These Squats Are the Only Leg Exercises You Need
Doing the same ol' squat routine every time you hit the gym is like eating the same ol' breakfast every morning for a year.
Is it practical? Sure. Is it boring? Hell yes.
Squats are a perfect lower-body move, targeting all the major muscle groups of the lower body and core. Plus, they're incredibly functional -- since you have to do a squat pretty much every time you sit down or stand up, doing the exercise through a full range of motion helps preserve mobility as you age. No one wants to be the old guy who can't get up from the couch, right?
So you need to do them. But variety is the spice of your legs, as they say, and by mixing up your squats, adding weight, and adjusting body position and mechanics, you can breathe new life into your workout while developing a stronger, more well-balanced lower body.
You're probably already familiar with the bodyweight squat, but even if you think you know how to do one, it's worth doing a form check -- you'd be surprised how often people squat with poor mechanics. Once you've mastered the fundamentals of this move, you can adapt these basic form pointers to any squat exercise you try.
- Stand with your legs between hip- and shoulder-distance apart, your knees slightly bent, toes angled slightly outward, your weight centered over your heels. Contract your core to help keep your torso upright throughout the exercise.
- Initiate the movement by pressing your hips back, as if sitting down in a chair, before you begin bending your knees to lower your glutes toward the floor.
- As you squat down, keep your weight in your heels, your chest upright, and your knees tracking in line with your toes. Aim to lower your glutes until your knees form at least a 90-degree angle. From this position, make sure your knees aren't protruding in front of your toes.
- To return to standing, press down through your heels and extend your knees and hips, making sure your knees don't buckle inward as you rise.
Even if you're a squat master with perfect form, don't scoff at the bodyweight squat. It's an excellent movement to incorporate into a functional warm-up routine.
Low-squat pulses aren't great at building strength through a full range of motion, but this simple exercise is good for developing more strength at the bottom of a bodyweight squat to master proper form. It's typically during the transition between the downward phase and the upward phase of the squat when beginners experience their knees buckling inward slightly.
By practicing the pulse -- simply lowering to the bottom of a bodyweight squat, then performing small "half squats" that focus on the transition between eccentric and concentric contractions -- you'll be able to develop strength and focus on form through the transitional phase of the squat.
Once your form is on point, it's time to start adding weight. Dumbbell squats are an easy way to add resistance in small increments, and as such, they're an appropriate exercise for all fitness levels.
Dumbbell squats require a slightly more narrow stance so you can comfortably hold dumbbells at your sides. This narrower stance requires a greater engagement of your quadriceps, as well as greater hip and low-back mobility to maintain proper form throughout a full range of motion. You'll also notice that holding a set of dumbbells taxes your forearms, building grip strength, and requires greater engagement of your shoulders and upper back to maintain proper form.
BOSU Balance Trainers are those funny-looking half-stability balls featuring a dome on one side and a platform on the other. BOSU squats don't refer to a single exercise, but to any number of possibilities. For instance, you can perform BOSU squats with one foot on the ball, and one off, with the dome-side down, or the dome-side up, with dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells -- you get the idea. The BOSU ball is really just the tool to help you add an element of instability to your squat workout. John Ford, a personal trainer with Find Your Trainer, emphasizes, "This variation is important for working on control of the movement through balance, by stressing the stabilizer muscles."
Start by trying an unweighted staggered squat on the BOSU -- one foot on the center of the dome, and one foot on the ground, remembering to keep your weight evenly distributed between your legs. Once you feel comfortable, try performing bodyweight squats with both feet on the dome before adding weight or turning the BOSU over to perform squats on the platform.
The back squat refers to a barbell squat where the barbell is supported on your upper back, across your shoulders. This type of barbell squat is great for adding resistance and building strength through your quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Because the bar is loaded across your back, most of the load is actually supported by your posterior half -- namely your glutes and hamstrings. The exercise also requires core engagement to protect the spine while supporting the weight of the bar.
Unsurprisingly, the opposite of a back squat is a front squat. Instead of supporting a barbell across your back, during the front squat you support it across your upper chest, running directly in front of your shoulders.
This change in barbell position is actually pretty significant. Krissy Kendall, a PhD in exercise physiology and a certified strength and conditioning specialist at Bodybuilding.com, explains, "Front squats place a greater load on the quads, or the front part of your thighs, compared to back squats, making it a great exercise for anyone looking to bring up their frontal thighs. Also, for those with lower-back issues, front squats force your chest to remain more upright than back squats do."
Front squats can also help improve shoulder mobility and flexibility, as supporting the barbell across the front of your chest isn't an altogether natural position.
If the front squat is completely out of your comfort zone, the goblet squat is a good place to start. Like the front squat, the goblet squat requires you to support the added weight -- dumbbell, kettlebell, or medicine ball -- at your chest, directly in front of your shoulders. But instead of trying to balance a cumbersome bar across your chest, you can simply hold the selected weight in both hands.
If you set up with a stance slightly wider than shoulder-width, the exercise is also great for working on range of motion, as the position of your arms and the added weight won't interfere with your ability to drop your hips low behind your knees.
Bulgarian split squat
Bulgarian split squats look a lot like a lunge, but they're more of a single-leg squat, with your back leg offering minimal support and balance as your front leg is isolated to perform the squat. Amanda Buckley, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the owner of Dynamic Strength & Fitness, explains, "Split squats are a great accessory for improving overall squat strength and form. They challenge each leg independently, helping to eliminate any strength difference between legs."
Buckley suggests trying the exercise without added weight before adding resistance by holding dumbbells or kettlebells in one or both hands. Buckley adds one more important note on form, "You should be able to squat while keeping your knee stacked directly over your ankle. Please note that this is different from traditional squats where your knee will track just over the top -- though not past -- the toes."
Pistol squats are seriously tough, requiring strength, balance, coordination, control, and a surprising level of flexibility. Unlike the other exercises on this list, the pistol squat is a squat performed solely on one leg, with the opposite leg extended in front of the body, knee straight, heel off the ground. As you squat down, you must continue to extend your lifted leg forward to prevent the heel from touching down.
This is hard, but over time you can correct and even out muscle imbalances while developing incredible unilateral leg strength. Just don't be discouraged if you can't master the move on your first few attempts. You may need to try a pistol squat progression to get it right.
Just as the location of added resistance can change muscle engagement during a squat, so can the position of your feet. During the sumo squat, your stance is much wider than that of a traditional squat, with your toes angled farther out, as if you were a sumo wrestler getting ready for a fight.
According to Kendall, "Due to the wider foot positioning, the sumo squat places more emphasis on the inner thigh (the adductors) and glutes. Depending on your core strength, you may also find the sumo squat challenges your balance. The slightly altered alignment of your body requires extra stability to prevent you from rocking forward or back on your heels."
Squat jumps are an excellent way to develop lower-body explosive power, an important skill if you're involved in any sort of sport or athletic endeavor. Plus, this type of plyometric training is tough -- it'll send your heart rate soaring in no time, which makes squat jumps an excellent exercise to add to high-intensity interval training to maximize cardiovascular endurance while strengthening your entire lower body.
Just make sure you pay attention to your form as you land -- it's important to land "softly," with your knees and hips slightly bent, touching down first on the balls of your feet before lowering your heels to the ground and starting the next squat.
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