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If you want to build quad strength, the basic squat is one way to achieve this goal. In addition to activating the quadriceps, this exercise is good for other leg muscles—namely the hamstrings and calves. It even works the glutes and hip flexors.
As great as squats are, there are also a few benefits of varying the way you perform this lower body movement. These are referred to as squat variations.
One reason to change up your squats from time to time is that it adds variety to the workout. Performing the same moves every single session can get boring. Before you know it, you’re dreading your exercise routine because it feels monotonous. Yet, by changing up the exercises you do, each workout session feels fresh. This makes it easier to stay motivated while working to achieve your fitness goals.
Adding a few squat variations to your current routine also enables you to work some lower body muscles a bit differently. Some variations target the front of the thigh, for instance, while others are better for working muscle in the inner thigh. Using a few of these variations provides a more complete workout for the leg, hip, and glutes.
Another benefit of using variations is that it enables you to increase the intensity of your squats as your fitness level progresses. People with not as much leg or glute strength may want to start with a bodyweight squat, for example, while a more advanced exerciser would get more out of a squat that utilizes a dumbbell, kettlebell, barbell, or some other type of weight.
Whether you’re looking to mix up your lower body workout a bit or want to change the intensity of your squats, here are 23 ways you can vary this exercise for your desired results.
Also known as an air squat, this squat involves performing a basic squat with no resistance. A bodyweight squat is good for beginning exercisers with minimal strength in the glutes, hips, and leg muscles. It’s also an option for travelers who don’t have access to a gym or don’t want to carry heavy weights in their luggage.
As its name suggests, a pause squat is when you pause for a brief hold once in the squat position. Usually, this hold is only one or two seconds. Doing pause squats can help increase explosive power. They’re also easier on the knees since they reduce the stretch reflex. (The stretch reflex refers to muscle contraction as a result of the muscle being passively elongated.)
If a client has knee issues, the Spanish squat may take some of the pressure off of this joint. Research also reveals that it increases muscle activation in the quadriceps. This variation involves placing a sturdy band or strap behind the knees and anchoring it to an object in front of you. This keeps the shin vertical when lowering into a squat position.
Like a sumo deadlift, this squat involves performing the exercise with a wider stance. In a typical squat, the feet are roughly shoulder-width apart. In a sumo squat, they are wider than shoulder-width. Also, the feet are pointed outward versus pointing straight ahead. Sumo squats are good for the inner thighs and glutes. People with balance issues may also find these squats easier to perform.
The frog squat uses a slightly wider foot stance with the toes pointed outward as well. Though it is different from a basic squat or sumo squat in that it requires pushing the hips into the air when in a squat position, stopping before the knees are fully extended. You can do this variation with your hands together in front of your chest or by placing your fingertips on the floor in front of you, similar to how a frog does when ready to jump.
Mix squats with ballet and you get a plie squat. Adding this variation to your routine not only helps strengthen the legs and glutes but also can improve the range of motion in the hips. To do it, the feet are wider than hip-width apart and the toes are pointed outward. From this position, lower into a squat.
This variation is a combination of a squat and a lunge. While the lunge is more dynamic, the split squat is a stationary movement. It involves standing with one foot staggered in front of the other when squatting. Using this position forces your core to work harder in order to keep you upright.
You can make the split squat harder by elevating the rear leg behind you during the lowering motion. This is called a Bulgarian split squat. To do it, place the toes of the back leg on a bench, step, or chair. It’s also a good option if you have a muscle imbalance, such as your right leg being stronger than the left leg or vice versa.
Another option is to keep one foot off of the ground in front of you while lowering into a squat position. Like with the Bulgarian split squat, this can help correct muscle imbalances. It also forces the muscle on the stationary leg to work harder, providing a more intense workout.
Once you’ve mastered a single leg squat, you can transition into a pistol squat for a greater challenge. This involves lowering the body almost to the ground while extending the front leg so it is parallel to the floor. You sometimes see skaters do this when gliding around the rink.
