When it comes to the best all-around exercise, you won’t find one that works harder than the squat. This lower-body movement recruits more muscle groups per rep than nearly any other exercise. By engaging your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core, the squat helps build muscular endurance, strength and power that can translate into the sports you’re playing or everyday tasks like getting out of bed and picking up heavy groceries. Trust us: Whatever your goals are, the squat can help you get there in the shortest and safest path possible.
Part of the squat’s magic is its versatility. By changing one aspect of the movement, you can create nearly unlimited results. “No matter your fitness goals, performing a variety of squats every week is key for building a strong, healthy body - which is why you’ll see so many different types utilized in Orangetheory’s programming,” says Orangetheory’s research scientist Dr. Brittany Masteller, PhD. “The ability to perform squats under various conditions directly translates to all the ways the movement is performed during our daily life.” Here are six common variations:
- Unloaded squat: reduces the resistance used. “This is great for beginners or people that struggle with stability,” says Masteller. “An example that we use is a TRX-assisted squat.”
- Loaded squat: uses external resistance (think: dumbbell front squat). This will activate the posterior muscles like your glutes and hamstrings, as well as your core, more than an unloaded squat.
- Stable squat: performed bilaterally (with both feet on the ground). These maximize range of motion and allow heavier loads.
- Unstable squat: performed unilaterally (like a single-leg squat). They improve motor control and are beneficial for training instabilities.
- Tempo squat: slows down the lowering phase of the squat. “This increases the difficulty by increasing the time under tension,” says Masteller.
- Explosive squat: adds a hop or jump. This can be used to improve lower body power and strength.
While they offer impressive benefits and endless variations, there are some important considerations to keep in mind when performing squats. Because you are asking so many different body parts to come together and move as one unit, every piece of the puzzle has to be functioning properly in order to perform the exercise safely and effectively. If someone lacks mobility, stability or neuromuscular control, their body will find the path of least resistance and compensate.
“Two of the most common compensations include the knees coming together when squatting down (also known as knee valgus) and the lower back rounding,” says Masteller. “Sometimes, these can lead to discomfort or pain, but other times the individual may not be aware they have these compensations.” That’s why going to classes can be so helpful: often a qualified fitness coach will be the one to point it out.
Even the smallest body part can make a big impact. For example, if you have limited ankle mobility, your knee cannot move as far forward as it needs to. So, your body will compensate to reach your desired squat depth. Other common compensations are limited hip mobility, poor hip control or lack of core stability. While it may not seem like a big deal, these small imbalances can increase your risk of injury.
The good news is that all of them can be fixed. “If a person is experiencing pain or discomfort, they should work with their coach to find an alternative form of squatting that works for them,” says Masteller. “It likely will not mean avoiding squats all together, but rather finding a different variation that can be performed appropriately.” They can also give you drills and exercises to help correct the specific issue causing your compensation.
If you’re on Team Squat–and really, how could you not be? –don’t miss our new “Drop it Like a Squat” workout launching exclusively on National Squat Day. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. If you’re working out at an Orangetheory studio on April 20, 2023, you’ll be doing the workout,” says workout design and experience manager Stephen Marcotte. Expect to spend about 30 minutes on the treadmill and 30 minutes on the weight floor. “On the treads, you’ll see fast-paced, high-intensity intervals. On the weight floor, you’ll see seven different squat variations.” What are you waiting for? Find a class near you and join in on the fun (and sore legs) as we come together to celebrate this MVP move.