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benefits of squats

Squats: Benefits, How-To & Variations

Ever wondered what the benefits of squats are? Well, you’re in the right place!

Squats aren’t just for powerlifters or competitive bodybuilders - they're a great staple exercise that everyone should be incorporating into their routine, whether you’re new to the gym or an advanced lifter.

In this article we’ll provide answers for some of the most commonly asked questions, from ‘what do squats do?’ to ‘do squats help you lose weight?’. We’ll also explore the benefits of doing squats, alongside the safety measures that you should consider whilst performing the exercise.

In this thorough guide to squat benefits, we will cover:

So, what are the benefits of squats? Keep reading to find out!

But before you do that, do you often find yourself considering a career in fitness? Go check out our REPs recognised Gym Instrutcor course or our diploma in personal training before jumping in.

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What Are Squats?

Squats are a resistance training exercise, performed to strengthen and increase the size of the lower body muscles.

Resistance training refers to an exercise where your muscles must push or pull against, and ultimately overcome, a form of resistance in order to grow. This resistance could be your body weight, or an external weight such as a barbell or dumbbell. You can read more about resistance training and its benefits here. 

As a staple exercise in any programme which involves resistance training, there are several health benefits of squats without weights and with weights, which we will explore further in this article.

What Muscles Do Squats Work?

Squats are a compound exercise, meaning that they require several muscle groups across the body to work together simultaneously. You can therefore experience the benefits of doing squats throughout your whole body!

Squats work almost all of the muscles within the lower body, including the glutes, quadriceps hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, and abductors. They also work the core muscles, which are activated during the movement in order to act as stabilisers, keeping your body balanced and engaged.

One of the benefits of weighted squats is that they can also work the muscles in the upper body, including muscles within the arms, back, chest and shoulders. 

This is because the exercise requires the isometric holding of an external weight, which means that your upper body muscles contract against this form of resistance, without having to move.

For more exercises that specifically work to target the legs, check out our pick for the 21 best kettlebell leg exercises; this list features a number of squat variations, as well as other challenging moves to help grow the legs.

How To Do a Basic Squat

Whether you want to experience the benefits of squats for weight loss, to build muscle, or simply to build your confidence, it’s important that you understand how to correctly perform the basic squat before adding any weight to the exercise. 

We’ve put together a few short steps which will guide you through how to perform a bodyweight squat and will help you to feel how effective squats are for yourself!

Setup: The setup for the bodyweight squat exercise is simple. It requires no additional equipment and can be performed in any environment that offers a good amount of floor space. If you are in the gym, simply find a quiet spot that you can move around in; squats use all of the leg muscles, so you do need room to work.

Starting Position:

  • Begin a bodyweight squat exercise by standing with a wide gait. The wider the gait, the deeper and more challenging the squat.
  • Make sure that your weight is on the flats of your feet, and that your back is as straight as you can make it. As you perform the movement, the back will most likely lean forward which is to be expected – however, it should never be bent.
  • Rergarding the placement of the hands and arms, this can be subjective, however we recommend you lift both arms up so that they are extended straight out in front of you at shoulder height. They should be palms facing towards the floor and should not move throughout.
  • You are now in the starting position and are ready to execute some bodyweight squats.

Execution:

  • To execute bodyweight squats, you are going to bend the knees and dip your glutes towards the floor, controlling the movement entirely as you lower towards the ground.
  • When you are in a sitting position or lower, you are in the squatting position. From here, gradually push yourself back up to a standing position, driving the push through your heels.
  • When you have gone from standing, to squatting, to standing again, this is counted as one rep. Repeat this for your desired number of reps.

Muscles Worked:

Primary Movers: Gluteus Maximus, Hip Flexors, and Quadriceps.

Secondary Muscles: Calves, Abdominal Muscles, Hamstrings, and lower back.

You will find more squat variations and how to perform them later in the article. 

What Are the Benefits of Doing Squats?

There are many benefits of squats for weight loss, for strength gain, and for helping to boost your mental health!

