Squats may be one of the easiest workout moves as far as execution goes (you don't need any equipment), but they're also one of the most effective—especially when it comes to building up your glutes. That being said, there is more than one type of squat. And, while many of us are familiar with traditional squats, there is actually an even more effective variation—the sumo squat.
Curious? So were we. So we enlisted the help of two fitness experts—Adam Swartz and Selena Samuela—to break down the difference between sumo squats and traditional squats exercises (and explain which one is more effective at building muscle mass).
Meet the Expert
What Are Squats?
Swartz explains that squats are a fundamental movement pattern for humans, as our joints are designed to squat. “They are compound and multi-jointed, meaning they engage multiple joints of the body simultaneously,” he says.
Squats are pretty easy to execute in form, explains “In a regular squat, your feet are positioned about shoulder length apart with your toes and knees facing forward, or just slightly turned out. I like to tell people to point their toes at 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock as if you were looking at a clock and 12 o’clock was down the middle.”
Benefits of Squats
- Functional: Squats don’t just help you get stronger, but they are super functional, Samuela maintains. “You use squats in so much of everyday life: when you go to sit on a chair, when you go to the bathroom, when you’re playing with your kids, and maybe you squat to untie or tie your shoes,” she says.
- The Help You Build Strength: Swartz adds that squats are a great strength-building exercise. “The main drivers of the squat are glutes and quadriceps,” he points out, “and squats can be used to effectively strengthen these large muscle groups.”
- They Offer Cardiovascular Benefits: While squats aren’t going to replace a run or cycling, they'll still give you a little cardio burst. “because of the amount of muscle involved, squats demand a large amount of blood flow, making them a great no-impact choice for getting the heart rate up, not to mention increased circulation throughout the whole body,” Swartz says.
- Significant Calorie Burn: Aside from burning calories in the moment, strengthening the large lower body muscles can really ramp up the base metabolic rate, helping the body burn more calories throughout the day, says Swartz. If weight loss is part of your fitness goals, then this is a benefit to consider.
- They Promote Core Stability: Squats are a great way to build your core, Swartz says. “The entire lumbopelvic-hip-complex is active throughout a squat, which means the core stabilizers must work—and get stronger—to perform squats correctly,” he points out.
- They Aid in Mobility: Blending muscle strength with range of motion allows greater joint mobility, “which essentially means being able to move more freely without poor compensations,” says Swartz.
- They Promote Muscle Activation: Many of our muscles—especially the glutes—will effectively "shut down" neurologically if we sit around too much, according to Swartz. And this can increase the risk of injury due to poor compensation patterns. “On the flipside, activated glutes can greatly increase athletic performance and overall movement for life.” he says.
Muscles Targeted During Squats
As Swartz previously mentioned, squats are a compound exercise, engaging multiple muscle groups. The lower body is the active part of the squat and goes through what's called triple flexion as the body lowers. In other words, the hips, knees, and ankles all bend together to enable movement. “When this happens, large muscle groups such as the glutes, hamstrings, adductors, quadriceps and calf muscles become active. Upon reaching the bottom of the range, those three joints then extend to drive the body back up, with all of the attendant muscles working. So the entire lower body goes through different levels of work to lift our bodies up and down.”
Simultaneously, the upper body is working as well, especially the core, in order to stabilize the torso throughout the movement. “So the neuromuscular recruitment patterns for the squat are vast, and really affect the entire body,” he says.
What Are Sumo Squats?
Because the hips are actually ball-and-socket joints, there is a broad range of hip positions to squat in, Swartz explains. One of them? The sumo squat.
While in a regular squat, your feet are positioned about shoulder length apart with your toes and knees facing forward, just slightly turned out. In a sumo squat, “your feet are positioned in a much wider stance with your toes and knees pointing outward in opposite directions,” Samuela says.
Swartz does point out that with the wider stance of the sumo, “you really have to fire up the outer glutes, otherwise, the knees will cave in, which is not good,” he says, suggesting that you start off conservatively, and only go as wide (with appropriate foot turnout) as you can track knees over toes.
Benefits of Sumo Squats
Because sumos are still fundamentally squats, they provide many of the same benefits, Swartz points out. However, there are a few key differences:
- They Work the Inner Thighs: With the legs spread wider, the thighs must adduct (move towards the center) in order to pull the body back up, Swartz says. “This means more direct recruitment of the adductors to target inner thigh strength.”
- They Fire Up Glute Medius and Minimus: Due to the wider stance, the glute medius also fires up in order to properly track the knees over the toes, Swartz says.
- They Are Great for Stability and Balance: Also because of the wider stance, the torso does not have to shift as far forward to counterbalance as in a traditional squat. “On one level this can make sumos actually a bit easier to perform, as the torso stays more vertical,” Swartz explains. “At the same time, with the feet wider it can also present more challenge to balance if a trainee isn't used to that foot position.”
- They Also Help with Hip Mobility: “Going wider often means going into ranges our bodies aren't used to,” Swartz explains. “Sumos can really improve hip mobility by going into this wider stance.”
Muscles Targeted During Sumo Squats
Sumo squats are a variation on a squat so they work similar muscles, Samuela points out. However, along with quads, glutes, calves, hip flexors, hamstrings and core, the sumo squat also targets the adductors (inner thigh), due to the positioning of your feet. “I personally find it easier to recruit your glutes for this movement as well, so the glutes get a little extra love,” she says.
Squats Vs. Sumo Squats
So, which are better: traditional squats or the sumo? Both experts recommend both.
“They are both important exercises to incorporate into your workouts,” Samuela says. “I’m personally partial to the sumo squat because it’s tougher to find exercises that target the inner thigh, and this is a great one for that!”
“Our bodies do better when they move in different ways as intended by our joint design. This means a variety of movements in our routine is always a good choice,” adds Swartz. “My own advice is to lean into the traditional squats, but work in sumos at least once or twice a week to cover as much of the benefits as possible. And if a trainee is looking to increase hip mobility or target inner thighs, I'd reach for sumos even more frequently.”
Additionally, pregnant trainees may want to stay away from sumos during their term. “With the hormone relaxin being secreted in the body, this means the joints—especially in the pelvic/hip region—may not tolerate the loads placed on them via the wider stance. Always check with your physician first.
There is no question that both traditional squats and sumo squats majorly pay off on the back end. While both trainers recommend incorporating both types into your workouts, the sumo squat is slightly more "effective" as it targets the inner thigh and the traditional squat does not.