Squats are one of the cornerstone exercises of a beneficial fitness program. Not only do they enhance your overall strength, but they also encourage joint stability and mobility which can help you as you age.
There are myriad benefits to be reaped when you add squats to your training routine, even if you’re just practicing good form without loading up a heavy weight. Whether you’re trying to gain muscle size, build strength or lose fat, squats can accomplish all of this while also improving your athletic performance and quality of life!
10 benefits of squats
1. One of the best full-body exercises
Squats are one of the best full-body exercises that you can do! They engage all of your large muscle groups, which stimulates an increase in the production of your anabolic hormones. These are important for repair and recovery, protein synthesis to build more muscle, in addition to a bunch of other benefits.
Engaging multiple big muscle groups at the same time is also a great way to incinerate fat because not only does it burn a lot of calories while you’re working out, but it keeps your metabolism boosted for hours after you finish your workout.
Squats are also a good functional exercise that helps you to move better in your everyday life. Squatting is a basic movement that we all do, so practicing it with or without weight can have fantastic health benefits.
2. Better posture
When you squat, your upper back muscles are engaged in order to help you stabilize the weight and keep your spine safe. This correlates with having better posture because when your upper back muscles are stronger, they help you keep your body aligned and prevent you from slouching.
Squats, in particular, are phenomenal for improving posture because when done correctly they encourage better stability, joint mobility, and upper body strength. Wall squats, in particular, are a method of correcting and improving posture.
Since you have to keep your torso and chest upright during the squat, training this movement pattern can help with muscular deficiencies that may contribute to poor posture and ultimately correct them.
3. Stronger joints
As mentioned above, squatting with correct form can have a positive effect on hip mobility and stability.
The back squat, when done at a partial range of motion, stimulates your gluteus maximus, your largest and strongest glute muscle, and other stabilizing glute muscles, resulting in better hip stability.
Your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, the smaller glute muscles that are mostly covered by your gluteus maximus are responsible for assisting your gluteus maximus and helping to stabilize your pelvis.
Building strength in the muscles that surround your joints creates more stability and allows you to have greater control during movements.
4. Build nice legs
Most of the muscle activity that takes place during a squat happens in your glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings.
Studies have shown that if you want to activate these muscles to their full potential, then it isn’t necessary to squat as deeply as possible. When I say “as deeply as possible” I’m referring to the recommendation that you squat below parallel trying to get your glutes to essentially touch “the grass” or the floor below you.
Squatting deeply can cause joint issues and damage the soft tissues in your ankles, knees, and hips. According to research, partial squats and squatting to the parallel are the most effective for activating your lower body musculature to the fullest extent.
So, if muscle growth is what you’re after, then you may want to pay close attention to your range of motion and keep your squat at about parallel, meaning your thighs will be parallel to the floor at the bottom of your squat.
5. Sprint faster
Sprinters often have very well developed glutes and hamstrings, while long-distance runners will have leaner physiques.
The reason a sprinter’s lower body musculature is more developed is due to the power output required to propel your body forward as quickly as possible, which requires really strong glutes.
Since squatting targets your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and hip muscles it makes sense that as they get stronger at working together through a multijoint range of motion, that this would transfer to being able to sprint faster.
While there are specific training techniques applicable for increasing your sprint speed, just by increasing the weight you’re squatting and improving your squat mechanics can have benefits for your athletic performance.
6. Transferable strength
Since squats use your whole body, getting better at this movement and ultimately increasing the weight you can handle will transfer to other lifts as well.
Squats help you to build more muscle and increase power output in your legs, which translates to better deadlifts, faster run times, and the ability to execute single-leg exercises with more ease. Getting better at squatting can enhance your athleticism.
Practicing squats and adding weight progressively can also improve your overall strength. If you want to get stronger, then this is one of the exercises that you should probably be doing on a regular basis.
7. Stimulates anabolic hormone production
When you do squats, they stimulate the production of your anabolic hormones, namely testosterone, DHEA, and HGH or human growth hormone. We all have them, men and women. Men just have more testosterone than women. Plus, men also tend to have a greater increase in HGH in response to exercise.
This isn’t to say that women can’t also benefit from a significant anabolic response. Women do experience an increase in anabolic hormones in response to exercise as well. Estrogen, which is also an anabolic hormone, HGH, testosterone and DHEA will elevate due to exercise.
Testosterone helps to repair damaged muscles and build more lean mass.
HGH supports fat metabolism and also helps with muscle-building.
