Use These 3 Squat Variations to Build Stronger Legs

Unlike the deadlift, the squat is a little more forgiving in terms of high-frequency training, and most people are already familiar with many variations of the standard low-bar back squat.  

High bar, front squats, pause squats, box squats: as it turns out there are a lot of different ways to bend your knees. The following variations aren’t necessarily my favorites – those would be front squats and pause squats – but they’re lesser-known varieties that can still have a lot of utility in addressing certain weaknesses.

Wide-Stance Squat

Now, obviously, if you already squat wide, this won’t be a variation for you – but nowadays most raw lifters take a pretty moderate stance. If you’re in the latter group, you’re in luck, because there are some huge benefits you can get from occasionally incorporating wide-stance squats into your program.

First, let’s talk about performance. The typical setup for a wide-stance squat goes something like this: low-bar position, slight forward lean, and then sit back, back, BACK before reversing and driving the hips up out of the hole. When you’re using the wide-stance squat as an assistance exercise, however, I think it’s more useful to focus on abduction – pushing your knees out and opening your hips as you descend.

[Deadlift lagging? Try these three deadlift variations to improve your pull!]

Because close and moderate-stance squats don’t require a whole lot of abduction, the muscles used in that motion (the abductors, obviously, but also the glute medius and hamstrings) sometimes don’t get as much work as they could.

To help you do that, you might find that you want to take a more moderate or even high-bar position. Doing so will limit the amount of weight you’re able to lift, but it will probably be more comfortable, so it will allow you to focus more on the performance of the movement. Then, use cues that work for you. These, of course, will be different for everyone, but common ones include:

  • “Push the knees out”
  • “Spread/claw the floor”
  • “Twist your feet”

No matter what, you want to make sure your weight is centered over your midfoot and slightly towards the outside (rather than towards the instep).

Make sure you go deep on these! You probably won’t be able to use as much weight as you might expect if you’re doing them as described, but that’s okay. This is an assistance movement, not an ego exercise.

Belt Squat

The belt squat is a hugely underrated exercise – and not just as a way to improve your squat. The belt squat is the perfect way to load your hips and legs without loading your lower back, so it’s perfect for those with chronic lower-back pain, and for lifters who tend to rely on their lower backs too much when performing squats or deadlifts.

That said, the exercise is underrated because it’s really darn difficult to set up. Unless you have a belt squat machine available at your gym, you’ll have to Jerry-rig a setup using a dip belt and a barbell or dumbbell (you can find some demonstrations here). For many, though, it’s worth the hassle.

This is one you want to perform for fairly high reps. In fact, I find that sets of 10 or more are ideal. Be warned, though: your legs, butt, and lungs will definitely be feeling the burn when you’re done!

Single-Leg Press

Okay, so I cheated on this article just like on the deadlift one. That’s okay, though, because not only is the single-leg press a great way to improve your back squat – it’s also a great alternative for those who cannot squat due to acute injury. (Note that I said acute injury. If you’re dealing with chronic issues, you need to figure those out by working with a knowledgeable physical therapist or health professional, because there’s really no long-term alternative for squats.)

When you’re doing the single-leg press, you’ll actually have to use less than half the weight you’d use with both legs, because it’s more difficult to balance the weight using just one leg. In fact, many of the benefits from this exercise come from that balancing act! As you lower the weight, you’ll have to remain very careful to keep the load balanced directly over your mid-foot, while pressing through the outside of your foot (rather than through the insole). You’ll notice that if you don’t, your heels will come off the platform, and your knees might start to hurt a bit – so be really careful here!

You want to move through a full range of motion with this exercise, but to do so, as you lower the weight, you’ll have to allow your knee to drift out, away from your body, or else you’ll find your quad jammed up against your stomach. As you let that knee drift out, make sure that you’re keeping your glutes and hamstrings engaged to help stabilize the joint. This is not a quad-specific movement!

Again, you’re going to want to hit this one for high reps, although I don’t think sets of 20 are necessary. Eight to 12 is generally a good bet, and, of course, make sure you’re performing the same amount of work for both sides of your body.

Bonus: 3 Assistance Exercises to Supercharge Your Squat

I think all of these variations could be classified as “supplementary,” or “accessory” movements, rather than main squatting movements. They’re not things you want to load heavily, or use as the foundation of a program, but when incorporated carefully and for the right reasons, they can produce huge results!

Last: make sure to check out my favorite deadlift variations, too – and, as always, train hard!

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image screenshot from Ben Pollack YouTube channel.