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The Beginner’s Guide to Squats: What Muscles Do Squats Work and How to Prepare Yourself

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The Beginner’s Guide to Squats: What Muscles Do Squats Work and How to Prepare Yourself

The humble squat is a great addition to a balanced workout because it can strengthen and tone a number of muscles in your legs without the need for any gym gear. Of course, you can add weights, resistance bands, and other equipment for a more intense workout. But you don’t have to do anything extra to get the benefits of a squat.

In today’s article, I cover what a squat exactly is, what muscles squats work, how to prepare for squatting, different variations and most importantly the benefits. I finish up with a neat little challenge. 

What Is A Squat?

A standard squat is a bodyweight resistance exercise, meaning you use your body weight to create the resistance to workout your muscles. Depending on the set/rep range, this functional exercise can be used for toning and strengthening or cardio, whether you go for a static hold or a dynamic movement.Bodyweight squats (aka air squats) train your core, legs, and entire posterior chain. Plus, as we will see later, there are a lot fo options to shake up squats — even without weights.

It’s all about the right posture, moving with precision and ensuring you are activating the correct muscles as you go. 

Which Muscles Do You Work With Squats?

When you do squats, you’re working primarily your legs. Specifically, you’re working your hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps and calves. But you’re also including your abdominal muscles in the process to keep your core stable and not lose balance especially when you add wheight like a barbell on your shouldersl. This makes it a great exercise for all-round toning hitting many muscle groups also referred to as compound exercise. 

For added intensity and to get a whole-body workout, you can add in arm movements. You don’t need weights, simply raising your arms as you squat will activate your shoulders and arm muscles. This brings a new dimension to the squat and makes the exercise harder.

You can also add in leg raises, calf raises or jumps in between your squats to get a cardiovascular workout at the same time. It’s always great to be able to do strength and cardio training at the same time—it saves you time and doubles the impact of your workout.

How Do You Prepare To Do Squats?

Let’s start with the basic squat. 

For either a simple hold or a dynamic moving squat, the starting position is the same. Your feet should be straight (your toes can point slightly outwards) and placed a little wider apart than hip-width. Stand upright and engage your core muscles so that your body moves deliberately. Throughout the move, you want to keep your chest and your head up so that you are looking straight ahead.

Your arms can stay at your sides throughout the move. Alternatively, you can swing your arms out in front of you as you move down into the squat. If you’re holding the squat, make sure you hold your arms straight out in front of you—this intensifies the hold. Arms can stay on your hips, crossed over your chest with your hands on the fronts of your shoulders, or hands up behind your ears like you would do for sit-ups and crunches.

As you begin to move into your squat, you want to push your weight backwards into your heels. Think of it more as your hips and butt moving backwards than a bend in your knees. You should always be able to look down and see your toes, meaning your knees should never move forward during the move so that you don’t put pressure on them. Remember to also keep your back up and straight—you aren’t bending forward from the waist either. Looking forward during the whole movement helps to keep that structure.

Continue to lower yourself until your thighs are as parallel to the floor as you can get them. The stronger and more flexible your hamstrings, glutes and quadriceps are, the lower you will be able to go. The same goes for the more you practice and the stronger you get. However, you don’t want to move too far past the parallel position as this will put pressure on your back and knees rather than working the muscles you want to target.

Your feet should remain flat on the ground throughout the lowering and raising of your basic squat. Your knees should also remain straight throughout and follow the direction of the toes. Make sure they don’t move inwards from their starting point as you bend them as you may risk injury especially when you squat a lot and/or with heavy weight.