We’ve summarised the key points for you here, so keep reading to find out how and why squats are good for you.

#1 Helps to Build Muscle 

One of the benefits of squats is that they recruit several muscles within the lower body simultaneously, including the glutes, quadriceps, hamstring and calf muscles. This makes them one of the best lower body exercises for increasing muscle strength and size.

As a resistance training exercise, you can achieve these goals through performing bodyweight squats. However, one of the benefits of weighted squats is that it allows you to progressively overload your muscles with a form of resistance, which will help you to build muscle size and strength over time.

There are many ways to achieve progressive overload, such as by increasing the weight that you are squatting during each session, increasing the number of reps per set, or by adding a pause to increase intensity.

Not only does building muscle help to increase strength within the gym, but also functional strength. Another of the benefits of daily squats is that they therefore improve your ability to carry out everyday tasks that involve pushing, pulling and lifting.

A 2014 study suggested that strength and conditioning professionals should choose to programme squats, as a free weight exercise, over the leg press, a machine-based exercise, as it could result in superior physiological adaptations.

They found that, when performed at similar intensities, squats engaged more muscles and produced a greater hormonal response.

For instance, levels of testosterone and growth hormone were found to increase more after the subjects performed squats compared to after using the leg press. Both of these are important hormones which contribute to muscle growth and strength, highlighting the benefits of squats for men and women alike!

For optimal results, increasing muscle growth is one of the most notable L-arginine benefits, so by combining regular squat exercises with this supplement, you're sure to reap maximum rewards.

#2 Increases Core Strength

If you’ve ever asked the question what do squats do?’, you probably weren’t expecting to find out that as well as helping to build strength in the lower body, they also increase core strength!

This is because performing a squat requires you to move through multiple planes of motion, which challenges your body’s ability to remain stable. Performing heavy squats requires even greater stability, in order to balance the weight that you are holding.

Muscles within the core therefore work as stabilisers to help you to maintain your balance whilst squatting, which helps to prevent falls and injuries. Also, working them regularly means that they will become stronger in the long run.

Strong core muscles make everyday movements like turning, bending, and standing much easier, as well as helping to improve your posture and ease back pain. 

However, it is important to note that in order to reap this benefits, you must ensure that your core is engagwed throughout the movement. You can learn how to do this in our article 'How to Engage Your Core: Ultimate Guide'.

#3 Burns Calories

Perhaps one of the most frequently pondered questions regarding leg exercises is are squats good for weight loss?’, and we're pleased to tell you that they certainly are. In fact, squats are one of the most highly recommended resistance exercises to perform if your goal is to remove a few lbs.

As they recruit not only several muscles in the lower body, but also muscles within the core, and even some within the upper body during certain variations, one of the benefits of squats for women as well as men is that they burn lots of calories.

This is because your muscles require energy in order to power you through the movement, which it converts from the stored chemical energy within the food that you eat.

As they help you to build muscle mass, one of the benefits of squats for weight loss is that you’ll be able to burn even more calories. This is because the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you’ll burn as your metabolism speeds up. You can assist this process by adding the best metabolism boosting foods into your diet alongside your workouts.

This means that not only will you burn lots of calories whilst squatting, but your body will also continue burning them even after your session, in order to keep fuelling your muscles and return your body to its normal level of metabolic function. This is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or the afterburn effect.

#4 Builds Strong Bones

We’ve established that squats are good for weight loss and for building muscle, but did you know that they also help to build stronger bones?

When you perform a squat, the muscles within your lower body contract, as we know. As well as helping to strengthen the muscles, this also pulls on the bones attached to them, which stimulates the formation of new bone cells, and helps to increase bone density.

As a result, one of the benefits of squats for women and men is that it can help to reduce the effects of osteoporosis and prevent those at risk from developing the disease. Osteoporosis is a condition which weakens bones and makes them more susceptible to fractures, and is thought to currently affect over 3 million people in the UK.

Researchers conducted a study involving older women with osteoporosis or osteopenia, which is a condition that can lead to osteoporosis and begins as you start to lose bone mass.

