The squat is considered one of the ultimate exercises for a lot of good reasons.
The squat variations we outline below will work your thighs, butt and hip muscles, strengthen your core, help to improve your posture and overall fitness, enhance weight loss and give you the best chance of living a longer, healthier life.
Being strong from the hips down is vital for overall health as we age.
Multiple studies have shown that people are able to live independently for longer and perform those tasks that make up the bulk of their daily activities better if they maintain robust strength in their lower body.
Squats are often called the king of exercises—and for good reason. Squats work the largest muscles in the body, the thighs, and so they not only stimulate serious gains in muscular size and strength but also provide a systemic metabolic stimulation that seems to encourage even upper-body growth.
- Jerry Brainum, Iron Man Magazine
Below are 7 squat variations that will help you have a better, longer life.
7 Squat Variations
1. 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.
This squat places far more emphasis on the front of the body over the back due to the fact the weight is centered across your front.
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. [1
Muscles Worked: quads, upper back and core. 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 Suited For: Exercises like this are 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
- Keep the head looking forward, never down and to keep the shoulder 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.
- Remember to keep the knee over the toes at all times, never letting them move inward or outward.
Tip: Using a weightlifting belt to increase spine and core stability, allowing you to squat heavier. Here are our recommended weightlifting belts.
2. Back Squats
The primary benefit of back squats is strength progression of the lower body.
This move is primarily for strengthening all the main lower muscles including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
It also tends to be a relatively comfortable lift for most people to perform, therefore almost everyone can perform it successfully.
The level of flexibility required for this is moderate as one does still need to be sure to go all the way down to reap full benefits. Many people will ‘cheat’ this exercise by only squatting to parallel.
Muscles Worked: glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, lower back, and the core.
Who It’s Suited For: Back squats are well suited to anyone who wants to improve the strength of their lower body and who wants to lift a heavy amount of weight.
Points To Remember:
- When doing a back squat, the key point to remember is to lower yourself all the way down. You do not want to stop halfway through this movement or you won’t fully engage the glutes like you should.
- 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.
- Play with your stance. You might find a slightly wider stance and turned out helps give you the best range of movement in this squat while others may prefer a slightly narrower stance.
3. Low Bar Back Squats
With low bar back squats, the lower bar means the total stress distribution pattern from the weight will be different compared to when it is placed higher up near the neck.
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.
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.
Muscles Worked: glutes, hamstrings, calves (see more workouts here), and lower back, however you will still have the quads coming into play as a stabilizing and secondary muscle mover.
Who It’s 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 joint problems that prevent them from going all the way down.
Points To Remember:
- Remember to keep the head up and looking forward. You will have a slight forward lean in the upper midsection 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.
- 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.
4. Hack Squats
Hack squats can be a powerful way to work the lower body.
If you want larger quads, the hack squat can help you achieve that.
They're performed by placing the barbell behind you on the ground and then grasping it using an overhand grip with the arms extended down beneath you.
Muscles Worked: Quads, glutes, and hamstrings. 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. [2
Who It’s 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 track of their alignment when doing this squat variation and that needs to be prevented in order to avoid pain from developing.
5. Sumo Squats
The primary benefit to the sumo squat, also sometimes referred to as the wide stance 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. (3)
Many people will find they can go down 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.
Muscles Worked: quads, hamstrings, inner thighs, and glutes, along with the back and core for stabilization purposes.
Who it’s 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.
Points to Remember:
- The key thing to remember when doing this exercise 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 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.
6. Overhead Squat
The primary reason for doing the overhead squat is to strengthen the core, legs, shoulders, chest and back. Mastering this squat can help transform you into a more well-rounded weightlifter.
One that is better able to avoid injuries and who possesses enhanced balance and agility.
With the overhead squat you can retrain yourself to extend the way you naturally did when you were younger and constantly in motion.
Most of us lose that essential component of fitness the longer we spend behind desks, lurching forward to study the computer screen. This squat can help you regain it.
Muscles worked: the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. But this squat also works the triceps, lats, trapezius, rectus abdominis and adductors.
Who's it for: This squat is a great tool for helping you overcome common weightlifting issues such as a rigid thoracic spine, inflexibility in the feet, ankles, knees and hips and tight pecs that cause misalignment of the shoulders and upper back.
Points to Remember:
- During this type of squat it’s crucial that the weight be properly balanced above your center of gravity. Lean too far forward with your chest or backward in your squat position and you’ll risk losing the weight.
- If your legs tend to cave or your feet tend to lift from the floor while you do a back squat exercises you’ll need to be extra careful when executing the overhead squat.
- Relearning how to properly extend can have many long term benefits. But be careful not to hyperextend while executing this squat.
Watch this video to learn more about this exercise:
7. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian Split Squat, (sometimes called the rear foot elevated split squat), works one leg at a time and has found a lot of fans in recent years.
Whether you’re a powerlifter, recreational trainer or competitive bodybuilder you’ll find this type of unilateral squat training will pay dividends.
The Bulgarian Split Squat addresses imbalances in strength throughout the body and encourages muscle growth. It also enables you to achieve overload with less weight.
You will have to be conscious of how your knees are reacting to this squat however.
While it may seem unwise from a fitness standpoint to push the weight load with this squat there is really little to fear as long as you maintain proper posture and build gradually. It also doesn’t matter if you start with the right or left leg back.
Muscles worked: quadriceps, glutes, soleus and the adductor magnus. To a lesser degree this squat also works the hamstring, the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus; which come into play as stabilizers along with the feet.
The most important thing about this squat is to keep your feet hip-width apart and get comfortable with the somewhat unusual mechanics the squat demands of your legs and knees before pushing the envelope.
- It’s crucial to place your hands squarely at your sides and keep an upright torso, legs facing front while squatting. Also, keep your feet hip-width apart. Failing to do so will likely throw you off balance, undermine the effectiveness of the squat and expose you to the possibility of injury.
- Another point to remember is to lower the patella (whether it’s your right or left leg) as close to the floor as possible during the squat without compromising your upright stance. Push your hips back and bend your forward knee slowly. Once your squat position has bottomed out return to your starting position by driving upward through your front leg.
- Although the Bulgarian Split Squat has been proven safe and effective for countless lifters if you have a history of groin injury you should give this squat a pass.
How To Integrate This Into Your Routine
First off, remember that the goal is not to integrate all of these squat variations into a single routine. Spread the different squats out, doing 1 or 2 squat variations with each workout.
Squats by nature are some of the most intense exercises you can do so pushing things too hard may hurt your knees, burn you out and open you up to injury.
Also keep in mind that there is an inverse relationship between the number of reps you do during your workout and the number of squat sets you’ll perform.
That is, the greater the number of reps the fewer the number of sets. And vice versa.
Remember, that the primary goal of the squat isn’t weight loss, it’s increasing strength, flexibility and durability.
Don’t forget to shock your legs, glutes and back muscles from time to time by mixing up the combination of squat variations during your workouts.
This will help stave off premature plateauing, improve fitness and keep you mentally engaged with your routine.
Other Resources to Read:
- Lisa Maloney, How to Make Front Squats Not Hurt, retrieved from https://livehealthy.chron.com/make-front-squats-not-hurt-4072.html
- Joe Miller, What Muscles Do Hack Squats Target?, retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/529880-what-muscles-do-hack-squats-target/
- Kevin Rail, Sumo Squat Vs. Regular Squat, retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/437557-sumo-squat-vs-regular-squat/
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