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April 06, 2021
Ask any experienced fitness enthusiast what their favorite exercises are and we guarantee squats will be top of the list. It’s arguably the best lower body compound exercise there is. The squat is a powerful movement that activates so many joints and muscles at once. They are fantastic for building strength, muscle, bone density, and they burn a lot of calories. They can even boost hormone production! The only downfall is that beginners have trouble learning the proper mechanics of a squat and certain individuals with back and joint (knee or hip) issues are afraid of hurting themselves with barbell squats. But who said squats have to be dangerous or that you need to use a heavily loaded barbell? With resistance bands, you can reap the benefits of squats in a safe manner. Plus, you can do them literally anywhere.
Now, we are not here to say that you shouldn’t do barbell squats, as we are all for heavy lifting and barbell exercises. We are also not saying that barbell squats and resistance band squats are mutually exclusive. Both have their advantages and are effective in their own way. So, whether you train at home, you are on the road often, you are a beginner, you have back issues, or you just want to switch things up, we highly recommend incorporating squats with bands into your workouts. And we are not just talking about standard back squats, we have all different resistance band squat variations for you to try, such as front squats, sumo squats, cossack squats and more.
Before we get into the exercises, let’s cover the benefits and muscles worked when squatting.
Since you are reading this, you’ve either got yourself a set of bands or you are thinking about getting some resistance bands and you are wondering if resistance band squats are effective. Resistance band squats most certainly are effective. You get all the same benefits that you would with bodyweight squats, just with additional resistance. There are also a few benefits that you can only get with resistance band squats, all of which we are going to get into just below.
But first, let us make a clear distinction of what this article is about - resistance band-ONLY squats, NOT banded barbell squats.
Note: Barbell squats with bands are certainly a different beast. Banded barbell squats are common among athletes and powerlifters as they can enhance the lift by eliminating the strength curve that comes with free weights. Bands increase in resistance as you stretch them. So, in terms of squats, you have more resistance during the lift when your muscles are working in an optimum range (easiest part of the lift), which is the top of the movement.
Adding resistance to your squats using bands is the most obvious benefit, but the other benefits of squatting with bands are not to be overlooked. They are as followed...
1. Variable Resistance:
Resistance bands are a form of variable resistance training, which sounds complicated but it simply means the resistance increases as you reach the end of the movement and decreases as you come back to the starting point. They do not provide the same resistance the entire lift like a dumbbell or barbell would be.
With free weights and bodyweight exercises, since the resistance is gravity, the resistance remains the same. However, you have a strength curve with free weights and bodyweight exercises, so when you are doing squats, the top of the movement is far easier than the bottom of the movement since your muscles are at an advantage due to the position of your joints.
When it comes to barbell squats, our muscles can only handle X-amount of weight at the bottom of the squat, but they handle even more at the top. So, you can only load up the bar with what your muscles can manage at the bottom. If you did the lift with the amount of weight that you could do at the top, you wouldn’t be able to come out of the lower position. So, with banded barbell squats, the lifter can eliminate the strength curve (the bands add an effective amount of resistance towards the top of the movement but they don't add much at the bottom), which is great power development.
Now, while we are doing squats with only bands, it is not exactly the same as there is no added free weight load to consider, but the same concept applies. The band allows you to have optimum resistance, and thus muscular tension, throughout the exercise. The weight of your body is effective for the lower portion of the squat, then the band’s resistance continues to increase as you reach the top half where your bodyweight alone would normally not be so effective. Overall, this is great for muscular strength, endurance and hypertrophy.
With resistance band squats, you will notice at the top of the squat, you muscles are fully contracted and super engaged, where they normally would not be with just bodyweight alone. Your gluteus and quads are going to be squeeze so tight, making sure that band can’t retract. It’s a nice feeling.
For those who do bodyweight workouts at home, bands are a great way to increase the difficulty of your leg workouts. Even if you have free weights at home, bands give you the nice variable resistance effect that you can throw into the mix (and you can combine them with the free weights).
2. Emphasizes the Eccentric Phase:
With barbell and bodyweight squats, a lot of times people pretty much ignore the eccentric phase of the lift (going down is the eccentric phase and up is the concentric phase for squats). By “ignore”, we mean they use a quick-tempoed drop.
Interestingly, research shows that the eccentric phase of a lift is more superior for building muscle and strength than the concentric phase.
With resistance bands, not only can you use a much slower tempo for the descent, but the bands almost require you to do so. You really have to move slower on the descent because the band is trying to force itself back to its normal length. Without a slow and controlled descent, your joints will wobble and it just won’t feel right. The bands make you move slower through the descent to ensure your form stays intact. With free weights, you won’t have this same effective as you can sit into the squat faster without losing much stability.
