead squats, and it is often used as a mobility screening test.
Overall, this a great exercise for teaching your body to work as one unit and improving resilience of the entire kinetic chain, from the feet up.
When you do decide to try this, go light. The overhead squat can be really hard on your lower back if you don’t have good mobility. Only add weight when you master the mobility side of the exercise.
Dumbbell Overhead Press
The dumbbell overhead press is good too as it trains each arm individually. This can help you iron out imbalances in your mobility and strength. You may also find it easier than a barbell and you will have the option of holding the dumbbells with a neutral grip to start.
Goblet squats can be done with both dumbbells and kettlebells...
The goblet squat is a great beginner squat option or accessory exercise for those who want to burn calories and exhaust their muscles after more strenuous heavily loaded squats. With goblet squats, you most certainly can build muscle in your legs, especially as a beginner. As it is similar to a front squat, you will also be working your arms, core, and upper back. It’s truly a full body exercise. As more advanced lifters, we love adding this one to circuit workouts, HIIT workouts, and active recovery days.
To do the goblet squat, simply hold a dumbbell or kettlebell up to your chest with your elbows tucked in. Get into a wide stance (a little wider than shoulder width) and perform a squat as you normally would).
This is a standard dumbbell squat (which can also be done with kettlebells). The advantage that this has over the goblet squat is it takes less stress off the upper body as you are not required to keep the load up and places more on the legs due to the ability to have a great load. The load positioning also changes up the dynamics of the muscles worked a bit, so it’s not the same as a front squat or a back squat. This variation is great for your quads as well as your glutes, low back and traps.
The landmine squat is a great exercise in that it works lower body muscles very effectively but it does so in a safer, low impact manner. This makes it a great alternative to front squats. It can also really help you to nail down squat form and range of motion, as you should have an easier time going deep into your squat with the landmine’s load positioning.
The Cossack squat is like a mix of power and flexibility training. It works on building good hip, knee and ankle mobility, which will help you with your traditional squats, and it does a great job of targeting the squats, hamstrings, glutes, and hip abductors.
In terms of form, the Cossack squat is very different from a side lunge, so don’t confuse the two. With a cossack squat, your feet are in a fixed position, with your foot stance very wide. You will lunge down to right side, going as low as you can (past parallel), while simultaneously coming up onto the heel of your left foot as you want your left leg to be completely straight. From the bottom position, press up from the heel of your right foot and back to the starting wide stance standing position. Then, repeat to the opposite side.
When starting out, you can do this without any weight. It will already be challenging. Then you can slowly increase the load by holding onto plates, kettlebells or dumbbells. You can even do cossack squats with resistance bands.
There are many variations of bodyweight squats. The basic is to perform a squat with your hands out in front of you.
You can also try these variations of squats...
Wall squats are like hack squats. They allow you to hone in on the quadriceps.
Heel Up Squats
Heel up squats allow you to emphasize your quads and get deeper into your squat if you lack ankle mobility.
If you want to take the intensity of your squats up a few notches and build some explosive power, try jump squats, which are a form of plyometrics. This is a great way to build more strength and muscle as well as burn more calories with bodyweight only squats.
One Leg Box Squats
Box squats with just your bodyweight may be too easy, but not if you do them with one leg. This variation of a bodyweight squat provides the same benefits as weighted box squats. Moreover, it is a great progression exercise for practicing pistol squats, which is the hardest possible bodyweight squat.
Everybody should squat, so yes. The squat is one of 7 basic movements the human body can perform, which includes squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, rotation and and gait (walking). As such, by not doing squats, you are basically losing out on one of our (as in a human’s) most important, innate movement patterns. As the old saying goes, "if you don’t use it, you will lose it".
That said, you don’t have to do barbell back squats. While barbell back squats are the ultimate squat for building lower body muscle and strength, they may not be the best option for certain people. You’ll just have to assess your situation. For example, if you have low back issues, then you may want to do a variation of the squat that is easier on your low back or simply do back squats with lighter loads (as long as you are using a full range of motion, doing light weight barbell back squats for higher reps is very effective too).
All in all, some form of a squat is definitely a must have in your fitness plan. So, whether it be back squats, front squats, kettlebell squats or simply bodyweight squats, definitely include it in your training. It’s one of the most foundational, effective, and efficient movements you can do.
This depends on your fitness level and your fitness plan. Generally speaking, research shows that training each muscle group twice a week is best for hypertrophy and strength. However, you may require more recovery time depending on your program. For example, with a full body workout plan, you could easily squat two or three times a week and not have an issue with recovery, yet with a split that has a single workout focusing solely on your legs/glutes, you are likely to need considerably more recovery time as the total volume in condensed into that workout rather than over the week like it is with a full body split. In other words, your legs and glutes are going to be sore for many days so you’ll have to wait until they are fully recovered, whereas with a full body split they are not likely to get sore and recovery happens in 24-48 hours.
