Squats are a compound exercise that is a great way to develop strength, power and size in your lower limbs, particularly your quads, inner thighs and glutes.
Here, we’ll delve deeper into the specific muscle groups engaged during squats and how different squat variations can modify the muscles worked, allowing you to tailor your training to meet specific training outcomes and enhance your athletic performance.
What muscles does squats work?
The main muscles the squat works are your lower body, including your:
- Erector Spinae and lower back
Squat muscles worked diagram
In-depth analysis: how each muscle works during the squat
The gluteus maximus is activated during the concentric (upward) phase of the squat, as you stand up and extend at your hips. This muscle activates more, when squatting to a greater depth (i.e. the more depth, more active the glutes are when coming up).
The glute medius, which plays an important role in hip abduction (taking the leg out to the side like a crab walk), keeps your knees in line with your toes. Without a strong gluteus medius, your knees may cave inwards which will put unwanted force through the inside of the knee joint.
Your quadriceps (thigh muscles) play a key role during the front squat, they are considered your prime movers (they do most of the work) in the eccentric (downward) and concentric (upward) phases of the front squat.
The adductor magnus, which is one of your inner thigh muscles, is responsible for providing stability around the hips during the squat, especially in the bottom position of the squat.
Erector spinae and lower back
The erector spinae and lower back muscles are responsible for keeping your torso strong and stable during the squat, helping to maintain a flat back and minimise the stress placed upon your spine.
The core (otherwise known as abdominals) muscles play a key role in stabilising your trunk to avoid arching in the back.
How to squat correctly
To perform a standard squat, follow these steps:
- Start position – Start with your feet positioned about shoulder-width apart, with your toes slightly turned out. Then take a deep breath in and brace your core, maintaining this tension and breath throughout the squat.
Useful cues: Imagine bracing your core like you’re preparing for a punch to the stomach.
- Decent – Initiate the downward phase by bending at your hips and knees at the same time. Continue to gradually bend at your knees and hips, while keeping your knees in line with your toes and core braced.
Useful cues: Visualize sitting back into an imaginary chair as you lower your body.
- Bottom position – Aim for full depth at the bottom of the squat, where your hip joint passes below the knee joint (or as far as you can go with great technique). In this position, keep your feet flat on the floor, back flat, chest up and knees in alignment with your toes.
Useful cues: Maintain tension in your glutes and hamstrings to support your hips at the bottom – imagine you have a band around your shins and your pushing it out.
- Accent – To return to the starting position, push through your heels and straighten your legs and extend your hips at the same time. Once you reach the top of the movement, breathe out and reset.
Useful cues: Think of pushing the ground away from you as you rise.
Squat Variations & the muscles they work
There are plenty of variations of the squat, we’ll cover what they are and how they might alter the muscle groups that are targeted, plus why you might use them.
What are back squats?
Back squats involve the barbell resting tight against your upper traps (in a high bar position) on your back, and performing a squat.
Why do back squats?
Back squats allow you to load the bar with a large amount of weight when compared to most other squat variations, which lends itself to being a great tool for maximum strength training to develop lower body strength. It’s important that athletes have a high training age and are competent under load when performing this, as it is very technically demanding!
What muscles do back squats work?
The main muscles worked during the back squat are the glutes, quadriceps, abductors, adductors and erector spinae. However, because the barbell is on the back, the torso position leans slightly more forward than the front or goblet squat, which activates your posterior chain more.
What are front squats?
Front squats are similar to the back squat, but they involve placing the barbell across the front of your shoulders, in the front rack position.
Why do front squats?
Front squats are a great compound exercise to develop lower limb strength, with a particular focus on your quads and anterior core. While they can provide a strength stimulus, they can’t be loaded as much as the back squat.
The positioning of the bar in front of the body promotes an upright trunk posture, reducing spinal stress and making it a more back-friendly option. It also serves as a progressive step beyond the goblet squat and helps prepare athletes for cleans.
What muscles do front squats work?
The main muscles worked during the front squat are the glutes, quadriceps, abductors, adductors and erector spinae. However, the bar placement in front of the body places a greater emphasis on the quads and anterior core compared to other squat variations.
What are goblet squats?
The goblet squat is similar to that of the front squat, but instead of holding the barbell in the front rack position, you hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your body, like a big cup or goblet, with your palms facing up.
Why do goblet squats?
The goblet squat allows you to lift a low-moderate weight when compared to the front or back squat variations. This is because the strength of the arms and upper back can be a limiting factor on how much weight you can lift when compared to being able to have more weight on a barbell in the front rack or back squat position.
We love goblet squats for athletes learning to squat, it is relatively low in technical demand and the low-moderate load means it’s easier and safer for them to learn if they are new to strength and conditioning.
What muscles do goblet squats work?
The main muscles the goblet squats work are the quads, glutes and adductors. Goblet squats also work the lower and upper back, erector spinae, lats and abdominal muscles to hold the goblet, or dumbbell in position.
What are sumo squats?
Sumo squats involve having a wide stance, typically about 1.5 times your shoulder width depending on flexibility, and then performing the squat as you would like a regular stance squat.
Why do sumo squats?
Sumo squats are a more well-rounded lower body exercise when compared to the regular stance squat – as you’ll see why below.
They’re also a good choice for reducing lower back stress, making them a good option for people coming back from a back injury.
What muscles do sumo squats work?
The sumo squat tends to recruit glutes, abductors and adductors more evenly, with quads, whereas the regular stance squat tends to preferentially recruit the quads.
What are jump squats?
