Fitness

Squat Variations: Which Squat Is Right For You

Squat Variations: Which Squat Is Right For You
Written by Michael

No workout program would be complete without the ‘king of all weight lifting exercises’, the squat. Too many people avoid this exercise either because they don’t know how to do it or because it’s just downright hard.

But, if you want to see excellent progress with your workout program, the squat is one exercise you’ll want to have in the picture.

The Benefits Of This Master Exercise

Squats are considered a ‘king’ move because not only do they work so many different muscle groups in the body, but they also create a very strong anabolic and cardiovascular response.

All it takes is one set of very heavy squats for you to see how much these get your heart rate up.

If done properly, you can almost skip over your entire cardiovascular session and do squats instead as you will reap similar benefits.

Workout inspirational quotes

Squats are going to work your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, lower back, core muscles, as well as even the upper body to some degree as you balance the weight across your body.

Which of these muscles becomes a primary mover will all depend on the type of squat you perform, which is why it’s important to learn the differences. By knowing which variety is best in tune with the goals you have set for yourself, you can ensure that you are maximizing your results.

Why Squat Variations Matter

It’s not just your goals you need to take into consideration however when deciding what squat to do. You’ll also want to look at your flexibly levels, your skill level, as well as your overall biomechanics.

Some people simply have a body type that is built better for a specific type of squat than another.

While this doesn’t mean they can’t perform that other squat, it does mean they may find they feel more awkward when doing so and this could lead to them not lifting as much weight and as such, not progressing as quickly as they should.

And, they may also be at a slightly higher risk of injury as well.

So it pays to know which squat is the best squat for you.

Woman showing how to perform surfer squat exercise

Surfer squat exercise is a fun squat variation.

Let’s look at the different variations now including front squats, back squats, low bar back squats, hack squats, and sumo squats.

Front Squats

The first type of squat is probably the one that is avoided the most, front squats. Front squats are one of the hardest squat variations to do and also require a high amount of upper body strength as well as you’ll be balancing the barbell across the collarbone region.

Benefits

Apart from developing a high degree of sheer mental determination, front squats are great for strengthening the anterior part of the body. This squat exercise places far more emphasis on the front of the body over the back due to the fact the weight is centred across your front.

Man performing front squat

This squat variation will require a higher amount of sheer flexibility.

Front squats do tend to place slightly less strain on the lower back muscles when done properly, so those who are suffering from lower back pain may find they are drawn to front squats for this reason.

Front squats are also one squat variation that will require a higher amount of sheer flexibility and will also improve your flexibility when done properly. Therefore, if you are someone who is looking to excel in athletics where flexibility is important, this may also lead you to doing front squats more often.

Muscles Worked

The primary muscle groups that will be worked during front squats include the quads, upper back and core as these muscles will be the primary moves pressing that weight up.

In addition to that, you’ll also definitely call into play the hamstrings and glutes as they act as secondary movers and stabilizers.

Who It’s Best Suited For

This squat is best suited for those who have a higher degree of flexibly and upper body strength and who want to focus primarily on developing their squat muscle strength.

Points To Remember

  • When performing front squats, you want to remember to keep the head looking forward, never down and to keep the should blades open so the front part of the chest is best able to balance the bar.
  • This squat does take some practice at first to learn the pattern of movement, so don’t be afraid to use just the bar when starting to ensure you get the feel of it.
  • As with any squat, you’ll also want to remember to keep the knees over the toes at all times, never letting them move inward or outward from the body.

Back Squats

Next up is the back squat. This is the form of squat that most people tend to think of when they hear the term ‘squat’, and as such, these are the most commonly performed squat variation.

Arnold Schwarzenegger performing back squat

This form of squat is going to require a high degree of mental tenacity.

Back squats do put your strength levels to the test and allow you to typically lift more weight than you would on a front squat, however not as much weight as you would on a low bar back squat, which we’ll be discussing next.

Benefits

The primary benefit of back squats is strength progression of the lower body. This move is a primary exercise for strengthen all the main lower body muscles including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. It also tends to be a relatively comfortable exercise for most people to perform, therefore almost everyone can perform it successfully.

The level of flexibility required for this squat is moderate as one does still need to be sure to squat all the way down to reap full benefits. Many people will ‘cheat’ this exercise by only squatting to parallel.

