How To Squat & The Best Variations For Every Level

How To Squat & The Best Variations For Every Level

clock-circular-outlinePosted 13 Mar 2024

The Squat: The king of leg movements and one of the oldest exercises in the book. In fact, we’ve been squatting before we can remember, sitting, standing, lifting heavy objects… So squatting in the gym should be easy, right?

Let’s just say that learning how to squat safely and effectively to hit your goals takes a little more coaching and refinement. And we’ll let you in on a secret: Spending time to get your squats right from the start, will benefit you massively further down the line. If you’re looking to lift heavy, setting the foundations from the start will help you get there quicker.

Here we’ll arm you with all the information you need to get your ass to grass, from form tips to stance advice, and how to breathe properly.

And what if you’ve set the foundations already? Stay with us as we’ve got 12 different varieties of squats (including bodyweight, free weights, and machines) to take your squat game to the next level and fire up those leg muscles.


. . .

What Is A Squat?

A squat is essentially a movement where you lower yourself down and stand back up. Sounds easy right? Well, performing the squat correctly actually demands involvement from multiple muscle groups including those in the legs, core, and back.

Probably one of the most unique things about squats is their versatility: Look to one side of the gym and you’ll see a powerlifter loading up 300lb+ for their back squat, whilst the CrossFit athlete reps up 300 air squats, chipping their way through ‘Murph’.

Squats can be performed using resistance (free weights or machines) to build power and strength, or using just body weight to build endurance and cardio – both are effective but work to different goals. Squats really can be whatever you make of them and can be used by beginners all the way to professional athletes.

So now we’ve covered what squats are, let’s take a closer look at why this exercise holds its place as one of the Big 3 Lifts:

Benefits of Squats

  1. Bigger, stronger legs:

    This one’s probably no surprise, but squats build both size and strength in the lower body, recruiting the quads, glutes, and hamstrings to power through the movement. Research has proved that this is true of both bodyweight squats and squats using resistance (i.e. barbell squats) [1].

  2. Improve mobility: It may look easy to rep out 10 air squats, but mastering the form of a squat actually requires good ankle and hip mobility. The more you practice, the more mobile you’ll become and you’ll find your core stability improving too.

  3. Functional gains: Being strong in the gym is one thing, but what about being fit for everyday life? It might seem less glamorous, but being able to tackle day-to-day movements and tasks is actually way more important than looking good in the gym, especially as we age. Luckily, squats are on hand to help, building strength to support daily movements such as lifting heavy objects, walking up stairs, and sitting down [2].

  4. Calorie burner: Trying to shift some weight but tired of slogging away on the treadmill? You’re in luck: Research by Harvard Medical School found that 30 minutes of weightlifting (such as squats) can burn between 90 to 126 calories, whilst vigorous weightlifting can burn up to 252 calories [3]. For best results, choose a barbell squat over body weight, as research proved this weighted variation most effective for fat loss.

  5. Variety: As mentioned squats are one of the most versatile exercises in the book. From bodyweight to barbell, dumbbell to machine, there are so many different ways to squat. Switching between variations not only makes your workout more interesting, but comes with physical benefits too, challenging your muscles in different ways to build a balanced physique and leading to further increases in skill.

What Muscles Do Squats Work?

Squats can be heavy work – so it’s hardly surprising that multiple muscle groups need to get involved. But that’s a big reason why this compound exercise is so great – you only need this one action to hit numerous muscle groups at once.

Muscles Activated During Squats:

  • Glutes

  • Quads

  • Hamstrings

  • Hip flexors

  • Calves

In addition to the leg muscles, squats also require good trunk stability, firing up the core muscles to prevent rounding of the upper back, particularly when adding weight.

If you’re holding a barbell on your back or a weight in a goblet position (which we’ll cover later), you’ll also activate your shoulders, arms, chest, and back, to aid in supporting the weight.

How To Perform A Squat

The first step to squatting is to master the bodyweight squat (also known as air squats). These use no resistance – other than the weight of your body.

If you get your form right on these, you’ll be setting good foundations for the rest of your squat variations, so it’s worth putting in the time to get these right!

How To Squat:

  1. Stand with feet slightly wider than hips, toes pointing forward, or slightly out.

  2. Clasp your hands in front of your chest or hold your arms straight in front of you for balance, keeping your chest proud. Take a deep breath into your core.