So, it’s pretty much twofold, the bands allow you to focus on the eccentric phase because they are easier and SAFER (with heavyweights, it’s difficult and even risky to go very slow) but also the bands basically demand that you do your squats this way as if you just move fast through the eccentric phase, the movement will feel wobbly and uncontrolled.
When you try a resistance band squat, you will see exactly what we mean.
All in all, you’ll get the greatest bang for your eccentric buck with bands.
3. Explosive on the Concentric:
With bands, you can be explosive on the concentric phase (upward motion). Once the band has an adequate amount of tension, you can explode up. You don’t have to worry about the bar popping up and your spine being at risk like you would with a barbell squat. Bands are made for explosive concentric movements.
Note: You don't have to be explosive, it's just an option. You can also use a slow tempo on the concentric phase. In fact, doing both is great.
4. Easy To Change The Load Placement:
A very important variable of working out is changing the placement of the load. Where the load is placed in relation to your body makes a big difference to how stress is placed on your body. For example, placing the load on your back vs placing the load on your front side significantly changes the stress on certain muscles. While there are various ways to change the placement of the load with barbells, it is a lot harder to implement. A beginner (and even a lot of intermediate lifters) have trouble changing the placement of the load. But, with resistance bands, it is actually quite simple to do and its a great way to get comfortable with various load placements when squatting. Moreover, with barbells you have around 4 placements, but with bands you actually have a couple more. You will see what we mean with the different variations of resistance band squats below.
5. Great for Beginners:
Barbell squats are a pretty technical lift compared to other lifts. There is certainly a learning curve to performing a proper barbell squat. It takes time to learn the correct movement pattern and then strengthen the muscles to start doing a heavier load. It’s pretty normal that beginners spend up to 4 weeks just learning how to do barbell squat correctly, using just the bar alone.
By using a resistance band, you can speed up your squatting progress because the movement pattern is easier. You don’t have to worry about holding onto a bar, the band just sits on your back. Moreover, the bands tension will help you sit back to drive force from your heels (where you should), rather than lean forward onto your toes.
Moreover, bands are easiest at the bottom of the squat because they have less resistance, and the bottom of the squat is the most difficult part.
You can easily increase resistance of your squats over time by using a bigger band. You can even combine bands. For example, if you are squatting with the heaviest resistance band you have, by adding a lighter band with it, the resistance will equal the two bands combined (i.e. heavy one is max ~100lbs and the lighter one is max ~25lbs, then the squat will be ~125lbs).
6. Great For Rehab:
If you are recovery from an injury, resistance band squats are a safe way to build strength back. They are easy on your joints and they actually build strength in the small stabilizer muscles around your joints, which is great for stability.
One of the most common issues for people in the gym is that they tweak their back with barbell squats. Once they do that, they take a break from squats for a while. But, you don’t have to take a break from squatting, you can do squats with bands to not only maintain strength in your squats and keep your legs and glutes active, but also to help with the pain in your back. Often times, the best fix for low back pain is to strengthen the muscles (movement is medicine). This is where bands come in, they are light yet very effective.
*Note: We are not licensed medical practitioners. If you are concerned about your back or it is more severe than just being sore i.e., you have trouble walking, see a licensed practitioner.
The great thing about squat is, they work just about every muscle in your body, and with resistance bands, this fact is no different. Be that as it may, there are a few primary muscles that are targeted during squats.
Primary Muscles Worked During Squats:
Note: Your core will also be working to stabilize your spine!
Let’s take a closer look at the muscles to see how they act in relation to movement.
The gluteus muscles are comprised of three muscles:
The gluteal muscles act as the primary muscle for hip extension. They do this in coordination with your hamstrings and erector spinae. Together, these various muscles are known as your posterior chain.
Your quadriceps are comprised of 4 muscles that sit on the front of the upper leg:
Your quadricep muscles are responsible for extending the knee. They are vital for movements such as running, jumping and SQUATTING. The rectus femoris also acts as a strong hip flexor to pull the leg up while the vestus medialis helps stabilize the knee when running.
The hamstrings are comprised of three muscles located on the back of the upper leg:
The hamstrings are responsible for hip extension. They are also in charge of flexing the knee and pulling our leg back (such as when you walk or sprint). The hamstrings are one of the most important muscles for activities like sprinting as they are the key component for speed. If you want to have high sports performance and injury resilience, you must have strong hamstrings.