Jump squats are a plyometric exercise that involves performing a squat and then explosively jumping off the ground as high as possible.
Why do jump squats?
Jump squats can be performed to develop explosive power and athleticism. You have the option to perform these jumps individually, ensuring each jump is executed with maximum intent and power, or you can choose to perform them consecutively which can be used to develop repeated power. However, performing them consecutively can lead to fatigue and may introduce chaos, potentially compromising your technique.
What muscles do jump squats work?
Jump squats primarily work the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles. They also engage the core and various stabilizer muscles in the legs and hips to generate the explosive power needed for the jump.
This depends on your training goal and training history, but here are some general principles:
The goblet squat is a great exercise for athletes learning to squat, given it’s relatively easy to learn and allows athletes to hold a comfortable, light-moderate amount of weight. Keep the weight low-moderate and complete plenty of reps and sets to focus on your technique e.g., 3 sets with 8-12 reps.
For building strength
To build strength, squats can be completed using 3-5 sets with 1-6 reps at above 80% of you’re one repetition max, progressing from week to week to create adaptation. To build strength, it’s recommended that this is performed using a barbell rather than dumbbells so that it’s more stable to load – back squats and the leg press are best suited to this.
Completing 5-30 reps at around 30-75% of your one repetition max is effective for improving muscle growth. Training to failure or eccentrically focused repetitions (where the downward phase of the movement is completed slower) are also effective for hypertrophy, but make sure to have a spotter when going close to failure – the leg press which is stable is best suited for this.
Completing 3-5 sets of 1-5 repetitions at around 65-85% of you’re one repetition max with the intent of moving as quickly as possible will stimulate the development power – the back squat is a good variation for this purpose, and another option is executing jump squats with maximum intent.
For endurance, keep the weight light and complete plenty of reps e.g. 10-20 reps. Given that this will be fatiguing, pick a squat variation that will allow you to maintain excellent technique under fatigue.
Alternatives for the squat – 2 exercises you should try
What is the leg press?
The leg press involves sitting on a machine and pushing a weighted platform away from your body using your legs, mimicking a squatting motion.
Why leg press?
The leg press is easy to learn and use as it’s not limited by balance or stability demands, allowing you to really focus on building size or strength of the quads.
Since you don’t have a bar on your back like you would with squats, the leg press provides less axial (spinal) loading. This means it tends to create less systemic (whole-body) fatigue.
What muscles does the leg press work?
The main muscles worked in the leg press are the quadriceps, supported to a small extent by the hamstrings and glutes. With that said, you can adjust the foot position in the leg press to activate slightly more glutes and hamstrings. However, if growing those muscles is your goal, there are likely far better exercise choices.
What are split squats?
Split squats are a unilateral exercise, meaning you are training one leg at a time. It involves placing one foot in front of the other (around three to five feet in front of the other) and lowering your body by bending both knees, creating a split stance, and driving back up.
Why split squat?
We’re a big fan of the split squat, it can be performed to develop strength and stability in each leg individually, making it especially valuable for addressing muscle imbalances.
What muscles do split squats work?
The main muscles worked during a split squat are your quads and glutes, with some support from your adductors, abductors (glute med, glute min and TFL) calves and hamstrings.
You will also use your core muscles for support and stability.
Muscle does a squat work: frequently asked questions
How much squat weight
The amount of weight you should use for squats depends on your fitness levels and goals. If you’re new to squatting, start with body weight or light weights. If you’re training for strength, then aim for heavier weights, around 80% of your one repetition max. If you’re training for size, aim for moderate to heavy weights, roughly 30-75% of your one repetition max. If power development is your goal, start with body or light weights, not exceeding 30% of you’re one repetition max.
How many squats should I do?
The number of squats you should do depends on your fitness goals. If you’re new to squatting, start with 3-4 sets and see how you’re body responds. For strength, lower repetitions (e.g., 306 reps) with heavier weights are common. For endurance, higher repetitions (12-20 reps) with lighter weights or body weight can be effective. For hypertrophy, pick repetitions between the two.
How often should I do squats?
The frequency of squatting depends on your overall workout routine and recovery capacity. Many athletes perform squats 1-3 times a week (depending on their goal and how heavy they are lifting) allowing sufficient rest between sessions to promote muscle recovery and growth.
Are squats muscular endurance or muscular strength?
Squats can be adapted to target both muscular endurance and muscular strength. Squats with low repetition and high weight focus on strength development while performing squats with high repetitions and lower weight enhances muscular endurance.
Do squats without weights build muscle?
Yes, squats without weights can build muscle for beginners. However, to continually build muscle and for athletes with some strength training experience, you will likely need to progress to weighted squats over time.
Do squats work abs?
Yes, squats engage the core muscles to stabilise the spine and maintain proper form throughout the movement. However, if you want to specifically target your abs, other exercises such as the dead bug or plank may be better.
Squats are a great exercise that targets your quads, glutes, adductors, erector spinae, lower back and core. Variations like the goblet squat, back squat, front squat and leg press offer slightly different benefits.
We hope this article has given you a deeper insight into the muscles worked during squat variations. Check out our other articles below for a deeper dive into the squat variations.
- What Muscles Do Front Squats Work?
- What Muscles Do Goblet Squats Work?
- How to Optimise Your Leg Press – A Guide For Athletes
- Front Squat Vs Back Squat – Which One Should You Choose?
- A Brief Review on the Effects of the Squat Exercise on Lower-Limb Muscle Hypertrophy
- Differences in the muscle activities of the quadriceps femoris and hamstrings while performing various squat exercises
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