The women performed 3 heavy squatting sessions per week for 12 weeks, and the results were compared to a control group, who followed the current exercise guidelines for osteoporosis. 

One of the benefits of squats for the women was that their strength increased compared to the control group, with a 154% increase in their 1 rep maximum by the end of the study. They were also found to have greater bone mineral content, and the results gave several indications that bone formation was stimulated as a result of following the squatting programme.

#5 Reduces the Risk of Injury 

As well as promoting muscle growth, one of the benefits of squats with weights, or even without for beginners, is that they help to strengthen the muscles that stabilise your body during the movement. 

For instance, whilst the quadriceps and glutes are the primary mover muscles recruited whilst squatting, the calves, hamstrings, lower back and abdominals act as stabiliser muscles.

Having strong stabiliser muscles means that your body is better able to support itself during exercise and in everyday life, meaning that you are less likely to fall and become injured.

Also, performing exercises that work several muscles at once, such as squats, helps to iron out any muscular imbalances. This occurs when one muscle group is weaker than the other and could result in muscle strains or tears if not addressed.

In order to aquire maximum comfort when performing squats, more specifically barbell squats, we encourage you to invest in a barbell pad. These items provide a spongey barrier between the barbell and your shoulder blades and reduce some of the pressure of the weights.

Alongside strengthening muscles, squats are good for you as they strengthen the bones, tendons and ligaments that make up the joints we use whilst performing them, particularly those within the legs. This helps to take some of the load off the knees and ankles, which are often more susceptible to injury.

However, one of the benefits of doing squats is that they do help to improve knee, ankle and hip stability, joints which are crucial in supporting our bodies overall, in both the gym and everyday life.

#6 Improves Athletic Performance

As we’ve discussed, squats are good for you as an everyday gym-goer, but they’re also great for athletes too!

This is because they allow you to efficiently activate the muscles that are needed for sports movements, such as pushing off the ground and jumping. They also help to improve strength, speed, and power output, all of which are crucial for a strong sports performance.

For instance, research has shown that when paired with plyometric exercises, such as squat jumps, squats performed at 80% or more of your one rep maximum (1RM) are most effective at improving power output. This highlights one of the many benefits of heavy squats!

A study conducted in 2012 analysed 59 participants and their vertical jumping ability. All participants followed a 10-week programme that focused on 3 squat variations, which were the front squat, back squat and partial squat.

The study found that those who performed full, deep squats were able to significantly improve their jumping ability compared to those who performed quarter squats, as this increased their ability to develop force, or explosive strength. 

As well as highlighting what squats are good for in terms of athletic performance, the results of this study therefore emphasise the importance of using correct form, whether you’re an athlete or not!

#7 Increases Confidence

Although there are many benefits of heavy squats, as we have already explored, they can often feel quite daunting to perform before you begin!

This is because they are quite hard on the body, and so performing them with an incorrect technique can put you at risk of serious injury. Performing more advanced variations, such as the back squat, can sometimes seem even more intimidating, as you must support a heavy weight on your shoulders whilst performing the movement.

However, as you keep performing squats, or even begin to add more weight, your confidence will grow alongside your progress. Not only will you feel more confident in the gym, but you’ll leave feeling great too!

So, when considering what squats are good for, think of the mental health benefits you’re set to gain too!

Safety Tips for Performing Squats

We may have answered the question ‘how effective are squats’, but they’re only effective if performed correctly!

In fact, a 2013 review in Sports Medicine found that shallow, improperly performed squats, where the knees were not bent fully to a 90-degree angle, may lead to degeneration in the lumbar spine (within the lower back) and knees, over time. 

Here are some safety tips to ensure that you nail the correct technique, and some common mistakes to avoid if you hope to experience the full benefits of squats.

#1 Avoid Knee Valgus

Knee valgus is when the knees collapse inwards during any weight-bearing activity, such as when performing squats. Repetitive knee valgus can lead to overuse injuries, including knee sprains, strains and tears.