The erector spinae muscles straddle the spine. They run all the way down your spine into the glutes.
The erector spinae is made three muscles (going from the middle to the outside of your back):
These muscles work together to extend the spine and maintain spinal stability. When people talk about core strength, they usually think of the abs, but the erector spinae, which is technically part of your core (as well as your posterior chain) is super important for core strength as they provide the greatest support and stability for your spine.
Your calves are the muscles of your lower extremity. They are made up of two muscles:
The gastrocnemius is the larger calf muscle that forms the bulk of the lower leg, while the soles is small and flat, lying underneath the gastrocnemius muscle.
Your calves are responsible for plantarflexion of the ankle, allowing you to do movements like jumping, turning, bending, and they are stabilizers for your ankles. Moreover, your calves work to support your entire body. When it comes to squats they must obviously work even harder to support your body (and ankles) as the load is much greater than just your bodyweight.
While your upper back is not a primary muscle worked during squats, it does play a key role in helping keep your scapular retracted, allowing you to maintain rigidness in your back. The muscles that achieve this are your lats, traps, rear delts, and rhomboids.
Overall, the squat is one of the greatest compound lower body exercises there is as it involves simultaneous action of your primary joints, which includes your hips, knees and ankles (this is also why good joint mobility is important for squatting).
As you lower into your squat, your hamstrings will assist your gluteal muscles to control flexion at the hips. Your spinal erectors and abs will also be working in order to prevent your from falling forward.
At the bottom of the squat, as you start to press up, your quads will be working the hardest as your knees will be at their end range. Again, your core (and most specifically your erector spinae muscles) will be engaged to help you maintain an upright position.
As you drive to standing up, your hips must travel up and forward. This is hip extension. With that, your glutes, adductor (inner thigh) and hamstrings must work to extend the hips.
Throughout it all, your core and calves are stabilizing the movement.
Depending on the type of squat you are doing, certain muscles that we just listed are being targeted more or less. Nevertheless, all of these muscles will be firing off to help move your body no matter what squat you are doing.
Doing different variations of squats allows you to hit specific muscles more or less because of two main variables, feet placement and load placement. By changing either of the two, the stress on your muscles changes. The same goes with range of motion. If you go deeper in your range of motion, certain muscles will work more.
A good example is with back squats, your glutes, quads and hamstrings will be doing most of the work, but when you change the load to the front (front squats), your quads take on a greater role.
As we go through the 9 different squat variations with bands, we will make note of which muscles are being emphasized.
After you watch the video, read below for tips on each of the squat variations...
The first squat to do with a resistance band is the convention squat. It is the king of squats and one of the best lower body exercises you can do.
Resistance Band Squat Muscles Worked:
When doing squats, we recommend beginner to just go to parallel. This will emphasize the quads. If you are more experienced, going deeper in your squat is ok. It is safe if performed correctly and it will better engage your muscles as it brings you through a larger range of motion. Moreover, it can help to increase flexibility/mobility.
HOW TO DO THE RESISTANCE BAND SQUAT
The sumo squat is a great variation that uses foot placement (aka body position) to change the dynamics of the muscles worked. You will take a much wider stance than a standard back squat, which places more emphasis on the inner thighs and adductors.
Sumo Squat Muscles Worked:
HOW TO DO THE SUMO SQUAT
Front squats are like the brother of the back squat. They both offer much of the same benefits and are great exercises that every advance lifter employs into their training.
With front squats, you will be keeping your back upright more so it requires even more core stability and it also places more emphasis on the quads, while taking some stress away from the hamstrings. This makes perfect sense considering by holding the band in front of your body, you are zoning in on your anterior chain.
Front Squat Muscles Worked:
And, of course, your hamstrings will be engaged.
HOW TO DO RESISTANCE BAND FRONT SQUATS
The zercher squat is a great variation of the squat that uses the training variable of changing the placement of the load (placing it lower and close to the front of your body. Because of that, it will allow you to go deeper (even deeper than a front squat). With that, and how the load is placed, it emphasizes quad and glute development. Moreover, it will help you build strength in the lowest position of the squat, making you stronger for back squats.
One thing that is great with resistance band zercher squats is that it is very easy to get into the starting position. It is not a complicated movement.
Zercher Squat Muscles Worked:
Zercher squats are great for quadricep development, especially for people with longer legs.
