7 Squat Variations That Will Skyrocket Your Leg Gains

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Published by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: June 19, 2024
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Squats are considered one of the ultimate exercises for a lot of good reasons. Normally, squat variations will work your thighs, butt, and hip muscles. Additionally, they strengthen your core, improve your posture, and improve your overall fitness.

I've tested different squat variations with my clients over the past six months, and I collected their feedback to find out which squat variations are the most effective.

Here's what you should know about squat variations.

Quick Summary

  • Squat variations, including front squats, back squats, and hack squats, are effective exercises for strengthening the thighs, butt, and hips and improving overall fitness.
  • These exercises not only target major lower body muscles but also enhance core strength and posture, contributing to a more balanced physique.
  • A study published on Research Gate highlights that back squats are particularly effective for strengthening the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
  • During my fitness career, I found that incorporating a variety of squat exercises into a fitness routine is essential for comprehensive lower body development and injury prevention.

7 Squat Variations

1. Front Squats

Man doing front squat

From my experience, front squats are challenging but incredibly rewarding. They demand significant upper body strength, as I've learned to balance the barbell across my collarbone region. The effort pays off in building both strength and stability.

This squat places far more emphasis on the front of the body than the back because 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 from squats may find they are drawn to front squats for this reason [1].

If you are having problems with your lower back, you may want to check out inversion tables.

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 flexibility 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 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.

Related Articles:

2. Back Squats

Man doing a back squat

The primary benefit of back squats is the strength progression of the lower body.

According to a study published on Research Gate, this move is primarily for strengthening all the main lower muscles, including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back [2].

It also tends to be a relatively comfortable lift for most people to perform, so almost everyone can perform it successfully.

In my experience, I've found back squats to be a cornerstone for strengthening the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. It's a comfortable lift that most of my clients can master with ease, making it a staple in my training routine.

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

We recommended performing this with either a squat or power rack or Smith machine. There are some budget squat rack options too.

Muscles worked: glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, lower back, and the core.

Related Article: Smith Machine Squats

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 turn 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

Woman doing a low bar back squat

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.

When I switched to low-bar back squats, I noticed a distinct difference in how the weight distributed stress on my body compared to the high-bar position.

This shift in bar placement, closer to my center of gravity, changed the game for my lower body workouts.

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 come 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 your head up and look 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 are targeting the right muscles as you should.

4. Hack Squats

Woman doing a hack squat

Hack squats can be a powerful way to work the lower body.

If you want larger quads, the hack squat is one of the best exercises to work the vastus medialis and it can help you achieve that.

I've personally found hack squats to be a game-changer for targeting my lower body, especially for building larger quads. This exercise has been key in my leg development journey.

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 [3].

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 to 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 your toes 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 prevent pain from developing.

Related: Reverse Hack Squat

5. Sumo Squats

Man doing a sumo squat

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 [4].

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 flexibility.

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.

Also Read: Sumo vs Conventional Deadlift

6. Overhead Squat

Woman doing a overhead squat

The primary reason for doing the overhead squat is to strengthen the core, legs, shoulders, chest, and back.

One who is better able to avoid injuries and who possesses enhanced balance and agility.

Through my own training, I've discovered that the overhead squat is phenomenal for an all-around strength boost.

It's not just about the legs; it's a full-body challenge that has helped me become a more versatile and resilient weightlifter.

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, the weight must 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 weight.
  • If your legs tend to cave or your feet tend to lift from the floor while you do 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:

youtube

7. Bulgarian Split Squat

Man doing a 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.

According to a study published on the PubMed website, whether you’re a powerlifter, recreational trainer, or competitive bodybuilder, you’ll find this type of unilateral squat training will pay dividends [5].

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.

While it may seem unwise from a fitness standpoint to push the weight load with this squat, there is 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 the gluteus minimus, which come into play as stabilizers along with the feet.

Other Resources to Read:

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 with your legs facing forward while squatting. Also, keep your feet hip-width apart. Failing to do so will likely throw you off balance and undermine the effectiveness of the squat.
  • 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 injuries, you should give this squat a pass.

Squat Variations for Different Age Groups for Leg Gains

Each age group has unique physical capabilities and requirements, and it's important to choose squat variations that cater to these specific needs:

  • Children and adolescents: Bodyweight squats are ideal. They help in developing foundational strength, coordination, and balance, which are crucial during these growing years. The emphasis should be on mastering the form rather than on intensity or weight.
  • Young adults: Particularly those in their 20s and 30s, can benefit significantly from barbell back squats. This age group is often at its peak in terms of physical strength and muscle-building capability, making it an ideal time to engage in more intense squat variations.
  • Middle-aged adults in their 40s and 50s: Goblet squats are a great option. This variation focuses on stability and core engagement while still effectively working the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
  • Seniors: Those in their 60s and above can benefit from chair squats. This variation enhances leg strength and balance, which are crucial for maintaining mobility and independence in later years.

References:

  1. https://www.weekand.com/healthy-living/article/make-front-squats-not-hurt-18067019.php
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337400852_Evaluation_of_Muscle_Activities_During
  3. https://www.sportsrec.com/329507-weight-training-on-a-powerhouse-home-exercise-machine.html
  4. https://www.livestrong.com/article/437557-sumo-squat-vs-regular-squat/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33477561/
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About The Author

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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One thought on “The 7 Best Squat Variations
Benefits, Muscles Used & More

  1. It’s recommended to try different types of squats to target different types of muscles too, especially on the lower body. Some also targets the core so these squat variations must be part in any workout.

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