To prevent this from happening whilst squatting, focus on really driving your feet into the ground. This creates stability, by preventing your arches from collapsing and activating your glutes, both of which help to keep your knees straight.

Ensuring that your weight is on the balls of your feet and that you drive the movement through your heels also helps to activate the posterior chain, which includes muscles in the back of your body, such as the hamstrings and glutes.

As well as knee valgus, you may find it beneficial to familiarise yourself with other common weightlifting injuries and how to prevent them.

#2 Maintain a Good Posture

Squats are good for you only if you’re able to keep your chest up, back straight and eyes forward whilst performing them! 

If you allow your shoulders and upper back to round, you could be putting excessive stress on your spine, which could cause serious injury in the long term.

There are a plethora of benefits of good posture, many of which you can read about here.

#3 Master the Basics First

It may be tempting to start squatting with a barbell immediately, but there are many benefits of squats without weights too!

For instance, you can perform many bodyweight squats without becoming fatigued, meaning that you can reap the benefits of doing squats every day! Repeatedly performing squats also means that you have more chance to focus on your form.

It’s important that you nail the basic movement pattern first, to ensure that you can squat without causing injury to yourself. 

#4 Use a Spotter

Once you’ve nailed the bodyweight squat, you might be eager to reap the benefits of heavy squats.

However, if you’re performing barbell back squats it’s important that you don’t try to lift too much weight on the bar on your own!

If you’re unsure, ask your training partner or a personal trainer to spot you, which means that they can be there to assist you if you fail a rep. This can help you to build confidence when lifting heavy, as well as ensuring that you perform the squat safely and with proper form.

Squat Variations

When exploring the benefits of squats, most people are usually referring to the back squat, the most commonly performed variation by bodybuilders, powerlifters, and those looking to increase their strength.

However, there are many squat variations which offer different benefits, meaning that squats can be performed by anyone! 

Also, while we don't cover it here, we have a whole article dedicated to the Sissy Squat and how to do it which we think, once you've mastered the basic squat and some of these variations, you may want to try out!

#1 Back Squats

Back squats are often considered the most effective variation, as they require the coordinated interaction of numerous muscle groups.

The barbell squat is an advanced form of exercise that often comes in two forms; barbell front squat and the barbell back squat.

Set-Up:

  • You will need a barbell, rack and weight
  • The bar should be set close to the neck

Starting Position:

  • Step up near the rack.
  • Grip the bar firmly and un-rack it.
  • Now bring it to the back and rest it on the muscles of the rear shoulder.
  • Step back away from the rack and stand firmly with your feet around shoulder length apart and your toes pointing slightly out.

Execution:

  • Look at a floor point  two meters from you and keep your eyes focused to it to ensure your spine remain aligned upright during execution.
  • Now, descend in a manner like you are aiming at a chair until the crease of your hip is below the knee.
  • Ascend to your starting position, ensuring that the heels support your weight.

Muscles Worked:

  • Primary Muscles: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, core
  • Secondary Muscles: Hamstring, erector spinae of the back, adductor magnus, transverse abdominis, gastrocnemius, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and soleus

Common Mistakes to Avoid:

  • Dropping the chin - This can result in spine movement, which causes the exercise to be problematic.
  • Keeping the chest in - This can increase the risk of injury.
  • Pushing the elbow backwards - This can cause the internal shoulders to rotate hence spine movement, which decreases stability.
  • Lifting the heels - This can put extra pressure on the knees.  

Benefit of the Barbell Squat:

  • Strengthens and increase the size of hamstrings, glutes and quads
  • Increases the core and back strength
  • Improves cardiovascular health

Medicine Ball Overhead Squats

Although there are many benefits of heavy squats that can be acquired using a barbell, there are also many unique benefits of using a medicine ball to perform overhead squats!

As well as working the lower body, holding a weight over your head also targets muscles within the upper body, including the shoulder muscles and triceps. Using a medicine ball is also a great entry-level exercise for those who are new to performing overhead squats!

