10 Unconventional Squat Variations to Build Stronger Legs

Need a change up in your squat training to target a certain adaptation? These squat variations might do the trick!

Squats are a foundational strength movement for every lifter and athlete. While variations like the back and front squat are staples of most training programs, other lesser known squat variations can offer additional benefits to lifters and athletes.

In this article, we will offer lifters, coaches, and everyday fitness enthusiasts a wide variety of squats variations to choose from when looking to increase strength, performance, and fitness. The topics we’ll cover include:

3 Reasons Why You Should Squat


Below are just a few of the top benefits of squatting, in any capacity.

1. Stronger, More Muscular Legs and Glutes

Squats are one of the most foundational movements you can do to build total body and lower body strength and muscle mass. Squats are an important movement for powerlifting, weightlifting, functional fitness training, sports performance, and general fitness.

front squat
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2. Improved Athletic Potential

The squat can build lower body strength and muscle mass. In doing so, lifters will have more raw potential for force production and force output for sprinting, jumping, and lifting to a certain degree.

3. Build Stronger Joints and Connective Tissues

Loaded movements can increase bone density, increase connective tissue strength and stability, and aid in overall injury resilience via increased muscle mass. Just like the back and front squat, the variations below can have carryover to injury resiliency.

Muscles Worked – Squats


Below are the main muscle groups involved in most squat exercises. Note, that some variations will place higher loading demands on some muscle groups over others.

Quadriceps

The quadriceps are the primary muscle group responsible for knee extension during squatting exercises. While some variations may shift more load to the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back (low bar back squat), most squats will target the anterior aspect of the thighs.

Leg Muscles Squat Variations
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Hamstrings

The hamstrings, while not a primary muscle group in most squatting movements (other than low bar squats), work to support knee stability and hip extension in the squat. Weak hamstrings in the squat can produce problems, especially during the eccentric phase of the squat.

Glutes

The glutes are a primary muscle group used in the squat as they are responsible for hip extension and knee stabilization. Some variations, such as box squats, sumo squats, low bar squats, split squats, and belt squats can be used to place more emphasis on the glutes during squat training.

Spinal Erectors

The spinal erectors (lower back muscles) are used to stabilize the spine and support the core during all squat movements. While some variations can be used to decrease stress on the spinal erectors, such as the belt squat. The spinal erectors are a necessary muscle group to develop as they assist in proper posture and supporting spinal integrity.

10 Lesser Known, but Useful Squat Variations


Below are ten (10) useful squat variations that can build strength, add muscle mass, and help to improve overall squat mechanics and movement patterning for all levels.

The below squat variations are broken down into three main categories:

  1. The first four variations are geared for mobility, squat patterning, and squat preparations work.
  2. The next three are geared for general squat strength and muscular development.
  3. The last three squat variations are geared for intermediate and advanced lifters who may need addition squat training to improve peak strength and sport-specific squatting skills.
Old School Squat
Old School Squat

Mobility and Squat Activation (4 Variations)


The below squat variations are geared to improve movement patterning, increase muscle activation, and enhance squat technique for all levels lifters. These can be done in prehabilitation and rehabilitation settings (be sure to be cleared by your physician) and/or as warm-up exercises before squat strength and hypertrophy training.

1. Spanish Squats

The Spanish squat is a bodyweight squat done with a resistance band (often very heavy) around the knees. In doing so, you can increase quadriceps activation, improve anterior knee health, and even help address quadriceps and patellar tendonitis issues.

To do this, attach a resistance band around a stable structure, such as a power rack. Step into the band so that the band is around both legs, resting on the back of the knee. Step backwards to add tension to the band, and squat.

You should feel the band pulling the knees forwards, forcing your quads to engage and the glutes to stay back as you sit down to parallel (or slightly above). This is often done while performing isometric and/or slow and controlled partial repetitions.

2. Forward-Facing Wall Squat

The forward facing wall squat can be used to increase squat mechanics and reinforce proper positioning in the movement.