Note that unless you have pre-existing knee concerns or some other valid medical reason not to squat lower, you should squat all the way down as low as you can go to reap maximum benefits.

This form of squat is going to require a high degree of mental tenacity, so getting through heavy sets on it will definitely help you push through heavy sets of other exercises you may do in other parts of your workout program.

Muscles Worked

The primary muscles worked when you are back squatting include the glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, lower back, and the core. You’ll have minimum upper body engagement when doing this lift as the bar is resting directly on the low part of the neck, just across the shoulder blades.

Care should be take not to focus on expending too much energy in the upper body holding it in place. It should balance there quite steadily provided you are performing the exercise correctly.

This allows you to devote maximum energy towards the lower body and core muscles, lifting as heavy of a weight as possible.

Who It’s Best Suited For

Back squats are well suited to anyone who wants to improve their lower body strength and power and who wants to lift a heavy amount of weight.

As less flexibly is required to perform back squats, those who aren’t as flexible and cannot do front squats may instead choose to go with this major lift.

Points To Remember

  • When doing a back squat, the key point to remember is to lower yourself all the way down. As noted earlier, you do not want to stop halfway through this movement or you won’t fully engage the glutes like you should.
  • Also pay attention to your breathing during this squat and make sure that you are using the intra-abdominal pressure at the bottom of the lift to help you press yourself upwards.
  • Finally, play with your stance. You might find a slightly wider stance and turned out helps give you the best range of movement in this exercise while others may prefer a slightly narrower stance.
  • See which stance works best for you through trial and error. When you’ve found your best stance, you’ll know it.

Low Bar Back Squats

The next of the squat variations that we come to is low bar back squats, which at first, may look very similar to the typical back squats just described. There are some key differences, however.

Woman performing low bar back squat

Low bar back squats are going to focus more exclusively on the posterior chain.

With low bar back squats, as the name suggests, the bar is placed lower on the body therefore this means the total stress distribution pattern from the weight will be different compared to when it is placed higher up near the neck.

Low bar back squats are going to focus more exclusively on the posterior chain, really developing your hamstring and glute muscles. While you will still get some quad activation taking place, it’s not to the same degree of what you would see when doing the front or regular back squat.

Benefits

The primary benefit of low bar back squats is ‘booty building’. For those who really want to bring up their glute muscles, this is usually the primary exercise chosen to do so. This means it does tend to be a natural choice that many females lean to as many women have this goal.

Still yet, it also appeals to many men as well as this is the squat that tends to require the lowest level of flexibility as you won’t go quite as far down in this squat as you do the regular back squat.

Additionally, this squat is the one that will usually allow you to lift more weight as most trainees can lift 10-15% more when doing a low bar back squat compared to a high bar back squat.

This fact also makes the lift quite appealing to many men, especially those that tend to be rather ego driven and simply want to lift as much weight as possible when they step into the gym.

Muscles Worked

As noted, the primary muscles you will use when doing this exercise include the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and lower back, however you will still have the quads coming into play as a stabilizing and secondary muscle mover.

Who It’s Best Suited For

Low bar back squats are best suited to those who really want to lift heavy in the gym or who want to build up their glute region. It’s also well suited to those who aren’t all that flexible or who may have knee problems that prevent them from squatting all the way down.

Due to the position of the bar on the back, you will only squat slightly past 90 degrees when performing back squats.

Points To Remember

  • When doing low bar back squats, you’ll want to remember to keep the head up and looking forward. You will have a slight forward lean in the upper body when doing this exercise given the weight placement of the bar, but this shouldn’t have you leaning too far forward. Doing so will place extra strain on the lower back joints.
  • Also remember to think of pressing up through the heels as you come out of this move as that will help ensure that you targeting the right muscles as you should.


Hack Squats

The hack squat exercise is a squat that very few people ever think of performing as it’s one that simply isn’t all that common place. Most people are instead focusing on performing exercises like back squats or low bar squats, thus they never really give much thought or consideration to performing hack squats.

But, hack squats can be a powerful way to work the lower body as well. This exercise is primarily going to hit your quads and glutes, however the hamstrings will be worked as well.

Hack squats are performed by placing the barbell behind the body on the ground and then grasping it using an overhand grip with the arms extended down beneath you.

Benefits

The biggest benefit perhaps to the hack squat is the fact that it’s going to really focus on putting a high degree of stress and strain on the quad muscles.

