If you are aiming at a good lower body workout, there’s no avoiding squats. A great test of your muscle strength and core, the squat is something you can do anytime, anywhere – no equipment needed. And you’ll manage to work multiple muscle groups, so what’s not to love!
Squats are also functional exercises. Even when you’re doing a squat without any weights, your own body provides the weight component as you work against gravity each time you rise from the bending position to standing. If you take a look at a classic squat, it is not too different from a movement you might make in real life – whether it is to sit on a low chair, squat to play with a child or pet, to pick up something you’ve dropped, or to take a closer look at something that’s on the ground. Such movements are known as functional exercises since they follow the natural form of movement your body would make as you go about your regular life. They aren’t gym-only movements designed purely as a workout and not seen in the “real world.” So that’s double the benefit! But if you are bored with plain vanilla squats, have an injury or pain that might prevent you from doing the regular squats, or are looking to do a version of the squat that possibly challenges you more, here are some options!
1. Regular Bodyweight Squats: Get Your Basics Right
Before exploring variations on the traditional or classic squats, be sure you’ve mastered the technique for the regular version first. The classic squat is designed to get you to use your hips and thigh and buttock muscles. It also requires you to keep your core engaged, making it a good way to strengthen your back and abs as well.12
- Stand with feet a little more than hip-distance apart, your toes gently turned out, arms by your sides, palms of the hands facing in. Pull your shoulders back. Engage your core/abdominal muscles and stabilize your spine. Your chest should be out and up. Shift your weight onto your heels.
- Inhale as you lower your hips gently, shifting them back and then down, so your hips and knees have a hinge-like movement. Your knees may start to move forward but try and keep this movement to the minimum and use your core muscles as you do so. Your back must stay flat.
- Keep lowering until your thighs are nearly or fully parallel to the ground. Avoid moving your feet. Your knees must remain lined up over the second toe of each foot.
- Exhale as you extend your knees and hips and push into the floor through your heels to rise up. Keep extending till you are upright again.
2. Front Squat With Dumbbells
You can also make this more challenging by using weights as you do the squat. However, squats with weights are best avoided if you have a bad back or are prone to injury in that area as this loads the spine further.3
- Hold one dumbbell in each hand as you do the exercise. Begin with your elbows bent, dumbbells just below the ears, at shoulder height.
- Lower yourself into a squat the way you would for a basic squat, taking care to align your body as you did before.
- As you do this, go down till where your elbows touch the top of your knees. You may not be able to do this immediately but work toward it. Just be sure to retain your dumbells and elbows in the same position throughout, even as you engage your core and use your hip and leg muscles to lower yourself without losing form.
- Rise up exhaling, pushing into the floor through your heels till you are standing again.
3. Back Squats With Barbell
Another weight-bearing squat is the back squat which has more explosive moves. It helps boost muscle strength and power.4
- Place the barbell across the rack, ensuring the weight is resting in the traps just below shoulder height.
- Grip the bar, hold your arms so they make right angles to the bar and are a little more than shoulder-width apart.
- Stand up so you can lift the bar off the rack and step back a bit, feet a little more than shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your back straight as you lower yourself down into a squat, holding the bar. Your hips should be below your knees.
- To rise up, push into the ground with your feet, moving your hips a little forward so you come back to the standing position.
4. Chair Squats
Not everyone who is looking for a variation on the squat is doing it to find a newer, tougher way to work out their body. If you are a beginner who’s struggling to find your balance or manage the basic squat, this version could help you improve your technique and eventually move to doing the bodyweight squat the classic way. And in case you’re wondering – this is a great workout too, using your legs, buttocks, back, and abdomen, just as with a classic squat. So you can give it a shot even if you are a squat pro.5
- Stand in front of a stable chair, feet hip-distance apart and feet planted firmly into the ground. Stretch your arms out fully extended in front of you. Look straight ahead.
- Inhale as you press down into your heels, lowering your body, arms still stretched out. Bend your legs at the knees, reach back with your buttock as you lower yourself to the chair. Your shoulders must align with your ankles.
- Keep lowering yourself till your buttocks graze the chair but don’t actually sit down.
- Exhale, squeezing your buttocks as you raise yourself back upright.