Estrogen helps with brain function and neural protection, which can be really beneficial for older, post-menopausal women, and preventing Alzheimers.
8. Glute development
Do you want nice looking and strong glutes? Well, the squat is one of the best exercises to target the gluteus maximus, which is where most of your power is produced. The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, the smaller and less superficial glute muscles, are responsible for stabilizing your pelvis and assisting your gluteus maximus.
As I mentioned earlier, training all three of your glute muscles together will aid in building more joint stability, which can enhance your quality of life as you age, and contribute to injury prevention and strength gains.
According to this 2015 study about muscle activation during a partial and a full back squat with an external load, they found that the glutes are the most active during a partial squat.
So, if your goal is to develop your glutes then staying above parallel will be more beneficial. Squatting deeply is good for athletic performance. However, your glutes are a lot less active when you go below parallel.
9. Improve core strength
Another key benefit of adding squats to your routine is that your core strength will increase. When you’re executing a back squat properly, your torso angle should match your shin angle. In order to maintain this position, your core has to stabilize your spine in order to keep you upright, which requires an adequate amount of strength.
Your core is made up of all of the muscles in your torso from your hips up to your chest bone.
Recent studies have concluded that your lower back muscles, abs, and obliques are all highly activated during squats. So, if you want to build core strength, then you may want to include squats as part of your core workout.
Your core functions the best when your muscles work synergistically to stabilize your torso, so doing a squat to improve core strength would be more effective than doing crunches or situps alone.
10. Jump higher
While squats are a known strength and mass-builder, they’re also phenomenal for enhancing your power output. If you want to build bigger legs and glutes, then squatting deeply isn’t necessary.
But if you want to improve your jumping performance and add height to your vertical jump then the depth of your squat matters.
When you’re at the bottom of a squat, it takes a significant amount of power to push yourself back up to standing as your body fights the pull of gravity. This is especially true if you have an external load on your back.
So, to increase your jump height, you’ll want to choose a weight that’s challenging and try to squat as deeply as you can with good form.
What muscles do squats work?
When you squat you’re using all of the muscles in your lower body, plus your core and your upper body. Some of your muscles are the main movers that help you to execute the movement, while others are there to assist and help stabilize your joints.
The main muscles targeted during a squat are:
- Quadriceps, the front of your thighs
- Gluteus maximus, the largest butt muscle
- Adductor magnus, your inner thigh muscle
- Soleus, the long head of your calf on the back of your lower leg
- Rhomboids, small muscles in your upper, middle back
Supporting and stabilizing muscles
These are the muscles that kick in to help your targeted muscles. Some of them are used for deceleration at the bottom of the squat to help you control the movement better, and others are there to aid in stabilizing your joints.
- Hamstrings, the back of your thighs
- Gluteus medius and minimus, the butt muscles under your gluteus maximus
- Gastrocnemius, the short head of your calves located on the back of your lower leg
- Erector spinae, lower back muscle
- Rectus abdomnis, your abs
- Internal and external obliques, the sides of your torso
- Lats, the largest muscle in your back
- Posterior deltoids, the backs of your shoulders
Front squat vs back squat
While both the front squat and back squat should be practiced as part of a well-rounded workout program, they each have their advantages and disadvantages. They’re both fantastic lower body builders and definitely contribute to the strength and mass gains.
People with lower back pain may tend to favor the front squat because the shear forces on your lower back are reduced due to the decreased torso angle and position of the weight.
During the front squat, the barbell is loaded across the front of your body and held against the fronts of your shoulders. You can use an Olympic grip, which is where your palms are facing up, with your elbows out, and your fingers acting as hooks to hold the bar in place.
This position requires adequate wrist and shoulder mobility so it may be difficult for some. In this position, you should aim to keep your upper arms parallel to the floor throughout the squat. If your shoulder and/or wrist mobility are poor, then your elbows will drop below parallel.
Another grip is the arms crossed option, where your arms are crossed over each other at your forearms and parallel to the floor, while your elbows are still lifted. This tends to be an easier position for many people.
Front squats activate the gluteus maximus and quadriceps more than the deadlift and the back squat due to the position of the barbell. Your torso also tends to be more upright during this version of the squat.
During a back squat, the weight is placed across your upper back against your traps and the backs of your shoulders. This position places more of a load on your lower back, so it’s essential that you maintain strict form in order to prevent the risk of a lower back injury.
The back squat encourages more of a forward lean, where your torso and shins should be at the same angle. This squat targets your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings at varying degrees throughout the movement.
