The Best Squat Variations to Spice Up Your Leg Day

by Evelyn Valdez

Bodyweight squats are some of the best exercises for developing lower body strength because you're working out several large muscle groups at the same time. It's one of the easiest ways to tone your body at any age without all kinds of special equipment. However, doing the same basic squat over and over gets boring. It also stops you from pushing past your limitations if you never attempt more advanced variations.

So although we all love the classic barbell back squat, sumo squats, and front squats, upgrading your exercise repertoire should always be a part of your overall bodybuilding goals. And luckily there are various different types of squats that will spice up your workout routine and drive better lower-body results!

To help get you started, we've listed ten of the best squat variations below to put a little extra soreness and sweat in your leg day.

3-WAY SQUAT JUMP

The simplest way to incorporate a different kind of squat into your routine is by adding another movement, like a jump! Jump squats are a common exercise practiced by athletes to help develop their explosive power. This move is easy for beginners and targets multiple areas, including the core, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, while increasing your heart rate.

You can start off this exercise by going slow and progressively picking up the speed once you get a feel for you’re landing and you’ve established good form.

  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart and bend into a squat. 
  • When you jump, bring your feet closer together so that your feet are slightly less than shoulder-width apart. Remember to land softly on your feet. 
  • Sit back into a squat again, but this time when you jump, bring your feet together completely while sitting into the squat. You’ll then jump back up and end in the same wide squat position that you started.

SQUAT PULSES

Squat pulses reduce the range of motion in your squats so there’s constant tension on your lower body muscles. Keeping your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and core engaged will help maintain your stability while building strength and endurance. You can also up the intensity by adding some weight with a kettlebell or pair of dumbbells. Squat pulses may seem a bit hard and intense for beginners, but they get easier as these muscles develop more. 

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and make sure your weight is evenly distributed between both feet. 
  • While keeping your back straight and chest up, slowly lower yourself into a partial squat so your thighs are parallel with the floor. 
  • Hold your hands together and begin pulsing your lower body a couple of inches up and down. As you establish a set rhythm, make sure you still have proper form and continue staying in a squat position. 

BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUATS

Bulgarian split squats are a compound, single-leg squat variation that requires balance and coordination. By placing one leg on a bar bench or other elevated surface, your core and front leg become heavily engaged to keep you steady.

However, you should pay close attention to your form and leg positioning when doing Bulgarian split squats. Your back foot should be hips-distance apart from the front foot with a slight forward tilt in your torso, and your knee needs to align with your toes. All of the engagement will be on your front leg. The back leg is merely there to help you balance.

Your distance from the bench is also important for activating the right muscles. The further your front foot is away from you, the more you work your glutes. If your front foot is closer to your body, then you’ll put more emphasis on your quads. Getting the correct form for Bulgarian split squats takes some practice, but it’s still a great lower-body move for beginners to include in their routine. 

  • Find a knee-high bench, chair, or other elevated surface and place your leg on the bench. There are two ways you can rest your back foot behind you. You can either tuck your toes or lay the top of your foot flat across the surface.
  • Make sure your front leg is in a position where you can lean into a comfortable lunge. It can help if you hop around a bit so you can gain a strong footing. 
  • Check that your hips are squared and your core is engaged, then slowly bend into your front leg. Be sure you don’t lift your heel off the ground or rise onto your toes as you lower down. 
  • Push up through your foot using your quad and glute to lift yourself up to the starting position.

PLIE SQUATS

It’s time for a little ballet! If you’re looking for a move that really targets your inner thighs, plie squats are where it’s at. It will also work out your quads, calves, and glutes. This is a simple move that anyone can do, but you can make the move more advanced by adding a weighted barbell, dumbbell, or exercise ball. 

  • Stand straight with your feet slightly wider than your hips with your toes pointing outward. It should look like your lower body is forming a triangle. 
  • Place your hands on your hips, if you’re not using any kind of weight, and squat down until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Your knees should not be going past your toes or collapsing forward. Remember to keep your upper body straight the entire time.
  • Press into your heels to help lift back into a standing position. 

SQUAT AND WALK

Squat walks may feel strange and even embarrassing at first, but you’ll definitely feel the burn. The exercise is exactly like it sounds; walking while squatting! Some beginners find it challenging since it requires good balance and heavily works the quads and glutes, but the results are worth it.

For the more advanced bodybuilder, try adding a short resistance band to increase the tension in your muscles. 

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and lower into a regular squat position.
  • Walk forward while maintaining the squat as far as you can go and then walk yourself backward.

PISTOL SQUAT

The pistol squat is one of the hardest squats to do and is considered an advanced strength-training exercise. You should definitely have a normal squat down before jumping into this variation.

Many runners benefit from pistol squats because it’s a unilateral move, like running. By taking the exercise one leg at a time, they can identify weaknesses and improve stability, all while building their lower body and core strength. Pistol squats target the quads, glutes, hip abductors, hamstrings, and calves. 

A word of warning: if you have serious issues with your ankles or knees, you’ll probably want to sit this one out.

  • Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Carefully extend one leg in front of you so your heel is lightly hovering over the ground. Put your arms straight out in front of you while maintaining your balance on the opposite leg.
  • Slowly start bending your standing leg and lowering your body while keeping the raised leg extended. Tighten your core for better stability and make sure your back stays straight. 
  • Continue bending down closer to the ground so that your glute is as close to your heel as possible. Your extended leg should be parallel with the ground.
  • Squeeze your glutes and drive through your heel to straighten your standing leg. 

DUMBBELL SUITCASE SQUAT

You’re not going on vacation, but this move will help get you ready for one! Dumbbell squats are just normal squats while holding a pair of dumbbells at your side. You also work the same muscles; glutes, hamstrings, quads, and core. 

You don’t need to add a ton of weight if you’re a beginner. Proper form is always more important. Start off with only one dumbbell so you can get a feel for the exercise and work on your balance. 

  • Place your feet slightly wider than your hips and put a dumbbell in each hand. 
  • Bend into a regular squat while keeping the weight at your side.

KETTLEBELL RACKED SQUAT

The kettlebell racked squat is a single-hand variation of a kettlebell squat. The position of the kettlebell helps make squatting much easier by displacing some of the weight in your body. At the same time, it also targets your core with more intensity than a normal squat. Since there’s weight in only one hand, it forces you to engage the obliques and abs to keep stability in your upper body. 

The correct racking position is to hold the kettlebell with one hand up in front of your shoulder with a straight wrist and have your elbow tucked in close to the body. There are different racking positions you can try out, but this is a basic form used by beginners. 

  • Grip your hand around the kettlebell handle and set it up in the correct racking position, as explained above.
  • Engage your core and place your feet in a slightly wide stance.
  • Lower yourself down into a squat while keeping the kettlebell fixed in the same position.

BANDED GOBLET SQUAT

Goblet squats allow you to add resistance while working on perfecting your squat form. Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of the body helps you become more aware of your body so you can identify and fix mistakes with your form. 

Adding in a resistance band with free weights will also help control your movements and create extra tension in your lower body muscles. There are actually two ways this can be done. Some people simply use a short band to place around their legs for added resistance. Those who want an extra challenge can wrap a long resistance band around their feet and the handle of the dumbbell or kettlebell. That way when they squat up and down, the band stretches with the movement to provide more resistance. 

These benefits make banded goblet squats an essential move for beginners, but can be performed by exercisers of all levels, especially as a warm-up move. You’re still targeting all the same muscle groups like with other squats (legs, core, and glutes), but there’s more engagement in the quads due to the weight.

  • Put your legs through a resistance band and move it up just above your knees, or use a longer band to hold under your feet and wrap around the handle of the kettlebell/dumbbell. The longer resistance band should create a triangle along the front of your body.
  • Hold a kettlebell up to the center of your chest like a goblet. If you’re using a dumbbell, then hold it vertically with both hands under the top part of the weight. Make sure your elbows are close to your body and not out to the side. 
  • Spread your legs wider than hip-width apart keeping your core engaged, toes slightly turned out, and your back straight. 
  • Hinge at the waist, bend your knees, and lower into a squat position. Check that you’re not holding the weight too far out in front of you or leaning too far forward. 
  • Push through the heels to raise yourself back up to a starting position and squeeze your glutes.

SMITH MACHINE NARROW STANCE SQUAT

While some people may find machine-weighted squats don’t have as many advantages as free weights, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Doing narrow stance squats on a smith machine offers better stability and puts less stress on your thighs. This move requires more demand from your hips and ankles so you can squat deep while maintaining a straight spine. 

Some bodybuilders also notice an increase in their range of motion when doing these squats on a machine. Because you can adjust the positioning of your feet, you get better stimulation from other muscle groups. Although narrow squats do target the glutes and adductors, it’s mostly about activating the quads. 

Performing these squats on a machine is a great alternative for those who don’t have the balance or strength to perform the move with a free-weight barbell. It’s a move any person can do, but if you’ve never done a squat with weights before, it’s best to start with a kettlebell or dumbbell so you know what it feels like. 

  • Set the smith bar to shoulder height and load the sides with your desired weight. Beginners can try it first with no weight at all or add about 5-10 lbs.
  • Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip with your elbows pointing straight down and position yourself slightly under the bar with your feet hip-width distance or slightly closer together. 
  • Unhook the barbell from the rack and rest the bar at the center of your upper traps. The bar should never rest against your neck or back. 
  • With your back straight and eyes looking straight ahead, drop down like you’re sitting in a chair until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Don’t allow your heels to lift up from the ground.
  • Push yourself back up through your heels to a standing position, but avoid fully locking your knees. 

SHAKE UP YOUR BASIC SQUATS WITH THESE LESSER-KNOWN SQUAT VARIATIONS!

No weightlifting routine or total body workout is complete without squats. These different variations add some flair while continuing to help you build strength and muscle in your lower body. It keeps your training fresh and unique while challenging yourself to push past your body's limitations.

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