Squats are sometimes called the king of exercises. Why? Because squats may be the most functional exercise you can do. Sitting down to read this, you did a squat. You’ll do another when you get back up, take the stairs, or get in and out of your car. It’s all but impossible to get though a day without doing some a whole bunch of squats.1
Leg strength is also vital for just about every type of sporting activity from running to jumping and kicking. And squats increases strength in spades, builds muscle, boosts performance and can help develop injury resilience.23
But that not all. Squats, especially heavy squats, are can trigger a cascade of anabolic (muscle-building) hormones to be produced inside your body. For this reason squats are closely linked to not just increasing leg strength, but whole body strength.
What Muscles Do Squats Work?
While squats are a leg exercise, weighted squats also bring your upper body into the game. However, most people perform squats for the incredible lower body benefits.
Squats involve the following lower body muscles:
- Quadriceps (front of the thigh)
- Hamstrings (back of the thigh)
- Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus (butt)
- Adductors (inner thigh)
- Soleus (calves)
- Gastrocnemius (calves)
In addition, squats work the core muscles, which include the rectus abdominis (aka the abs), internal and external obliques, and erector spinae.4
Who Should Do Squats?
Squats are good for just about everyone – from grandparents to Olympic sprinters.5 They develop the muscles that are needed in just about every daily and sporting activity.
If you want increased leg size and strength, a shapelier butt, to be able to jump higher or run faster, have healthier knees, stronger bones or improve your general conditioning, squats will get it done.
Who Should Not Do Squats?
According to a position statement by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), “Squats, when performed correctly and with appropriate supervision, are not only safe, but may be a significant deterrent to knee injuries.“
The NSCA also notes that injury due to squatting may not be due to the exercise itself, but poor technique, pre-existing structural abnormalities, fatigue, or too much training.
In other words, done right a squat shouldn’t cause knee pain. However, improperly executed, squats can put a lot more pressure on the joints, causing discomfort and pain.
Therefore, if you have problems with mobility, pain, or other issues that prevent you from completing a squat with good form, opt for easier variations (if you can perform them with good technique) or avoid squats altogether:
- Knee pain. While only one study back in 1961 ever suggested that squats were bad for your knees, if you already have knee pain, you may want to use one of the less demanding squat variants (e.g. wall site). People with painful knees may compensate by bending over at the waist. This poor technique can lead to back pain.
- Hip pain. A good squat does not put too much stress on your back, but if you are unable to squat with impeccable form or you have a pre-existing back problem, heavy squats may not be ideal and you should choose a less weighted variation.
- Poor flexibility. If you lack sufficient mobility and flexibility to squat without rounding your lower back, skip squats for now as rounding your lower back is a shortcut to injury when squatting.
How to Do a Squat Perfectly
Whether you are squatting 500 lbs or just your bodyweight, it’s important to squat properly to get the most from this exercise and avoid injury.
First master the basic bodyweight squat, also known as an air squat. It’s a great (calisthenic) exercise that can be performed almost anywhere. High reps means it can be a real cardio blaster too.
The Bodyweight Squat
Most forms of squats are performed similarly, using many of the same key principles. Here’s how to do a bodyweight squat:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and turn your toes out slightly.
- Lift your chest, arch your lower back slightly and inhale.
- Push back your hips as though you are reaching for a chair a little too far behind you. Bend your knees and, under control, sink down into a squat. Try to get your thighs parallel to the floor. Push your knees out and keep your chest up. (You should feel it in your thighs and glutes.)
- When you hit the desired depth, reverse the movement by pushing your hips up and straightening your knees. Exhale as you ascend.
- Stand up straight, reset your position and inhale. Down you go again!
Tips for Squatting Safely
Follow these tips to ensure you get the most benefits possible with the least amount of risk. Many of these tips pertain can easily be applied to other squat variations.
- Shoes. Wear flat, solid shoes – running shoes are great for running but that sponginess is not helpful when you squat. They’ll compress and destabilize you and who needs that when you are lifting heavy weights? Instead, wear minimalist shoes, weightlifting shoes or just your socks if your gym will allow it.
- Hips. Initiate all squats by pushing your hips back and then, just after, bending at the knees. This will help preserve your lower back arch and maximize the use of your hamstring and glute muscles. Breaking at the knee first is both inefficient and dangerous.
- Chest. Keep your chest up and look directly forward at all times. Look down and you’ll round your lower back. Look up and you’ll lose hip-drive power. Keep your neck neutral.
- Knees. Push your knees out forcefully as you descend. This will maximize your hamstring strength and prevent your knees dropping inward which stresses this joint unnecessarily (and is very common).
- Feet. Your weight should be on your feet (not toes!), which should remain flat on the ground. If your heels lift when you squat, this may be due to incorrect squat stance or restricted mobility caused by tight calves. If you have tight calves, do not ignore it and place plates or a slat of wood under your heels for support – stretch your calves more!
- Abs. To prevent your lower back from rounding, brace your abs like someone is going to punch you in the belly.