  3. Bend your knees, pushing your hips back, until your thighs are parallel with the floor, knees bent at 90 degrees, traveling in line with toes.

  4. Drive up out of the squat, pushing through your heels to straighten your legs. Squeeze your glutes at the top.

  5. Repeat for the prescribed rep range.

Coaches Tip: If you struggle to know how low to squat, try placing a box or wallball on the floor behind you. This will give you a target to aim for.

Squatting to parallel isn’t easy and you may need to work on hip and ankle mobility to help you get there. If this is the case, you could always start with a higher box, and then gradually transition to a lower box as your mobility progresses.

Proper Squat Form

The squat may sound simple, but it’s actually one of the hardest movements to get right. There are a few form tips to refine your squat technique and prevent injury:

  • Keep your chest up: Keep a neutral spine and make sure your back doesn’t round, particularly as you push up out of the squat. Keeping your core braced throughout the movement can help this.

  • Beware of the butt wink: This is where the lower back rounds at the bottom of the squat, causing the pelvis to tuck under. If you can’t reach full depth without a butt wink, then adjust your depth to avoid your pelvis tucking under. Taking a wider stance or working on ankle and hip mobility can help fix a butt wink.

  • Think about driving your knees out: Don’t allow them to cave in, as this puts unnecessary stress on the knees and could lead to pain or injury, particularly when you add load.

  • Keep your through mid-foot to heel: Your heels should not come off the floor when you squat. If you still struggle to keep your heels on the ground, this is a sign you need to work on ankle mobility. You could also try placing a small weight plate under your heels or investing in some weightlifting shoes, making it easier to keep your heels in contact with the floor whilst hitting full depth.

  • Squat to depth, but do it safely: Squatting to parallel (or slightly lower) may be gold standard, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. If you find your form starts to suffer as you hit rock bottom, then squatting to full depth may not be for you. Squat as low as you can whilst keeping a neutral spine and work on improving your mobility in the meantime.

Squat Form Variants: What’s The Best Way To Stand?

A couple of commonly contested squat variants are toe position and stance width. Whilst there isn’t a hard and fast rule for these, we can turn to research to point us in the right direction:

A study into the joint movements during different squat toe positions and stances found that toes should be pointing forward or slightly out, but to no more than 10 degrees, to allow for optimal joint movement and reduced injury risk [4]. That being said, everyone’s body is different and whilst this may work for the majority of people, some lifters may find a narrower or wider stance width, or varying toe angle more comfortable. You may want to experiment with different stance to see which feels more natural for you and allows you to perform the squat with the best form.

The width of your stance may also vary depending on the muscles you want to target. A regular air squat is performed in a neutral stance (feet just outside of hips), targeting the quads, hamstrings and glutes. Take your feet wider (into a sumo squat) and you’ll fire up the glutes a lot more. Take them narrow, and your quads will have to take most of the heavy work. Think about your goals and tailor you squat position accordingly.

There is no set right or wrong answer as long as you maintain your form, but the above recommendations should hopefully point you in the right direction.

Squat Depth

A full squat is generally regarded as reaching parallel – knees bent to 90 degrees, thighs parallel to the floor. Research by California State University found that this is the optimum depth to achieve very high levels of activation in the quads, hamstrings, and glutes [6].

That being said, a deeper squat doesn’t necessarily mean a better squat. The squat requires good mobility, challenging the hip, knee, and ankle joints simultaneously. Having tightness in any of these areas can significantly impact your ability to squat to full depth, and may lead to the chest dropping or the spine rounding when trying to squat parallel. For this reason, defining ‘ass to grass’ is going to differ greatly from person to person, and squatting to full depth is not suited to everyone.

There might be times when lifters intentionally don’t squat to full depth and instead perform a ‘half-squat’, stopping at the point between parallel and standing. This may be suited to those who are in the process of trying to increase their mobility and range of motion, or those trying to build strength in the ‘sticking point’ of the squat (the midpoint, whereby pushing into the top portion of the squat is the hardest). The half squat also mimics the power position of the snatch and the clean, helping to build power and strength in the receiving positions.

Always prioritize form over depth. How low you can squat is going to be largely determined by your anatomy, but putting in time to work on mobility can really pay off. If you’re struggling, give our mobility exercises to improve your squat depth a go.