To perform this bodyweight exercise, face the wall and stand a few inches back (3-6 inches to start). Assume your squat stance with your hands either behind your head or above you in the overhead squat position.

Squat downwards, making sure to not fall backwards or fall forwards into the wall. Lifters who have tight hips, poor thoracic mobility, or limited ankle mobility will often find this to be highly challenging.

Coaches and athletes can use this as a squat warm-up exercise and/or education suat tool to reinforce proper movement and balance in the squat.

3. Banded Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is a great exercise to develop fundamental squat strength, muscle mass, and technique. Beginners and advanced athletes alike can benefit from this squat variation.

Banded goblet squats, however, take this classic and foundational squatting variation to the next level, adding in the principles of accommodating resistance to the mix. Adding a band, often attached to the kettlebell or dumbbell on one end, and with the lifter standing on the other end, can help reinforce greater tension and more vertical squat positioning.

The band will work to pull the lifter forwards in the squat and adding more resistance as they stand up. In doing so you force lifers to establish a strong, vertical positioning and can help increase strength throughout the entire range of motion.

1.
Set Up

The feet should be set roughly hip width apart, with the toes turned open 10-15 degrees. While holding the kettlebell at chest level, with the elbows pointed towards the floor, tuck the pelvis so that the glutes are engaged and brace the core.

In the set up position, you should feel tension from the floor up, with the core tight and the torso vertical.

Coach’s Tip: Use the weight as a counterbalance if you find you are losing balance in the squat.

2.
Eccentric and Bottom of the Squat

With your established base, bend the knees and hips to allow yourself to sit down, keeping the feet and heels on the floor. The load should be felt in the quadriceps, glutes, core, and upper back.

The bottom of the goblet squat position should feel strong and stable, with the feet flat, core flexed, and torso vertical.

Coach’s Tip: Be sure to set the pelvis underneath you, with the abdominals and obliques contracted.

3.
Stand Up

Once you have established a strong, low, and stable base in the bottom of the squat, push evenly through the full foot as you stand up.

The chest and shoulders should raise up at the same rate as the hips.

4. Kang Squat

The Kang squat, also called the good morning squat, is a squat variation that combines the good morning exercise and a back squat. To do this, perform a standard good morning by pushing the hips back with a slight knee bench, making sure to keep the back flat and shins perpendicular to the floor.

Once you have assumed the good morning position, sit the hips down towards the heels as you drop into a low and stable squat position with the chest up and torso vertical. Reverse this process until you come back to a standing position.

This is a great exercise to help lifters develop tension in the squat, understand proper joint actions (and what not to do), and activate the necessary muscle groups needed in more advanced squat training.

Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength (3 Variations)


The below squat variations can be used to build strength and muscle hypertrophy.

5. Bulgarian Split Squat (with Rack Assist)

The Bulgarian split squat is a powerful unilateral squat variations to build serious muscle, address muscular imbalances and movement asymmetries, and have direct application to most sports.

Unlike the freestanding Bulgrian split squat, lifters can use the rack assisted variation to increase stability and decrease the need for balance. In doing so, a lifer can 100% focus on unilateral strength and muscle growth without being limited by poor balance.

To do this, set yourself up within a squat rack or near a stable railing or structure, and perform a Bulgriarin split squat with one hand holding a heavy dumbbell and the other holding the support. Focus on using the lead leg to lift you and the load upwards, using the other hand to help stabilize and sometimes assist towards the end of the set (which will allow you to bang out a few more repetitions).

1.
Set Your Split

Start with your feet hip width apart, with the legs about 3-5 feet apart (in a split position).

Coach’s Tip: You can use a barbell, dumbbell, or any other load placement. Be sure to have the core contracted and the pelvis facing forward. Additionally, the toes should both be pointing forwards, making sure to not allow the back hip to turn outwards.

