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You don’t have to be a weightlifter or sports enthusiast to benefit from squats. All ages are embracing this simple but effective exercise. Squats can be done anywhere and there’s a type of squat to work just about every muscle.
Here’s what you should know about squats, along with ten research-backed health benefits that can improve daily life.
What is a squat?
The squat is one of the top choices of exercise for athletes. That’s because it works a lot of major muscles all at once. It’s also used by anyone who wants a good workout because it burns calories and doesn’t require a gym or equipment.
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- Stand with feet at shoulder-width and toes pointed forward (or slightly outward)
- Extend arms straight ahead parallel to the floor
- Sit back as if you’re about to sit in a chair until your legs are parallel to the floor
- Keep knees behind your toes
- Keep heels on the ground
- Pause and return to the starting position
Beginners often start with three sets of 15 squats and work up from there depending on fitness goals. Some, especially athletes and bodybuilders, add weights. In these cases, proper form is critical.
Types of squats
The basic squat is also known as the half or parallel squat. There’s also a deep squat (thighs touch the calves) and a partial squat (midway between standing and a half squat) (Schoenfeld, 2010).
Beyond squat depth, there are a wide variety of squat variations that fall into three main categories:
Bodyweight squats involve just the weight of the body. These include the basic, split-leg (lunge), and single-leg squats along with dozens of other types that follow the basic concept (Schoenfeld, 2010; Barker-Davies, 2018).
Weighted squats incorporate weights to offer more resistance and are an essential part of many sports programs. Some popular weighted squats are the front squat (barbell in front), back squat (barbell along the back), overhead squats (barbell overhead), and goblet squats. Goblet squats are essentially a basic squat with a dumbbell or kettlebell held vertically in front of the chest and under the chin (Aspe, 2014; Chiu, 2011).
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Note: If you’re new to working with barbells or heavy weights, it’s best to get lifting advice on your workout routine from an expert, such as a personal trainer, to avoid the risk of injury. Weighted squats can damage joints and the spine if not done properly (Reece, 2020; Bengtsson, 2018).
Tip: Many athletes practice their form with light PVC pipes instead of barbells; that’s an option if you’d like to get the benefit of the arm movements without the added weight (Myer, 2014).
Plyometric training, which involves fast bursts of movement, includes jump squats. These have been found to improve athletic performance, and they can be done by anyone. With jump squats, instead of slowly moving into a standing position, the reps involve a thrust upwards at the end. You can also add weights to plyometric squat exercises. With weights, more caution and training are advised (Davies, 2015; Archer, 2016; Loturco, 2017).
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Muscles worked during squats
There’s a lot of muscle mass involved with squats. Each repetition uses more than 200 muscles. Major muscle groups that are activated include (Schoenfeld, 2010):
- Quadriceps (front of thigh)
- Hamstrings (back of thigh)
- Glutes (buttocks)
- Abdominal muscles
If weights are involved, upper body muscle groups like the rhomboids and erector spinae are getting a workout as well (Schoenfeld, 2010).
Benefits of squats
Depending on your workout goal, there are a lot of reasons to like squats. Here are 10 ways they boost health:
1. Improved Strength
Squats are one of the best ways to work a large number of muscles all at once. And it’s not just about lower body strength and leg muscles. Squat exercises work various muscle groups. There’s muscle building or toning in the lower body, core, back, and arms (if weighted) (Schoenfeld, 2010).
Whether you’re strength training or just toning up, squats are beneficial and are a type of functional exercise because they help improve the ability to complete everyday activities.
2. Injury prevention
Squats help build strong legs and are one of the main ways athletes build up muscles. They also increase blood flow and lubrication around the joints while boosting flexibility. Many lower-body injuries involve weak stabilizer muscles. This can lead to joint injuries. Squats, done correctly, can help prevent these injuries and improve the range of motion in the knees and hips (Endo, 2020; Huxel-Bliven, 2013; Myer, 2014).
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3. Core conditioning
Many people think their “core” is just their abs. However, the core is actually made up of your diaphragm, erector spinae, abdominals and obliques, pelvic floor, and your glutes (Kellie, 2013).
Core muscles are important for posture, balance, and daily life. One study showed that the back squat was better at working out the muscles supporting the back than more traditional bridge (plank) isometric workouts. Bodyweight squats also offer core activation and can strengthen the lower back and abdominal muscles (Tillaar, 2018).
4. Better balance and flexibility
Healthcare providers often use squat positions to check balance and stability. A strong lower body is perhaps the biggest factor in staying active. Creating a strong lower body and core not only improves athletic ability but also boosts mobility and prevents falls and fractures as people age (Endo, 2020; Huxel-Bliven, 2013; Ko, 2013).
5. Improved posture, reduced pain
Want better posture? Researchers suggest adding squats into your day. As part of a posture correction study, a group of 88 college students took part in an exercise program that involved stretching, isometric exercises, and squats at their desks. The students who went through the program reported less pain afterward (Kim, 2015).
A study of another group of college students found that wall squats combined with exercises to increase neck strength and shoulder stability resulted in better posture (Cho, 2013). Wall squats are similar to basic squats, except the wall can be used to support some of the weight with the back pressed against the wall and thighs parallel to the floor.
Note: If you are experiencing pain or posture problems, it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider before engaging in any exercises.
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6. Increased speed and mobility
From sprinters and football players to soccer players and ski jumpers, squats are proven to help athletes with speed, jumping, and core strength. They all rely on squats as part of their training. Often, athletes do weighted squats, but bodyweight squats are also part of many regimens (Krcmar, 2021; Lopez-Segovia, 2011; Pauli, 2016).
7. Calorie burning
Squats are a major calorie burner because they work so many muscles at once. Half squats and leg extensions burned more calories than bicep curls and the lat pulldown in a study focusing on the calorie burn of specific isolated resistance exercises. The half squat was the overall top calorie burner (Reis, 2017).
Another study showed that eight weeks of squat training among a group of adolescent boys decreased body fat compared to a control group (Takai, 2013). Ultimately, having more muscle improves metabolism (McPherron, 2013).
8. Increased muscle mass
If you want to add some muscle to your legs and butt, squats are among the best exercises to work the gluteus maximus and the upper legs (Neto, 2020).
The same study that showed that eight weeks of squat training decreased body fat in adolescent boys also found that they increased their lean body mass and muscle mass (Takai, 2013).
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9. Anabolic boost
Squats, particularly weighted squats, have been shown to boost testosterone and growth hormone levels naturally. One study of men performing weighted squats showed a bigger hormone boost after the workout than leg presses (Shaner, 2014).
A study of women showed that resistance training can also temporarily increase testosterone levels, which can alter fat distribution. Like men, women can have testosterone spikes following intense workouts, which drop off post-workout (Vingren, 2010; Hackney, 2020).
10. Cognitive benefits
Since squats can be done anywhere, they may offer an easy way to boost circulation and potentially brain health. Studies show exercise can improve cognitive function and may reduce the risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (Chang, 2011; Meng, 2020).
Balancing exercise routines
The American College of Sports Medicine defines squats as an anaerobic exercise. This means they are intense for a short amount of time, and energy sources within the muscles fuel them. Aerobic exercises like running, cycling and swimming, rely on inhaled oxygen. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises play an important role in a healthy body. Ideally, it’s best to include both for a well-rounded exercise plan (Patel, 2017).
Before engaging in a new exercise routine, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider to discuss any risks to your health or exercises to avoid based on your health history.
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