Love them or love to hate them, squats are one of the best exercises for increasing strength and size, while simultaneously burning fat. It’s no wonder they’re often referred to as the king of all strength training exercises. Still, some gym-goers opt out of squats in favor of more glamorous moves like the bench press and bicep curl. No more! Friends don’t let friends skip leg day. And since we’re all friends here, we’ve done our part by compiling a list of six squat variations for every fitness level. All you have to do is keep calm, and squat on.
Want to run faster, jump higher and pack on some muscle? Well then it’s time to get low. Because squats engage almost every muscle from head to toe, there’s a huge hormonal response and massive impact on the central nervous system. This creates an anabolic environment, making the muscles all over the body poised for growth, says Dr. Jeff Volek, strength coach and associate professor of Kinesiology at the University of Connecticut.
As for how low you should go, it’s been said that squats can be dangerous, especially deep squats. But when it comes to performing the complex movement — assuming you’re injury-free and using proper form (see below) — rock bottom is the way to go. Research shows that the depth of a squat does not actually increase stress on the knees. In fact, a separate study actually suggests that the deep squat might help to improve knee stability. It’s also true that going lower with a lighter weight boosts strength better than loading up on weight to perform a partial squat. Keep in mind, all this “how low can you go” talk assumes you’re able to nail the basics.
Sloppy squats don’t belong in any exercise routine. So rookie squatters should begin with the bodyweight variation.
The Bodyweight Squat
How to: Begin with feet at hip or shoulder width (the exact position will depend on flexibility). Now, roll the shoulders back and down while squeezing the shoulder blades together. Keeping the core engaged and the chest high, add a slight bend in the knees. Hand placement is a personal preference, they can go behind the head, on the hips, crossed in front of the chest, or extended in front of the body (a). Next, sit back into your heels sending your hips and butt back and down, keeping the knees from extending over the toes (b). While the butt sinks your chest and shoulders remain tall. At the bottom of the squat, press through your heels, exhale, and return to the standing position (c).
Remember, practice makes perfect. Be sure to master the bodyweight squat before adding weight or performing more challenging exercise variations. If getting low is difficult, it’s likely there are some mobility issues standing between you and the squat. Implementing a dynamic warm-up and mobility techniques like foam rolling will improve these deficiencies. After the bodyweight movement becomes second nature, it’s time to up the ante by adding weights and taking on more advanced variations.
Squat It Out
When it’s time to step up your squat game, there are lots of ways to make that happen. Start by using this exercise list as a guide to getting lower and moving more weight. Keep in mind, these variations aren’t meant to be completed in one workout. Think of it as a checklist. Start at the top of the list and master each move, over time, before progressing to the next.
1. Isolated Squat Hold
It’s time to get nice and comfortable in the squatted position. The reason: Lowering into a squat and staying there helps improve stability and strength while preventing injury.
How to: The set-up and lowering part of this move is just like the bodyweight squat, but things start to change once we reach the bottom. Instead of standing back up, sink into that squat and hold it (a). Keep all of the weight in your heels, while driving the knees and hips open (b). Be sure to maintain and upright body position with your chest up, shoulders back and down, and core engaged. Sets: 4, Reps: 5 pausing 30 seconds at the bottom of each rep, Rest: 30 seconds
2. Jump Squat
Ready to get explosive? A training program that includes plyometric exercises like the jump squat has been shown to be more effective at increasing strength than programs that rely on weight training alone.
How to: Kick things off in the basic bodyweight squat position (notice a trend here?) and execute the first part of the squat, until we bottom out (a). With your hips back and butt down, notice your hamstrings and glutes will tighten and activate. Release that tension by driving your hips forward and your arms up towards the sky, while jumping off of the ground (b). Return to the ground softly and sink right back into the squat before heading into the next repetition (c). Sets: 4, Reps: 12, Rest: 60 seconds
3. Goblet Squat
Now we’ll add weight to the squat position. The goblet squat is a surefire way to make strength go up and the depth of the squat go down. That’s because it targets all of the muscles in the lower body, while improving squat mechanics, without the added burden of a barbell.
How to: Grab a dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball or sandbell before preparing to squat. Grasp the weight and hold it at chest height (a). Next, set your feet shoulder-width apart and engage the upper body. Keep that weight close to your chest while squatting down. At the bottom of the squat the position should resemble the isolate squat hold (b). Return to standing by driving through the heels, before squeezing the hamstrings, glutes and core (c). Avoid thrusting your hips forward by slamming your knees to straighten your legs to stand up. Sets: 4, Reps: 12, Rest: 60 seconds
4. Back Squat
This is where things can get interesting. The squatting movement remains the same, but now you have to contend with a barbell resting on your back. You’ll also need a squat rack or power rack for this move. It allows for easy access getting under and out from under the bar. Plus, it has safety bars that will catch you if get stuck while squatting.
How to: To start, adjust the height of the bar so it’s just below shoulder height. Grip the bar wider than shoulder-width and step under the bar so the weight is resting on your upper back (a). Set up in the same squat position you’ve been using to complete each move so far, making sure to sit back and down while keep the chest upright (b). Once you’ve hit rock bottom exhale, press through your heels, squeeze your elbows towards your body and return to standing (c). Sets: 4, Reps: 10, Rest: 2 minutes
5. Front Squat
Instead of placing the bar on the upper back, the front squat has you place the bar across your collarbone in front of your body. Like the back squat, getting comfortable with the placement of the bar might take some time, but will become second nature if you stick with it.
How to: Setting up in the squat rack, grip the bar with hands at shoulder width and pull your chest to the bar. Drive your elbows up while pulling the bar onto your collarbone. Note: Instead of trying to hold the bar with against your body, let it rest on you to support the weight (a). Once you’re set up, lower into a squat keeping your core and upper body engaged, while driving your elbows high (b). Press through the heels, exhale, and drive the elbows up to complete the move (c). Sets: 4, Reps: 10, Rest: 2 minutes
6. Overhead Squat
Before you go overhead with the squat, promise us you’ve invested time in learning and practicing the other variations that have led you here. Unless you’re hitting the other moves with mastery, the overhead squat could do more harm than good. But, if you’ve worked your way up to this movement, you’re in for one heck of a total-body exercise.
How to: Grip the bar with hands wider than shoulder width and press the bar overhead. The width of your grip will have the bar six to eight inches overhead with arms extended. For this move your feet can be slightly wider than the hip-width distance used for the other squat movements. However, the execution of the squat remains intact (a). While pressing through the bar, begin sitting back and down into the squat (b). Continue driving your arms up while stabilizing your body at the bottom of the squat (c). In the squatted position, drive the hips forward and knees open keeping the upper body tall and core engage while returning to standing (d). Sets: 4, Reps: 10, Rest: 2 minutes
Tell us: Which was the toughest squat variation for you master? What do you look forward to — or dread most — on leg day?