How To Breathe Properly Whilst Squatting

If you master proper breathing and bracing early in your squat journey, you’ll reap the benefits later on when you start squatting heavy. Proper breathing not only allows more oxygen into your bloodstream, directly feeding the muscles to lessen fatigue but can create a rock-solid core for stability. Taking a big breath into your belly is essential when lifting heavy loads on your back, providing a strong, stable base and protecting your spine throughout the movement.

A good trick when working out how to breathe properly when squatting is to imagine you are standing in chest-high water:

  1. With the bar on your back, set your feet in a squat stance. You are above the water, so take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

  2. Squat down, as if you are now going underwater. Hold the air in your belly and keep the core tight.

  3. Exhale when you get back to the starting position, legs fully extended.

Take another breath, and start your squat again.

For extra support, wearing a lifting belt can help with breathing and bracing, increasing intra-abdominal pressure (tension within the core) by as much as 30-40% [7].

Types of Squats

So we’ve mastered the air squat – but we’re not stopping there. There are hundreds of different squats we could cover, but we’ve handpicked our best variations of bodyweight squats, free weights (including barbell, kettlebell and dumbbell), and machine squats.

Jump to:

. . .

Bodyweight Squats

Research has proved that you don’t need weights and a fancy gym to achieve a peachy booty and shapely legs. There are numerous adaptations to the bodyweight air squat to target different goals – and we’re not just talking to beginners here. The following bodyweight squat movements meet different goals, including glute gains, explosive plyometric power, and single-leg strength building.

In This Section:

Sumo Squat

Target/Benefit: Fires up glutes & adductors (inner thigh)

Equipment: None

Difficulty: Easy

Looking for ultimate glute activation? The sumo squat is the ultimate peach-building squat variation. For this one, you’re going to take a wide stance with your toes pointing out at a 45-degree angle.

Read our Sumo Squat Guide to discover our top tips for form plus the best sumo squat variations.

How To Do A Sumo Squat:

  1. Stand in your regular bodyweight squat stance. Take a big step out to the side with both feet, so your stance is about 3-4 feet wide and you can still comfortably squat down. Toes should be pointed out at 45 degrees.

  2. Push your hips back, bending your legs and driving your knees out in line with your toes. Bring your arms out in front of you as you do so to stabilize yourself, keeping your chest proud.

  3. Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as close as possible, without sacrificing form), then drive up, pushing through your heels to come back standing, squeezing your glutes at the top.

  4. Repeat for the prescribed rep range.

Throughout the movement, ensure that you keep a neutral spine, chest up, and core engaged.

To make the sumo squat harder, you can add a weight, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in a goblet position.

Jump Squats

Target/Benefit: Builds explosive power & lower body strength

Equipment: None

Difficulty: Easy

Jump squats are one of our favorite plyometric exercises that build power, speed, and strength in the lower body. Research has proved that jump squats improve performance in athletes, so if you play a sport that requires you to sprint on the track, move quickly on the court, or jump to score the goal, jump squats will help you get there [8].

Even if you don’t, jump squats are an effective heart raiser, making them a great addition to your HIIT workout or cardio finishers.

How To Do Jump Squats:

  1. Stand in your squat stance, exactly how you would if you were about to perform an air squat.

  2. Move down into a full squat, bending your knees, pushing your hips back, making sure to keep your chest up. As you reach parallel, swing your arms out in front of you.

  3. To jump up, swing you arms behind you to create momentum, extending your legs and driving through your feet as you jump.

  4. As you start to descend, create a slight bend in your knees to soften your landing. You should land back in the bottom squat position.

  5. Go straight into the next rep, swinging your arms behind and jumping back up.

Pistol Squats

Target/Benefit: Increases single leg strength

Equipment: None

Difficulty: Hard

One for the more experienced squatter – pistol squats (or single-leg squats) is a challenging squat variation that requires control, balance, and excellent mobility. This unilateral variation is a great way to increase the intensity of squats without adding weight. Pistol squats also help identify and iron out imbalances in strength or flexibility between sides. You must be experienced in both bodyweight and free weight squats before trying this advanced variation. You may need to practice progressions and accessory work before performing the full pistol squat, detailed below:

How To Do Pistol Squats:

  1. Stand with both feet directly under hips, toes facing forward.

  2. Extend one leg out in front, toe pointing up. Extend your arms out in front.

  3. Push your hips back, bending at the knee of the standing leg. Keep the other leg straight out in front.

  4. Come down as far as your mobility allows, keeping your chest up and focusing straight ahead.

  5. Once you’ve reached your full range of motion, extend your leg to drive back up to the starting position.

  6. Repeat for the prescribed rep range, then switch sides and repeat on the opposite side.

Looking for more single leg strength builders? Discover our Essential Unilateral Leg Exercises

. . .

