Squats Exercise Guide – Proper Form and Muscles Worked

All squats are not created equal. I repeat, all squats are not created equal.

Many lifters and athletes perform squats in the same way in which they were first taught and/or have seen on Instagram and Youtube. While those are both great resources for squat development, many lifters fail to understand the benefits and practical applications of all their squats on their performance, joint health, and even physique.

Therefore, in this ultimate squat centric article, I will address five highly popular forms of squatting and go through the benefits, unique characteristics, practical applications to sports performance (power, strength, fitness, and formal athletics), and how to properly perform each and every one!

At the end of the article, please let me know your thoughts (in the comments) on what style of squat you have chosen as your top squat, and why!

The Benefits of Squats

Squats are one of the most, if not THE most, universally performed and highly applicable movements (not an exercise, rather, a human movement) that nearly every strength, power, fitness, and sport athlete will benefit from. Below are some of the main benefits of squats, however I am sure there are many, many more that are not listed here.

  1. Increase overall leg strength and muscular development (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, erectors, and back)
  2. High sport specificity to powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, fitness sports, and formal athletics
  3. Everyday strength and sound movement mechanics, which can improve the daily quality of life and injury resilience.
  4. Spinal loading which has the ability to increase bone density, strengthen ligaments and tendons, and even have positive increases in hormonal outputs and body compositions.

Muscle Trained by Squats

Below are the main muscle groups targeted by squats. While some of the lesser known variations may differ (such as increased emphasis on back loading, etc), the below muscle groups are what coaches and lifters can expect to be trained by most squats (not in any specific order).

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Erectors
  • Trapezius
  • Abdominals and Obliques
  • Upper Back and Lats

Squats in generally are one of the most all-inclusive lower body strength and mass builders for all athletes and sports. Whether they are back loaded, front loaded, or even overhead, the ankles, knees, and hips are the primary joints that are targeted. The above muscle groups (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, erectors) all cross those large joints, which in turn are the primary muscular contractile units that must overcome the external load to concentrically (muscle length and joint shortening/closing under load) and eccentrically (muscle length and joint lengthening/opening under load) contract to open and close the joint angles against load. Other muscles, such as the trapezius, core, and back must work isometrically (muscle units are producing force and being innervated however the muscle lengths and joint actions do not change).

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The massive amounts of loading that can be withstood during this compound movement (compound in that it involves multiple joints moving under load at once) make this a critical lift for every athlete to train on a regular (weekly and even multiple times per week) basis.

Major Styles of Squats

Below is a listing of the main squat variations we see within most power, strength, and fitness sports. Each squat is detailed out with why it is unique, the benefits it offers athletes and lifters, and what sports/movements this is best used for. Additionally, each squat style will be accompanied by a demo video discussing proper set up, hand and foot alignment, bar placement, and more.

Bodyweight Squat

The bodyweight squat is one of the most necessary and foundational movements that can be taught/learned, as it is the basis for all loaded squatting variations. The benefit of learning how to master the bodyweight squat is to reinforce sound ankle, knee, and hip flexion/extension mechanics, proper proprioception and awareness of spinal control by the athlete/lifter, and overall integration of neural patterning and activation resulting in fluid, healthy, squatting patterning.

In summary, the bodyweight squat:

  • Foundational movement pattern for all levels of athletes to master.
  • Once taught, the athlete may transition into more complex squatting and movement patterns.
  • Many individuals may have limited mobility/coordinated movement issues, in which the bodyweight squat can be further regressed and manipulated to restore quality movement.
  • While it is paramount for all beginners and levels to master this movement, the bodyweight squat should be a skill and movement that is retained, to the fullest ranges of motion, for life.

Many lifters may struggle with mobility issues and/or lack of balance in the squat, which can actually be assisted by small aids, such as elevating the heels, counterbalancing with weights, or simply regressing the movement to be less full range and progress with time. During these stages, coaches can also build in unilateral squatting movement to increase muscular development, and even introduce other major styles of squatting to increase learning and awareness.

