Squats are part of nearly every HIIT, lower body strength, and barre workout. If you’ve ever wondered why exactly you’re assuming the squat position so often in workouts, it's all for very good reason. As it turns out, squats are one of the most effective exercises that work muscles throughout the entire body (not just your glutes and thighs!).
Below, a closer look at exactly which muscles squats work, why you’ll want to do them often, and some new squat variations to try out.
Meet the Expert
What Muscles Do Squats Work?
- Lower back
- Hip abductor
- Hip flexors
If you aren’t already doing squats regularly, you’ll want to start, notes Van Buskirk—that’s because they allow you to work multiple muscles at once. “Squats are arguably one of the most important exercises to include in your workouts,” she says. “These outstanding strength-building exercises can function as a full-body workout, as they engage muscle groups in both your lower body and upper body.”
Squats can also be done with weights if you want to make them even more challenging. Plus, they can be combined with presses and other movements to work the upper body at the same time, making them a full-body exercise.
How to Perform Squats Correctly
With squats, proper form is essential. “When you're doing squats—either weighted or unweighted—it's important to remember a few things to avoid injuries and to know for sure that you're doing the exercise correctly,” says Buskirk. She recommends the following tips:
- Keep your knees in line with your toes: If your knees cave in or go past your toe line, you may put yourself at risk of injury. Instead, press your knees outward so they stay aligned with your feet as you squat.
- Allow your torso to tilt naturally: You don't want your torso to be too rigid during this exercise as it may not allow your hips to release properly which may then put more strain on your knees.
- Look forward: Don't just stare at the floor during your squat or look up to the ceiling—instead, keep your eyes looking straight ahead to keep your spine straight and safe.
As for how low to go in your squat, that depends on your goals, says Weissner. “If you are looking to build quadricep strength, keep your squat to less than 90 degrees,” she recommends. “If you are looking to increase hip extensor strength, go lower in your squat.”
Adding Squats to Your Weekly Workout Routine
Squats can (and should!) be incorporated in nearly any workout regimen, whether you’re a beginner or expert. Consider your fitness goals, Buskirk suggests. “If you're trying to build muscle quickly, then you should incorporate weighted squats into at least 1 or 2 of your weekly workouts,” she says. “If you're trying to improve your endurance, then weighted squats might not be needed for your weekly workout routine. That being said, everyone can benefit from doing some squats from time to time.”
Just make sure to take rest days off from squats, too. Performing squats 2-4 times each week is ideal, Weissner says. Aim for 8-20 squats and work up to 3-4 sets per workout.
Squat Variations to Try
Performing different squat variations can keep your body challenged and allow you to work even more muscle groups at once (which is handy if you are pressed for time). Try adding the following squat variations into your weekly routine:
Bulgarian Split Squat
- Place one foot a few feet behind you on a raised platform.
- Keep your torso upright and begin to push your hips back like in a traditional squat.
- Allow your back leg to bend with the exercise as your lower to the floor. Descend until your front leg becomes parallel with the floor or your back knee touches the floor.
- Rise back up and keep your back straight.
Remember to breathe in as you lower yourself and breathe out as you rise.
- Hold a dumbbell at your chest with feet a little wider than hip-width apart. Toes are pointed out, back straight.
- Squeeze glutes and pull the shoulder blades toward the spine.
- Keep eyes forward and a neutral head posture. Push the feet apart and descend as though you are sitting into a chair.
- Raise back up into standing position and repeat.
For more of a HIIT movement, try integrating jumps.
- With toes facing outward, lower down into a standard squat, but instead of raising up to standing position, jump upward, toes pointed, while throwing your arms back behind you.
- As you descend, lower back down into a squat and raise your arms into a 90-degree angle.