Set Up:

  • You will need a medicine ball, or weighted plate/dumbell, of a suitable weight for your strength. In this movement, you will need to hold these weights above your head for some time, so ensure that these weights aren’t too heavy.
  • You will also need space on a flat, firm floor to squat

Starting Position:

  • Hold the medicine ball with both hands, palms facing each other. 
  • Raise your arms up so they are straight, and your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  • Keep your arms strong and sturdy, locking through your elbows. 
  • Plant your feet wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed outward slightly.

Execution:

  • Lift your chest and engage your core. Ensure that your spine is stacked with your head and neck aligned. 
  • Bend your knees slowly and drive your hips backwards.
  • Lower yourself down until your thighs are parallel with the floor or a little lower. 
  • As you squat down, keep your arms stable over your head. 
  • Pause in the squat position for a count then slowly power through your legs and return to the starting position. 

Muscles Worked:

  • Primary Movers – Quadriceps (Thigh Muscles), Gluteus Maximus (Buttocks Muscles), Hip Flexors 
  • Secondary Muscles – Deltoids (Shoulder Muscles), Trapezius & Rhomboids (Upper Back Muscles), Abdominals (Ab Muscles).

Common Mistakes:

  • Not completing the full range of motion – Overhead Dumbbell Squats are designed to target the legs. If you don’t drop low enough into the squat, you won’t get full activation of those muscles. 
  • Bending your arms – When performing the squat, make sure you keep your elbows locked as you move. This ensures that the challenge is placed on your core, not your arms. 

Benefits of the Overhead Medicine Ball Squat:

  • Increased flexibility and mobility 
  • Total body challenge 
  • Suitable for all ability levels

Medicine Ball Jump Squats

Although jump squats target all of the main muscle groups within the legs, as a high intensity exercise this variation also provides cardiovascular benefits.

For instance, jump squats increase your explosive power, which allows you to run and move faster. This is great for athletes hoping to increase their speed and vertical jumping ability, but also improves balance, mobility and agility skills for the everyday person!

This variation can be performed using your bodyweight, or you could an extra form of resistance, such as medicine ball, to increase the intensity.

Set Up:

  • All you need to perform this exercise is a medicine ball, a hard floor and plenty of space around you. 

Starting Position:

  • Stand upright with your feet around shoulder width apart.
  • Hold the medicine ball close to your body and around chest height.  

Execution:

  • From the starting position, make sure you keep the medicine ball close to your body.
  • Engaging your core, begin doing a regular squat.
  • From the squat position,  jump up  in an explosive motion.
  • Land in the starting position. 
  • Repeat this exercise for the desired number of reps. 

Muscles Worked:

  • Prime Movers - Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.
  • Secondary Muscles - Lower back, rectus abdominis, obliques and shins.

Common Mistakes to Avoid:

  • Improper technique – For maximum results, you should tilt your upper body forwards as you perform this exercise. 
  • Protruding your knees – To prevent injury, your knees should not protrude over the tips of your toes. 

Medicine Ball Squat Jump Benefits:

  • Helps to develop control and balance.
  • Effectively engages the core muscles.
  • Builds and develops overall body strength.

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For more squat variations, check out the following articles:

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FAQs

How Many Squats Should I Perform?

Generally, there is no magic number of reps that you should perform to experience the benefits of squats - it really depends on what your specific goals are.

If you want your muscles to be able to perform for a long time without becoming fatigued, then you should train for endurance. This involves using a lighter weight for a higher number of reps, which is usually 15 or more. By the end of the set, your muscles should feel extremely fatigued.

To build strength, you should perform a lower number of reps with a relatively heavy weight. This is called strength training, and it is advised to use a minimum of 80% of your 1RM when choosing the weight to use. Perform 1 to 5 reps during each set. You can read about the benefits of strength training here, where we delve further into reps and sets and why we encourage everyone to try out this form of training.

You should also be sure to take a long rest period, anywhere from 90 seconds to 2 minutes, as this type of training is very harsh on your nervous system.

