In the realm of weight lifting and fitness, few exercises rival the sheer effectiveness, functionality, and versatility of doing squats. These compound movements are about building muscle throughout the entire body through dynamic coordination that demands muscle integration of the leg, hips, abdominals, and upper body. This integration makes squats a standard in any weight lifting and fitness routine.
In addition, performing squats as part of your exercise routine doesn't just sculpt powerful legs; it pairs well with regular cardiovascular activity to significantly boost overall athletic performance, aid in fat burning, help lower blood sugar levels, and elevate your mobility and confidence.1,2
In this article, we'll explore the long list of benefits, understand the muscle groups targeted, and prepare you with the essential techniques to execute squats safely, ensuring you harness their full potential in your journey toward weight loss and improved fitness.
Types of Squats and Muscles They Work
There are a variety of ways you can perform a squat; however, each type offers unique benefits and targets, different muscle groups, allowing for versatility in workouts and tailored focus on specific areas of the lower body and core. Integrating these variations into your routine can contribute to well-rounded lower body strength and power while keeping your routine fun and exciting. Most squats are also considered a low-impact form of exercise, making them very safe and accessible to everyone, including beginners.
Check out these squat variations and the muscles they target.
- Bodyweight (Basic Squat): This classic squat involves just your body and any space you can move in comfortably. Bodyweight squats are a great place to start if you are new to squatting or need extra movement during your busy work day.
- Goblet Squats: The word “goblet” refers to how you hold a dumbbell or kettlebell while performing a standard squat. By adding this extra load near your torso, you will feel more activation through your abdominal area to target the core.
- Back Squats: This is a more advanced form of squat as typically it requires holding weight through a barbell. It is more safely performed within a squat rack and with a partner or trainer to assist with heavier loads. This type of squat helps focus on the muscles of your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and core. You will still feel this in your quads; however, less so than traditional squats.
- Sumo Squats: If you are looking to target your inner thigh muscles, then sumo squats are the perfect exercise for you. This involves a much wider stance with your feet pointed outward compared to regular squats. Your torso should remain fairly upright as you sit your hips down towards the floor. You will feel your inner thighs working to lower your hips down, as well as to help you return to the standing position.
- Wall Squats: Wall squats are an isometric variation that challenges the muscles differently than traditional dynamic squats. They're effective for building muscular endurance and promoting stability, especially in the quadriceps muscles. This is also a great variation if traditional squats cause any knee pain, back pain, or joint discomfort.
- Plyometric: Also known as “jump squats,” these squats focus on explosive strength and improve muscular power and cardiovascular endurance. They're an excellent addition to high-intensity workouts or as part of a dynamic warm-up routine. You will feel this cardio movement throughout your leg muscles, especially the quadriceps and calves!
What Muscles Do Squats Work?
Squat exercises are a testament to the marvel of human movement as they require a wonderful integration of many joints and muscles in the body. Ultimately, a seemingly straightforward exercise easily turns into a powerhouse movement that simultaneously targets several muscle groups.
Here is a list of these muscles and when they are active during a squat.4
- Quadriceps: Located at the front of the thigh, these muscles extend the knee during the upward phase of the squat while helping to control the hip and knee during the downward phase.
- Glutes: Including the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus, these muscles are engaged in hip extension and play a crucial role in powering the body back to standing position.
- Calves: Although not the primary focus, the calf muscles help stabilize the ankles and knees during the squatting movement. However, they become a much more prominent player when you push off the ground during jump squats.
- Hamstrings: Situated at the back of the thigh, the hamstrings assist in knee flexion during the lowering phase of the squat.
- Core Muscles: Including the spinal erectors, abdominals, and obliques, these muscles play a crucial role in stabilizing the spine and pelvis to maintain proper form during squats.
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What Are The Benefits of Squats?
Squats offer a multitude of health benefits that extend far beyond just sculpting muscles. This compound exercise also serves as a gateway to improved functionality, better health, and a more robust physical and mental state. Here are some benefits of squatting, just to name a few:
- Lower Body Strength: Strength training exercises like squats are renowned for their capacity to build lower body strength, targeting major muscle groups like the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. This muscle engagement contributes significantly to muscle growth and overall strength in athletic events and even daily functional activities (i.e., standing up from your couch, going up and down the stairs, etc.).3
- Stronger Core: Contrary to common belief, squats engage the core muscles, including the abdominals and lower back, to stabilize the body throughout the movement. This engagement promotes a strong core and improved posture.4
- Improved Athletic Performance: By enhancing lower body strength and power, squats can significantly boost athletic performance, enabling better agility, faster speed, and more explosive movements in various sports and activities (i.e., vertical jump).5
- Reduction of the Risks of Injury: Squats can strengthen muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones, as well as improve overall stability. Squats can also lower the risk of injury, particularly in the lower back, knees, and hips, as they enhance muscle resilience and joint support.6
- Enhanced Fat Burning: Due to their multi-muscle activation, squats can help you burn calories, especially as you start to lift heavier weights. Integrating squats into workouts aids in weight loss endeavors and contributes to overall fitness goals.7
- Increased Bone Density: Weight-bearing exercises like squats stimulate the bones, promoting increased bone density and reducing the risk of osteoporosis, which is especially beneficial for individuals at risk for bone-related issues.8
How to Do a Squat Explained
Navigating the proper technique for squats is pivotal to unlocking their full potential without risking injury. Mastering the safe execution involves more than just lowering and raising your body; it's about understanding form, alignment, and movement to ensure an effective and injury-free workout.