Free Weight Squats: Dumbbell or Kettlebell

The dumbbell and kettlebell may have made their fame in the living room during lockdown, but there’s still very much a place for these free weights in the gym. It probably comes as no surprise that by adding weight, you are placing your muscles under increased tension, which will therefore lead to increased muscle growth [9].

In This Section:

Goblet Squat

Target/Benefit: Activates quads, glutes, hamstrings and helps improve squat form

Equipment: Kettlebell

Difficulty: Easy

The goblet squat is a staple free weight squat exercise. All you need is a kettlebell or dumbbell, which as you’ve probably guessed, you hold in front of you as if you’re holding a goblet (hence the name). The front loading not only helps to keep your form on-point by keeping the chest in an upright position but loads up the quads, making them a great exercise for thicker-looking thighs.

How To Do Goblet Squats:

  1. Choose a suitable kettlebell or dumbbell that will challenge you for the prescribed rep range. Take hold of the handles, one hand positioned on either side, holding the kettlebell into your chest.

  2. Set up in squat stance (as above) – feet just outside of hips, toes forward or slightly out. Take a deep breath in and brace your core.

  3. Begin the squat, pushing your hips back, knees tracking in line with toes. Keep the kettlebell close to you – it should be hovering just in front of your chest. Focus on keeping your chest up and not rounding your back as you descend.

  4. When you reach parallel, pause then stand back up, driving through your heels and extending the legs.

  5. Exhale as you rise, press your hips slightly forward at the top of the movement, and squeeze your glutes.

  6. Repeat for as many sets as desired.

Double Dumbbell Squat

Target/Benefit: Lift heavier and work on front rack strength and stability.

Equipment: 2x Dumbbells

Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

If you’re looking to load more weight on the legs compared to the goblet squat, then grab a pair of dumbbells and give the double dumbbell squat a go.

This type of squat utilizes a front rack position (which is also used for barbell front squats, or cleans in Olympic lifting). Sometimes this position can feel a little unnatural at first, but the double dumbbell squat is a great way to practice before moving onto the barbell front squat, requiring less wrist mobility but building strength and stability through the anterior deltoids (front delts) and chest to hold the weight whilst squatting.

How To Do The Double Dumbbell Squat:

First, you’ll need to pick a suitable pair of dumbbells and clean onto your shoulders, by shrugging them up and catching them so they rest on your front delts. (Unsure what a front rack position is? Read our Front Rack Mobility Article.)

Then, you’re ready to squat:

  1. Position your feet into your regular squat stance. take a deep breath in, engaging your core.

  2. Begin the squat, pushing your hips back, knees tracking in line with toes. Keep your torso upright.

  3. When you reach parallel, pause, then reverse the movement, driving through the feet, and straightening the legs. Think about pushing the dumbbells towards the ceiling with your body as you drive up.

  4. Repeat.

Bulgarian Split Squat

Target/Benefit: Builds single-leg strength and stability.

Equipment: A bench or box. Using a pair of dumbbells is optional.

Difficulty: Moderate

Test your balance and coordination whilst building leg and core strength with the Bulgarian Split Squat [10]. As a unilateral (single limb) exercise, this movement is a great way to challenge each leg individually, honing in on muscular imbalances between legs, that are common but often masked during a regular squat. This movement is a little more technical than the bilateral squats we’ve covered already and bear in mind it may take a bit of trial and error to get the positioning right at first.

How To Do A Bulgarian Split Squat:

  1. Stand perpendicular to a flat bench (or box), 2-4 feet out from it, depending on your leg length. Hinge forward to pick up the dumbbells (if opting to use them), holding one in each hand, arms fully extended by your side.

  2. Take one leg back, resting the tops of your shoelaces on the bench top. Brace your core, keep your chest proud, and squeeze your shoulder blades together to stabilize yourself. Keep your eyes focused on a spot ahead of you.

