12 Essential Squat Variations to Try
Last Updated: Mar 10, 2016
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Without a doubt, squats are the best exercise to build lower-body strength. When done right, they target your glutes, hamstrings and quads and incorporate core stability. And there’s no exercise that will make you look as good from behind as squats will. But squats -- just like any other exercise -- can get repetitive, and if you don’t vary the way you’re doing them, your body will adapt and you’ll stop seeing results. So here are 11 essential squat variations you can add to your strength-training routine. Master proper form on the basic body-weight squat first, then move on to more challenging variations as you build your strength. Your quads and glutes might be burning by the end, but your posterior will thank you.
When doing any of these variations, it’s important to remember how to perform a basic squat correctly to make sure you get the full benefits of each variation without putting yourself at risk for injury. HOW TO DO A PROPER SQUAT: Stand tall with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out and your weight distributed evenly over the four corners of both feet. Keep your back straight and shoulder blades pulled back and down. Hinging your hips back and bending your knees, lower your butt down as if you were sitting in a chair. At the same time, raise your arms out in front of you to chest level. Squat as deep as your hip flexibility will allow you to while keeping your chest raised and your back straight. At the bottom of your squat, make sure your knees are in line with your feet, not bowing outward or caving inward. Check that your knees aren’t coming too far forward over your toes (shift more weight into your heels if this is the case). Press explosively through your feet as you stand back up without locking your knees.
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This variation is very similar to a regular body-weight squat, but it requires more balance and coordination. Since you won’t have your hands raised in front of you as a counterbalance, you’ll need to recruit more core strength to keep your torso upright. HOW TO DO THEM: Start standing as if you were preparing for a standard squat (see slide 1), but place both hands behind your head. Keeping your back straight and your chest upright, squat back and down. You may find you need to put more weight in your heels than with a regular squat, but don’t allow your toes to lift off the ground. If you need to, place a box or chair behind you to remind yourself what you’re aiming for or to offer a little support at the bottom of your squat. Once you’ve reached the bottom of your squat, stand back up again by pressing through your feet.
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Channel your inner ballet dancer for a more challenging squat. This variation changes your footing and widens your stance to target more of the muscles along your inner and outer thighs while still recruiting glutes, quads and hamstrings. HOW TO DO THEM: Stand with your feet several inches wider than hip distance and your toes pointed out at a 45-degree angle. You can either place your hands on your hips, raise and lower your arms like a standard squat or hold your hands in a fist in the middle of your chest. Bend your knees and your hips to lower toward the floor. This time your back will stay perpendicular to the floor instead of bending slightly forward. Drive through your feet to return to standing.
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A 2012 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that squatting can improve your jump height. So why not take that a step further and incorporate jumping into your squat routine? This plyometric variation is a bit more advanced, so make sure you’ve completely mastered basic squats and have healthy knees before attempting. HOW TO DO THEM: Assume the same stance as a regular squat -- feet slightly wider than hip distance and feet turned slightly out. Squat back and down from your hips and bring your arms back behind you for momentum. Really drive through your feet and jump straight up into the air from the bottom of your squat, arms swinging up overhead as you do. Land with knees bent to absorb the shock and go straight into your next squat jump.
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Single-leg work can be very challenging for most people, but it’s also very beneficial because it can correct any imbalances you might have. For example, if your right leg is stronger than your left leg, your right leg might compensate for the left in a traditional squat. But in a single-leg squat, you’re balancing on only one leg at a time, so that leg must do all the work. HOW TO DO THEM: Start standing with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointed forward. Slowly shift your weight to your right foot until your left foot is completely off the ground. You can let your left foot hover there or extend your left leg slightly out in front of you. Hinge at your hips and bend your knees to squat down, keeping all your weight in your right leg. Keep your arms in front of you for balance. Press through your right foot and return to standing. Make sure you do the same number of reps on both sides.