However, one of the best things about squats is that they do not require any special equipment. You can simply stand up from your chair and do them at home! Follow these simple steps to understand how to do a proper squat.
- Stand with your feet at shoulder-width apart, and your toes pointed forward. Your feet can be pointed slightly outward if this feels more comfortable.
- Place your arms extended straight at chest height parallel to the floor. Then, sit your hips down and slightly back until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Keep your heels on the ground if possible, and allow your knees to go slightly past your toes if it does not cause any pain. If you have more tightness in your ankles, you will feel limited in how far you can squat down. That’s okay! Just sit down and back until you can feel your trunk start to lean forward (your legs may not be parallel to the ground at this point, and that is okay).
- Once you are at the bottom of your squat, pause for 2-3 seconds, then use your legs and glute muscles to help you return to your starting position.
- Be mindful of common mistakes like letting your knees cave inward, leaning too far forward, or allowing your heels to lift off the ground. These errors can lead to injury or inefficient muscle engagement.
- Don't forget to breathe! Inhale as you lower your body and exhale as you push back up. Maintaining a consistent breathing pattern helps stabilize your core and enhances overall control during the movement.
Is Squatting Good for You?
Incorporating squats into a resistance-based exercise program has many positive benefits, but how do you know they are right for you? Especially if you are susceptible to joint pain or injuries - should you still be doing squats?
Several factors can influence squat performance, particularly when considering individual differences in injuries, training history, and current physical status. Past injuries, such as ankle, knee, hip, or lower back issues, can impact squatting mechanics and range of motion. Similarly, someone with limited experience in strength exercises might struggle with proper form and stability during squats, increasing the risk of injury due to insufficient muscle development and coordination.
In addition to injuries and experience, one's current physical condition (i.e., flexibility, muscle imbalances, arthritis) can profoundly affect squat performance. Individuals with limited flexibility might struggle to achieve proper depth or alignment in a squat, potentially leading to compensatory movements that strain other body parts. Modifying the exercise becomes crucial in these cases to avoid exacerbating existing conditions or risking new injuries. Tailoring the squat technique, adjusting range of motion, or utilizing support equipment can mitigate risks and help individuals reap the benefits of squats while minimizing the chance of injury or aggravating underlying issues.
The best strategy for incorporating squats into your fitness routine is to consult a personal trainer or physical therapist to help you understand which squats are best for you, how to do them properly, and how to progress them safely as you work towards increased strength and fitness.
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<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="/blog/toning-exercises">Over 20 Exercises to Get Toned and Strengthen Your Muscles</a>.</p>
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- Ho, S. S., Dhaliwal, S. S., Hills, A. P., & Pal, S. (2012). The effect of 12 weeks of aerobic, resistance or combination exercise training on cardiovascular risk factors in the overweight and obese in a randomized trial. BMC public health, 12(1), 1-10.
- Nigro, F., & Bartolomei, S. (2020). A comparison between the squat and the deadlift for lower body strength and power training. Journal of human kinetics, 73, 145.
- Clark, D. R., Lambert, M. I., & Hunter, A. M. (2012). Muscle activation in the loaded free barbell squat: a brief review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(4), 1169-1178.
- Seitz, L. B., Reyes, A., Tran, T. T., de Villarreal, E. S., & Haff, G. G. (2014). Increases in lower-body strength transfer positively to sprint performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Sports medicine, 44, 1693-1702.
- Case, M. J., Knudson, D. V., & Downey, D. L. (2020). Barbell squat relative strength as an identifier for lower extremity injury in collegiate athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1249-1253.
- Lamont, H. S., Cramer, J. T., Bemben, D. A., Shehab, R. L., Anderson, M. A., & Bemben, M. G. (2011). Effects of a 6-week periodized squat training with or without whole-body vibration upon short-term adaptations in squat strength and body composition. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(7), 1839-1848.
- Young, C. M., Weeks, B. K., & Beck, B. R. (2007). Simple, novel physical activity maintains proximal femur bone mineral density, and improves muscle strength and balance in sedentary, postmenopausal Caucasian women. Osteoporosis international, 18, 1379-1387.