The Most Effective Squats

Maximize Glute Activation and Development

Squats are notorious for building strong, athletic backsides. But with so many different squat variations in existence such as goblet squats, box squats, front squats, high bar back squats, low bar back squats, Zercher squats, overhead squats, sumo squats and kneeling squats, many individuals wonder which types of squats they should be performing to maximize glute development.

My Ph.D. thesis happens to revolve around the squat and hip thrust exercises. Please allow me to shed some light on this topic, as I’ve conducted dozens of electromyography experiments and I know the squat literature like the back of my hand. For these reasons, I’ll be sure to include interesting anecdotes in this article in addition to study references.

The Most Effective Squats

The Research

Two different studies show that wider squat stance widths lead to greater glute activitation.1,2 One study shows that deeper squats lead to increased glute activity,3 but this is somewhat puzzling, considering that even though the glutes receive a better stretch when going deep, their activation reaches a minimum at the lowest part of the squat.4 The squat depth study used the same loads for all three squat depths examined.

I recently conducted a similar study but used 10-repetition maximum loads for parallel and full squats, and the data failed to show a difference between going to parallel and going deeper, since greater loads can be used with the parallel squats. Back squats have been shown to be far superior to overhead squats in glute activity.5 Front squats and back squats elicit very similar levels of glute activation.6 And finally, counterbalance dumbbell squats have been shown to outperform dumbbell front squats in glute activity.7

The Most Effective Squats

Points to Consider

There are two important points to think about when considering the research currently available. First, there aren’t any studies to date that have examined glute activity during Zercher squats, goblet squats, kneeling squats or box squats. Second, research reports averages. Since we’re all anatomically unique, it’s on us to find the best types of squats for our bodies. In my EMG experiments, I have found that the kneeling squat leads to the highest levels of glute activity out of any squat variation. This variation has you “sitting back” tremendously, and it also allows for very heavy loads to be used. However, I do not recommend that you rely solely on the kneeling squat for glute development because of the reduced hip range of motion inherent to this movement. Even if muscle activation isn’t higher in stretched positions, range of motion is important for maximizing muscle hypertrophy in the squat, so it’s important to go deep.8

Many of my clients receive the highest glute activation in a squat when they perform Zercher squats. However, some individuals find Zercher squats to be excruciatingly painful on their arms, which limits the loading they can use. In this case, the Zercher squat should be omitted. One of my clients does not feel back squats working her glutes very well, even though she can parallel back squat over double bodyweight. Her glutes actually receive markedly higher activation when she performs goblet squats with just 50 pounds. Another client never figured out how to use her glutes very well during a squat until she started performing box squats where she sat back and kept her shins perpendicular to the ground. Another learned how to effectively utilize her glutes during squats by performing banded squats with mini bands around her knees.

The Most Effective Squats

Experiment with Your Squats

So what squat variations do I recommend if trying to maximize glute development? I recommend that you experiment to figure out the types of squats that feel most comfortable for you. I also advise you to always include a variety of squats in your program. You can warm up with banded squats and goblet squats prior to every lower body workout, and you can choose a heavier squat variation to perform for heavy strength work such as front squats or back squats. Finally, don’t neglect other excellent glute exercises such as hip thrusts, deadlifts, lunges, back extensions and lateral band walks for comprehensive glute development.

The Most Effective Squats


1. Paoli et al. The effect of stance width on the electromyographical activity of eight superficial thigh muscles during back squat with different bar loads. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(1):246-50.
2. McCaw and Melrose. Stance width and bar load effects on leg muscle activity during the parallel squat. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999. 31(3):428-36.
3. Caterisano et al. The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles. J Strength Cond Res. 2002;6(3):428-32.
4. Robertson et al. Lower extremity muscle functions during full squats. J Appl Biomech. 2008;24(4):333-9.
5. Aspe and Swinton. Electromyographic and kinetic comparison of the back squat and overhead squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(10):2827-36
6. Yavuz et al. Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads. J Sports Sci. 2015;33(10):1058-66.
7. Lynn and Noffal. Lower extremity biomechanics during a regular and counterbalanced squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(9):2417-25.
8. Bloomquist et al. Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013;113(8):2133-42.

Bret Contreras, PhD, CSCS

Bret Contreras has a PhD in sports science from AUT University and a CSCS certification from the NSCA. He is the coauthor of Strong Curves, the author of Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy, the inventor of the Hip Thruster, the founder of Strong by Bret, and the cofounder of Strength & Conditioning Research.

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