In the above video, Pat Sherwood demonstrates how to properly perform bodyweight squats, and some simple fixes that coaches and athletes can make if necessary.

High Bar Back Squat

The high bar back squat is what I refer to as the standard squat bar placement, however I may be biased as a strength coach, Olympic weightlifter, and person who does the squat for maximal quadricep development and saves posterior chain development for pulling movements and occasional low bar back squats. The key difference between the high bar back squat vs the low bar back squat is the bar placement, as the high bar has the lifter place the barbell high on the traps, above the spine of the scapulae. This placement forces a much more vertical torso in which an athlete must assume a more vertical descent into the squat by increasing the amount of ankle and knee flexion needed, placing much more emphasis on the quadriceps for strength.

High Bar Back Squat Setup
High Bar Back Squat Setup

In summary, the high bar back squat:

  • Differs from the low bar back squat primarily due to the barbell placement, which shifts the torso angle and loading to a more quadricep and hip centric movement.
  • Primary squat style for most Olympic weightlifters, functional fitness athletes, and general fitness geared towards overall leg hypertrophy and development.
  • Due to the higher bar placement, the lifter is able to maintain a more upright torso angle, which then increases the need for higher degrees of knee flexion, resulting in a greater demand and muscular growth on the quadriceps.
  • Few movements can increase quadriceps muscular growth than the high bar back squat, primary due to the increased knee flexion, vertical torso positioning, and ability to load the very high amounts of weight and volume.

The benefits of this movement is that you are able to mimic many foundational patterning needed for jumping, running, athletics, cleans, snatches, and general leg development (hypertrophy and performance). This high bar squat has high application to fitness athletes, weightlifters, and trainees looking to specifically increase leg mass and quadricep development, as the low bar fails to target the quads and vertical torso patterning as much.

In the above video, Aleksey Torokhtiy demonstrates how to properly perform high bar back squats, and some simple fixes that coaches and athletes can make if necessary.

Low Bar Back Squat

The other variation of the back squat is the low bar bar placement, which shifts the barbell placement a few inches lower on the back, allowing a lifter to have a more forward leaning torso. This placement places more loading stress on the hamstrings, glutes, erectors, and posterior chain, and can often be done with much higher loads making it the primary squatting variation for strength sports, such as powerlifters. The benefit of the low bar squat is that it is often done with slightly higher loads, increases glutes and hamstring involvement, and can create greater back thickness and stability as the upper and middle back is needed to lock in much more than a high bar squat.

In summary, the low bar back squat:

  • Differs from the high bar back squat primarily due to the barbell placement, which shifts the torso angle and loading from a more upright torso, quadricep and hip centric movement, to a more forward leaning torso with greater posterior chain involvement (glutes, hamstring, erectors).
  • Primary squat style for most powerlifters and strongman competitors.
  • Due to the lower bar placement, the lifter is able to increase forward lean, moving the loading towards the posterior chain and increasing demand upon the back, erectors, glutes, and hamstrings.
  • Few squatting movements can rival the shear amount of loads that are often moved with the low bar positioning, which is why many lifters choose low bar placement when trying to squat as heavy as possible (powerlifting).

This is recommended for powerlifters and other strength sport athletes since this variation should allow you to train slightly with heavier loads, however coaches and athletes need to consider the additional stress this has on the back and hips if deadlifting is also happening within a program. Personally, I feel that all strength and power athletes can benefit from the inclusion of high bar back squat even if their primary squatting style is low bar, as this will help strengthening the quads which can be suspect to  injury at overzealous and/or maximal loads in the low bar squat. Lastly, it is important to note that as an Olympic weightlifting coach, the low bar squat has low transferability when compared to the high bar back squat in regards to specific angular squat strength and snatch/clean and jerk capacities. For this reason, I advise such athletes to primarily focus on high bar back squats, front squats, and overhead squats.

In the above video, Mark Rippetoe demonstrates how to properly perform low bar back squats, and some simple fixes that coaches and athletes can make if necessary.