HOW TO DO THE ZERCHER SQUAT
Related: The Complete Guide to Zercher Squats
The overhead squat is a total body squatting variation. It is most definitely the most advanced so it’s best to go light when starting out. Overhead squats are a great way improve resilience throughout your entire kinetic chain (feet to shoulders). It requires incredible core, upper back and shoulder strength as well as good midline control and mobility of the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders. A lot of trainers use it as a way to reinforce proper squatting technique and screen for mobility issues. Overall, overhead squats are going to train your body to work as a single unit.
Overhead Squat Muscles Worked:
With overhead squats, once you get the band into an overhead position, your shoulders and upper back will be working through isometric contraction (the muscle won’t change length and the joint will not move, it’s holding position for strength and stability. Your lower body will be squatting as usual, which means the muscles are working via isotonic contraction (the muscles contract against resistance in which they change in length and the joints move).
HOW TO DO THE OVERHEAD SQUAT
An isometric squat hold will have the same set up and mechanics as a regular back squat. The only difference is, you will be holding the bottom position (parallel position) rather than squatting up and down. Isometric holds are great for building strength. The bottom of the squat is the hardest position for a squat so it will help you to build strength at the weakest point in the squat.
There are two ways to do this. You can hold the position for around 20 seconds and that is one set, or you can do fewer reps than you would normally and hold each rep at the bottom for 5+ seconds. Both ways work well for improving strength.
Resistance Band Squat Muscles Worked:
It is going to place emphasis on core and quad strength for squats.
HOW TO DO THE ISOMETRIC SQUAT HOLD
This is a great squat variation that moves you through the frontal plane rather than the sagittal plane of motion. In other words, it is a lateral movement. While the cossack squat does build strength, especially when done with a resistance band, it is particularly beneficial for mobility and stability of the hips, knees and ankles. It will also give you a really nice stretch in the posterior chain of your legs.
Cossack Squat Muscles Worked:
As this is a lateral movement, your side glutes (gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) will be firing off more than regular squats.
HOW TO DO THE COSSACK SQUAT
The split squat is a great unilateral exercise that offers strength, hypertrophy, stability, and improved coordination. In fact, in the split squat vs. lunge debate, the split squat is better for injury resilience compared to the lunge, thanks to the improved joint and core stability.
As this is a unilateral exercise, it is great for fixing asymmetries and muscular imbalances.
Split Squat Muscles Worked:
Split squats place emphasis on your glutes and quads, as well as your core (particularly your obliges) as you must resist lateral movement (leaning to the side). Your gluteus minimus and medius will be working hard as well for hip stability and to resist leaning to the side.
HOW TO DO THE SPLIT SQUAT
The Bulgarian split squat is very similar to the split squat above but it is harder as you have a deeper range of motion and less stability due to your back foot being placed up.
You can use anything to keep your back foot up, such as a chair.
Bulgarian Split Squat Muscles Worked:
As this is a unilateral exercise, your core is going to work in overdrive to maintain balance. Moreover, as your back leg is risen, you will have a large range of motion, which is great for your quad and glute development. It’s really a powerhouse leg movement that doesn’t require very heavy resistance.
HOW TO DO THE BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
1. Explosive on the way up, slow on the descent
One of our favorite ways to use bands for squats, as well as other exercises like deadlifts, is to have a slow tempo-descent and a powerfully explosive ascent.
As you sit into your squat, fight the resistance of the band so you can move slowly. Really keep sturdy. This is going to work your eccentric contractions, which is great for strength and hypertrophy. Once you reach parallel (or your bottom most position), drive up from your heels and when the band has an adequate amount of tension, explode up to the top. Explosive concentric contractions helps you build power in your movements and it burns more calories.
All in all, this is great movement tempo combination for maximizing strength, hypertrophy and energy expenditure in one go.
2. Take Time To Concentrate On The Muscles Used
Since resistance bands are lighter and easier to use than a loaded barbell, really hone in on the muscles being used when squatting, as well as your form. Bands are the perfect way to build a strong mind-muscle connection. And, if you do your squats mindfully, maintaining maximal full body tension with each and every rep, they will certainly be effective for your fitness goals.
3. Keep the chest out without hyperextending the back.
While squats are a lower body compound exercise, your upper body is vital. Make sure you keep your chest up and shoulder blades pulled back. Your upper back, lats, and chest should be packed tight, standing tall and “proud”. This will help you to prevent rounding your back, which is a common mistake that overstressed the spine.
Also, make sure to keep your head and neck in a neutral position. There’s no need to look up or let your head drop. If you want to check your stance, do so when standing before you start your reps.
Note: Do so without hyperextending your back! To do this, just don’t over-exaggerate the whole “keep your chest up and keep your chest chest proud” point.
