The squat is probably the best all-round, compound exercise for developing muscle and strength in the lower body. The squat develops the muscles of the front of the leg and the butt mostly, but different foot positions and depth of squat can invoke other leg muscles as well such as the hamstrings at the back of the upper leg and the adductors and gracilis along the inside of the upper legs.
Squats can be performed with barbells, dumbbells, Smith machine, kettlebells, plates, and with different leg positions, with one or two legs, to the ground or half way, with bodyweight only, and with various schemes for sets and repetitions.
- Barbell front squat (barbell in front)
- Barbell back squat (barbell at rear on traps)
- Dumbbell squat (at sides. chest or on shoulders)
- Dumbbell lunge
- Single leg squat
- Split squat (one leg forward, one back)
- One-leg split squat (leg resting on bench)
- Hack squat machine
- Hack squat (barbell)
- Low to ground or only half way
- Wide stance squat
- Pistol squat
This is the standard big-bar squat. You place a barbell and weights on the trapezius muscles at the back of the neck. You can go ass to ground (ATG) or near enough, or half way. Good technique is essential.
Same barbell, but placed in front on the chest, and sometimes with a cross over grip to keep the bar in place. Most people find this more difficult than the back squat with heavy weights because of balance issues.
The dumbbells can be held in various positions -- on the shoulders, hanging at the sides or at the chest.
Splits squats are a little out of fashion these days, but they make a nice change from the standard horizontal stance. One foot forward, one foot back, as you would with a lunge, only not quite as far between foot placement. You can do these with standard barbell back squat -- or with any combination of dumbbells, kettlebells etc of your choosing.
Feet are placed wider, and split, for lunges, but lower body gets a similar workout to that for classic squats. This exercise requires a lunge forward. In the split squat above the feet are stationary.
Hack squats are another squat exercise that seem to be out of fashion, or perhaps they have regional popularity. You can use a hack squat machine or a barbell behind the legs.
Single-leg squats are an advanced exercise requiring strength and balance, although you can use various props to assist with balance. For example, with a dumbbell split squat, rest the rear leg on a bench while squatting on the front leg. The unassisted one-leg squat is often called the pistol squat.
Often called the Sumo stance because of the wide foot placement, wide-stance squats also activate the muscles of the inside of the thigh such as the gracilis and adductor magnus.
The Smith Machine (a framed rack for weights) is a standard piece of equipment in most modern gyms. You can set up a Smith machine to do back of front squats with a little extra support and safety. Even so, the limited range of motion limits muscle development compared to a free standing squat.
Squatting Points to Note
- Don't round the back, going down or coming up. Keep it straight. A rounded back under weight can cause damage to the spine at the upper or lower end.
- Keep the knees from going past the tips of the toes as much as possible. This is generally not good for the knee joint. Practice good form and don't get too concerned if this occurs occasionally.
- Keep those heels planted firmly on the ground and the knees lined up with the feet and not splayed in or out.
- Try not to look down -- look straight ahead -- or at least be aware that your back and butt are in the correct position: back straight, butt extended.