If you want larger quads, the hack squat can help you achieve that.

Attractive woman at the gym

Squats - best accessory to any outfit!

You’ll notice similar benefits as front squats when performing hack squats, so if you aren’t one for that movement because you don’t have the flexibility to do so, you might find the hack squats to be an excellent stand-in.

The next nice benefit to the hack squat is that it’s not going to require as much overall flexibly of the regular squat is.

Because the weight is being placed behind you, you are only going to be able to go so far down when doing the back squat before you hit the ground.

Because the weight is being placed behind you, you are only going to be able to go so far down when doing the back squat before you hit the ground. Therefore, this can be a more appropriate choice for certain individuals.

Finally, the hack squat is also going to work the forearm strength quite considerably as you’ll be holding onto the bar while performing it.

Therefore, your grip will improve, providing transfer over benefits to other exercises you may be doing that require good grip strength such as bent over rows.

Muscles Worked

When doing the hack squat, you’ll be placing the most emphasis on the quad muscles.

The glutes will also be worked however as well as the hamstrings as you go about this exercise.

Finally, your forearms will be hit as well as your shoulders to a small degree as they are helping to support the weight as you lift it.

Funny squat quote on a T-shirt

Who It’s Best Suited For

The hack squat is well suited to those who do not have a squat rack to perform a front squat, back squat, or low bar back squat as well as for those who don’t have a great deal of flexibility.

Points To Remember

  • When doing hack squats, focus on keeping your upper back as upright as possible. This position can be quite awkward, especially at first as you learn the movement pattern.
  • You’ll also want to ensure that your knees are tracking directly over the toes as well at all times. Many people have a tendency to lose their knee tracking when doing this squat variation and that needs to be prevented in order to avoid knee pain from developing.

Sumo Squats

Finally, the last squat that you’ll want to include in your workout protocol is the sumo squat, also sometimes referred to as the wide stance squat.

Sumo squats are great for those who feel a little uncomfortable in the traditional squat stance and who are looking to develop the inner and outer thigh to a greater degree.

Benefits

The primary benefit to the sumo squat is comfort. If you have naturally wider hips or a natural turnout, you’ll find that you may feel a lot better moving down into the squat position when doing sumo squats.

In addition to that, many people will find they can squat deeper in this stance without their heels lifting off the ground, so this may help yield better benefits as well if you lack that flexibly.

Sumo squats can also be done holding a dumbbell between the legs rather than a barbell across your back if you really prefer, which opens doors for those doing home workouts who may not have a barbell available.

Muscles Worked

The primary muscles you’ll work when doing the sumo squat includes the quads, hamstrings, inner thighs, and glutes, along with the back and core for stabilization purposes.

Who It’s Best Suited For

The sumo squat is going to be well suited to anyone who is lacking in flexibility or who cannot perform a standard squat due to their own biomechanics.

While usually one can work towards performing one of the above-mentioned squats no matter what their body biomechanics are, there are a few individuals who may just not be able to get comfortable no matter how much they try.

In those instances, the sumo squat really shines.

Points To Remember

  • The key thing to remember when doing sumo squats is to really focus on opening up the hips. If you aren’t keeping the hips open, the knees will move inward, placing great strain on the knee joint.
  • Also remember to keep the body upright and the core tight. This will help you stay rigid as you lower yourself down and press back up again.


How To Integrate Squats Into Your Routine

Now that you have a better idea of all the different squat variations, how do you add these to your workout routine? The important thing to remember is that you should never be attempting all of these squats in one workout. Usually you will do just one variation, maybe two, before moving on to accessory work.

Attractive woman and squat now enjoy later sign

The squat exercise in itself is very intense no matter what variation you are doing, so attempting too many sets will burn you out quickly and lead to overtraining. You should aim to do no more than 5-6 sets total, going slightly higher only if you are a more advanced trainee.

Also keep in mind that your rep range will dictate how many sets are performed. The higher the reps you are doing, the fewer the sets you will likely do.

It is a good idea to cycle between a couple of these squat variations however to add more variety to your workout program, to prevent a progress plateau, and to keep you psychologically interested in the workouts at hand.

Focus on one squat variation for 1-2 months and then once you’ve made some good progress there, consider switching it up and focusing on another variation for another few months after that. This will yield optimal results over time and allow you to build a lower body workout program that is well-balance and yields maximum results.

About the author

Michael

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.