For most of us (maybe all of us), finding the motivation to work out can be pretty tough. It’s helpful to have go-to moves that hit big muscles groups (more toning and calorie burn for your time) while keeping things interesting. A move that does just that – the squat – offers many variations that keep you engaged both mentally and physically. Lively reached out to an expert to get the lowdown on the squat move and all of its variations to ensure less boredom and more toning for your time.
Why You Need This Powerhouse Move
Most people have a hurts-so-good, love-hate relationship with squats – and there’s a good reason. They are effective and functional while still being challenging. “Squats are one of the best moves to perform if you are short on time for your workout because squats work so many different muscle groups,” Shelby Arpin, PT, DPT, tells Lively. “Most people know that squats work your quads, hamstrings and glute muscles, but they are a really great core muscle exercise too, working your abdominals and back muscles.” In addition to working lots of muscle groups, they are extremely functional in relation to your everyday movement. Think about all of the times you could incorporate solid squats throughout your day to pick things up (instead of bending at the hips). It’s important for overall strength while we are young (little ones squat to pick up toys all the time) and as we age.
The Lowdown on the Muscles Used
Squats hit large muscles including quads, hamstrings and glutes, so you really get quite a bang for your buck when it comes to this exercise move. Different variations of the squat do target slightly different lower body muscles, so it’s not only fighting the dreaded workout boredom, but it’s hitting slightly different muscles. Arpin notes that adding weight to any squat movement will cause you to engage your core muscles for stabilization. More explosive squat variations, such as jump squats, will engage gastrocs as well as smaller foot and ankle muscles. The wider squat movements (hello, goblet squats!) will tone up your adductors, which are the hard-to-tone inner thigh muscles.
The Squat Variations
1. Bodyweight Squat
This is the standard move that comes to mind when most people think of a squat. To do this one correctly, you should keep your feet about hip- to shoulder-width apart and toes pointed forward or slightly to the sides. Arpin shares that squatting down to a 90-degree hip and 90-degree knee position is best, but it’s still beneficial if you can’t go as low.
2. Wall Squat
This one is similar to the bodyweight squat form, but you’ve got the wall supporting your back. Arpin shares that this option is great if you have balance or knees issues. Keep your back flat against the wall. If you’re wanting more of a challenge, you can place a therapy ball between your back and the wall.
3. Jump Squat
Squat down as you would with a bodyweight squat and then drive through your legs to jump straight up. It probably goes without saying, but this move definitely amps up the cardio component of your workout.
4. Back Squat
Again, the same form as the bodyweight squat, but this time you’ll have a weighted barbell placed at the base of your neck/upper shoulders. “Keep your shoulders back and chest up as you squat down,” shares Arpin. “Don't add so much weight that your back arches more than it's natural curve and use a weight that allows your core to stabilize your spine to a neutral position.
5. Front Squat
For this one, you’ll hold the barbell at your collarbone or utilize dumbbells at shoulder height. It’s best to go lighter in weight than you would for back squats.
6. Overhead Squat
Arpin recommends starting with arms only overhead to familiarize yourself with how it feels to properly stabilize your core in this position. Back arches in this position (or any squat for that matter) aren’t good for your body. For this move, you should use a barbell or dumbbells straight up above your head and hold them out in extension as you lower down into a squat. It’s important to start lighter weight wise because there’s a lot of techniques to nail down with this move.
7. Goblet Squat
Start with your feet wider than your shoulders and toes turned out. Use a kettlebell, weight ball or a dumbbell and hold with both hands at chest level (for most ab activation). You can hold it between your legs for make it a bit easier. Arpin notes to be sure to keep your shoulders back and chest up throughout as it’s easy to lean forward to compensate.
Squats Do’s & Don’ts
DO focus on your form first. The added weight can come later, but Arpin reiterates the you should never sacrifice form to add a few pounds. It’s not worth an injury!
DON’Tlet your knees cave in. Knees should stay in line with toes or slightly outward. “If your knees tend to move inward, use a resistance band on your thighs just above your knees,” shares Arpin. “This will engage your glute muscles more, which help control this inward motion.” You should focus on keeping this resistance level all the way to the bottom of your squat. It’s better to not go as low while keeping your knees out.
DO fire up your core muscles. Your core is your friend when it comes to a solid and safe squat. Arpin recommends thinking about pulling your belly button in towards your spine and holding it there. Think flat low back and avoid arching.
DO stick your butt out (weird to say, but it’s proper form). Visualize sitting back into a chair. “Practice with a mirror and use a real chair to make sure you stick your butt back far enough,” Arpin tells Lively. “You don't want your knees to shoot too far forward, so sticking your butt back helps control this.”