12 Essential Squat Variations to Try
Last Updated: Oct 03, 2017
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Without a doubt, squats are the best exercise to build lower-body strength. When done properly, 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 additional squat variations. Master proper form on the basic body-weight squat first, and then move on to more challenging variations. Your quads and glutes might be burning by the end, but your posterior will thank you.
man doing body-weight squats
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 IT: Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart. Keep your back straight as you hinge your hips back and bend your knees. Lower your butt down as if you were sitting in a chair. 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 through your feet as you stand back up.
Read more: The 30-Day Squat Challenge
man doing a prisoner squat
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 IT: Start standing as if you were preparing for a standard squat, 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. Stand back up again by pressing through your feet.
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 IT: 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 or raise and lower your arms like a standard squat. 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.
Read more: 17 Exercises to Shape and Tone Your Booty
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 IT: Assume the same stance as a regular squat . Squat back and down from your hips and bring your arms back behind you for momentum. Drive through your feet and jump straight up into the air from the bottom of your squat, arms swinging up overhead. Land with knees bent to absorb the impact and go straight into your next squat jump.
man doing single-leg squats
Single-leg work can be challenging, but it’s also 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 has to do all the work.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand 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. Hinge at your hips and bend your knees to squat down, keeping all your weight in your right leg. Press through your right foot and return to standing. Do the same number of reps on both sides.
Read more: 8 Unilateral Exercises to Challenge Your Balance
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 IT: Begin with your feet wider than hip-width apart and feet turned out slightly. 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.
Read more: The Only 5 Exercises Women Need to Get Lean
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 IT: 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.
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 IT: 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, and then stand back up again.
Read more: The Top 15 Moves to Tone Your Glutes
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 IT: Hold a barbell across the back of your shoulders and your feet several feet apart, one in front of the other. 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.
man doing dumbbell sumo squats
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 IT: Stand 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.
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.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand 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.
Read more: 16 Essential CrossFit Moves
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 IT: Stand with feet hip-distance apart and 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.
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!
Read more: 20 of the Best Body-Weight Exercises
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