While a basic squat involves hinging at the hips to lean the upper body slightly forward, a sissy squat involves leaning backward while squatting down. This is a more advanced move and proper form is critical to avoid injury. The back remains straight throughout the exercise and the heels come off the ground. Some gyms have a sissy squat machine which helps by securing the lower legs during the movement.
A jump squat (or squat jump as it is sometimes called) is a more explosive squat. From the squat position, you push off from the heels and jump into the air. Studies show that performing jump squats can boost lower body power.
Most of these bodyweight squats can be made harder by adding weight. Simply grab a dumbbell or kettlebell and perform the same movements. Beginners can start with lighter weights to build up strength. More advanced exercisers may want to start with weighted squats if they are a better match for their higher fitness level.
This weighted squat involves lowering the body while holding a weight in front of you, hanging it between your knees. Some refer to this move as a dumbbell squat or kettlebell squat. This position forces your core and legs to work harder to keep you from tipping forward.
If you don’t want to hold weights in your hands, you can secure them to a belt around your waist. A belt squat keeps the weight on the muscles instead of the spine. This makes it beneficial for people with back issues, or even those with shoulder or elbow problems who have trouble holding weights.
Swap out the hand weights for a barbell instead. Sometimes called a barbell back squat, this exercise is performed by placing a barbell on the top of the upper back. Using a barbell allows you to squat with more weight. Try to lower to the point where the hips and knees are aligned before pushing up again.
This variation does require a rack, so it is best suited for those who exercise in the gym. To do it, you place the top of your back against the pads on the barbell, then lower into the squat position. Essentially, the machine assists with proper movement and form.
You can place the barbell a bit higher on the back, so it rests more on the trapezius muscles. This option is good for activating your quads. A more upright position helps hold the bar in place during a high bar squat. Although, it does require a bit more ankle mobility, so this is something to consider before trying this variation.
Some weightlifters prefer box squats. When lowering into a squat position with a barbell, you go to the point where the buttocks just begin to touch the top of the box. Change the height of the box to vary how low you descend.
The isometric squat involves holding at the bottom of a barbell squat. It is called an isometric squat because the muscles contract in a stationary position. If you do these squats with a rack, using safety pins can help you get to your desired hold height, which is roughly 6-10 inches above the bottom of a traditional squat.
Instead of holding the barbell on your back, you can hold it overhead while squatting. This takes the squat from being a lower body exercise to a total body movement. Start with an unweighted bar until you learn proper form.
Yet another variation of the barbell squat is to hold the barbell in the crooks of the elbows. Like with the overhead squat, this places more tension on the upper body as well. As a front-loaded squat, it also requires good core strength to keep from toppling over.
If you like the good morning exercise, you’ll likely enjoy kang squats. The movement begins with a hip hinge (using a barbell) until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Next, you drop your hips until your thighs are parallel to the floor. You reverse these movements to exit the position. Add this movement to your lower body routine and you may notice that your deadlift performance improves.
Before trying these variations, it’s important to master the basic squat position first. This helps you learn proper movement before progressing to a more challenging modification.
It’s also helpful to choose variations appropriate for the client’s fitness level. These variations are listed from easiest to hardest, so all you have to do is decide which ones are most suitable for an individual client.
If performing weighted squats, increase the weight slowly as strength increases. Ramping up too quickly can cause clients to sacrifice form. This leads to ineffective movements and increased injury risk.
Also, give the lower body muscles adequate time to recover between workouts. This helps the muscles repair and grow while lowering the risk of injury or strain.
Finally, have fun with these squat variations. Play around and see which ones you or your clients enjoy most. Incorporate them into your fitness routine to keep the workout from getting stale.
Squats can help your clients boost glute, hip flexor, and quad strength. But they’re not the only exercise that is good for leg day. Earn your Strength and Conditioning certification to learn more ways to help clients increase their full-body strength and power. This course also teaches trainers how to develop personalized fitness programs to improve endurance and speed.
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