IF THERE’S one exercise that’s pretty much included in every lower body workout going, it’s the humble squat.
A simple move, and one that can provide a multitude of body benefits, it’s a great addition to your gym routine to help strengthen and tone the muscles in your legs and bum.
This includes the glutes (butt muscles), hamstrings (muscles along the back of your thigh), quads (muscles along the front of your thigh) and calves (muscles along the back of the lower leg).
What’s even better is there’s an array of squat variations so you’ll never tire of squatting.
“The squat is a great functional exercise that helps build power in the lower body and strengthens the core,” explains Hayley Madigan, Personal Trainer and Bulk ambassador.
She adds that squats not only support muscle mass, but also improve the strength of tendons, ligaments and in turn, bones.
“Squats can improve knee strength by supporting the stability of the joint and can help increase flexibility in the lower body.
“The squat can also help support daily movement and transfer strength over to daily tasks such as climbing stairs, bending or carrying heavy loads.”
Obviously, it’s a pretty useful exercise.
So, how do you perform a basic bodyweight squat?
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Stand upright with feet just wider than hip width apart and toes pointing out slightly.
Keep your back flat and core engaged as you push your hips back, bend at your knees and slowly lower down.
Keep your gaze forward as you do so. Then, push through the heels (not the toes!), to come back up to standing.
If you find that you struggle to get low on your squats, it might be worth focusing on the range of motion, mobility and flexibility throughout your hips, knees, back and ankles.
“Focus on form rather than the weight you’re lifting,” says Hayley, who adds that ankle mobility is crucial too.
Try squatting with your heels slightly raised, perhaps by placing them on a weighted plate or a thick book.
Hayley adds: “Additionally, if you have tight hips, then your lower back may start to round off when going deeper in your squats – this is something we want to avoid!
“Working on your hip mobility will support your range of motion and allow for a better performed squat, minimizing any potential back injuries.”
Dealing with squat pain
“The most common pain when squatting comes from the knee joint – often under the kneecap – as well as the lower/mid back,” says Hayley.
If you find squatting painful, it’s important to address the pain rather than carrying on and ignoring it as this will only lead to further injury.
“Prioritise making sure your form is correct and your squat technique is on point,” says Hayley.
“Mobilizing your back and hips by warming up efficiently may help support discomfort.
“You need to focus on having a neutral spine and pelvis during the exercise by ensuring your neck and spine are in line, keeping your chest up and ribcage down, and embracing your core whilst looking forwards.
“This can help reduce the risk of back and hip injuries as well as reduce any discomfort from squatting.”
Recovery comes into this too and is something that needs to be factored into your squat routine to help avoid or deal with lower body pain.
“Make sure you stretch after each training session, schedule rest days into your routine and refuel with adequate protein to aid muscle repair.”
A protein shake can be helpful, or opt for lean protein sources such as chicken, eggs, tofu, fish and turkey.
Your 6-squat routine
Find squats a little repetitive? Hayley has rounded up six different squat types.
Either aim for two to three sets of each, working for ten reps at a time, or choose the squats that are most suited to you and incorporate them into a lower body routine.
Use the standard squat type as your base and follow the adaptations below.
“This is the typical squat used in powerlifting, bodybuilding and conventional lifts,” says Hayley.
“The quads and glutes are the prime movers in this squat while the calves, hamstrings and ab muscles are the secondary muscles.”
So expect to feel your butt and core working, as well as the muscles in the front of your thighs.
For this, you’ll need a barbell placed onto your upper back supported with your arms as you squat.
At home: Use your bodyweight or rest a weight (either a dumbbell, tins of food or water bottles) on each shoulder and hold with your hands.
“The front squat can be performed with dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell,” explains Hayley.
“The main objective is to place the weight in front of the body in a front rack position instead of behind.
“The weight is held at shoulder height while keeping the chest up and proud.”
She adds that this squat requires more upper body and core strength as well as wrist flexibility and ankle mobility.
“The front squat requires the elbows to be lifted to support the weight in the front rack position, then driving down into a squat.
“It’s vital the upper body stays upright with a neutral spine to prevent any pressure on the lower back.”
At home: Use large, filled water bottles, rice bags or tins of food.
3. Goblet Squat
For this, you’ll need a dumbbell or kettlebell, and the single weight is held at the chest in a goblet stance.
“Your elbows need to be tight against the weight to support it while keeping the chest up and proud.
“A firm grip on the weight is essential in this movement and requires the upper body to work more than other squat variations,” says Hayley, who adds that a slightly wider than shoulder-width foot stance is ideal, while maintaining a proud chest throughout the squat movement.
At home: Use one heavy item, held with both hands at chest height.
4. Sumo Squat
Use your bodyweight, dumbbell, kettlebell or even a barbell for this squat.
“The difference with a sumo squat is the foot stance as you are required to take your feet out wide into a sumo position,” says Hayley.
Ideally, a wider than normal stance is taken, and feet are slightly turned out, externally rotating your hips.
“Knees always need to follow toes and therefore the sumo squat requires the inner thighs (adductors) to work more as you squat down keeping your knees out.
“Many people feel the sumo squat activates their glutes more than a typical shoulder width or narrow squat stance.”
A little more advanced, this is likely one of the hardest squat varieties out there.
A single leg movement, the typical pistol requires you to hold your non-working leg out straight and parallel to the floor.
The other leg – your working leg – supports the body as you drop down into a squat position, maintaining a flat back and forward gaze.
“This not only requires great strength in the working leg, but it also requires a need for good flexibility and mobility in the non-working leg,” explains Hayley.
Struggling? Try doing this single leg squat with a couch, box or bench behind you.
Drop down into the squat until you hit your ‘seat’, then rest, and then, while keeping your non-working leg out in front of you, push up through the working leg’s heel to rise back up.
6. Overhead Squat
“This variation requires a lot more stability through the core, overall balance as well as upper body strength,” says Hayley.
Stand in your usual squat position and raise your arms overhead while squatting down.
“You can start off performing an overhead squat with just bodyweight but as you get stronger you can use a weighted plate, dumbbell, kettlebell and then eventually a barbell.
“Focus keeping your arms in line with your ears and lock down your shoulder blades to support the weight overhead,” explains Hayley.
At home: Use your bodyweight or hold an item overhead such as a water bottle or even a weighted rucksack.