Hit leg day hard, but mix it up. Here are six types of squats for every occasion, injury history, and experience level. Tried them all?
Squatting is a fundamental movement pattern, but we usually picture a barbell across the back when we think squats. There are far more options, often better suited to different lifters at different experience levels or with different goals.
Here are six squat versions every lifter should master.
The Goblet Squat
Goblet squats are one of the best teaching tools for beginners or lifters who need to relearn their squat pattern. They’re also a beast for experienced lifters when heavily loaded or done with higher reps.
Though goblet squats aren’t an absolute prerequisite for other squats, you can use them to assess whether or not you’re ready to move onto other variations.
- Hold a dumbbell at your sternum with both hands.
- Start with feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointed out. Not everyone has the same hip shape or is even symmetrical left to right, so adjust your feet to find a sweet spot that allows the best pain-free hip range of motion.
- Try to grip the floor with your feet.
- Externally rotate your femurs with your glutes to keep your knees vertically stacked with your ankles and hips.
- Set your shoulder blades down and back. Brace your core by locking your ribs down to your pelvis.
- Descend with control as far as you can squat while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Reverse direction by pushing through your entire foot.
- Lock out by squeezing your glutes, but don’t exaggerate the lockout with your lumbar spine.
- Avoid the common mistake of leaning back with your lower back to create an artificial rest point from holding the dumbbell.
- If you’re a beginner
- To gain depth if you struggle to squat to parallel
- If you’re tall, have long femurs or don’t move well in a back squat
- If you only have access to dumbbells or kettlebells
- When shoulder mobility prohibits using a back squat
- To add more core and upper back work to your training
- To warm up your hip and ankles
The Bulgarian Squat
The Bulgarian squat is equally dreaded and effective. Often called a “rear-foot elevated split squat,” Bulgarians fill the need for single-leg training in programs too focused on bilateral work. They’re ideal for maximizing training results while managing stress on your joints.
- Elevate your back foot, preferably laces down onto a single-leg squat stand, bench, or roller on a leg extension or hamstring curl machine.
- Choose from dumbbells at your side, a single dumbbell in goblet position, a barbell, or Safety Squat Bar.
- Stagger your feet shoulder-width apart so as not to mimic walking a tightrope.
- Load mostly through your front leg and firmly through your entire foot, emphasizing the push through your heel.
- Maintain a vertical shin angle and forward torso angle for slight glute emphasis. Allow more forward knee travel and keep your torso more upright for more quad emphasis.
- Descend to full front hip end range of motion. Elevate your front foot to allow for more range of motion if your back knee touches the ground before you run out of hip range of motion.
- Allow your back knee to bend instead of locking your back leg straight (common error).
- Come all the way up at the top to where your front knee softly locks out.
Perform all reps on one side, then switch. Take a short rest between sides on heavy sets if needed.
- As a primary leg exercise when your lower back is messed up
- To add leg training volume without excessive spinal loading or fatigue
- As a primary single-leg lower-body exercise
- When creating programs for athletes
- When you’re limited to dumbbells
- If you’re a masochist
- As a knee-friendly alternative to walking lunges
The Box Squat
The box squat works like magic when lifters have poor control of their range of motion, forcing them to stop at a safe range or to feel comfortable squatting lower.
It functions well either as its own lift, as a teaching tool for learning to squat, or as a tactic to clean up messy uncontrolled squats. It can also be an advanced tool for advanced lifters to develop strength out of the bottom of a squat or to create variation and shake off staleness.
- Set a box or bench at the desired height.
- Choose the appropriate squat version: back, goblet, front, or Safety Bar.
- Breathe in and brace at the top. Keep your air and brace through the bottom until near or at the lockout at the top of the rep.
- Sit back onto the box and land soft and controlled.
- Use a soft touch-and-go or a 1-2 second pause. Avoid bounding or hard impact.
- At the bottom, maintain your torso angle. Resist the urge to sit upright, then create momentum by rocking forward as you come off the box.
- As a training tool if you’re a beginner
- To give shallow squatters a target to reach
- To limit range of motion if you can’t keep a neutral spine at the bottom
- To develop strength and control at parallel or deeper by pausing
- To help you sit back more into the posterior chain and heels
- To learn to control a deeper range of motion (as long as you possess the passive hip range of motion)
The Front Squatting
Think of front squats as an advanced progression of goblet squats. Both benefit from anterior loading, which encourages more of a “true” vertical squat pattern. Front squats merely allow you to use more weight.
The upright posture of a front squat allows for greater emphasis on knee flexion/extension and greater targeting of quad fibers for tension and growth. With your quads taking more of the workload, there’s potentially less stress on your posterior chain.
