WHEN IT COMES to the grand hierarchy of strength training exercises, there are a few movements that deserve rarified, must-do status for just about every type of trainee. One of these singular standouts: the squat. The compound exercise is one of the most dependable methods for forging lower body size and strength, targeting the biggest muscles in your legs.

The squat is more than just a maneuver used by gym-goers to move big-time weights and build their bodies; it’s arguably more important for everyday movement than its (admittedly peerless) role in a strength training split. At its simplest form, the squat is an essential movement pattern used by everyone from toddlers to octogenarians to rise from seated to standing positions, and vice versa. That’s why some people think of the squat as the king of exercises—and also why some form of squat should be the cornerstone of your leg day push workouts.

Importantly, there’s more than just one way to include the squat in your workout plan. There’s a variation for just about every training goal, from people who are hoping to build a baseline level of fitness to stay healthy to the strongest powerlifters in the world working to break records. You can load the movement with a barbell on your back to push heavy weights, or a kettlebell held in front or you to focus on form and shift the onus to your quads and core. You can even switch up your stance and shift to a single-leg orientation to build unilateral strength and hone your stability and athleticism.

The Benefits of Doing Squats for Your Workouts

Squats are a compound exercise, which means you’ll use multiple large muscle groups when you add them to your workout plan. When you squat, you’ll engage the biggest muscle groups in your legs (and some of the biggest in your body), the quads, glutes, and, hamstrings.

Depending on which variation of the squat you choose, you can determine which part of your musculature you’re dialing down to focus on even more closely, and other variations—especially those that challenge you to work unilaterally, or on one leg at a time—will get other muscles involved as well. When you use heavy loads like barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells, your core will kick in to support your spine and keep your torso upright, which is essential for healthy movement.

There are few better ways to push heavy weights than with squats, so you’ll be able to pack on muscle and build power that will help with everything from standing up out of a chair to your most demanding athletic endeavors.

The Best Squat Variations

These are some of the best squats that you can add to any type of workout plan. To make navigating the list even easier for you, we’ve broken them down into different sections depending on what equipment you have on hand, from bodyweight squats, traditional barbell loaded squats, and squats that use dumbbells and/or kettlebells as a load.

Bodyweight Squats

Air Squat

Squats don’t get simpler than this. The air squat (or bodyweight squat) should be one of the cornerstones to any gear-free workout plan, since the exercise allows you to practice the form without any load. Take care to focus on your form though—you’re not just sitting down, and you don’t want to establish any bad habits or move in ways that might put your joints in a bad position.

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your legs just wider than shoulder width apart, with your feet turned slightly out.
  • Squeeze your abs and shoulder blades to create tension and look straight ahead.
  • Push your butt back, keeping your chest upright, and bend at the knees to lower yourself down until you reach a point just below your knees (or a depth where you feel comfortable maintaining an upright torso).
  • Extend your arms out in front of you if you need a counterbalance.
  • Press off the ground with your feet and squeeze your glutes to drive back up to extend your hips back into the top position.

Jump Squat

Add another element to your bodyweight squat with this variation that can help you develop leaping power. Make sure that you’re using your body the right way—if you perform this like a squat, then jump, you’ll lose out on the explosive benefits.

How to Do It:

  • Stand as you would for a bodyweight squat, then push your back back and lower to a three-quarter squat depth position.
  • As you lower down, move your arms down to your sides to ‘load up’ for your leap.
  • Jump straight up, achieving triple-extension at the ankle, knee, and hips, swinging your arms up to help create momentum.

Split Squat

The split squat introduces a unilateral element to your training, meaning you’ll be working on one leg at a time. This adds a balance and stability component, which can help you strengthen your legs one at a time. Learn using only your body weight, then work up to working with a load.

How to Do It:

  • Instead of just lowering down and hoping your balance is on point, start at the bottom position by kneeling on the ground, forming 90 degree angles with your knees, with your in line with one another.
  • Lean forward slightly, then put your midfoot (toes) of your rear foot on the ground.
  • Look straight forward, squeeze your rear glute, and press off the floor to raise up.
  • When you lower back down between reps, pause for a count just above the ground before progressing to the next rep.

Pistol Squat

Once you’ve progressed beyond most other squat variations, you can give the pistol squat a try. This movement takes a great deal of balance, strength, and mobility to pull off properly, so take your time to work your way up to it. You can use a support for balance in the interim, but give this progression a try if you’re really committed to nailing a perfect rep.

How to Do It:

  • Stand on one foot, with your other foot raised just off the ground in front of you.
  • Keeping your torso upright, drop your butt back and bend your knee to lower down as low as possible, extending your non-working leg out in front of your and using your arms to balance. It’s okay to round your back.
  • Hold for a moment, then press off the floor to explode up to the top.

Barbell Loaded Squats

Back Squat

When most people think of squats, they think of heavy loaded barbell back squats. There are multiple schools of practice within this one version of the squat, particularly once you enter the powerlifting world, where pushing the most weight is the absolute end goal. For beginners and most general exercisers, a basic high-bar barbell back squat will be the best choice.