If your goal is to increase muscle size, then you should try hypertrophy training. Hypertrophy occurs when the muscle fibres are thickened, which happens when the muscles are put under just the right amount of stress to know that they must grow, in order to adapt to the increased load.

To trigger hypertrophy, you should choose a moderate weight, performing 8 to 12 reps for 3 to 4 sets.

How Often Should I Perform Squats?

Did you know that you probably experience the benefits of doing squats every day already? Each time you sit down and stand up you’re performing a squat!

Although there are many benefits of daily squats, from increasing your functional strength, to improving your mobility and range of motion, it’s important to maintain a balance between squatting often enough to see results, but also leaving enough time for recovery.

Rest days are important, as this is the time that your muscles take to grow. Your body also uses this time to repair any small tears that you may have incurred during your sessions. 

If you over train, this could lead to overuse injuries, which could stop you from squatting for an even longer period of time! 

If you’re performing squats using a heavy weight, you shouldn’t squat more than 2 to 3 times per week. This ensures that you have a rest day in between each session, which is crucial for growth and recovery. 

Squatting once a week is fine for a beginner, but you may want to increase the frequency of your sessions if your goal is to refine your technique and make progress.

For more information on why it is important to establish a healthy balance for how often you workout, follow up this read with 'The Importance of Rest Days & How Many You Need'.

Are the Benefits of Squats for Men and Women Different?

A common misconception is that the benefits of squats with weights are reserved solely for men; specifically men who are looking to compete in a bodybuilding or powerlifting competition.

Although there are many benefits of squats for men, as we have explored in this article, squats are an effective resistance training exercise for women too!

In fact, one of the unique benefits of squats for women is that not only do they help to strengthen muscles within the lower body, but they also help to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles!

The pelvic floor muscles support the bladder, uterus and bowel, and provide support during pregnancy and childbirth.

Performing squats is particularly beneficial for older women, as they help to strengthen pelvic floor muscles which may have weakened as a result of going through the menopause. This is important, as weak pelvic floor muscles can lead to discomfort and bladder incontinence. 

The benefits of squats are not restricted to a specific gender, with all genders being able to reap the same advantages. In fact, we would say that the largest difference between performing squats dependent on gender comes down to the attire you perform them in. Check out OriGym's shortlist of the best yoga leggings for women and men to add to your squat gear today.

Before You Go!

Whether you’re a gym newbie or a bodybuilder looking for some motivation, we hope we’ve shown you that the benefits of squats make them a great exercise to incorporate into your training programme.

Not only can they help to grow and strengthen your muscles, but achieving your performance goals can also give you the boost of confidence you need to keep making progress!

So, if you want to find out how effective squats are for yourself, why not choose a variation, check your form and get squatting today!

Looking to kick-start your fitness career? Go ahead and download our free prospectus, or browse our range of Personal Trainer qualifications to get an idea of what you could be learning! 

References

  1. Aaron A. Shaner et.al., ‘The Acute Hormonal Response to Free Weight and Machine Weight Resistance Exercise’, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (April 2014, Vol.28, Issue 4), pp.1032-1040
  2. Mats P. Mosti et.al., ‘Maximal Strength Training in Postmenopausal Women with Osteoporosis or Osteopenia’, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Oct 2013, Vol.27, Issue 10), pp.2879-2886
  3. Hagen Hartmann et.al., ‘Influence of Squatting Depth on Jumping Performance’, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (Dec 2012, Vol.26, Issue 12), pp.3243-3261
  4. Hagen Hartmann, Klaus Wirth, and Markus Klusemann, ‘Analysis of the Load on the Knee Joint and Vertebral Column with Changes in Squatting Depth and Weight Load’, in Sports Medicine, (2013, Vol.43), pp.993-1008

Written by Rebecca Felton

Content Writer & Fitness Enthusiast

Graduating from the University of Liverpool with a first-class degree in English, Rebecca’s combined passions for fitness and writing are what brought her to OriGym. Rebecca is a keen gym-goer and specifically enjoys lifting weights. Outside of fitness and writing, Rebecca enjoys cooking, reading, and watching the football.

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