Squats are a foundational strength movement for every lifter and athlete. While variations like the back squat and front squat are staples of most training programs, other lesser-known squat variations can offer additional benefits to gym-goers of all skill levels.
Here, you’ll find 10 squat variations to choose from when looking to increase strength, leg muscle mass, and overall fitness. You’ll also learn how to integrate these squats into your program, the basics of leg anatomy, and how to warm up before squatting.
The Spanish squat is a bodyweight squat with a resistance band (often a very heavy one) looped around the knees. The pull of the band helps keep you upright so you can squat deep for greater quad activation, improved anterior knee health, and increased comfortability in a deep squat position.
Secure a resistance band around a sturdy object — like a squat rack or, if you’re at home, a radiator. Stand inside the other end of the band and set the band so it sits right below the crease of your knee. Take a few steps backward until the band is taut. Set your feet so they’re about hip-width, and then squat down until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel to the ground.
You can use the forward-facing wall squat to improve squat mechanics and reinforce proper positioning in the movement. You can use this as a squat warm-up exercise or education squat tool to reinforce proper movement and balance in the squat. Lifters who have tight hips, poor thoracic mobility, or limited ankle mobility will often find this to be highly challenging — but that’s exactly why it’s so beneficial.
Face the wall and stand a few inches back (three to six inches to start). Your needs should be close to touching the wall at the bottom of your squat. Assume your squat stance with your hands above your head, so you’re in an overhead squat position. Squat downward, making sure not to tip backward or fall forward into the wall. Press back up through the ground to return to standing.
The goblet squat is a great squat option to develop fundamental squat strength, build muscle mass, and bolster technique. Adding a band takes this movement to a whole other level. The band will pull you forward in the squat and add more resistance as you stand up. In doing so, you establish and reinforce a strong, vertical position and increase strength throughout the squat’s entire range of motion.
Set your feet hip-width apart and position stand in the middle of a resistance band, holding the other end in both hands. Assume a front rack position, keeping your elbows up and pointing straight out. Squat down, keeping your torso upright. Try not to let your knees cave in. Hold the down position of the squat for a second or two and then explode up.
Part good morning, part back squat — the Kang squat combines the two popular leg-builders to improve your leg strength and hip mobility. This is a great exercise to help lifters develop tension in the squat, understand proper joint actions (and what not to do), and activate the necessary muscle groups needed in more advanced squat training.
Assume your normal squat stance, and get under a barbell loaded with significantly fewer weight plates than you’d typically use for back squats. Hinge forward, maintaining a slight bend in your knees until you’re at the end of a good morning position. Hold that position and then drive your hips forward and down, so they’re underneath you; squat down, keeping your chest up. Reverse this movement until you come back to a standing position.
The Bulgarian split squat is a powerful unilateral squat variation that builds serious muscle, addresses muscular imbalances and movement asymmetries, and has direct applications to most sports. If you have trouble balancing, you can use the rack-assisted variation (where you place one hand on a power rack) to increase stability and decrease the need for balance. In doing so, you can focus solely on unilateral strength and muscle growth without being limited by poor balance.
Stand about a foot in front of a training bench, facing away from it. Place one foot, laces down, on the bench. You can either hold a weight in both hands or perform these with solely your body weight (they’re plenty hard without additional weights). Squat down until both your front and back leg are bent at 90 degrees.
Believe it or not, the Smith machine squat does deserve a place at the squat table. By using the Smith machine, you can train squats in a way that minimizes the need for balance and stability. While this may sound like a drawback, it can be used at times to allow a lifter to focus completely on the movement of the load using the legs rather than distorting a squat using poor mechanics. While this is not a substitution for free-weight squatting, the Smith machine squat may be a viable option for lifters looking to maximize muscle growth and activation.
Face the same direction as to where the hooks lock on the Smith machine. Approach the bar and set up as you would for a regular back squat, with two key differences: 1) Depending on your limb length and overall mobility, you may have to place your feet slightly in front of you to make sure you’ll be able to squat back properly. It might look and feel weird, but that’s okay — the nature of working with a machine.
Secondly, take advantage of the structural support offered by the Smith machine and adopt a narrower stance than you normally would. Still press your knees out throughout the move, though. Brace your core, descend into your squat, and rise by pressing your feet into the ground. Repeat.
The belt squat is a squat variation that can increase quadriceps and gluteal development without adding additional loading to the spine. This squat variation can be done in higher volumes and/or used to build squat strength. Belt squats are a sport-specific variation for powerlifters and weightlifters, as they can help to increase squat stability, vertical positioning, and even squat mobility. One downside to belt squats is that you usually need a belt squat machine to pull them off.
If you don’t have access to a belt squat machine, you can set up for the same move with a conventional dip belt and a couple of stable boxes. Place one foot on each box at about your regular squat distance, and let the weight from your dip belt get clearance through the gap between your boxes (right under your body’s core).
Perform your squats as normal, keeping your upper body relatively upright. Make sure your hips are never rising faster than your shoulders throughout the exercise to maintain good form.
No squat variation brings on the burn more than the one and one-half squat, which has you squat down, come up halfway, squat back down, and then stand all the way back up. Over the course of 10 or so reps, that extra half-squat during each rep adds a significant amount of time under tension for more overall leg growth. Additionally, using full + partial rep training can help you improve positional strength and awareness.