4. Drive through your heels when you stand, but don’t let your toes come off the ground
Sometimes when you are trying to drive through your heels, you may lift your toes up off the ground. Try not to do this. Keep your foot planted to the ground firmly. Your big toe is actually quite important for flute activation.
As for driving through your heels, you want to do this so that you have good form and so that your posterior chain is activated.
Definitely don’t hold your breath. Inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up. Make a point to learn how to breathe properly when squatting.
6. Finish Strong
At the top of your squat, tuck your pelvis into a neutral position. This will allow you to get the best contraction for your glutes and hamstrings. Just be careful not to hyperextend. Sometimes people push their hips too far forward and their upper back leans backwards. This can put unwanted stress on your lower back.
There are no rules for when or how to add resistance band squats to your workout routine. However, the most common ways to implement squats with bands into your work are as follows:
1. Home workouts
If you workout at home (always or even sometimes) and you don’t want to buy a bunch of free weight equipment, bands are great as they are so versatile. You can use them for warm up (mobility and blood flow), workout and cool down (static stretching). In terms of working out, they are great for resistance and assistance (they can help assist you with all types of bodyweight exercises). As for resistance exercises, you can use bands in so many ways. The 9 squat variations we showed you is just a very, very small sample. Pretty much any free weight exercise can be replicated with bands to good effect.
Even if you workout with barbells and dumbbells or other free weight equipment, incorporating resistance band squats into your lower body workouts is great for maximizing hypertrophy. A great way to do this is with supersets. For example, after you finish a set of barbell squats, you can immediately do a set of resistance band squats to really exhaust and overload your legs and glutes. It’s a very effective way to build muscle and strength (as well as muscular endurance) without needing to go too heavy. It’s also great for burning fat. Overall, you get a lot more volume in, which is great for muscle fiber recruitment, without taxing your joints.
3. Explosive work
Bands are great for explosive work. They are great for building explosive strength in your squats. But, we don’t just mean with squats. Bands can be used during plyometric exercises, sprints, and many athletic based movements to build explosiveness.
4. Deload weeks
If you do strength training, you should take a week off from lifting every few months. It helps your body catch up with recovery. However, if you are like us, you can’t even take a week off. That’s where a deload week comes in. For that week, you do lower intensity, lighter weight workouts. What better option for a deload week than bands. You can keep active, keep squatting, and allow yourself the recovery it needs. During deload week, use a lighter resistance band (thinner .5-1.5 inch 41” loop bands) rather than one of the the heavier ones.
5. Learning squats and variations
If you want to learn how to squat (which includes all the different variations), start with bodyweight, then use bands. This will help you build a very solid foundation for when you are ready to use barbells.
6. Perfect Way to Maintain Muscle On The Road
If you travel a lot, you can keep up with your squat game by using resistance bands. They are light and take up very little space so you can pack them in pretty much any luggage or throw them in your care. This will allow you to get an effective lower body workout in anywhere.
Because these squat variations hit the muscles in different ways, you can really do a squat only workout and get everything you need for a lower body workout. That said, we recommend adding some of our deadlifts with resistance band exercises into your lower body workout to hit the posterior chain to a greater degree.
Resistance Band Only Lower Body Workout
Squat x 3 sets of 10
Front Squat x 3 sets of 10
Deadlift x 3 sets of 10
Sumo Deadlift x 3 sets of 10
Split Squat x 30 sets of 10 each side
Stiff-legged Deadlift x 3 sets of 10
Cossack Squat x 3 sets of 8-10
Check out our deadlift with band article to see the deadlift movements
If you do full body workouts, you can simply throw 2 or 3 out of the 9 squat variations into your full body workout.
If you do a PPL split (push pull legs) then you are likely doing 2 leg workouts each week (or every 8-9 days), which means you can do one leg day with a focus not the anterior side (front side) and one leg day with the focus on the posterior side (back side). With that, the anterior leg day could contain 5-7 of the squat variations we showed you. If you decide to hit both the anterior and posterior, then you can refer back to the lower body workout above.
There are many ways to go about creating workouts and programming resistance band squats into your workout (even if you use free weights at the gym).
if you are an experienced lifter, we highly recommend combining bands with barbell squats and other big lifts (bands on the barbell at the same time). You can check out how to do that here: Strength Training with Barbells and Bands
Regardless of how you go about, the important thing is that you do squats!
By doing squats and the many variations, you can benefit in the following ways:
Now you have everything you need to perform squats wherever you are. There’s no reason to neglect these incredibly effective movements. The good thing is that these movements differ enough that these are all you need for a quick and powerful lower-body workout on the go.
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