  3. Lower yourself down, bending the front leg, aiming to get the back knee close to the ground, but not touching it. In the bottom position, your front leg should be bent at a 90-degree angle, quad parallel to the floor, knee in line with toe. Keep your chest up and core braced throughout.

  4. Pause, then reverse the movement, pushing through your front foot and squeezing your glutes to drive yourself back to the starting position, straightening the front leg but not locking it out at the top.

  5. Repeat for the desired rep range, then swap legs.

Set up for the Bulgarian Split Squat can be a little tricky and take some time to get right.

For more tips on setup and form, read our Bulgarian Split Squat Guide.

. . .

Barbell Squats

The king of squats, the barbell squat, is a prized movement in the gym, practiced by almost every athlete training for any discipline. A heavy barbell squat will earn you respect in the gym, and solid legs to show for it.

If you’re a beginner, using a barbell may seem intimidating at first. Whilst we do suggest you master both the bodyweight squat and goblet squat as a prerequisite, there is no reason why a beginner can’t learn to barbell squat.

In This Section:

Back Squat

Target/Benefit: Lift heavy and hit multiple muscles including the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Equipment: A squat rack, barbell, and plates.

Difficulty: Moderate

Arguably the most popular movement in the gym, the barbell back squat is the ultimate compound exercise, targeting the biggest muscle groups in the body, all at once. That includes the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors, oh and not forgetting, they build abs of steel too.

The back rack position means you can comfortably shift heavy loads – although if you’ve tried loading more than your body weight on your back, then you’ll know things can get quite uncomfortable when driving out of that bottom squat position!

How To Do A Back Squat:

  1. Set up the barbell in the squat rack, just below shoulder height.

  2. Place your hands on the bar, just outside of shoulder width. Move underneath the bar, resting it on your upper back and placing your feet directly below you, hip-width apart.

  3. Stand fully upright, unracking the bar. Take two steps back and place your feet in your squat stance, feet just outside of hips, toes pointing forward or slightly out.

  4. Take a deep breath into your belly, and squat down, driving your knees out and keeping your chest up.

  5. Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as close as you can get). Pause briefly, then press through your feet to come back to standing, squeezing your glutes at the top.

  6. Repeat for the prescribed rep range, then walk the barbell back into the rack to re-rack it.

If you’re looking to polish your back squat form and discover tips on stance to squat depth, read our Back Squat Guide.

Front Squat

Target/Benefit: Similar to back squats but more activation in the quads [11].

Equipment: A squat rack, barbell, and plates.

Difficulty: Moderate

Front squats give you all the benefits of back squats, but have one key difference: The bar position. Unlike a back squat, where the bar rests on the meaty part of the upper back, front squats take the bar into a front rack position, resting it on the fingertips on the front of the shoulders.

This position is admittedly more difficult, requiring good shoulder and wrist mobility, but it can help the lifter nail proper form. During the front squat, the lifter must keep the torso upright, pointing the elbows forward. This prevents the lower back from rounding, reducing back pain and knee problems that are common in back squats.

Tip: Don’t load up front squats with the same weight you would use for back squats. The front rack loading means you won’t be able to shift quite as much weight with these.

How To Do A Front Squat:

  1. Set the squat rack to just below shoulder height. Loosely grip the bar with an overhand position, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

  2. Step forward under the bar, driving your elbows underneath and up, resting the bar on your shoulders, and providing support with your fingertips.

  3. Lift the bar and slowly step back away from the rack, positioning your feet in a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance, with your toes pointing slightly out.

  4. Keeping your elbows high and torso upright, bend your knees, lowering your hips to below parallel.

  5. Drive back up to the top of the movement, making sure your knees don't come inwards (try and keep them in line with your little toes).

Want to perfect your front squat? Read our Front Squats Guide

. . .

Machine Squats

Machines: You either love them or hate them. But there are many reasons why you should make time in your workouts for machines.

Granted some of them a bit daunting at first, and it can be confusing to know how to set them up if you’ve never used them before – but machines are actually easier (and safer) to learn than free weights, offering stability and a fixed range of motion. They also allow you to hone in and target specific muscle groups, so if you are trying to address particular weaknesses, or you want to add size to a certain muscle, using a machine could be a great option.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the machines we’re going to cover, don’t worry. We’ll break down step-by-step how to use them so you can walk into the gym with confidence.