Set up for a squat as usual. Brace your core and sink down to depth. Press your feet down to start rising out of your squat. But, instead of ascending all the way to the top, pause half way up . Stop there, then sink back down to depth. Only then will you stand completely back up — that counts as a single rep.
The reverse band eccentric squat is done by attaching heavy resistance bands to the rack above the lifter as they squat. With the bands attached to the barbell, the lifter will descend into the squat, picking up more assistance from the bands as they approach the bottom of the squat. In doing so, you will be able to overload the squatting movement (weight on the bar), which can help increase strength at stronger areas in the range of motion (more weight at the top half of the squat than the bottom).
Secure a strong resistance band to either side of the barbell. One end of each band should be attached to the barbell, while the other end should be anchored to the power rack’s upper band pegs (above the bar).
Set up your squat as normal. If you usually have a wide walk-out, pay attention to how the resistance bands feel and determine your distance from the pins accordingly. Make sure that you can move through the entire range of motion without being pulled too far forward by the bands. Perform your squats as normal.
The Anderson squat is a squat variation focused on increasing concentric and positional strength. You can perform this strength-building lift using nearly any squat positioning (back, front, overhead, box, etc). This variation is good for lifters who may have sticking points coming up out of the squat, recovering from injury, and or need to establish better positional strength and awareness in the squat.
Set the safety bars of a squat rack to the bottom position in the squat so that the load is supported on the rack. Set your body up under the bar, in position at the bottom of your squat. From a dead stop, brace your core and stand upwards, lifting the bar as you complete the concentric portion of the squat. You can then squat back down to the racks and reset. Try to avoid slamming the bar back down on the safety bars.
Below are the main muscle groups involved in most squat exercises. Note that some variations will place higher loading demands on some muscle groups over others. For example, front-racked moves will place a higher demand on your quads, while back squat variations will generally focus on your glutes.
The quadriceps are the primary muscle group responsible for knee extension during squatting exercises. While some variations may shift more load to the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back (low bar back squat), most squats will target the anterior aspect of the thighs.
The hamstrings, while not a primary muscle group in most squatting movements (other than low bar squats), work to support knee stability and hip extension in the squat. Weak hamstrings in the squat can produce problems, especially during the eccentric phase of the squat.
The glutes are a primary muscle group used in the squat as they are responsible for hip extension and knee stabilization. Some variations, such as box squats, sumo squats, low bar squats, split squats, and belt squats can be used to place more emphasis on the glutes during squat training.
The spinal erectors (lower back muscles) are used to stabilize the spine and support the core during all squat movements. While some variations can be used to decrease stress on the spinal erectors, such as the belt squat. The spinal erectors are a necessary muscle group to develop as they assist in proper posture and supporting spinal integrity.
The benefits of squatting are plentiful, and they’re not limited to the traditional back squat. Any squat variation will be a compound exercise that can help your whole body get stronger, carrying over strength and muscle benefits to your other lifts.
Squats are one of the most foundational movements you can do to build total body and lower body strength and muscle mass. Squats are an important movement for powerlifting, weightlifting, functional fitness training, sports performance, and general fitness.
When your lower body is strong and powerful, you will have more raw potential for force production and force output. With that, you can just be a better overall athlete: think about sprinting, jumping, and lifting.
Loaded movements can increase bone density, increase connective tissue strength and stability, and aid in overall injury resilience via increased muscle mass. Just like the back and front squat, the variations below can have carryover to injury resiliency.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to getting stronger, bigger, leaner, and/or bulkier. The way you program your squats will change when your goals do.
For example, if your primary purpose during a particular microcycle is to get better at squatting, then you might want to squat two or even three times a week. If you’re going that route, make sure you’re performing less of your other big compound lifts (particularly the deadlift) so you can recover well.
But training frequency — how often you squat — isn’t always as important as the volume and intensity you accumulate throughout the week. That said, you need to also take recovery into account when you’re programming how often you should squat.
Regardless of how often you’re squatting, make sure that the most taxing versions of your squat are performed after a thorough warm-up but before any accessory work. For example, if that back squat is your main lift, you might choose a few of the above squat variations as accessory lifts. You might also choose to focus mainly on one of these lifts as your go-to. That’s okay, too. But whichever your main squat is, perform your exercises in order from most to least strenuous.
It’s tempting to breeze through a few reps with an empty barbell, do a few lunges on the platform, then ramp up to a max weight. But if you want to lift with integrity, help yourself avoid injury, and truly maximize your training, make sure to warm up thoroughly before you squat.
Get your head — and your body — in the game with a solid leg day warm-up like this one. Notice that a couple of the moves for the warm-up are variations described above. Make sure to keep them on the lower end of intensity when using them in your warm-up.
Whether you’re looking to squat heavy for competition or to bust through a plateau, it can help to practice some unconventional squat variations. Shaking up your regular programming in a systematic way can help eliminate weak points and make you a better overall athlete.
If you’re ready to up your squat game and bring your lower body training to the next level, check out these leg day articles:
Featured Image: Rido/Shutterstock
BarBend is an independent website. The views expressed on this site may come from individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the view of BarBend or any other organization. BarBend is the Official Media Partner of USA Weightlifting.
Have a question or comment? Get in touch:
Email us: info[at]barbend.com