How to Do It:

  • Approach the loaded bar on the rack and pull yourself into position, engaging your back, with the bar on your back between your neck and shoulders on your traps.
  • Grip the bar with your hands and press off the floor to lift the weight from the rack.
  • Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and if it helps you to move more comfortably, point your toes out.
  • Take a deep breath to engage your core to keep your torso upright under the load, then push your butt back and bend your knees to lower down until your thighs are parallel to the ground (your ideal squat depth will be determined by your anatomy and mobility, but parallel should be your goal).
  • Press through the floor with both of your feet and squeeze your glutes to stand back up.

Front Squat

This squat flips the placement of the load from your back to the front of your body, which requires you to recruit your core and quads even more. Before you really stack on the weight plates, make sure you’re comfortable with the way you’ll grip the bar.

How to Do It:

  • Decide between a clean grip or a bodybuilder grip before you start. For the clean grip, get yourself into position under the bar, resting across your shoulders above the collarbone. Support the bar using a loose grip with a few fingers, then pull your elbows forward in front of you and hold them high to support the weight.
  • For the bodybuilder grip, pull yourself into the bar, then cross your arms across to your opposite shoulder, gripping the bar to hold it steady.
  • Lift the weight off the rack, and engage your core to keep your torso upright.
  • Take a deep breath to engage your core to keep your torso upright under the load, then push your butt back and bend your knees to lower down until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  • Press off the ground and squeeze your glutes to stand back up to the starting position.

Box Squat

The box squat can be great for anyone with knee issues, but it’s also also useful for other types of exercisers, too. The key to this variation is to stay engaged throughout the whole movement—this isn’t an opportunity to rest halfway through, as is often the mistake. By using the box, you’ll hone power to help you push out of the hole (the lowest point of the standard back squat).

How to Do It:

  • Set up for a back squat, with a box placed behind the rack. The box height should allow you to lower down to a parallel position once your butt hits the box.
  • Step back so you’re standing in position in front of the box, with a slightly wider than your standard squat.
  • Drop your butt back and lower down onto the box, emphasizing the eccentric (lowering) portion of the exercise.
  • Touch your butt to the box, controlling the weight, keeping your shins at a vertical angle with the ground.
  • Pause for a count, then push off the floor with both feet and squeeze your glutes to drive back up.

Hack Squat

The Hack squat is generally performed using a specialized machine—but if you don’t have one on your gym floor, you can use a barbell and adjust your positioning to include an adjusted version of this quad-quaking squat variation into your workout. Focus on using heavy loads here, since you’re not stabilizing the load in the same way.

How to Do It:

  • Use a pair of weight plates to elevate your heels and stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. The loaded barbell should stand behind you on the ground.
  • Squat down to grip the bar with your hands at about shoulder-width apart, then drive back up to stand and hold the weight.
  • Squat down and control the weight down to the floor, setting it down briefly, then stand straight up and squeeze your quads.
  • Your knees will track over your toes, and that’s okay; this will help to put the onus onto your quads.

Dumbbell and Kettlebell Loaded Squats

Bulgarian Split Squat

Hone your athleticism, mobility, and strength while growing your glutes and hamstrings with this bench-supported unilateral squat variation. Pay close attention to how you set up before starting your reps, however; balance is a key component to the movement here.

How to Do It:

  • Set up from the bottom position instead of trying to find the best spot for your foot by hopping around. Kneel in front of the bench, then place the top of your rear foot on top of the bench and position yourself so that your front shin is in a vertical position relative to the ground.
  • Grab the weights, then engage your core and squeeze your shoulder blades. Hinge forward slightly to avoid overextending your torso.
  • Push off the ground with your front foot and squeeze your glutes, working to maintain a vertical shin position.
  • As you continue through to multiple reps, avoid slamming your knee on the ground.

Goblet Squat

This accessible squat allows you to use some weights without a heavy barbell and rack setup. Like front squats, your core and quads will be forced to compensate for the position of the load to stay in the proper posture and keep the weight from pulling you forward.

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes facing out.
  • Hold the dumbbell or kettlebell at chest height in front of you without resting the weight on your chest, keeping your elbows high. Squeeze your core and shoulder blades to create tension.
  • Push your butt back and bend your knees to squat down to a position just below parallel. Keep you core and shoulders engaged to keep the weight in position.
  • Push off the ground to stand back up, squeezing your glutes to drive the movement.

Rack Squat

This variation is all about how you hold the weights: in the rack position. Like the goblet squat, the position of the load will challenge your core to keep your torso from falling forward, giving you an extra challenge.

How to Do It:

  • Start out holding both kettlebells in a front rack position, with your feet square.
  • Push your butt back and bend your knees to squat down to a position just below parallel. Keep you core and shoulders engaged to keep the weight in position.
  • Push off the ground to stand back up, squeezing your glutes to drive the movement.

Cossack Squat

This squat variation is different from every other exercise on this list: its plane of movement. Instead of being performed in the sagittal plane, meaning you’re moving front-to-back, the cossack squat challenges you to work in the frontal plane, which means you’re moving from side-to-side. This can be a valuable shakeup to your fitness routine, allowing you to develop more real world strength and athleticism by mirroring movements you use during work and play.

How to Do It:

  • Start with a pair of kettlebells held in a front rack, core tight.
  • Step back with your right foot and rotate your hips to the right.
  • Bend your right knee, sinking low with most of the weight on your right leg. Keep your chest up and core tight as you do this. Your left leg should be straight.
  • Power up from that position, straightening both legs.

Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.

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