Squats are one of the most effective exercises for strengthening and hypertrophying the muscles in the lower body. Lower body strength is important for the functional moves you do every day and for improving the shape of your lower body. Almost every strength-training coach recommends that trainees do some form of a squat to build lower body strength. It’s almost a universal exercise!
Front squats and back squats are two basic forms of squats and the ones that most people do on a regular basis. When it’s time to make the exercise harder, they increase the resistance or the number of squats they do. That works, but sometimes you need to challenge your lower body in a new way. Here are five ways to do that.
Master the One-Legged Squat
One way to add a whole new dimension to your squat routine is to do them on one leg. The reason you want to do this is two-fold. For one, squatting on one leg adds a balance challenge you don’t get with squats you do in a two-legged position. When you do one-legged squats consistently, your body learns to stabilize on one leg. That’s important if you play sports or do activities like hiking. It could even save you from a fall! The unstable position also forces the stabilizing muscles in your core to contract. That means you’re getting core work as well.
There’s another reason to do one-legged squats. Squatting on one leg targets your glutes more than two-legged ones. By doing one-legged squats, you can also identify strength differences between your two legs and work toward correcting them.
Change the Tempo
Squats become much more challenging when you slow the tempo. If you’re trying to hypertrophy your quads and build greater strength, this is the way to do it. When you slow the tempo, you keep the muscles in your lower body under tension longer. This is one stimulus for muscle hypertrophy. Some research links a slower tempo with greater muscle hypertrophy, but this doesn’t seem to hold up when you control the total training volume. But it’s still a good way to stimulate your muscles differently and make the move more challenging.
If you’d like to try a slow tempo, use a 4-0-1 tempo. With this tempo, the descent will take four seconds, no pause at the bottom, and a one-second ascent. This tempo emphasizes the eccentric portion of the movement, the phase that elicits the most muscle damage, so plan on being sore! A slower tempo is especially important for a beginner as it allows you to focus more on form.
Some studies suggest that greater time under tension elicits more metabolic stress, a stimulus for hypertrophy. However, ultimately, you’ll get more benefit if you vary the tempo, using a slow tempo and a fast tempo during different workouts. Slowing the tempo increases time under tension while a fast tempo is superior for building muscle power. They’re both important.
Combine Squats with Another Exercise
Although squats are already a compound move, you can enhance their functionality even more and make them harder by combing them with another exercise. Here are some ways to do this:
Include an overhead press at the top of each squat.
Do a biceps curl at the bottom of a squat.
Make the move dynamic by doing squat jumps!
There’s a lot to be said for working more muscle groups when you squat. You’ll burn more calories and get more functional benefits as well. It’s also a time-expedient way to work out. When you add these upper body moves to a squat, the squat truly becomes a total body exercise.
Go Deeper into a Squat
Many people have problems squatting below 90 degrees because they lack mobility in their hips and ankles. To do a deep squat, your hips must descend to the point that they’re below your knees. It’s important to get your form right before trying to go deeper and to make sure your hip and ankle mobility is up to par. Otherwise, the move will be harder and the risk of back injury will be higher. But going deeper has benefits and makes squats harder and more effective. Research shows squatting deep works all the muscles in the lower body harder, including the hamstrings, glutes, and quads.
If you go deeper into a squat, lighten the weights a bit. You’ll still get benefits even when you use less resistance. Although you may have heard that deep squats are risky for your knees, science doesn’t back this up. In fact, a study published in Clinical Biomechanics found that squatting to 70 degrees was no more stressful on healthy knees than descending to a depth of 110 degrees. But if you have knee problems already, check with your doctor before going deep into squats.
Do Staggered Squats
We mentioned one-legged squats as a way to decrease stability and make the move more challenging, but there’s another way to do that. Do staggered squats. Here’s how to do one:
Place your left foot about 10 to 12 inches behind your right foot. Your knees should be slightly bent. Hold your core tight as you lower your hips to the floor in a slow and controlled manner. Keep descending until your right knee is at a 90-degree angle. Slowly return to the top and repeat. Then, switch legs.
If your ankles lack mobility, the staggered squat will allow you to squat deeper than a front squat. It can also provide a new stimulus for muscle growth since you’re doing a squat variation your lower body isn’t accustomed to.
The Bottom Line
You have lots of options when you do squats as well as a number of ways to make the move harder. Don’t forget, you aren’t restricted to only dumbbells or barbells, you can use resistance bands or kettlebells too. Plus, there are other squat variations you can add to your routine. So, don’t let your squat routine become stale or too easy. Up the challenge a bit and get more benefits at the same time!
- J Hum Kinet. 2018 Jun; 62: 241–250.
- Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2001 Jun;16(5):424-30.
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