If you’re serious about shaping a magnificent lower body, then I’m sure you know SQUAT. Despite being a pain in the butt (literally), you cannot ignore its results. Squats are the ultimate exercise for sculpting sexy shape in the legs and glutes and building strength to improve running speed, acceleration power and jumping ability.
If the basic squat just isn’t your thing or you are in need of a program makeover, here are nine variations to explore. Whether you need to shape your glutes, tighten your quads or push your limits, there’s a squat for you!
1. Prisoner Squats
This is a bodyweight squat with the hands positioned behind the head. Why behind the head? Doing so shifts your center of gravity back and your weight into your heels, and it also helps you to keep your torso more upright. Such positioning mimics that of a barbell squat, thus helping you practice proper form. Perform 3 sets of 20 reps prior to your weighted squat lift, or add into a conditioning program.
2. Barbell Back Squat
This is the mother of all squats and the ultimate lower body exercise. Free bar squats activate the quads and glutes better than Smith Machine squats, leg press or leg extensions.1
How To: Step under the barbell positioned on the rack so that it rests across the back of the shoulders/traps. Hold onto the bar, stand up to lift the weight off of the rack and take two steps back. Perform the squat as you would a basic squat.
3. Split Squat
The split squat looks deceivingly similar to a lunge. However, the difference lies in how your weight is distributed between the legs. In the split squat, you shift your weight to the front leg, emphasizing pressing through the front heel while the back foot is just providing stability. In a lunge, the weight is distributed more evenly between the two feet. Oftentimes, individuals will elevate the rear foot when performing the split squat to further direct the work to the front leg— this is referred to as a Bulgarian split squat.
How To: With a barbell positioned across your traps or holding dumbbells, get into a lunge position and shift your weight forward into the front leg. Descend to your lowest comfortable position (strive for your back knee lightly touching the ground)— be sure to keep your front knee behind your toes. Drive through the front heel to return to starting position. Complete all reps on one side before moving on to the next.
4. Front Squat
Many individuals love the front squat because it targets the quads better than the traditional back squat. The bar placement may be uncomfortable at first, but with a little practice, you just might love this variation.
How To: Support the weight across your upper chest and shoulders. Lift your elbows, cross your arms diagonally and place fingers on top of the bar to secure it. Perform the squat as you would a basic squat.
5. Sissy Squat
Don’t be fooled by the name— this exercise will light your quads on fire. You can use it in place of the leg extension or as a pre-exhaust, superset or finisher. Note: If you have knee issues, you may want to skip this exercise, as the action of this exercise is primarily from the knee joints.
How To: With your feet about shoulder-width apart, rise up onto your toes as high as you can and lean your body back, keeping your chest high. Knees should be slightly bent. Lower your body backward as your knees bend. Descend as low as you can without losing your balance, then push back up to the starting position. Your knees should not straighten all the way at the top. You can hold onto a structure for support and perform this bodyweight only. Or, you can use resistance with a weight plate held across your chest.
6. Goblet Sumo Squat
Because of how the weight is held, you won’t be able to lift as much as you do with a traditional back squat. However, what you lose in weight lifted, you can gain in depth descended—especially when you take the wider sumo stance. As you booty builders probably already know, a widened, deeper squat means increased activation of the gluteus maximus.1
How To: Holding either a dumbbell or kettlebell, take a wider than shoulder-width stance with toes pointed slightly outward and descend into the squat. Don’t allow the weight to pull your chest forward— keep your torso upright and chest high.
7. Zercher Squat
Zercher squats may look awkward, but are surprisingly comfortable to perform— especially for those who struggle with back squats due to shoulder, back or hip issues. The bar position in the Zercher makes proper squat form easy and heavily recruits the posterior chain. Like the goblet squat, your more upright torso will allow you to descend deeper into your squat, which allows for greater muscle activation, especially in the glutes.
How To: Position the bar on the rack at about belly button height for easy loading and unloading of the bar. Secure the bar between your biceps and forearms where the elbow bends. If the bar is uncomfortable on your arms, use a barbell pad or a towel as cushion. Perform the squat motion as you would the basic variation.
8. Narrow Dumbbell Squat
A heavy barbell on the back or otherwise can be uncomfortable, even for seasoned lifters. Dumbbell squats are a good way to build leg strength, while minimizing the discomfort experienced during back and front squats. The narrower leg positioning allows you to target the quads, especially the outer sweep.
How To: Start by holding the dumbbells in both hands and perform a squat. Try to maintain a neutral spine and maximize the use of the hips. Grips, wraps or gloves will help support your grip so you can use heavier dumbbells for this lift.
9. Single-leg Squat
The single-leg squat is an advanced exercise that, no matter your strength, requires some serious practice to master. However, if you can get this one down, you’ll have an awesome glute-focused squat in your arsenal.
How To: Hold a light kettlebell or small dumbbells in your hands. The weight will help act as a counterbalance as you descend. Extend one leg in front and slowly lower down into a squat with the opposite leg. Beginners should squat to a bench. As you get stronger, you can attempt to descend into a below parallel squat.
1. Clark, D., Lambert, M., et al. Muscle Activation in the Loaded Free Barbell Squat: A Brief Review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 26(4), 1169-1178.