While your quadriceps remain highly active, your hamstrings will be more activated toward the bottom of the movement, especially if you go below parallel. At this point of the squat, your glutes also become less active.
What are some of the alternatives to squats?
1. Goblet squat
For this exercise, you would hold a dumbbell at chest level with your elbows pointing down, and keep the weight against your body while keeping your torso as upright as possible while lowering into a squat.
It’s a good exercise for enhancing core strength and practicing to keep your shoulder blades retracted while squatting.
2. Bulgarian split squat
This is a great exercise for improving hip stability, ankle mobility and remedying muscular imbalances between your left and right legs. Since this exercise uses a staggered stance you’ll generally be working one leg at a time and probably have to lessen the weight you’d use for a normal squat.
3. Pistol squat
The pistol squat requires great hip and ankle mobility, and adequate hip flexor strength and flexibility. It’s a fantastic exercise to supplement your squatting routine because it is phenomenal at building strength during a single leg movement.
These take a lot of balance and are recommended for intermediate to advanced lifters due to the high degree of technique required to do them correctly.
Step-ups are another squat variation that encourages movement in a different plane of motion as you’re stepping up onto a platform and then controlling your body as you lower back down.
They’ll require a bit of extra equipment such as a bench, stool or step that’s about knee height. They activate your glutes and quadriceps to a high degree because of the stretch at the top of the movement.
If you’re trying to build strength and agility, then lunges will help you just as much as squats. Lunges are another exercise that requires a staggered stance with one leg in front of the other. Walking lunges, where you’re moving forward, target the glutes more than static lunges because of the forward motion.
During a static lunge, neither of your feet should leave the floor as you lower your body creating about a 90-degree angle at both knees.
Reverse lunges are also good for targeting your glutes and quads and are a great alternative for people who suffer from knee pain because the direction of movement lessens the stress on your knee joint.
How many squats should I do?
It’s in your best interest to master the bodyweight version of this exercise before attempting to add any external resistance such as dumbbells or barbells. Once you can do about 15-20 clean repetitions of bodyweight squats with great form and no pain, then it’s appropriate for you to make it more challenging by adding some weight.
Start with a light amount of weight and work your way up. Even if your muscles feel like they’re strong enough to handle the load, your soft/connective tissues may not be ready yet. This is why progressive overload is important.
Start gradually and work your way up, adding a little more of a challenge each week. If your form is on point and you’re free of pain, then adding 5-10 lbs per week to your lift should elicit pretty consistent training adaptations.
What is a proper squat depth?
90 degrees of knee flexion is adequate for reaping the benefits of squatting. While getting into a deep squat has become very popular, going lower than 90 degrees tends to deactivate the glutes, as they aren’t needed to stabilize as much in that position.
It’s generally recommended that you get your thighs parallel with the floor, or try to get the crease of your knee to align with the crease of your hips at the bottom of the squat position. Squatting to parallel at 90 degrees stimulates the most muscle activation.
While the hamstrings remain active regardless of how low you go, you’ll lose the activation of your outer quadriceps muscle, the vastus lateralis, and your gluteus medius which helps to stabilize your pelvis.
When squatting below parallel you can open yourself up to the risk of injuring your knees, ankles, and hips because of excessive knee flexion. Squatting to parallel has greater benefits and will activate more muscles while keeping you safer in the long run. Knee sleeves will also help prevent injuries.
What is “butt wink” in the squat?
Butt wink happens when your butt tucks under at the bottom of the squat, causing your lumbar spine, or lower back, to arch. This can cause trauma in your lower back by encouraging forces to negatively impact your spine!
It generally results in bulging discs, herniated discs, nerve impingement, and eventually chronic pain.
If you have a butt wink, it would behoove you to do partial squats while working on your hip and ankle mobility.
What to do if I have lower back pain when doing squats?
You can do partial squats while working on your joint mobility in your hips and ankles.
They were found to activate the glutes, biceps femoris (one of the hamstring muscles), low back, and the soleus (long head of the calves), as well as the outer quadriceps muscle (vastus lateralis).
Make sure you don’t have anterior pelvic tilt, and if you do then practice posteriorly tilting your pelvis and strengthening your glutes.
Strengthening your core and practicing posterior pelvic tilting will provide lower back stability, which should help to decrease and eliminate your lower back pain while squatting. A weightlifting belt can help support your core but you shouldn’t rely on it for pain management.
Place the weight in front of you instead of on your back. When you keep your torso upright it takes a lot of the strain off of your lower back.