Front Squat

The front squat is another highly specific movement for Olympic weightlifters in regards to their clean and jerk performance. Additionally, this movement can be used by all athletes to increase upper back strength, core stability, and place a greater emphasis on the quadriceps. Much like the high bar back squat, the lifter is forced to take a very vertical torso position, which in turn requires greater ankle and knee mobility and quadricep strength. Lack of upper back postural mobility and/or control could result in forward collapse and/or the the lifter trying to drive with the hips (hips rise up faster than torso), suggesting poor upper back strength and quadricep development.

In summary, the front squat:

  • Placed the barbell in the front rack position, which forces the lifter to maintain upright, rigid torso and involves greater amounts of upper back and quadriceps strength.
  • Primary squat style for most Olympic weightlifters, functional fitness athletes, and general fitness geared towards quadriceps hypertrophy and positional squat strength directly applicable to the clean and jerk.
  • Lack of upper back and/or quadriceps strength can make this lift very challenging on a lifter. Time spent getting better will result in large increases in back, core, and leg strength.

This movement is recommended for all Olympic weightlifters, functional fitness athletes, and yes, powerlifters and bodybuilders, as it places a high demand on upper back strength, proper hip and knee tracking, and forces the quadriceps to take a large amount of the external loading. This movement is necessary for the proper patterning and strength in the clean and jerk (receiving the barbell), as well as for most fitness movements. Powerlifters and bodybuilders can increase leg mass and strength with using front squats as squatting alternatives and/or assistance lifts. Lastly, many lifters may find less spinal stress when front squatting vs back loaded movements, which could also be key for recovering athletes.

In the above video, Max Aita and Colin Burns demonstrates how to properly perform low bar back squats, and some simple fixes that coaches and athletes can make if necessary.

Overhead Squat

The overhead squat is a highly specific squat movement to the snatch in Olympic weightlifting and functional fitness sports. This is most certainly one of the most challenging squatting variations as it requires universal stability and mobility of all the joints and tissues in the body. This movement is highly beneficial for Olympic weightlifters lacking strength, stability, balance, and confidence when receiving loads overhead in the snatch and/or squat jerk, and dramatically challenges core and upper back stability.

Overhead Squat
Overhead Squat

In summary, the overhead squat:

  • The barbell is supported in the overhead position directly above the back of the neck. This position should be supported by locked elbows (with slight external rotation) and high engagement from the middle back and traps.
  • One of the most complex squatting movements as it requires universal mobility and joint patterning (ankles, knees, hips, spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists).
  • Direct application to Olympic weightlifting and functional fitness as it is the prerequisite for snatches.

This movement can be beneficial to many types of individuals. First, all olympic weightlifter should master this movement, many of which should be able to overhead squat at least 5-10% more than they can properly snatch. Increasing their overhead squat strength and movement mechanics could allow them to increase their snatch numbers. For all other athletes, this movement can be beneficial for overall development and diversification of one’s fitness. Many high intensity WODs also require proper mobility and squat stability that is offered by overhead squats.

The above video demonstrates how to properly perform overhead squats, and some simple fixes that coaches and athletes can make if necessary.

Box Squat

The box squat can be performed with any of the other main styles (high bar back squat, low bar back squat, and even the front squat…I don’t suggest this with the overhead squat). This exercise is performed by the athlete slightly pushing their hips down and back towards a box or bench set just above, at, or just below parallel. The benefit of the box squat is that is allows coaches and athletes the ability to target a specific sticking point (which could also be accomplished with longer paused squats at various points). Secondly, box squats offer a teaching tool for beginner lifters who may not fully understand how to engage the hips and sit into a squat, therefore having the box be a reference point for them to find proper depth.

In summary, the box squat:

  • Can be performed using any of the above squat styles (except the overhead squat, which is not recommended unless for teaching purposes).
  • Allows coaches to teach proper posterior chain involvement and squat patterning.
  • Increases concentric strength and posterior chain development more than regular squatting due to a controlled pause and hold once on the box, which minimizes the lifters ability to use the stretch shortening reflex to come out of the squat.
  • Can be a powerful assistance squat lift, however can limit overall squat mobility and have limited application to competitive squatting (Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, etc) if not also combined with full range dynamic squats (with usage of the stretch shortening cycle).