How To Shake Up Your Squats

The Beginner’s Guide to Squats: What Muscles Do Squats Work and How to Prepare Yourself

There are so many variations you can try out if you want to do something a little different:

  • Dynamic Vs Hold Vs Pulse – You can do a basic squat in three different ways—held in place for a specific length of time, with constant movement in and out of the position, or with a small pulse while holding your squat. They are all valuable workout tools that you can incorporate in the same exercise session or interchangeably if you want to do something different with each workout.
  • Kettlebells And Dumbbells – Adding in weight can intensify the exercise because you are adding to your body weight and therefore increasing the resistance to your movement. Simply holding two dumbbells (or a kettlebell for a so-called Goblet squat) up on your shoulders can be enough to make things harder. You can also try kettlebell swings or lifting weights from the ground and placing them back down with each alternate squat.
  • Leg Variations – The basic squat is great for working most of your major leg muscles, but you can change things up and keep your body guessing a bit by moving your leg position. Try a wider squat with your feet turned out to target your muscles slightly differently. You can also push your calf muscles more by lifting one foot up onto the toes while you’re in the squat position. Try holding your squat and alternating your lifted feet. Or you can experiment with resistance bands or balance boards
  • Squat Jumps – As the name suggests, adding in a jump can give you a great cardio workout too. You can do this by staying in the same spot and jumping or hopping as you stand up out of your squat. Alternatively, you can jump forward into your squat and then step back to your starting position. You can make things even more difficult by jumping up onto a platform into your squat.
  • Two special variations – To perform a sissy squat, you will keep your feet in a fixed position while leaning backward, putting increased strain on your thigh muscles. When performing a Hindu squat, you will rest on the balls of your feet (near your toes), rather than keeping your weight in your heels. 

The Benefits Of Doing Squats

You can improve your overall fitness so easily with the addition of even the simplest form of the squat to your workout.

1. Overall Workout

The basic squat works the main muscles in your legs, shaping them, strengthening, and toning them. You can also boost your core muscles, your calf muscles, your arms and your heart when you add in variations to the basic form. It’s an incredibly versatile exercise that can give you incredible strength in your body. It’s a great way to improve overall health and fitness.

2. Improved Flexibility

Our hips can easily decrease in flexibility and mobility from our daily lives. Sitting at a desk, in a car, in front of the TV—all of these things affect our bodies detrimentally. The squat gets you moving your hips and stretching out your hamstrings and glutes. The more you do the exercise, over time, you’ll find that your hip flexors loosen and you’ll have greater mobility in the joints.

3. Strengthened Joints

On the topic of your joints, squats can serve to strengthen them too. You work your ankles, knees and hips with each squat that you do. The control required to do the exercise correctly also means that you build those muscles and ligaments around the joints to ensure that they stay stable with each move and help protecting the joints.

4. An Anytime, Anywhere Exercise

You can do your squats at any time and in any place. There’s no equipment needed to get the full benefit from the workout. This means that you don’t need to worry about getting to the gym or taking equipment with you if you’re traveling. It’s the ideal addition to your home workout or your strength-building routine when you’re on holiday or away for work.

Ready to up your squat game? Or ready to try a fantastic challenge? Here is one ;)

The Grueling Sally Challenge

You probably know the song by Richard Melville Hall -- better known as Moby -- called Flower (from the album Play: The B Sides). The great thing about this song is that it is perfectly usable for a grueling challenge. The lyrics constantly mention either “Sally up” or “Sally down.” We can combine this with an excellent squat workout: Whenever the lyrics say “Sally down” you go down into the squat position hold it, till they say “Sally up”. Here is what I mean. It’s tough, trust me. You’ll do a lot of squats. If it’s not tough enough, add some weight.    

Squats: One Of The Best Exercises Ever

By now, you have probably figured out that I am a big fan of squats (next to deadlifts). They are a simple but very effective exercise which train a lot of different muscles groups all at the same time. The benefits are enormous including improved strength, cardio, flexbility, mobility and reduced risk of injury. 

You don’t need any equipment, so you can do it anytime anywhere even when traveling. So, there is not excuse. If you get bored, you can shake it up with different variations. If you get very bored, tackle the grueling Sally Challenge. 

I hope you found this post helpful. Are you up for a challenge? 

I created a new program that is designed to optimally prepare for a Spartan race or any other obstacle race. It incorporates ideas for healthy recovery respecting fatigue. You can find more details here.

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