The squat is an incredibly efficient lift that makes you strong, lean, and powerful. Some form of squat is useful for just about every kind of training because squats train your entire body to work optimally. Plus, squatting is an essential motion in everyday life.
When it comes to squatting, or any exercise that makes you better, stronger, and faster, variety is necessary to promote adaptations, challenge the soul, and prevent injuries.
So how do you keep it varied? Here are five of the best squat variations you can add to your workout.
#1: Split Squats
Split squats are the ideal place to start a squat training journey because they allow you to master a simpler movement than the regular two-legged bilateral squat. Split squats also train the muscles of the legs, hips, and core to overcome muscle imbalances within specific muscle groups and for better balance between the right and left sides of the body.
In addition, split squats promote flexibility in the ankle and hip joints and a deep range-of-motion is critical if you want to be able to perform more advanced squat variations properly.
Another reason to do split squats is to ensure healthy knee function because they help promote balance between the muscles within the quadriceps that stabilize the patella when you extend the knee. Research shows strong and balanced quadriceps muscles can help improve movement patterns, which will allow you to prevent knee injuries and avoid ACL tears.
Best Ways to Use Split Squats: Start with the front foot-elevated split squat so that you learn to stabilize the core musculature during this dynamic movement. You can load the front-foot elevated split squat with dumbbells or a cable machine, and once you’ve mastered that, move on to split squats with both feet on the ground.
Advanced trainees can progress to elevating the back foot on a low box in order to make the split squat more challenging.
Studies show split squat and other single-leg variations require a high neurological demand, which can have both performance and body composition benefits. For example, one study of college athletes found that rear-foot elevated squats led to a greater hormone response than regular bilateral squats because of the additional stabilization demands required of the neuromuscular system.
#2: Full Squats
Full bilateral squats optimally train the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and lower back. They have been extensively studied for their safety and efficacy due to the misconception that they are bad for the knees or back.
Recent research supports what experienced coaches have known for a long time: That full-range squats are safe when progressed properly and using them as a primary exercise in your training will result in superior outcomes. Here are a few of the good things that can come from training full squats:
• Better muscle coordination and movement patterns.
• Maximal muscle development in the hamstrings and quads.
• Greater speed and jumping ability.
Other recent conclusions about the effect of squat depth show that full squats help develop connective tissue, cartilage, and ligament strength in the knee joint so that the leg can handle heavier forces, whereas exclusively training heavy half and quarter-range squats may lead to degenerative changes in the knee.
Best Ways to Use Full Squats: Start with the basic barbell back squat using a controlled, eccentric tempo in which you lower yourself into the squat on a 4-second count and then come up quickly. This will allow you to master technique and work on neurological control of your body.
If you find yourself leaning forward excessively or simply have trouble getting into a deep squat, you may suffer from tight calves and limited mobility in the ankle. This can be “trained around” by standing on a wedge board with the slant facing away from you in order to plantarflex the ankle and increase the range-of-motion. Be sure to keep your foot flat on the board (don’t let the heel come up).
Weight plates under your heels also work if you don’t have a wedge board. This technique also increases recruitment of the quadriceps.
#3: One-And-A-Quarter Squats
One-and-a-quarter squats are when you go all the way down, come up 20 to 30 degrees, pause for a second, descend back to the bottom, and come up quickly. This brutally hard variation inserts an isometric hold into the squat, which increases the muscular tension and leads to greater strength development.
Using isometric pauses in the bottom quarter of the full squat also favorably recruits the vastus medialis of the quad that is often under developed.
Best Ways to Use One-And-A-Quarter Squats: Before training one-and-a-quarters, ensure you can lower the weight under control on a 4- to 6-count tempo. Then progress to a 1-second pause in the bottom position with a rapid concentric “upward” motion.
Progress to one-and-a-quarter squats, making sure to control the downward motion with a steady 4- to 5-count. Come up slow and deliberate a quarter of the way, go back down, and then come up until your knees are short of lock out.
More advanced trainees can try two to three pauses during the concentric contraction so as to hit all parts of the muscle for growth and strength.
#4: Front Squats
Front squats are one of your best tools for preventing injury and achieving new levels of athleticism:
• They train acceleration in the lower body and are highly relevant for improving jumping, speed, and lower body motor control. For example, one study of Australian Rules football players found that the athletes with higher front squat maximum lifts had faster sprint and agility times than those who could lift less weight.
• They target the lower back and ab muscles more than many typical “core” exercises. One study found that compared to a plank and a superman on a Swiss ball, front squats with an empty barbell required greater activation of the spinal erector muscles as well as significant rectus abdominis activity. Training with weight would enhance this advantage tremendously.
• They are more effective for training the vastus lateralis and rectus femoris of the quads but place less stress on the knees than deep back squats. Though they do require excellent technique to avoid dropping the bar, front squats help you work on flexibility in the hips, shoulders, and ankles as well.
Best Ways to Use Front Squats: To perform the front squat correctly, grasp the bar with a pronated grip, as you would in the power clean. The upper arm should be parallel to the floor and the bar should rest above and behind the anterior deltoid (shoulder muscle) and upper clavicle (collar bone). If this position feels awkward, try to push the elbows up and in.
Be sure to tighten the back and torso muscles and keep them contracted throughout the lift. The stance should be similar to the back squat—perhaps with the feet slightly closer together. Keep the upper body upright and the upper arm parallel to the floor throughout the squatting motion.
Avoid going up on the toes at the end of the lift, or lifting the heels up at anytime during the motion. Also, make your knees track in the same plane of motion as the toes and keep them from dropping in.
#5: Include a Partial Squat Training Cycle
We hammer home the need to do full-range squats for optimal function, strength, and body composition gains. But, this doesn’t mean that partials, in which you break down a squat into individual parts, are not an incredibly useful tool for advanced trainees who want to reach their athletic potential.
Often, lack of physical progress in the gym is about a sticking point. This is the part of a lift where you are weakest. For example, the sticking point in the deep squat or bench press is typically right around midpoint, although, the entire bottom segment (bottom to parallel in the squat) can give lifters trouble. Partial-range training will help.
Best Ways to Use Partial-Range Squats: When performing partial-range-of-motion training, always incorporate full-range-of-motion sets within the workout to promote optimal length-tension relationships within the muscles.
This should allow for greater muscle development as well: A study that compared one group that just did partial squats with a group that just did full squats found that the full squat group increased muscle mass in the legs by 2 percent compared to 1.5 percent in the partial-squat group.
Try devoting yourself to adding partial squats into your workout for a training cycle. Train a few sets of heavy quarter squats followed by a few sets of half squats. Finish with full-range squats to avoid diminished returns.
Something similar to this was recently tested in trained men. Results showed that doing both partial and full rep squats in each workout led trainees to increase their full squat max by 3 percent more than just training full squats. Training over multiple ranges also increased strength more at the “sticking points” in the lower half of the squat.
Squat Bonuses: Here are a few more variations you should know about.
• Using a very wide stance activates the glutes and adductors most—think sumo squats.
• Rotating the feet out to 30 and 50 degrees will work the adductors even more, and muscle activity is greatest during the bottom phase of the squat in flexion and extension.
• Unstable surfaces such as balance disks appear to activate the quad muscles more (greater EMG activity) but lighter loads must be used, and strength and power gains are compromised. Unstable surfaces should be avoided when training for strength, power, or speed.