- Stance & body type. Vary your foot width until you find the perfect position for you. Wider is often better for people with long legs relative to their torso (often lanky, long limbed ectomorphs) while a narrower stance works well for those with shorter limbs (often people with a mesomorph body type).
The Back Squat
A gold standard, barbell back squats are a fantastic whole body exercise. These squats really work the upper body, as you have to work super hard to keep the bar positioned properly and ensure your torso remains safely uptight.67
If you have your eye on doing barbell back squats, prepare and develop the necessary upper body flexibility by placing your hands behind your head while doing bodyweight squats.
If you’re doing back squats for the first time, it’s best to get guidance from a trainer. Start with light barbells and ensure you have perfected your form, before adding more weight.
How to Do a Barbell Back Squat
To perform a barbell squat:
- With the bar in a squat rack set at mid-chest height, duck under the bar and grab it with a wider-than shoulder-width overhand grip.
- Push your upper back against the center of the bar. Grip the bar tightly and hold it in place on your upper back – pull it down so it is positioned and resting solidly on your upper back.
- Stand up and unrack the bar – take 1-2 controlled steps back.
- The squat. Follow the same form as for a bodyweight squat (see above).
- On completion of your set, walk back into the rack and replace the bar.
Safety Tips for Barbell Back Squats
Do not rack the bar on your neck – that really hurts! Instead, place it low in your traps and across your shoulders where the muscle mass will support the bar in relative comfort.
Wear a T-shirt or chalk the bar to prevent it slipping. A vest may look cooler but the sweat and subsequent slipperiness can make it really hard to hold the bar in place.
For heavy back or front squats, always use a squat rack. Squatting heavy weights outside of a rack can result in serious injuries.
Squat Variations (Easy to Advanced)
There are lots of different ways to get your squat on so whether you are a beginner or a stone-cold expert, there is a type of squat just for you. Variations are listed in approximate order of difficulty from easy to advanced.
Start with a simple bodyweight squat before trying other variations of squat.
1 Goblet Squat
A nice way to introduce squatting with weight, goblet squats involve holding a single dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest and just below your chin. This forces you to keep your chest up and sit back into the squat.
Tip! Put a rubber resistance band around your knees to practice pushing your knees outward.
2 Split Squat
Requiring flexibility and balance, split squats place an additional emphasis on one leg at a time.
- Take a large step forward and then stop – get your balance.
- Bend your legs until your rear knee lightly touches the floor.
- Keep your body upright and go straight down – not forward.
- Stand back up and repeat.
Hold dumbbells, a medicine ball, or kettlebell for a more demanding workout.
3 Smith Machine Squats
A Smith machine is a device that keeps a barbell tracking vertically so you are free to focus on moving up and down. You can perform squats using this machine but it’s important to note that because the bar requires no real balance, the benefits of this exercise are considerably less than “real” squats.
In addition, the Smith machine does not allow you to use all of your normal squatting muscles but emphasizes your quads over your glutes and hamstrings.
4 Front Squats
With the barbell racked across the front of your shoulders instead of the back, this exercise promotes a much more upright torso position and is said to place more emphasis on your quadriceps.
Preferred by athletes over the back squat, front squats require a high degree of upper body flexibility and are generally performed using a narrower than shoulder-width stance.
5 Hack squats
Named after a famous old-time wrestler called George Hackenschmidt, this exercise involves placing a barbell on the floor behind your ankles, bending down and grabbing it with both hands before standing up using your legs.
A tricky movement initially, this exercise will give you a very effective quad workout.
6 Bottom-Up Squat
As the name suggests, bottom-up squats start from a deep squat rather than a standing position by placing the barbell on a squat rack set to around hip-height.
This dead stop position means you have to work really hard to get the bar moving which develops explosiveness and makes this a great exercise for sprinters.
7 Squat Jumps
Performed with a light weight or no weight at all, squat jumps use the same squatting movement but ends with a powerful leap into the air.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Squat down, when you hit the bottom of the squat, squeeze your glutes and drive through your legs and heels as you propel yourself up.
- Land with soft, bent knees, and go right into the next squat.
This is a plyometric exercise and will develop power rather than strength – power being your ability to generate force quickly.
8 Overhead Squats
The overhead squat builds total body strength, stability and mobility.
- Hold a barbell overhead using an overhand, wider-than shoulder-width grip.
- Squat down while keeping your arms held aloft and the weight over your feet.
This exercise is tough with just an empty bar and a killer when you are hoisting heavy weights.
9 Pistol Squats
Pistols or one legged squats are hard to master but can help ensure your legs are equally developed.
To perform a pistol:
- Stand on one leg with your free leg held slightly in front of you.
- Squat down and simultaneously lift your free leg clear of the floor.
- At the bottom position your free leg should be parallel to the floor.
- Stand back up and repeat.
Hold a weight in your hands (as per the goblet squat) to make this exercise more challenging.
Whatever your fitness goal, squats will get you there faster. Squats fell out of favour for a while because they are tough. But hard work is what produces results, and that’s why squats still reign supreme.