In This Section:

Smith Machine Squat

Target/Benefit: Improved stability and safer than the barbell squat. Ability to vary your stance to target different muscles.

Equipment: Smith Machine

Difficulty: Easy

The Smith Machine looks pretty similar to the squat rack, but if you’ve ever used the Smith Machine before then you’ll know that the key difference here is the fixed bar path. Yes, this reduces core activation as the machine is essentially helping to keep you in position, but it also allows for heavier lifting [12, 13].

The Smith Machine also provides the opportunity to play around with foot placement: Placing feet directly under the bar tends to emphasize quad development, whereas walking them forward a couple of inches engages the hamstrings and glutes more. Give it a go and see how it feels.

How To Do The Smith Machine Squat:

  1. Set the Smith Machine bar to shoulder height.

  2. Approach the bar, turn around, and rack it on your upper back, placing your hands just outside of the shoulders.

  3. Move the bar off the hooks and walk your feet forward a couple of inches, positioning your feet in a squat stance.

  4. Brace your core and squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor, ensuring the lower back does not round and your knees track in line with your toes.

  5. Pause and then push through your heels to come back up to standing.

  6. Repeat for the prescribed number of reps.

Discover our Top Tips For Smith Machine Squats, plus our other top Smith machine leg exercises.

Hack Squat

Target/Benefit: Ultimate quad activation

Equipment: A hack squat machine (Don’t have one? Check out our hack squat variations here)

Difficulty: Easy

If upgrading your quads is your priority, then you need to try the hack squat. The upright position of the machine forces the quads to be the key drivers out of the squat in this movement, firing up activation to define and chisel those thighs.

For beginners, this is a safe exercise to build leg strength before moving up to the barbell squat. For experienced lifters, you have the opportunity to level up your leg game and really pack on some weight.

How To Use A Hack Squat Machine:

  1. Load the machine with the desired weight. Adjust the shoulder pads if necessary (they should sit just lower than shoulder height so that you can press the machine up).

  2. Step onto the platform, placing your back against the backrest, and shoulders under the shoulder pads.

  3. Position your feet on the platform, hip-width apart. Take hold of the handles located next to the shoulder pads.

  4. Push through your feet, fully extending your legs. Release the safety pins.

  5. Start the movement: Slowly lower the weight, blending your knees until your thighs are parallel with the floor.

  6. Pause, then reverse the movement, extending your legs and driving through your heels, until you are back to starting position. Ensure your knees do not lock out at the top.

  7. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Belt Squat

Target/Benefit: Train your legs to failure using high-volume training.

Equipment: A belt squat machine (Don’t have one? Check out our belt squat variations here)

Difficulty: Easy

We’ll admit it, the belt squat can look pretty intimidating if you’ve never used it before! But this exercise is actually, in our opinion, a hidden gem of squat movements. With the unique loading of the weight on the hips, belt squats eliminate any strain on the spine and lower back, that is common in barbell back squats.

Whilst you can certainly program belt squats as your main leg exercise, we prefer using it as a finisher, working the muscles to fatigue at the end of a workout, using a lighter load and high-volume sets. If you train until failure on these, we guarantee your quads will be on fire!

How To Do A Belt Squat:

  1. Set the belt squat machine up correctly with the correct support post height before loading the machine with weight.

  2. Place your feet in your natural squat position (usually around shoulder width apart)

  3. Grab the belt and squat down enough to clip the other end onto the machine, and stand back up, creating tension on your hips.

  4. Push the support bar away (this will allow for a deep squat without hitting the support posts).

  5. Keep your torso upright, and squat down until your hips are parallel or below your knees. You can rest your hands on the support bar or cross them over to touch the opposite shoulder.

  6. Once at the bottom of the squat, explode back up to the start position.

. . .

Design Your Squat Workout In 5 Steps

So now you’re armed with a variety of squat types – covering squats for experienced athletes, down to beginners, body weight to weighted. But how on earth do you go about putting them into an effective program?

1. Warm Up Properly

Spending a solid amount of time warming up for squats may not sound exciting, but trust us, it’s worth it! First, we’d suggest raising your heart rate and getting the blood flowing through your whole body. That might consist of a couple of minutes on the bike or rower.

