You can perform one designer exercise after another until your quads, hammies, calves and every other muscle in your lower half has experienced such a vicious pump that you can barely walk out of the gym. But among all lower-body exercises, there is a king, a single exercise that develops every muscle in one movement: THE SQUAT.
Call them Barbell Squats, Back Squats or just plain old Squats. Any way you say it, this lift separates serious athletes from the crowd of recreational gym rats looking to improve the appearance, size or shape of their legs. Why? Because a demanding set of Squats requires effort, guts and heart—three qualities that define an athlete and scare the heck out of the general public. And while Squats are tough to perform, their countless benefits are worth the effort.
The Squat is not the beginning and end of all lower-body training. However, by strategically mixing together a few adaptations from the Squat Family, you will create a full squatting experience that can help you attain any athletic goal imaginable—whether it’s pure power, strength, balance or flexibility. There is a Squat for you.
We pooled together the expertise of some of the top strength coaches in the nation to break down the five most effective Squat exercises out there. Bow down to King Squat.
1. Barbell Squat
Benefits: Lower-body power and strength; core stabilization
“If you want to improve power, you have to Squat.” These words, from Detroit Tigers strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett, sum up the importance of the old standby in one breath. It should be the foundation for every lower-body training program, barring injury or specific circumstances. “This hits every lower-body muscle and is a great lower back and abdominal strength exercise,” adds Gillett.
To make it most effective and to prevent injury, you must adhere strictly to proper Squatting technique.
“Squats might be the most incorrectly performed exercise out there,” Gillett says. “We make sure an athlete is proficient in this movement before we fully incorporate it into his training.”
Below are Gillett’s guidelines to mastering the all-powerful Squat. Use them to reap the kind of rewards that slackers will never realize.
• Assume athletic position with bar on back and feet slightly wider than hip width
• Keeping chest up, core tight and knees behind toes, lower into squat until tops of thighs are parallel to ground
• Drive up, out of squat position
• Position bar on traps, not above or below
• Do not allow your knees to go past your toes as you move into and out of squat position
• Keep chest up, eyes straight ahead and back straight as you sit back into squat
• Do not allow knees to cave in; keep them directly in line with ankles
• Maintain control during descent; do not drop down
• Make sure to get proper depth [tops of thighs parallel to ground]
• Explode out of squat
2. Single-Leg Squat
Benefits: Single-leg strength, balance
Take a look at a few action shots from one of your recent competitions, and notice the position of your legs. At any given moment, it’s highly unlikely that both of your feet are planted solidly on the ground. “All sports are played on one leg,” says Mike Boyle, Boston University hockey S+C consultant and industry legend. “Athletes are constantly driving and pushing off one leg.” Which is exactly why Boyle recommends the Single-Leg Squat.
When your body assumes a single-leg position—whether during training or competition—balance is an issue and different muscles take over. “Pelvic stabilizers, the various muscles in and around the buttocks, lower back and abdomen, are forced into action,” Boyle says. “These muscles, which are critical to balance and overall sport performance, are not activated when you are in a two-legged stance. Balance is single-leg strength.”
Follow Boyle’s lead to develop all of the muscles in your hips, ankles and legs required to maintain balance, change direction and accelerate.
- Place one foot flat on ground with other foot resting on bench behind you
- Keeping front knee behind front toes, descend into lunge position until front thigh is parallel to floor and back knee is nearly touching ground
- Rise into starting position
- Begin with bodyweight; gradually increase to light dumbbells, then eventually a bar with weight
- Keep front knee behind toes as you lower
- Do not allow chest to fall forward
- Do not cheat by pushing with the back leg
3. Pause Squat
Benefits: Explosion, first-step quickness
John Krasinski, University of California football strength and conditioning coach, has a theory: The athlete who can get up to speed the quickest will win the battle on the football field [and in most other sports as well]. But getting up to full speed is no easy task for a football player who is stuck holding a static stance or a sprinter who starts his race locked into the blocks. Realizing this, Krasinski instituted the Pause Squat. “When you look at the start of a play, or when they’re timing the 40 at the Combine, the [athlete] has to hold on the line,” Krasinski says. “We’re trying to train that explosive movement from a dead stop, so it’s not like a plyometric, where you have a counter move. We want to generate as much force and as much power as quickly as we can.”
Krasinski provides the keys to a perfect Pause Squat.
- Assume athletic position with bar on back and feet slightly wider than hip width
- Keeping chest up, core tight and knees behind toes, lower into squat until tops of thighs are parallel to ground
- Pause for two seconds
- Explosively drive out of squat position
- Use lighter weight so exercise is not a struggle; keep it explosive
- Keep your chest up and lead with it on way up
- After two-second pause, generate velocity immediately, not gradually
Benefit: Muscle balance
Although The Lunge is not in the immediate Squat Family, it is part of this discussion due to its balancing benefits.
Cleveland Indians strength and conditioning coach Tim Maxey wants you to stop worrying about your reflection in the mirror. Concerned that most athletes spend too much time developing the front side of their bodies, or “mirror muscles,” Maxey uses Lunges as a core lift to counter that full frontal overload.
“If an athlete only performs Squats, he will create an imbalance,” Maxey says. “He will become tight in his hip flexors and will become quad-dominant. Balance needs to be created with an exercise that works the posterior chain—the glutes, hamstrings, erectors, lats and scapular stabilizers. These are often neglected, but have a significant impact on your performance.”
Use Maxey’s tips on the Lunge to get your backside caught up with your front.
- Stand with bar on back and feet slightly closer than shoulder width
- Step forward and slightly toward midline of body
- Lower into lunge position until back knee is about two inches from ground. Focus on getting both front and back knees to 90 degrees
- Push back with heel of front foot to return to start position
- Step forward with opposite foot; repeat
Dumbbell Variation: Same as above, but hold dumbbells at side. Use dumbbells under 40 pounds and do not allow weight to swing during movement.
- When you step forward, land on whole foot, not ball of foot. This will take pressure off your knee
- Push back with heel of front foot to work appropriate muscles [glutes and hamstrings] and to make movement less quad-dominant
- Use back leg as anchor
- Do not touch back knee to ground
- Squeeze shoulder blades together throughout whole movement
- This is a strength-building, not a power exercise, so keep speed of movement slow
- Don’t add external resistance until technique is perfect
- Always perform warm-up/movement prep first
5. Bodyweight Lateral Squat
Benefits: Flexibility, lateral movement
Dallas Mavericks strength and conditioning coach Robert Hackett uses the Bodyweight Lateral Squat to help his players improve their flexibility and movement.
“I have had some amazing athletes over the years, who couldn’t bend over and touch their toes or squat down into a low defensive position,” Hackett says. “These guys had never worked on range of movement or flexibility. Although they might have been able to go out and jump over the rim, they would have been that much better if they had worked on flexibility.”
This exercise targets range of motion in the legs and hips, especially the hip flexors, where most power is generated. According to Hackett, when these muscles are tight, your ability to move with power in an explosive movement is greatly diminished. In addition, “[this exercise] builds strength in the abductors and adductors, which are crucial in change-of-direction and lateral movement ability.” Perform this exercise adhering to Hackett’s hints to loosen up your hips and unlock your power
- Assume athletic stance
- Take large step right with right foot
- Drive hips back and lower into Lateral Squat position; keep weight on heels and right knee behind toes
- Drive up and left out of side squat into standing position. Repeat for specified reps
- Perform set on left leg; rest
- Keep back straight
- Do net bend over at waist
- Keep feet pointing straight ahead
- Do not allow heels to come off ground