Love them or hate them, squats are unbeatable for building lower-body strength. The basic movement is good for beginners, but gym veterans are going to need to throw in some new challenges in order to get the biggest payoff. We spoke to Jonathon Ross, CPT, American Council on Exercise (ACE) spokesperson, and author of Abs Revealed, about three great squat variations.
No matter what variation of squat you’re performing, you’ll be challenging your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Ross explained strength in these lower-body muscles is crucial for everyone since we use them for everyday activities like climbing out of a chair, as well as athletics. “In almost any sport you play, you’re going to have some degree of lowering and lifting your body, and you use your legs to do that,” he said. “It’s really an important form of movement for both life and sport.”
Before worrying about trying out some different exercises, though, you need to master the basics. “The goal is skill first, then strength,” Ross said. From there, simply changing what you do with your feet or your arms during the exercise can provide a significant challenge. Try out these three variations to give your squats a serious upgrade.
1. Asymmetrical foot position
Most people take a fair amount of time getting themselves into position before they start any sort of exercise and once they begin, the move is mirrored perfectly on both sides. That might be a flawed approach, though. “Most squats in life and sport are not symmetrical,” Ross said. “Usually the feet are not identical as far as how they’re positioned. One might be wider than the other. It might be turned out or in. It might be a little more forward or backward.” Purposefully doing the same thing in the gym will enable you to more accurately replicate a real-life situation.
Exactly how you arrange your feet is up to you, and you have a lot of options. You might change where your feet are placed in relation to one another, the direction your toes point, and any number of combinations. While variations of certain strength-training exercises are designed to target different muscle groups, Ross explained these types of changes “train the same muscles at different angles. You train the nervous system to control the squat differently so that it becomes more beneficial for lifelike and sport-like situations.”
Adding dumbbells or a barbell to the move will increase your effort even more, but be smart about it. Again, it’s more important to do the move correctly. Ross said you may have to lessen the amount of weight once you factor in the asymmetrical stance.
2. Horizontal arm swing
Your leg muscles are definitely the key players with squats, but your arms can play a critical role as well. Instead of keeping your upper body immobilized, try adding some movement. One of Ross’ favorites is what he calls a helicopter squat.
You begin in the usual stance with your feet about shoulder-width apart, but extend both of your arms straight out to one side so they are parallel to the ground. As you squat, swing both arms horizontally in front of your chest until they are fully extended to the other side just as you reach the bottom of the squat. Then, swing them back as you raise yourself back into a standing position. Ross explained this added rotational force “creates a different response in the lower body by how you’re shifting our weight around in the upper body.” This means you’ll have to work harder to control the movement. “You typically feel it in the abs and glutes a bit more,” he added.
For an increased effort, you can hold a medicine ball in your hands as you perform the helicopter squat. But keep in mind, your arms have heft to them as well. Their weight alone may provide enough of a challenge.
3. Downward arm swing
Though some dismiss body-weight exercises as too easy, a little bit of creativity can seriously increase the intensity. Ross likes to combine the lower body movement of a traditional squat with the arm motion you perform during a jumping jack.
Once again, start in the standing position with your feet about shoulder-width apart. This time, reach your arms straight up towards the ceiling. As you squat, arc your arms out to your sides and downwards in a swift motion so that your arms are pointed down when you reach the bottom of the squat.
The added acceleration will cause a noticeable difference. “Your legs are having to stop, not just the weight of your body, but also the acceleration of your arms,” Ross said. Your fellow gym goers might give you some strange looks, but at least you’ll know you’re squatting like a pro.