2.
Align the Torso and Descend

With the torso vertical, continue downwards into the split squat, ending with the back knee bent as it touches the floor. It is important to note that the back heel should lift, to allow for proper split squat movement.

Additionally, the balance should not shift forwards or backwards, but rather staying centered in between both feet.

Coach’s Tip: Descend under control, making sure to not slam the back knee into the floor.

3.
Contract, Then Stand

The majority of the load should be into the lead leg. Once you have established that, stand up maintaining a vertical torso.

Coach’s Tip: Be sure to not lean forwards or let the hips shift backwards as you stand up. Rather, keep tension in the front leg. Once you have settled at the top of the movement, repeat for repetitions, then switch lead legs.

6. Smith Machine Narrow Stance Squat

Believe it or not, the Smith machine squat does hold a place at the squat table. While free weights are highly beneficial for strength development, sport specific goals, and muscle hypertrophy, using a machine-based squat can be a great supplemental squatting variation to maximize growth.

Using the Smith machine, you can train squats in a way that minimizes the need for balance and stability. While this may sound like a drawback, it can be used at times to allow a lifter to focus 100% on the movement of the load using the legs rather than distorting a squat using poor mechanics.

While this is not a substitution for free weight squatting, the Smith machine squat may be a viable option for lifters looking to maximize muscle growth and activation.

7. Belt Squat

The belt squat is a squat variation that can be used to increase quadriceps and gluteal development without adding additional loading to the spine. This squat variation can be done in higher volumes and/or used to build squat strength.

Lifters who may have lower back issues and/or are unable to assume a position underneath a barbell (shoulder or elbow injuries, such as some sport athletes) can use the belt squat to train strength, explosiveness, and hypertrophy of the quads and glutes.

Belt squats are a sport specific variation for powerlifters and weightlifters as well, as they can help to increase squat stability, vertical positioning, and even squat mobility.

Advanced Squat Variations (3 Variations)


These next three squat variations are geared for lifters and athletes who have already mastered and/or integrated many of the squat variations above. These are geared to help (1) increase top end squat strength (neuromuscular training), (2) address positional weaknesses specific to your strength and power sport, and (3) help induce serious muscle growth.

8. 1 1 ½ or 1 1 ¼ Squat

These squat variaitons include both a full range of motion repetition with a partial repetition (either a ½ or ¼ squat after the full rep). In doing so, you force the lifter to do slightly more work at specific ranges of motion that may be a weakness for them.

These are useful for lifters looking to add muscle mass via increased time under tension to the muscle. Additionally, using full + partial rep training you can improve positional strength and awareness, and/or simply add more training volume to boost muscle and strength.

9. Reverse Band Eccentric Squat

The reverse band eccentric squat is done by attaching heavy resistance bands to the rack above the lifter as they squat. With the bands attached to the barbell, the lifter will descend into the squat picking up more assistance from the bands as the approach the bottom of the squat.

In doing so, a lifter will be able to overload the squatting movement (weight on the bar), which can help increase strength at stronger areas in the range of motion (more weight at the top half of the squat than the bottom).

By combining slow, eccentric lowering of the squat, the lifter can increase muscle damage and eccentric strength; using the bands to help assist them as the come upwards out of the squat.

10. Anderson Squat

The Anderson squat is a squat variation that focused on increasing concentric and positional strength. This can be done using nearly any squat positioning (back, front, overhead, box, etc). To do this, simply set the safety bars/pins to the bottom position in the squat so that the load is supported on the rack with you under the bar in the bottom of your squat.

From a deadstop, brace your core and stand upwards, lifting the bar as you complete the concentric portion of the squat. You can then squat back down to the racks and reset or add an eccentric lowering the movement.

This variation is good for lifters who may have sticking points coming up out of the squat, recovering from injury, and or need to establish better positional strength and awareness in the squat.

Build a Stronger Squat

Take a look at our top articles on how to build a stronger squat, break through training plateaus, and address nagging aches and pains.

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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