6 Exercises to Improve Your Squat and Increase Strength Gains

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Exercises such as hip thrusts and leg presses can help you get better at squatting.
Image Credit: Drazen_/E+/GettyImages

Squats are one of the best ways to develop and assess lower-body strength. They are the first event in powerlifting and are also an essential part in the clean and snatch in Olympic weightlifting — although Olympic lifters favor the front squat over the back squat.

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But even if you're not a powerlifter or CrossFitter, adding squats into your exercise routine on a regular basis will help you build muscle and make it easier to perform everyday tasks, such as standing up from a chair or picking something up off the floor.

While squatting frequently will naturally make you a better squatter, there are also several assistance exercises you can perform to help improve your squat performance and increase your strength.

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How to Increase Squat Weight With These Exercises

It's best — and safest! — to increase the amount of weight you squat very gradually. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), you should increase your weight by no more than 10 percent each week, so your muscles can gradually adapt to these higher weights and prevent injury.

So, for instance, if you start out squatting with a 45-pound barbell on your back, add 4.5 pounds onto your barbell the next week. This is called progressive overload, and it helps your muscles get bigger and stronger. If you don't use this method, you'll plateau, according to the NASM.

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1. Good Morning

Lower back weakness can hold back your squat. The good morning exercise, so-called because it looks like a friendly bow, is an effective lower-back strengthening exercise.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and bend your knees slightly.
  2. Place both hands behind your head.
  3. Engage your core muscles.
  4. Exhale as you bend at your hips, pressing your hips back rather than just leaning forward.
  5. Keep your spine and neck in alignment. Your head should stay in a neutral position.
  6. Continue bending with your hips pressing back until your hamstring muscles begin to limit your movement; if you feel like you would need to round your back or bend your knees to go deeper, then that's a good stopping point.
  7. Inhale and reverse the movement to return to standing.
  8. Stand firm in your feet and engage your hamstrings.
  9. Squeeze your glutes as you stand.

Tip

To make this exercise easier, you can perform it seated on a box or bench. To make it harder, you can perform it with a barbell held firmly across your upper back.

2. Isometric Squat Hold

You'll perform an isometric squat the same way as a regular squat, except you purposely stop and wait for a few seconds in the bottom position before explosively standing up. This pause eliminates any momentum or rebound out of the hole and helps improve explosive squat strength for your ascent.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and brace your core. Focus on keeping your feet rooted into the ground and your core tight the entire time.
  2. Extend your arms out in front of you and slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to lower toward the floor. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
  3. Lower down as far as comfortable, or until your thighs are parallel with the floor.
  4. Pause for 3 to 5 seconds at the bottom of your squat.
  5. On an exhale, reverse the motion by pressing through your heels to return to standing. As you stand, lower your arms back to your sides.

Tip

The stronger you get, try to pause at the bottom of your squat for longer — around 15 to 30 seconds.

3. GHD Glute-Ham Raise

This exercise targets your glutes, hamstrings and lower back — muscles that are essential for good squatting. Strengthening these muscles will help you stay more upright and prevent you from being pulled forward by the weight.

Lie on the GHD (glute-ham developer) machine and lean forward from your hips. Come back up, strongly bend your legs and lift your body so it is vertical. Lower yourself back down and repeat. Make this exercise more demanding by holding a weight plate across your chest.

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JW Player placeholder image
Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Kneel on the GHD (glute-ham developer) machine pad and hook your feet in to the attachment with toes pointing toward the floor.
  2. Holding a weight plate against your chest.
  3. Hinge at your hips to lower your torso toward the floor with control until you’re at or near horizontal (parallel to the floor).
  4. Squeeze your glutes and engage your hamstrings to raise your torso back to starting position.

Tip

To make this exercise easier, you can perform it without holding a weight plate. To make it harder, you can increase the amount of weight you hold.

4. Barbell Hip Thrust

Although your thighs are very important in squats, your glutes are arguably doing more work as they are the largest and potentially strongest muscle in your body. Stronger glutes will translate to increased squat strength, and the barbell hip thrust is a good way to work this muscle group.

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Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Sit on the floor next to a loaded barbell with your mid back against the edge of a bench or box.
  2. Place your feet on the floor about hip-width apart. Your feet can be slightly turned out, depending on what feels comfortable for you.
  3. Place some sort of pad (towel, squat sponge, Hampton thick bar pad, Airex pad) on top of your pelvis. You can also place a barbell sleeve around the bar, so you don't have to worry about anything shifting.
  4. Roll the barbell onto the crease of your hips.
  5. Squeeze your glutes and push through your heels to raise your hips and the weight up toward the ceiling. Keep your back flat and head pointed toward the wall in front of you.
  6. Lock your hips out at the top of the movement by fully extending the hips and squeezing your glutes. Your shins should be vertical, knees neutral or slightly externally rotated and legs forming 90-degree angles.
  7. Pause, then slowly lower your hips down to return to the starting position.

5. Leg Press

The leg press uses a similar muscle and joint action to squats, but the seated or lying position means your lower back is supported so you're free to focus 100 percent on pushing with your legs. This allows you to expose your muscles to weights that exceed your normal squat maximum. Stronger legs will make you a better squatter.

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JW Player placeholder image
Region Lower Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Sit down on the leg press with your back and hips pressed against the seat.
  2. With your knees bent to 90 degrees or as far as comfortable, place your feet on the sled at hips-width apart. Brace your core.
  3. Then, keeping contact with the seat, exhale as you press through your entire foot to extend your legs.
  4. Once you begin to extend your legs, rotate the safety bars to allow for a greater range of motion.
  5. Continue pressing until just before your knees are locked out. Pause for one second, then return to the start position by re-bending your hips and knees.
  6. Rotate the safety bars back to their original position before returning to your starting position.

6. Ab Wheel Rollout

The ab wheel rollout is like a moving plank exercise and helps increase core strength. Core strength is essential in squatting, as these muscles must work hard to support your lumbar spine.

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Region Core
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Kneel on something soft like a towel, blanket or rolled-up yoga mat. Grab an ab wheel with both hands and hold it on the ground in front of you.
  2. Roll the ab wheel forward and push your hips down toward the ground until you form a straight line from your head to your knees.
  3. The ab wheel should be directly under your shoulders. This position looks like the starting position of a push-up from your knees.
  4. Flex your abs and roll the wheel forward. Keep rolling forward until your arms are alongside your ears.
  5. To get back up, pull the ab wheel down toward your knees until you push yourself back up to the start position with the ab roller directly under your shoulders.

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