For beginners, we recommend a full body split, which means you should aim to do squats 2-3 times a week. But for intermediate to advanced lifters, it will depend on your training plan. If your leg muscles are already sizable and you spend a whole workout crushing them, then they will need a good 4-5 days to recovery, by which you will do just fine training them once a week. The bigger you are and the more volume you do in a workout, the more recovery time you will need. Either way, as long as you are doing squats as much as you are doing other foundational exercises, you are good.
All in all, you can squat as much as you’d like, just make sure your muscles are recovered from the previous training session and you are not overtraining or overreaching.
Here are some strength programs that will have you do squats two to three times a week in a very strategic way.
As we mentioned in the rep ranges earlier in this guide, you should squat using different rep ranges and thus loads. However, if you are training for strength, your basic goal should be to back squat your bodyweight. So, if you weigh 200lbs, you should work to be able to do a 200lb barbell back squat. Other squat variations will naturally be less due to the barbell back squat being the strongest variation.
When you are able to squat your bodyweight, then you can continue to progress as much as you safely can. At some point, you will reach your genetic strength potential, but that's a long way down the road. And make note, progression will not be perfectly linear. Some days will be better than other and there will be set backs along the way.
Below we have several good stretches to do before and after your leg workouts.
Before working out, you should do dynamic stretches and mobility work, here are a few examples...
For this one, you squat down as low as you can go and grab onto your toes then lift your butt straight up. This will help you to stretch your quads, hamstrings, glutes and release tension in your low back. Do this about 5 to 10 times.
Leg cradles are great for opening up the hips. Simply grab on foot at the ankle and pull it up to the opposite side. Hold for a second or two and release, then do the same to the opposite leg. Do about 5-10 reps each side.
Do 8-10 bodyweight squats going very deep before you start squatting. This will help you warm up your muscles, get the blood flowing and increase you range of motion.
After working out, you can do static stretches. While squatting is good for mobility and flexibility as is, doing some static stretches after a workout can help release tension and improve recovery. Here are several good leg stretches to do.
Side Lying Quad Stretch
As the name suggests, this one is good for your quadriceps. This is a very easy stretch.
Standing Quad Stretch
This is basically the same as the above but from a standing position. This one requires more balance and mobility to reach behind you.
Kneeling Quad Stretch
If you want to really get a deep stretch for your quads in a simple manner, the kneeling quad stretch will do the trick. It’s also going to stretch the muscles surrounding your ankles.
Lying Quad Stretch
This quad stretch is more advanced. It’s hard to get into and it makes for a very deep quad stretch.
The pigeon stretch (or pigeon pose) is a yoga pose that stretches your hips, thighs and low back. This is great way to release tension and stress in these areas. Most people find this stretch to feel really good, especially after squatting.
There are many ways to go about programming squats into your routine. In general, you will do squats on days where you train your lower body. However, you may have a full body split, where you can do squats on a more regular basis. Moreover, you will likely want to do deadlifts too if you are strength training, and being that the two are big energy-expending lifts, you will need to figure out the best way to do both.
Here are a few examples of how you can incorporate squats into a well-rounded routine, which includes variations as well.
Full Body Split:
Let’s say you are doing a full body strength training split that has you working out 3 days a week, here it can look...
Push Pull Leg Split:
If you are doing the famous PPL split, then you will likely be doing 3 workouts a week, or potentially 5, starting the new week where you left off the previous week. Either way, your 3 workouts will be the same.
Push Workout: Pushing exercises for chest, shoulders, triceps.
Pull Workout: Pulling exercises for back and biceps.
Leg Workout: Leg exercises for quads, hamstrings, calves and glutes.
Leg Workout Example:
An additional exercise can be added if needed.
Body Part Split:
If you do a body part split, or bro split, then you will have a day specifically for legs. With that, your workout can look similar to the above leg workout in push pull legs, but for the sake of giving you another example...
Leg Workout A:
Leg Workout B:
Each week, you’d alternate from workout A and workout B
As you can see, there are many ways to incorporate squats, both back squats and variations into your routine. When choosing different variations, be sure to pick one that allows you to hone in on a muscle that’s needed. For example, if you do deadlifts, then a front squat or hack squat would make sense as they will emphasize your quads, which would need additional work since deadlifts, while good for the quads, are hamstring dominant.
That’s it! We hope you enjoyed this squat guide. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. Now, the only thing that’s left is to get squatting!
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