Having the load in front of the body also encourages a posterior weight shift to help taller lifters or lifters with mobility restrictions “hack” their squat depth almost by default. They’re also one of the best exercises for cleaning up squat mechanics with their heightened core, upper back, and positional demands.
Front squats tend to be spine-friendly since they reduce shear stress by minimizing excess forward lean. Your spine is more resilient to compression than shear force, making front squats a better choice for lifters who want to lift heavy without flaring up lower-back issues.
- Set up the barbell in the rack at around shoulder height.
- Grab the bar with a clean grip, cross-grip, or straps (see here) with your hands around shoulder-width.
- Wedge the bar just above your collarbones before you unrack, keeping your elbows up so that your triceps are parallel to the floor.
- As you unrack the bar and step back, set your feet in your preferred squat stance and brace your midsection.
- Try to maintain a relatively vertical torso with your elbows at or above bar level throughout the set.
- In general, keep the reps relatively low (3-6) due to the postural and breathing/bracing demands.
Bonus Tip: If you really want to increase your chances of looking like Quadzilla come next Halloween, try elevating your heels on a wedge or small plates to accentuate the knee flexion
- To deload the spine and reduce shear/compressive low-back stress
- To encourage a more vertical squat pattern
- To hammer the quads
- To improve squat depth and mobility in the hips and ankles
- To clean up squat mechanics and train positional integrity
- To build strength specific to Olympic cleans
The Zercher Squat
The Zercher squat will hit your quads especially hard, challenge your core, deload your spine, and make you keep your torso upright.
They’ll challenge the traps and rhomboids while also challenging your ability to brace, breathe, and maintain full-body tension. With these heightened demands – along with the bar pulling you forward and down – your ability to maintain solid positioning with a bar on your back should improve significantly.
- Set up the barbell in the rack at a height at or just below your sternum.
- Get under the bar with your hands together and your palms facing the ceiling, then secure it in the crook of your elbows. Holding your hands together prevents your arms from opening up. This will allow you to use heavier loads, although you can keep them apart if you want to challenge your upper back and arms to a greater degree.
- Brace, then “scoop” the bar up and tuck it into your torso to lock it in.
- Unrack the bar, set up in your preferred squat stance, then settle the bar and “grab” more air.
- Try to maintain a relatively vertical torso throughout the set while keeping your elbows tucked in to your sides.
- Keep the rep counts relatively low (3-6) because of the breathing/bracing demands.
While you should get used to the bicep/elbow discomfort over time, you can put Fat Gripzaround the bar, use an axle bar if you have one, or wear long sleeves in the meantime.
- To hold the load in front without using the front rack position
- To improve full-body tension under load
- To develop strength for strongman or combat sports
- To improve trunk strength and rigidity
- To improve your back squat
- To train a vertically-biased squat pattern with a novel stimulus
The Safety Bar Squat
The Safety Bar squat is a hybrid between front and back squats. Like front squats, they encourage a vertical squat due to the weight distribution and bar placement. And, like back squats, they have a heavier loading capacity than front-loaded variations.
It’s joint-friendly, too. If your shoulders don’t do well with extreme external rotation (as in a back squat), the increased comfort of the front-loaded handles can be a game-changer. The weight is also distributed in line with the body, which can help reduce shear stress on the low back.
The only limiting factor is your legs. You can annihilate your lower body and accumulate more quality volume without fatigue anywhere else getting in the way.
These squats are similar enough to back squats to have a direct carryover in strength, yet different enough to provide a slightly novel stimulus. One study comparing SSB squats to back squats found that SSB squats led to 13.9% greater gains (35.8% vs. 21.9%) in 1-RM back squat strength than the back squat itself (1).
- Get under the bar and secure the rear pad just below your upper traps.
- Lift your elbows up to a point where your hands are between chest and shoulder height (rather than pinned to your sides).
- Just before and after the unrack, adjust your positioning as needed so that the camber (load) is aligned with the mid-foot.
- As you go through the set, try to maintain thoracic extension without letting your upper back dump forward.
- Keep your elbows steady (rather than dipping down) to prevent the bar from crushing your neck.
- To build legs without limiting factors getting in the way
- For a vertical squat pattern without the discomfort of a front rack
- To squat heavy without irritating your low back or shoulders
- For a direct strength carryover in the back squat
- Meldrum R et al. A Comparison of Back Squat & Safety Squat Bar on Measures of Strength, Speed, and Power in NCAA Division I Baseball Players. International Journal of Sports Science. 2018;8(5):137-144.
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