The squat is a fantastic way to build lower body size and strength. In this guide, we dive into detail about all things squat. We’re going to cover:
- Squat Muscles Worked Diagram
- Squat Muscles Worked Explained
- How to Squat Correctly
- Best Squat Variations
- Squat Programme
- Looking for a Full Body Bodybuilding Programme?
- Alternatives for Squat – 2 Exercises You Should Try
- What Muscle Does A Squat Work: Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
Let’s jump right into it…
Squat Muscles Worked Diagram
Squat Muscles Worked Explained
The squat mainly works four muscle groups, your quads, glutes, adductors and erector spinae/lower back (combined for simplicity)
Your Quads: Your quadriceps are your prime mover in the squat, which means they’re going to be doing the most work. The deep stretch your quads get in the bottom position is also great for hypertrophy (muscle size)
Your Glutes: Your glutes work to extend your hips as you come up from the squat, and to keep your knees in line with your toes. They also get a good stretch in the bottom position, making squats a good exercise for glute growth.
Your Adductors: Your adductors are your inner thigh muscles, and they work to create stability in the squat, especially in the bottom position. If you squat regularly, you’ll almost certainly have big, strong adductors.
Your Erector Spinae and Lower Back: When we think about what muscles are worked in a squat, your erector spinae and lower back aren’t the first to come to mind. However, they work to keep your torso stable and strong during your squats. Without these muscles working you’d look like a floppy jelly under the barbell.
How to Squat Correctly
Of course, getting maximal muscle growth and strength development from your squats also requires good execution of the movement. Here’s how to do a high bar back squat correctly.
*For reference, this guide is specifically talking about the high bar back squat. The set-up and execution for a low bar back squat is slightly different.
1) Find your ideal squat stance by squatting down without weight, and adjusting your foot width and toe angle until you find the most comfortable bottom position (The video above goes through the process in more detail) For most people, you’re looking for about shoulder width, with toes pointed about 30 degrees out.
2) Start your squat by setting the barbell tight against your upper traps, with a strong core brace. Take the weight of the bar, and then take 2-3 steps backwards away from the rack.
3) Initiate the movement by bending at your hips and knees at the same time, and keep good control of the downwards movement. Your torso should stay mostly upright, and your knees should track in line with your toes.
4) Once you reach the bottom of the squat (or as low as you can go without your lower back rounding) change direction and drive through the floor, pushing upwards and back to where you began the lift.
Best Squat Variations
The front squat is a great squat variation that provides a slightly different stimulus by changing the movement pattern slightly. It still has great carryover to your regular back squat. Here’s a video from powerlifter Jonnie Candito demonstrating the movement.
Front Squat muscles worked
The front squat still works your quads, glutes and erector spinae/lower back, the main difference is that due to the more upright position it places more emphasis on the quads, and less emphasis on the erectors and lower back.
Sumo squats, as the name suggests, are squats in which you use a wider ‘sumo’ stance. This stance is typically about 1.5 times your shoulder width, but can be wider if you have the adductor (inner thigh) flexibility.
Sumo squat muscles worked
Sumo squats still work the quads, glutes, erectors/lower back and adductors, but they change the emphasis. Sumo squats work your glutes harder, as well as your adductors. They work your lower back and erectors less. This can make them a good option for people coming back from lower back injuries.
The goblet squat uses a dumbbell held in front of you (like a giant drinking ‘goblet’) and feels somewhere between a high bar back squat and a front squat.
As a coach, I think the goblet squat is a great exercise for beginners, as it provides a simpler way to learn the movement with a lighter weight.
Goblet Squat Muscles Worked
The goblet squat works your quads, glutes, adductors and erector spinae/lower back. The main difference is that because you have to hold the weight in your arms, the total weight you will be able to use will be much lighter.
Looking for a simple and effective programme to increase your squat strength and build size in your quads, glutes, adductors and erectors? Here’s a squat programme I’ve put together for you to try…
Progression on the squat programme
Progressive overload comes each week through adding sets, which is great for hypertrophy (muscle building) plus adding load to the bar (which is great for strength) I recommend adding 2.5 to 5kg per week.
Day 1 is your harder day, whilst day 2 is your moderate day.
Looking for a Full Body Bodybuilding Programme?
I’ve put together a 17-week hypertrophy programme.
It’s an evidence-based programme designed to build not just your legs, but your chest, back and delts.
Plus, it comes with specific guidance so that you can adjust your amount of training each week to suit your recovery.
You can find out more about the programme here.
Alternatives for Squat – 2 Exercises You Should Try
We’ve covered the different muscles worked in a squat, and the muscles worked in squat variations, but what if squats don’t suit your build? Or perhaps you only feel squats in your lower back and not in your quads and glutes like you’re supposed to? Try these squat alternatives instead…
Hack squats support your upper body and keep you stable so that you can focus on making your legs do the work. The first time you do these, expect some serious soreness.
Hack Squat Muscles Worked
The hack squat focuses on working your quads above all other muscles. It will still hit your glutes and adductors a little bit, but your quads will be on fire. I recommend starting with 2 sets the first time you try these, and only adding more sets if you recover on time for your next leg workout.
Split squats are a fantastic squat alternative that allows you to train each side of your lower body independently. This makes split squats good for building stability and preventing muscle imbalances.
I recommend sets of 6-12 reps each side, focusing on a slow, controlled downwards movement.
Split Squat Muscles Worked
Split squats work your quads, glutes and adductors, with a little bit of hamstring assistance too.
What Muscle Does A Squat Work: Frequently Asked Questions
How much squat weight?
The weight you use in the squat depends on your training goal. If you’re training for strength then you should use heavier weights, typically 75% of your 1 repetition maximum and above. If you’re training for size, you can use lighter, medium or heavier weights, with ranges from 30% up to 75% of your 1 rep max (about 30 to 5 reps)
How many squats should I do?
It’s best to start with fewer sets and add more over time based on your recovery. I recommend starting with around 3 or 4 sets per workout.
How often should I do squats?
You should perform squats only as often as you can properly recover from them. Typically, heavy squats should only be performed every 5 days, as this is the time needed for muscles, joints and bones to fully heal. In the meantime you could perform lighter squat variations or other leg exercies.
Are squats muscular endurance or muscular strength?
Squats can be either muscular endurance or muscular strength depending on the weight you use and how many reps you do. For strength, focus on heavier weights for sets of 1-6 reps. For endurance, focus on lighter weights with sets of 20+ reps.
Do squats without weights build muscle?
Squats without weight can build muscle, but probably not very well for most people (other than complete beginners) as they won’t be challenging enough. With that said, bodyweight squats can be a decent ‘finisher’ type exercise after performing some heavier work, for example going straight from a set of hack squats into a set of bodyweight squats will toast your quads.
Do squats work abs?
Squats do technically work your abs, and they’re better than doing nothing. However, if you really want to train your abs for size or strength you should add in some planks, deadbugs, crunches etc.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Get in the gym and start training your squats, maybe even run through my 4-week squat programme. Get stronger legs, add some muscle size, and try to walk downstairs safely.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching, you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex’s experience includes 8+ years within strength & conditioning, including supporting 2 major universities, 2 national talent pathways and a selection of international level athletes.
He is also a tutor and educator for British Weightlifting
Nishiwaki, G. A., Urabe, Y., & Tanaka, K. (2006). EMG Analysis of Lower Extremity Muscles in Three Different Squat Exercises. Journal of the Japanese Physical Therapy Association = Rigaku ryoho, 9(1), 21–26. https://doi.org/10.1298/jjpta.9.21