Then, you’ll want to take your body through some dynamic stretches, focusing particularly on opening up the hips, mobilizing the ankles, as well as activating the hamstrings, quads, and glutes, that are all prime movers during the squat.

Try our Squat Mobility Warm Up Exercises

2. Set Your Workout Structure

So you’re all warmed up and ready to go – what’s next? Squats are a compound exercise, meaning they engage multiple muscle groups at once. Because of this, they are very taxing on the body. We’d suggest that if you’re a beginner, you choose one squat exercise to start with, if you’re more experienced, then you can choose two or three of the compound movements above.

Alongside your compound squat exercises, you’ll want to include some accessory work. This might include unilateral work, to work on single leg strength (e.g. the Bulgarian Split Squat), or isolation movements to hone in on developing a singular muscle group (e.g. seated leg extension for quads).

In this half of the workout, you may utilize supersets to train opposing muscle groups, back to back (e.g. quads during leg extension, and then the hamstrings during leg curl straight after). Alternating between exercises in this way is not only a great time saver but has been found to aid performance during exercises [14].

3. Define Your Sets & Reps

The number of sets and reps you select will vary depending on your goal.

The general range for different goals is as follows:

  • Strength Building: 3 to 5 sets of 2 to 6 reps per exercise

  • Hypertrophy (muscle growth): 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 12 reps.

  • Muscular Endurance: 2 to 3 sets of 12 to 20 reps.

The weight you use will then be determined by your goal. It must be a weight that you can perform the prescribed reps and sets for, without sacrificing form.

That being said, if you’re a beginner who has never squatted before, you will likely be either performing bodyweight squats, light goblet or machine squats. Whilst your long term goal may be strength or hypertrophy, during this time you may find yourself training in the muscle endurance range, using a higher volume and lower weight for the first few weeks. It’s important to master your form and get the technique right, before loading the weight on.

4. Don’t Forget Progressive Overload

You may have heard of the term ‘progressive overload’. This refers to the gradual increase of intensity to prevent reaching a plateau.

Beginners do not need to worry about this too much, but if you’ve been training for a while then take note: In order to continue making progress towards you goals, you need to continually challenge your muscles. Why? Because otherwise you’ll muscles will adapt, and what was once hard, will start to feel easy, therefore slowing progress and resulting in a plateau.

To ensure you keep making progress towards your goals, you need to progressively overload your body. You can do this in several ways, the most common being (but not limited to):

  • Increasing the weight

  • Increasing the reps

  • Reducing rest time

5. It’s Never Too Late For A Cool Down

You’ve finished a heavy leg session and you can’t wait to go home and eat. We all know the feeling – it’s all too easy to skip the cooldown in favor of getting home that little bit quicker. However, at the end of leg day, you should take 5 or 10 minutes to do some static stretches and maybe even foam roll. This works to prevent muscle tightness and the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), meaning you’ll feel fresher the next day and get back to the gym feeling ready for your next session.

The key areas you’ll want to stretch are:

  • Hamstrings

  • Glutes

  • Hip Flexors

  • Calves

Head to The Gymshark Training App to access follow along stretching sessions, programmed by certified coaches and athletes (all for free, which you can do from anywhere!)

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That felt like a lot of squats, right? Don’t worry, there’s no need to rush to the gym and try all of these at once, but come back to this guide as you build on your squats and define your fitness goals.

As a beginner, you’ll want to start with mastering the bodyweight squat. A good place to go from there would be the goblet squat, Smith machine squat, and then eventually working your way up to barbell squats. Try one or two squat exercises per workout at first.

If you’re a more experienced athlete, have a think about your goals in terms of each of these exercises. If you chasing aesthetically-pleasing legs, the hack squat and belt squat are great ways to define and chisel your quads. If you’re after increased athleticism, speed, and power, perhaps look to incorporate jump squats or pistol squats into your routine.

So, next time you walk into the gym, you’ll be able to walk in with confidence, because when it comes to squatting, well, you’re pretty much an expert now.

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WRITTEN BY: Alex Kirkup-Lee

Alex is an inhouse Content Writer for Gymshark’s Health & Conditioning categories. A qualified Personal Trainer, CrossFit Level 1 and Functional Fitness Coach, Alex is experienced in training clients from a range of sporting backgrounds. With a passion for functional training, her favorite workout is anything that includes deadlifts, rowing, or wallballs.

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