Most lower body fitness routines include squats since they’re a phenomenal lower body exercise. The squat is a compound exercise that targets the major muscle groups in the lower body, including the thighs, hips, and buttocks, as well as your lower back, calves, and ankles. They’re an excellent functional movement too since they mimic the movements most of us do in our daily lives, like squatting down to lift something. In fact, squats build strength, stability, and mobility simultaneously.
When you squat, you target the muscles in the front of your thighs your quads, more than the muscles in the back, the glutes, and hamstrings. However, you can switch the emphasis somewhat by changing the position of your feet. For example, you can target your glutes more by widening your feet to around 140% of shoulder width. However, this stance hits the glutes harder but less so the hamstrings.
Squatting for Core Strength and Definition
What about other muscles? Squats don’t work the muscles in your upper body in the same way curls and overhead presses do, but how about the muscles that make up your core? You might not feel like the muscles in your core work hard when you squat, but you might be surprised. Some of the stabilizing muscles in your core, particularly your deep back muscles get a workout when you squat.
In fact, a study found that squats strengthen the erector spinae muscles, the muscles that move your spine, 4 times more with squats than planks. These muscles have to contract to keep you from toppling over when you lower your body into a squat. So, they become stronger when you do this exercise. When your core muscles are strong, it helps your form with all the strength-training exercises you do.
The same study found that a plank exercise that works the rectus abdominis, the main muscles that give you a six-pack when developed, activates 30% more than a squat. So, squats alone may not be enough to hypertrophy your abdominal muscles, although how much your abdominals “pop” depends on your body fat percentage too. Women usually won’t have abdominal muscles that pop until their body fat percentage is 20% or lower.
Some experts believe that compound exercises, like squats and deadlifts, are better than focused abdominal exercises for getting a six-pack since they work more muscle groups and burn more calories. However, you need both. Compound exercises, like squats, help burn more fat, while ab isolation exercises, like planks and crunches, help strengthen and hypertrophy the abdominal muscles. However, planks and crunches burn fewer calories, have less of an anabolic effect, and have fewer functional benefits than movements like squats.
Squats Improve Mobility and Boost Bone Density Too
Few exercises are as effective for improving hip mobility as the squat. Squats also help build ankle mobility as well as range of motion in your hips and thoracic spine, helping you achieve full depth on each rep. You also need hip and ankle mobility to squat correctly and achieve good depth. So, it’s helpful to work on hip and ankle mobility before doing squats using resistance.
Plus, squats, especially when you use heavy resistance, place enough stress on the bones in the lower body to boost bone density. Since leg presses and leg curls don’t load the spine, they’re not very effective for boosting bone density.
Unlike other lower body exercises, like leg extensions and leg curls, squatting can also improve your vertical jump height. There’s a reason athletic coaches emphasize squats when training athletes. So, there are lots of reasons to squat!
Do Squats at the Beginning of Your Strength-Training Routine
Squats are an important exercise that works multiple lower body muscle groups and requires good form to do safely and effectively. Don’t wait until your muscles are fatigued before doing them. Give this functional exercise the focus it deserves early in your workout before your lower body tires, and you use bad form. The squat is an exercise where good form is crucial to avoid placing added strain on your back, knees, or ankles.
Include a variety of squat variations in your routine to shift the focus of the exercise and diversify your workouts. You have lots of options – goblet squats, split squats, wide-stance squats, narrow stance squats, and even jump squats to boost your heart rate. Alternating the types of squats you do will also help you stay motivated and avoid plateaus. Focus on tightening your core throughout the exercise to maximize the core-strengthening benefits. Keep your eyes straight ahead by focusing on a specific point on the wall in front of you. This will help you keep your head and neck neutral throughout the exercise.
The Bottom Line
Squats are effective for activating the muscles in the back of your core, the posterior core muscles, like your spinae erector, but they’re less effective for strengthening the anterior muscles that make up your core, like your rectus abdominis. So, it’s a smart strategy to include lots of compound exercises, like squats, in your strength-training routine because you are getting core activation. But also include focused abdominal exercises, like planks and ab curls, as long as you do them safely.
If you have back issues, the plank is a safer exercise since it doesn’t require flexion of the spine. However, planks and curls alone may not be enough to make your abs pop unless you have a low body fat percentage. Compound exercises, like squats, and high-intensity exercises that raise your heart rate, are still the best for lowering body fat.
Physio-pedia.com. “Erector Spinae”
Van den Tillaar R, Saeterbakken AH. Comparison of Core Muscle Activation between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. J Hum Kinet. 2018;62:43-53. Published 2018 Jun 13. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0176.
Clark KM, Holt LE, Sinyard J. Electromyographic comparison of the upper and lower rectus abdominis during abdominal exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Aug;17(3):475-83. doi: 10.1519/1533-4287(2003)017<0475:ecotua>2.0.co;2. PMID: 12930172.
Aspe RR, Swinton PA. Electromyographic and kinetic comparison of the back squat and overhead squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Oct;28(10):2827-36. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000462. PMID: 24662228.
van den Tillaar R, Saeterbakken AH. Comparison of Core Muscle Activation between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. J Hum Kinet. 2018;62:43-53. Published 2018 Jun 13. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0176.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Want a stronger core? Skip the sit-ups”
“Benefits of squats: Advantages, disadvantages, and how to ….” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/benefits-of-squats.
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