5. Stability Ball Wall Squats
If you have access to a stability ball, you can incorporate it into this movement. This version of the squat is good for people who have bad knees or are prone to knee problems. However, do check with your doctor first before trying this exercise. Find a clear wall against which you can place the ball as you roll it up and down against your back during the squat. Then get started.6
- Stand against a wall with the top of the ball in the small of your back and in contact with your lower and middle back as well as the tailbone. Keep your feet hip-distance apart, about 6 to 12 inches in front. They can turn out a little if you need to or face forward. Your hands should rest on the front of your thighs.
- Breathe in as you slowly bring your body down, rolling the ball along the wall downward as you do. Ensure the ball remains in touch with the lower and middle back and tailbone throughout. Drop your hips under the ball, pushing back into the ball from the hips to reduce stress on the knees. Your feet should not move and your knees must line up over the second toe. Keep lowering yourself till your thighs are parallel to the ground or as far as you can manage. Pause and hold for a moment before rising up.
- Breathe out as you push up from the floor, your focus on extending the hips so they come back to the original position underneath your body. Continue till your knees and hips are extended fully.
6. Prisoner Squats
The prisoner variation of the squat requires you to lock your fingers at the back of your head, much like someone who’s just been taken prisoner or hostage is asked to do. Your arms remain fixed so you can’t use them to help with your balance, making this a more challenging version that uses your core even more. You need to engage your back and abs for stability and to avoid going off balance as you raise and lower your body during the squats.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Raise your arms up so your fingers (the palm side) lie flat at the back of your head. Picture an episode of a cop show where the suspect has just been arrested and told to put their hands behind their heads. That’s what this needs to look like.
- Now lower your body down as far as you can go by bending at the knees and pushing hips back.
- Hold for a few seconds at the lowest position you can muster before pushing your body back up to return to the start position.
7. Jump Squats Or Squat Jumps
The jump squat adds to the difficulty level by requiring you to incorporate a jump into the upward movement. This also helps use your hip muscles well in addition to working the leg muscles.7 However, if you have a knee injury, you’re better off avoiding this variation.
- Stand with feet hip-distance apart and your arms to your sides, core engaged. Move your hips back and down to get that hinge-type movement in your knees. Lower until your heels are about to lift off the ground. Face forward and keep the back flat.
- Jump into the air now, exploding upward from the bottom half of your body, extending your hips first, followed by the knees and ankles in quick succession. Keep those feet level to each other but parallel to the ground.
- Land softly on midfoot and roll into your heels. Keep your trunk slightly forward and your head lined up to your spine. Don’t allow much forward movement because this strains your knees additionally.
8. Single Leg Box Squats
This movement is a little more challenging than a normal squat but more achievable than the single leg squat that doesn’t use a box. You could use this as a stepping stone to the more demanding single leg squat.8
- Grab a stable box which can take your weight and won’t wobble or topple. If you are outdoors, a bench or a low concrete wall should do.
- Stand on the bench/box, putting the weight of your body on your left leg. Your right leg must dangle off the side of the box.
- Bend the left knee, lowering your body down, pushing back from the hips.
- To stand up again, push firmly into the ground through your heel and return to a standing position.
- Repeat this on the other side.
9. Single Leg Squats
Single leg squats are not for the faint-hearted! You may not be able to do this as a beginner but can work toward it as you build muscle tone and strength.9:
- Stand with one leg extended in front and the weight of your body supported on the other. Use your arms extended in front for balance.
- Lower yourself into a squat as far as you can go without it affecting your form or your losing balance. Ensure your knee doesn’t jut out in front of your toes when you squat.
- Pause at the lowest point and hold for a second before pushing back up through the heel to the standing position.
|↑1||A Strength Training Program for Your Home. American College of Sports Medicine.|
|↑2||Bodyweight Squat. American Council on Exercise.|
|↑3||6 Super-Effective Squat Variations You Need to Try. American Council on Exercise.|
|↑4||Back Squat. American Council on Exercise.|
|↑5||BMA Bad Back Book. British Medical Association, DK Publishing.|
|↑6||Stability Ball Wall Squats. American Council on Exercise.|
|↑7||Squat jumps. American Council on Exercise.|
|↑8||Glutes to the Max. American Council on Exercise.|
|↑9||How To Master The Single-Leg Squat. Coach Magazine.|