When it comes to working your lower body — while burning fat and torching calories — there’s nothing more effective than the squat. Squats engage your body’s largest and most powerful muscle groups, a.k.a the glutes, thighs and hamstrings, while working your core and giving you a cardio boost as well. Additionally, by making small adjustments to the basic squat, you can target specific muscle groups to get an even more efficient workout.
Why Should I Do Squats?
Squats work all the major muscle groups in your thighs, butt and hips that you use to walk, sit, climb stairs and pick up that thing you dropped with ease. As you squat, your abs and erector spinae, long back muscles on either side of your spine, are actively stabilizing your body, giving you a great core workout. Squatting (properly) makes your knees more stable and gives your hips and ankles greater flexibility.
Can’t I Hurt Myself Doing Squats?
Squatting doesn’t have a spotless reputation. Some experts have accused this essential lower-body exercise of causing knee and back pain. The American College of Sports Medicine’s current statement dismisses these fears, concluding, “If appropriate guidelines are followed, the squat is a safe exercise for individuals without a previous history of injuries.”
It all comes down to proper form and listening to your body. Remember these tips from the ACSM:
- Stay smooth and controlled, no matter how fast you go.
- Don’t twist around at the bottom of a squat.
- Keep your back straight. Don’t lean too far forward, especially if using weights.
- Don’t add weight or squat low too quickly.
- Be careful of over-training and fatigue.
- If you can’t keep proper form, give it a rest.
How Do I Target Different Muscle Groups?
All squats engage the lower body’s biggest muscle groups. Not all squats target them equally, however. Here are three squat types for the three separate groups: the quads, inner thighs and butt. Variations on each exercise will help adjust your level of challenge and keep things interesting.
Classic Bodyweight Squat
- Stand with your feet as wide as your hips or shoulders.
- Cross your arms in front of you or reach them straight out.
- While squeezing your shoulder blades together, core engaged, and chest high, bend your knees slowly.
- Sit into your heels, pushing your butt and hips out and down and your chest up and out.
- Don’t let your knees go too far over your toes.
- Descend until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Then, pressing through your heels, come back to the standing position.
Beginner: To get in the habit without using your whole weight, try a modified version of the basic squat. Chair squats, wall squats, and squats using a counter for support are all excellent ways to practice your form without risking injury. (Make sure your knees are directly over your ankles for the wall squats!) Use a squat machine at the gym for more guided practice.
Advanced: Try a jump squat. Plyometric exercises can be a more efficient and effective way to increase strength than plain resistance. Start by doing a normal bodyweight squat. At the bottom of the squat, use the tension in your hamstrings and rear to propel you upward by jumping off the ground with your hands up. Come down gently, lowering right back into the squat before you jump again. Try not to take any time between repetitions.
- Stand with your feet a little farther than hip-width apart and turn your toes out 45 degrees.
- As in the bodyweight squat, lower your hips and butt until your thighs are parallel to the ground, keeping your chest up and shoulders back.
- Return to an upright position.
Beginner: Begin a normal Frog Squat. When you get to the bottom of the squat, hold it for 30 seconds, keeping your core engaged, your shoulders back, and your chest up.
Advanced: Begin a normal Frog Squat. When you get to the bottom, reach both hands toward the floor. Keeping your head up and your back straight, jump up from the squat position, keeping your knees bent. Your feet should leave the floor. Repeat without standing up, letting your hands hit or almost hit the floor in front of you.
The Deep Squat
You’ll have to really watch your form in this one. Deep squats, when done carefully, can be even more effective than its standard 90-degree sibling.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping your chest up and shoulders back, push your hips and derriere back and out until your hips are lower than your knees.
- Once you’ve gone as far as you can comfortably go, return to a standing position. Exhale.
Beginner: For added booty benefits, simply squeeze your glutes when you return to your upright position. Incorporating this habit into all your squats will give a little boost to the caboose.
Advanced: Get a goblet squat going. You can use a dumbbell, medicine ball, kettlebell or jug of milk for this classic weight-bearing squat. Hold your chosen weight up to the center of your chest. Perform either a basic bodyweight or deep squat keeping your elbows in, between the knees. Notice how the weight keeps you from leaning forward, encouraging the correct squat form. Don’t forget this feeling when you return to weightlessness.
Squats are great for all the major muscle groups in your lower body. Done correctly, they can even increase strength and flexibility in your knees, hips and core. Doing squats regularly can help your train for athletic goals, like a faster marathon time. Wherever your lower body needs to go, squats can take you there!