Muscles Worked During the Squat
In squats, you rely on your muscles for movement as well as balancing and stability. So, you will use agonist muscles (muscles used for movement such as the quads) as well as stabilising muscles such as the hamstrings and gluteus medius.
Here are the muscles worked in squats:
- Quadriceps Femoris
- Gluteus Maximus
- Adductor Magnus
- Core (abdominals)
The quadriceps are one of the most used muscles in squats, and it is one of the biggest agonist muscles in your legs. The quadriceps femoris is the biggest muscle group located in the front of the thigh.
It consists of four separate muscles, which is why it’s called ‘quad’riceps. Its main role is to help extend the knee. When you do squats, especially partial squats, you will feel the most burn in your quadriceps. Also, the lower you squat, the harder your quads will have to work to extend your knees back out from the bottom.
Building the gluteus maximus or your bum, is perhaps the biggest reason people perform squats, especially for women. However, squats don’t mainly use the gluteus maximus. It works the gluteus maximus just as much as the quads.
Out of all the glute muscles, the gluteus maximus is the biggest muscle, and the one most responsible for your bum’s size and shape. Its main role is to extend your hip.
You can activate it more during a squat if you keep your toes pointed outwards and shift most of your weight onto your heels
This is a smaller, triangle-shaped muscle located in the inner part of your thigh. You activate it quite a bit during squats, but its contribution is not as great as the gluteus maximus or quads.
Its function is mostly to help the body transition from a wider leg stance to a narrower leg stance. It also acts to extend the hip similar to the gluteus maximus.
So, if you do wider stance squats such as sumo squats, you activate the abductor magnus more than you would do in a traditional squat.
These are the large muscles located at the back of your thigh. So, hamstrings are to quads what triceps are to your biceps. Hamstrings affect two joints, which are your knees and hips. It works with the glutes to extend your hips.
It also acts like a stabiliser muscle at your knee joints. Your knees experience the biggest flexion at the bottom of the squat, so this activates and tenses your hamstrings to help balance out the forces at the joint.
These are essentially your back muscles and run along your spine. They help stabilise the spine during movement.
This is especially important when your spine has to remain neutral during a squat and to prevent it hunching.
Abdominals and Obliques
In addition to your leg muscles, squats also work your core. Your abs are important stabiliser muscles that work with the erector spinae to help maintain a neutral spine during the squat.
While the erector spinae prevents your spine from rounding or hunching, the abdominals prevent it from arching back too much or hyperextension.
The soleus muscle in your calves has a minor role in stabilising your shins during squatting.
During squats, your shins move forward with your knee, and the soleus muscle helps to bring it back into a vertical position when you stand up.
What Muscles are Worked During Different Squat Variations
Once you’ve got the basics down, four of our favourite options include –
Also known as the ‘nightmare’ squat, these are notorious for engaging your core to execute them to completion.
This involves the use of a box to add extra challenge to the exercise – forcing you to bring your abs into play in addition to your other muscles.
When you are ready, bring yourself forward into a standard lunge position, with your dominant foot forward and squared off against your chest.
Then place your other foot on the box at a knee-height and complete the lunge.
This will allow you to deepen your drop and repeat after a few sets to ensure both sides of your body are equally put through their paces.
For an additional challenge, bring some dumbbells into the mix once you’ve worked out any (inevitable) balance issues.
Muscles Activated: Due to the degree of balance and core control required, these are fantastic at working out your quads, glutes, and abs when it comes to maintaining your ‘split’ pose. While this requires a little more finesse that other options on this list, the rewards can make it more than worth your while.
Bringing aerobics into the mix, jump squats are fantastic for getting the most out of your set in the time you have available.
Quick and simple, executing a jump squat starts with assuming a neutral squat position with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and bringing down until your things are just above your knees.
When ready, jump with control and bring yourself back down into the same position – landing with bent knees and on the balls of your feet.
Muscles Activated: Along with the provision of additional cardio, this puts your leg muscles through their paces – targeting your quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
While this may be a little risky while recovering from injury, it can be the perfect warmup or cooldown exercise.
