The squat is known as the king of lower body exercises. When it comes to building an impressive set of legs or becoming faster and more athletic, it is always at the top of the list of must-do exercises.
Building a bigger squat is easy when you are a novice or intermediate lifter. All you have to do is slowly add weight or reps from week to week to get stronger. But after you get really good at squatting, things start to get a little bit tricky. You may find you hit a plateau.
This is where it is important to look at different exercise variations to improve your squat. Take a look at the major muscles involved in the squat—quads, glutes, hamstrings—and then build strength in those areas by using different exercises that have nothing to do with squatting.
Here are six exercise variations that will help you build a stronger squat without needing a squat rack. Give them a shot for a couple of weeks and then test your progress.
Joey Percia, M.S., CPPS, CSCS, Weside Barbell Coach, is a Lifestyle and Performance Coach at Soho Strength Lab in New York City.
1. Barbell glute bridge
Why: The barbell glute bridge is a great way to build a strong butt. It puts the load directly over the hips and takes stress off of your back. Make sure to use a pad between the bar and your body or else this movement can be very uncomfortable on the hips.
How: Lay on the floor and roll the barbell over your thighs. Tuck your feet in towards your butt. Start the movement by driving through your heels and finish the movement with a strong butt squeeze. Try not to use your lower back, your butt should be doing most of the work.
2. Swiss ball bridge and leg curl
Why: The swiss ball bridge and leg curl will give you a burn in your glutes and hamstrings like no other. It will teach you how to keep your abs and lower back in a strong and safe position while strengthening your butt and hamstrings at the same time.
How: Lay on your back with legs straight and your heels on a swiss ball. First you want to bridge your hips off the floor while keeping your legs straight. Do this by driving your heels into the ball. After your hips are in a bridge, pull your heels towards your butt to finish the curl. Return to the start position under control.
3. Sumo Deadlift
Why: The deadlift is one of the best bang for your buck exercises, and the sumo variation will allow you to keep you upper body in a similar position to your squat as well as really strengthening your entire lower body. The width of your feet and angle or your toes will differ from person to person so start with something comfortable and experiment from there.
How: Set up with your shins close to the bar and take a wide stance with your toes slightly pointing out. While keeping your back straight lower yourself down to the bar and grab it with a tight grip. Lift the bar by driving your feet into the ground. Think as if there was a crack in the floor and you were trying to make this crack bigger by ‘spreading the floor apart’. Finish the movement by standing straight up and squeezing your butt. DO NOT finish the movement by leaning back and overextending your lower back. Return to the floor under control and make sure to keep your back straight.
4. Barbell Bulgarian Split Squat
Why: The Bulgarian split squat can be one of the most brutal and physically demanding single leg exercises out there. This exercise is great because you can train all of the main squatting muscles and the same squat movement but now using one leg. Standing on one leg means an increase in core strength and balance as well as taking stress off of your lower back since the overall weight that you would be using in a regular squat is lower.
How: Start with your back foot on a bench or single leg squat stand. Place you foot flat/laces down, do not try to stay on the ball of your foot. From the top of the movement, begin to lower yourself under control by bending the front knee. Keep the majority of your weight on the heel and middle of your front foot, the back leg (the one on the bench) should just be keeping you stable. Stop right before your back knee touches the ground and then reverse the movement by standing up. Be sure to keep your knee in line with your toes during the exercise and doesn’t drift side to side.
5. Kettle bell Swing
Why: The kettle bell swing trains the your squatting muscles in an explosive fashion. If you want to squat more weight it is important to develop strength as well as power. The kettle bell swing does exactly that.
How: Set up with your feet about shoulder-width apart and toes pointed slightly out. Keeping a straight back, bend over by reaching your hips back behind you and grab the kettlebell with an overhand grip. Start the movement by pulling the kettlebell in between your legs like you were trying to hit yourself in the butt. It is important to keep the kettlebell as close to your body as possible.
From the bottom position, squeeze your butt and extend your hips to return the kettlebell to the top. When the kettlebell reaches the top, reverse the movement by tracing the same path towards hitting yourself in the butt while keeping your back straight.
6. Goblet Squat
Why: The goblet squat is a squat variation that will really strengthen your upper back and core and improve your squat.
How: Set up with you feet around hip to shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly out. With a straight back, crouch down to pick up the weight (dumbbell or kettlebell). Hold the weight at chest height with your elbows pointing down towards the ground (not out to the sides). You should really feel your upper back working. Start the movement by pushing your hips behind you and bending your knees at the same time.
Go as low as your body will allow as long as you keep a straight back. Reverse the movement by pushing your feet through the floor.