Additionally, this movement can help to increase posterior chain strength and awareness, as the hips and hamstrings are often engaged at higher degrees due to pushing the hips back in the squat. The most unique benefit that box squats offer athlete and coaches is that it negates the strength shortening cycle that is often present at the bottom of the squat. The lifter, becuase them must come to a smooth halt for a few seconds on a box, losses the elastic stored energy as heat at the bottom of the squat, in which they then have to utilize their maximal concentric strength capacities to overcome the load, further challenging strength development.

This movement is a pretty universally accepted squatting style, however due to its lack of depth and elasticity out of the squat (which is also a great benefit as it omits the stretch shortening cycle aiding the movement), it has lower application to fuller more explosive ranges of motion sports, such as Olympic weightlifting. Box squats can however be very beneficial when also done with regular back squatting, as it can help increase loading, address sticking points, strengthen the posterior chain, and offer a unique overloading stimulus.

In the above video, “Silent Mike” Farr demonstrates how to properly perform box squats, and some simple fixes that coaches and athletes can make if necessary.

What’s the Best Type of Squat?

As you can see, all squats are not created equal, however they all generally can improve leg development and have application to most human movements in sport and life. When asked which type of squat one should do, you must first start with the basics, and then prioritize the squatting movement that is going to fit your needs and goals the most.

Below are some scenarios one might find themselves in and what that means when determine the best squat for their needs and goals. It is important to note that all individuals must master proper bodyweight squatting mechanics prior to moving forward into loaded squats.

  • If you are an Olympic weightlifter and/or functional fitness athlete, you must master the high bar back squat, front squat, and overhead squat. Your high bar back squat will be the regulator of all other squats, meaning that if your high bar back squat is stuck, you will have a hard time further driving your other numbers up. Generally speaking, a sound lifter has a front squat of roughly 80-85% of their high bar back squat. Smaller percentages suggest poor upper back strength or quadriceps development, therefore making front squat strength a priority. A good lifter should be able to overhead 10% more than their best snatch. If less, their snatch may be limited by their overhead squat performance. If they can overhead squat more than that, it is an indicator of snatch technical faults.
  • If you are a powerlifter and/or strongman athlete, you must master the low bar back squat, as well as potentially the box squat, and front squat. The low bar back squat is the style used during competition (for reasons above) and time should be spend mastering the specific mechanics needed to squat low bar. The box squat, front squat, and even high bar back squat can be used as assistance lifts to target weaknesses and/or increase general leg performance and joint health.
  • If you are looking for optimal lower body hypertrophy and strength, you must master the high bar back squat, front squat, and potentially either the low bar back squat and/or box squat. The high bar back squat and front squat can maximize your glute and quadriceps development for sport and life. During a sound training regimen, deadlifts and other pulling movements can be used to target your hamstrings and glutes further. Some lifters and coaches may also want to include low bar back squat and/or box squats to further enhance posterior chain development (which will only aid your high bar and front squats).

In the end, the more squat styles you can learn and master the better, however coaches and athletes must acknowledge and prioritize the squat style(s) that have the most specificity to their sport and/or goals.

Other Less Common Squat Variations

If you scour our website you will find many other squat variations, many of which I have done articles on, discussing how and why most athletes can benefit from adding them into off-season training and/or movement programs. Check out some of the articles below!

Final Words

There you have it! The ultimate guide to five major squatting styles to suit the needs and goals of nearly every strength, power, and fitness athletes. While all squats are not created equal, diversifying one’s squatting regimen can help to maximize performance, increase muscular and strength development, and most importantly, help to minimize overuse and potential injury due to muscular imbalances and/or asymmetries. Coaches and athletes should obviously prioritize the key squatting style(s) necessary for their sport/goal, however should be also able to program other variations in when the time is right and/or the lifter may benefit from performing them for one of the reasons above.

Featured Image: @martsromero on Instagram

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