A quick and simple addition to your routine, overheads are fantastic for bringing your upper body into the mix with the use of a dumbbell or medicine ball.
With this, you want to plant your feet no more than shoulder-width apart and raise your eight above your head for the entirety of the exercise.
From standing, bend your knees with control and stop when your thighs are fully parallel to the floor.
After pausing, return to your starting position.
Muscles Activated: In addition the core engagement brought about by the addition of a weight, this is great for exercising your lower back along with your lats, triceps, and pectorals.
Saving the best for last, isometrics involve you holding your exercise position for your set. In the case of a squat, start with your feet slightly more than shoulder width apart and slowly drop into your established squat position, holding it as long as possible.
When you reach your point of tolerance, return to neutral with full control. If this is too much, you can use a wall or table to provide additional support.
Muscles Activated: Like most isometric exercises, this one will get you right in the abs in addition to your quads and adductors. This makes it great for gentle rehabilitation following an injury or pushing yourself a little harder to build strength.
What is the proper form for a body weight squat?
Not maintaining the correct form in a squat can do more harm than good, leading to significant risks of injury.
Here is how to do a barbell squat, which is similar in form to a traditional squat:
- Grab the barbell with a secure grip and it should sit around your upper back level, just at the top of your shoulder blades.
- Slowly unrack the barbell from the squat rack.
- Carefully step back, keeping your legs extended and locked.
- Stand with your feet a little more than shoulder width apart and toes pointed outward.
- Taking a deep breath, slowly lower yourself into a squat position.
- Bend your knees, push your hips far back and keep your spine as neutral and straight as possible.
- Ensure that you don’t lean your torso too far forward.
- Break ‘parallel’ by squatting down until your hips are below your knee level.
- Squat back up.
There are several mistakes that people make, in trying to keep proper squat form. One misconception is that you should only squat until your hips are at your knee level, or your thighs are parallel to the floor.
These types of squats will only work your quadriceps and won’t work other important muscles like your glutes and hamstrings. Because there is a greater range of motion, you work most of your leg muscles and reduce your chances of knee injuries.
However, the lower you squat, the less weight you can lift. Also, if you are not flexible enough to squat deep without rounding your back, squatting just below your knee will suffice.
How do I improve my form?
While it’s essential to pick up cardio or carry out resistance training – squats should always be a part of your routine.
Often thought of as the realm of weightlifters or bodybuilders – squats help almost every individual boost their performance and burn calories. They can also be performed with minimal space requirements or the need for additional exercise equipment.
However, it’s easy to think that straightforward squats are the only option available. Any cursory search will reveal a range of variations that can help you work out specific muscle groups, ease your way into more intensive exercise, or add variety to your set.
But doing them properly can often prove to be a genuine challenge.
When it comes to completing a squat, there’s a certain level of art to it that many gymgoers neglect. One of our top tips when initiating is to ensure that your back and shoulders are level and relaxed. This helps engage your core and maximise benefits of your session, no matter what muscle groups you’re exercising.
This fully engages your lats and ensures you get a proper workout no matter what variation you choose.
If you’re doing it right, a squat will work out a wealth of essential muscles in your body. This includes your full range of glutes from your maximus to minimus and your adductor without risk of injury.
Getting new variations into your workout means that you can pick and choose exercises that truly test different muscles groups. This can easily allow you to target your quads and hams while working out your calves and hip flexors.
However, we would always recommend keeping your squats to no more than three separate sessions per week to avoid injury and allow your muscles to recover.
No matter what squat you choose, this is also going to bring a number of benefits that can be laser targeted to exactly what your personal or professional goals are.
Wrapping It Up
Though they have a bad reputation for being difficult on your joints, they actually improve joint and bone health. There are numerous variations of squats, and the muscles you activate will depend on how you perform them.
For example, how far apart you place your feet will influence which muscles are activated more, and even how you point your toes while standing influences muscle engagement.
Alternatively, if you add weight, you will target more muscle groups in your body than a normal bodyweight squat.
Overall, though, squats predominantly target muscles in your legs. If you’re doing weighted squats, you will target muscles in your shoulders, arms and core as well. So, the exact muscles you will target will depend mostly on the variation of squat and technique.