Squats are an incredibly versatile exercise, one you can use no matter how fit you are. No matter what variation of the squat you choose, the movement primarily works your leg muscles. The quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes all contribute.
While you don’t need to use a new squat variation every single workout, it’s fun to add some variety to your workout arsenal. Try these squat variations to see which ones feel best for you. Even though it’s fundamentally the same basic movement, you might feel sore in completely different muscles when you switch things up.
Before you jump into weighted squats, start with this assisted squat variation, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Dan Cerone. The TRX is the most convenient piece of equipment to use for this exercise. Grab the handles and step back so there’s no slack in the straps.
The move: Set your feet about shoulder-width apart and squat down as low as you can. At the bottom of the squat, your arms should reach up with your elbows straight. Stand back up by pushing with your legs and pulling lightly with your arms. Use your arms only as much as you need them.
If you’re still learning proper squat technique, this is one of the best squat variations. You’ll need a kettlebell or dumbbell for resistance, but you don’t need to go too heavy. The weight helps you lean backward as you squat down, making the movement easier.
The move: If you’re using a kettlebell, hold it by the handles. If you’re using a dumbbell, hold it vertically with your palms under one side. Your elbows should be pointed down toward your feet. Squat down until your elbows hit the top of your thighs, then stand up.
ONE FOOT-ELEVATED GOBLET SQUAT
The goblet squat works well for beginners, but eventually you need a new challenge. By simply elevating one foot, you can make the exercise more difficult.
The move: Use a weight plate or small box with a flat surface to step on. It should be no higher than three inches. Step on the box with one foot. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in the goblet position to add resistance. Squat down and stand up as though you’re doing a normal squat. Your weight naturally shifts to one side and works your legs asymmetrically.
BARBELL BACK SQUAT
Few exercises are more iconic than the barbell back squat. It’s used in gyms across the world as a strength and muscle-building exercise. All you need is a barbell, weight plates and a rack to place the barbell on.
The move: Walk up to the bar and grab it with your hands six inches wider than shoulder-width apart. Duck under the bar and rest it on your upper back. Make sure it’s not pressing into your spine. Stand up to clear the bar from the rack and take a step back to give yourself room.
Set your feet wherever you’re most comfortable and squat down. Keep your feet flat the entire time, your heels should never come off the ground. Squat down as low as you can while keeping your back straight, then stand up. Try to look straight forward the whole time, never down or up.
DUMBBELL FRONT SQUAT
The barbell front squat can be very tricky to learn, especially for a beginner. Try this much more comfortable variation with dumbbells.
The move: Hold one dumbbell in each hand. Swing them up so your hands are in front of your shoulders. One end of the dumbbell should rest against your shoulder. Squat down as you normally would. As you lower into the squat, gradually raise your elbows up to prevent the dumbbells slipping forward. The dumbbells should be parallel to the ground throughout the movement.
Alejandro Terrazas, a certified personal trainer in New York City, says it’s important to stay upright in the front squat. By keeping your back flat and chest up, you engage your core muscles more.
This squat variation is useful if you only have heavy dumbbells or kettlebells.
The move: Simply hold one weight in each hand. As you squat down, the weight should stay outside your legs, not in front of you. Squat as low as you can without rounding your back, then stand up.
SEATED DUMBBELL JUMP SQUAT
Noam Tamir, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of TS Fitness in New York City, loves the seated dumbbell jump squat. It’s an explosive leg exercise that allows you to add resistance. Tamir likes the exercise because it helps his clients focus on landing the jump with proper technique.
The move: Hold two dumbbells at your side and sit down on a bench, chair or box. Your knees should be bent at 90 degrees. Shift your weight forward and jump as high as you can, extending your hips forward. When you land, control your descent and slowly lower your butt to the bench. Pause for a few seconds after each rep so you can create max power. Don’t do more than 8 reps of this exercise because your power will diminish quickly.
If you’re having trouble learning proper squat form, or have an injury that prevents you from squatting all the way down, use a box to limit your range of motion.
The move: The box should have a flat surface and can be 2–3 feet high depending on how low you can comfortably squat. Stand in front of the corner of the box with your feet a few inches away. Squat down until your butt taps the box, then stand back up.
You can add weight to this exercise using dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell.
Sometimes the simplest variation is the most difficult. You can use the pause squat with something as simple as a bodyweight squat or something as advanced as a barbell squat. By focusing on form, you can take your mind off the fact your legs are burning!
The move: All you have to do is squat down and pause at the bottom for 2 seconds before standing up. Use the pause to check your form. For a second, think about whether your back is flat or if your heels are coming off the ground.
While almost all squat variations focus on your lower body, this one includes your shoulders in the mix.
The move: It’s identical to a goblet squat until you get to the bottom. Once you’re at the bottom of your squat, press the kettlebell straight in front of you until your elbows are locked out. As you press it forward, you can lean back into your heels and sink deeper into the squat. Then, bring the bell back into your chest before standing up.
I am a little dubious about the one squat variation where you have the dumbell and you jump up at the end (the one with the “explosive” movement at the end). Unless you are really fit and/or, know what you are doing, and have a good trainer with you, you could injure yourself with that one. While learning and until you build up real fitness, I’d concentrate on good form and smooth movements. For somebody who’s already mastered form and is strong enough, I’d say go for it.