The squat is one of the best exercises we can incorporate into our strength training program. The squat is a multi-functional movement, which means you benefit from it not only because it strengthens and tones your lower body, think quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves, but it also helps to improve core strength, hip mobility, overall balance and although there is a misconception squats are bad for your knees, when done right, squats actually strengthen the muscles around the knees, thus decreasing knee pain all together.
Now that we all know the squat is one move we definitely should be doing on a weekly basis, which squat variation should we be doing? Should we use a dumbbell, a barbell? Is there a variation that ranks higher than others?
Below I break down 5 variations of the squat, all which are beneficial in their own way. Depending on what your goals are, I make suggestions and highlight which parts of the body each variation focuses more on.
The Traditional BB Back Squat
Why it's great: Squatting with weight on your back may sound kind of risky to some but this is one variation that you can't go wrong with. There's a reason why people have been doing this variation for a while- it’s because it’s super efficient! When the weight is loaded on the back of the spine properly, you can focus on the emphasis of the hip hinge pattern and work on building strength AND increasing hip mobility. This is one variation many people often feel they can go heavy with due to the ability to push the hips back into space thus taking pressure off the knees and lower back.
Who should be doing it: everyone!
Important things to note: The bar should be lying not on the neck but just below; sitting on the top of the upper traps. Think about pushing the knees outward as you squat down and driving the hips back behind you in space.
The Barbell Front Squat
Why it’s great: The barbell front squat is not only super effective for the legs (predominantly more of the quads than anything) but it also forces you to stay in a more upright position therefore forcing you to engage your core more so than a traditional back squat. It also helps with improving overall flexibility.
Who should be doing it: Anyone who wants to improve leg strength and spare their back and knees and anyone interested in later incorporating or learning olympic lifts.
Important things to note: There are a couple of way to hold the barbell in the front of you- as long as your elbows are staying high, holding it like you were about to do a clean or with your arms crossing and hands places on the bar in the front, both ways are acceptable.
The Goblet Squat
Why it's great: This variation of the squat works pretty much everything including the legs, glutes and core and is super easy on the back. If you are someone new to squatting and have not quite worked your way up to a forty five pound bar barbell, consider the goblet squat.
Who should be doing it: Anyone but ideal for beginners and anyone new to squatting!
Important things to note: You can do this exercise with a kettlebell or a dumbbell. The weight should be up against your chest. If you are using a DB, hold it vertically. If you are using a kettlebell, hold it on the side by the horns. The idea in a goblet squat is to go down as low as you can.
The Pistol Squat
Why it’s great: This variation of the squat works your legs, glutes and hips. It is unilateral which means it’s focus is on one leg at a time. It’s a great exercise to help strengthen the legs, increase overall flexibility and coordination. EVERYONE has imbalances between their left and right sides. The pistol squat helps to eliminate those imbalances or naturally occurring asymmetries in our bodies. One thing is for certain- if you want to become stronger in the traditional squat- no matter what variation you are trying to master- you should be doing single leg exercises and one of those exercises should be the pistol squat!
Who should be doing it: Anyone who wants to increase strength or flexibility.
Important things to note: There are a ton of variations to do the pistol squat. If you are a newbie, try doing the pistol squat to a target like a bench or chair. As that becomes easier try it in a cable or TRX. Make sure your knees do not cave in and you control the descend down. Eventually, the goal is to be able to do these without any assistance. Make sure the hips are being pushed back and your hip hinge pattern is never compromised.
The Box Squat
Why it’s great: The box squat is a great way to become stronger and more powerful. In the past, it has helped myself and my clients push through plateaus and gain confidence to lift heavier weights. This squat will work your hamstrings, hips, glutes and quads. The point of the box is to make sure you are not exceeding a specific depth which in turn helps you recover faster and forces you to focus solely on explosiveness.
Who should be doing it: Anyone who wants to minimize stress on the knee or work on increasing squat weight and/or depth.
Important things to note: The box height will be different for everyone but typically you do not want to exceed a depth of more than ninety degrees below your parallel. You do not want to bounce off the box. Instead, think about either just tapping the box and exploding up (think 3 seconds on the descend down, one second coming up) or sitting slowly down and exploding up from the seated position. Always think about pushing the knees out and sitting the hips back while going down.