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Though this variation is especially great for women because it strengthens the hips in a more open position, guys can still reap the benefits too! The only modifications from a regular squat are out-turned feet and the addition of a dumbbell or kettlebell. HOW TO DO THEM: Begin with your feet wider than hip-width apart and feet turned out at 45 degrees. Holding the weight with both hands at the center of your chest (like a goblet), hinge your hips back and sink into a squat, keeping your tailbone pointed toward the ground and your chest elevated by using your core. Press through all four corners of your feet and return to standing.
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When it comes to free weights versus machines, free weights are the clear winner. In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that free-weight squats (like back squats with a barbell) are better for targeting supporting muscles in the knees and ankles than using a Smith machine. Plus, without a machine, you need more core strength to keep yourself upright. HOW TO DO THEM: Holding a loaded barbell across the back of your shoulders (or just the barbell if you’re a beginner), stand in the basic squat starting position. Without arching your back or straining your neck, lower down into a squat, making sure you really sit back into it. Support the weight with your back, shoulders and hands, not with your neck, and keep your tailbone tucked under you so that your lower back doesn’t arch. Press through your heels and stand up.
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The front squat is a complementary variation to the back squat. And according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the front squat may be better for people with knee problems than the back squat. HOW TO DO THEM: Start just like a back squat, except hold the loaded barbell (or just the barbell) in front of your chest, elbows pointing down. You can also use dumbbells for this variation if you don’t have access to a barbell. Squat down so that your elbows barely touch your knees, then explosively stand back up again.
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A split squat may look more like a lunge than a squat, but the principles of the squat still apply here. For an added stability challenge and more single-leg work, you can elevate your back foot on a box or a bench as you go through the range of motion. HOW TO DO THEM: Begin holding a barbell across the back of your shoulders and your feet several feet apart, one in front of the other. Keeping the barbell in place and your back straight, bend both knees and lower down until your back knee almost touches the ground. Both knees should be at 90 degrees and your front knee shouldn’t extend over your front toes. Hold for a moment before returning to standing. Complete your reps on one leg before switching legs.
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DUMBBELL SUMO SQUAT
This variation is similar to the goblet squat. The only difference is how you hold the weight. The trick here is to recruit abdominal and back muscles to keep your chest from being pulled forward by your dumbbells. HOW TO DO THEM: Start standing with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and your feet turned out at 45 degrees. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, let your arms hang directly in front of you between your legs. Bend both of your knees and lower yourself down so that the weights almost touch the floor (without bending your chest forward). You’ll look (and probably feel) a bit like a sumo wrestler. Drive through your heels and return to standing.
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As one of the most advanced squat variations, you'll need to make sure you've built up enough single-leg strength and core stability to master the pistol squat. It's even more advanced than the single-leg squat, since you'll bend deeper as you hold one leg out in front of you. Start with the single-leg squat and build up to the pistol squat. HOW TO DO THEM: Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Slowly shift your weight to your right leg as you extend your left leg out in front of you. Raise your arms in front of you at chest level to help you balance. Engage your core and hinge from your hips to squat down, maintaining your balance on your right leg. Go as low as you can without touching the floor. Then drive through your heel to stand back up.
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Similar to a burpee, this exercises incorporates a squat, but it’s so much more than that, as you’ll recruit muscles from nearly every part of your body. And just like burpees, they might be your new favorite exercise you love to hate. HOW TO DO THEM: Start standing, feet hip-distance apart and feet pointing forward. Hinge your hips back, squat down and place your hands shoulder-width apart (or slightly wider) near your feet. Transferring your weight to your hands, jump your feet back so that you’re in the top of a push-up. Make sure your body is one straight line from head to toe. Hop your feet back to your hands, stand up and repeat.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are squats a part of your regular exercise routine? Which of these variations have you tried? Which are your favorites? Are there any others you would add to the list? Do you have any other favorite lower-body exercises? Share your suggestions and stories in the comments section below!
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