Squat Variations Every Woman Needs To Do For Killer Legs

Squats are one of the absolute best exercises you can incorporate into your workout routine. Not only do they build stellar strength in the major muscle groups of your lower body, including your glutes, quads, and hamstrings, helping you shape the sexy legs of your dreams, they're also functional — meaning they mimic movements you perform in everyday life, like sitting down in a chair. And because squats are considered a closed-chain, weight-bearing exercise, they can help you develop optimal bone density in your lower body and spine. As an exercise physiologist with a master's degree in exercise science, squats are, hands-down, my favorite exercise. But that doesn't mean basic squats can't get boring. If you're tired of doing the same old squat, start incorporating these squat variations into your routine.

Air squat

Air squats are like the building block of all other squat variations. If you can master air squat form, you're ready to progress to other, more challenging exercises. Here's what you need to know:

  • Stand tall with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart, your toes angled slightly outward. Make sure you're centering your weight over your heels. To do this, try wiggling your toes around, or even momentarily lifting your toes away from the ground.
  • Keeping your torso upright and your chest tall, engage your core as you press your hips back and bend your knees, lowering your glutes toward the ground. Keep your weight in your heels and make sure your knees track in line with your toes.
  • Lower your glutes until they're below parallel with the ground.
  • Press through your heels and extend your knees to return to standing. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement before repeating.

Pay attention to your form by watching yourself go through the motions in front of a mirror. When you feel confident you've got the exercise down, and you can complete at least three sets of 10 repetitions with ease, you're ready to start implementing variations.

Sumo squats

Sumo squats are very similar to basic air squats, but you change the position of your feet, starting with them positioned wider than shoulder-width apart, your toes angled out at roughly 45-degree angles. This change in position works your adductors (your inner thigh muscles) a little more than the standard squat. As with air squats, you can do the exercise with bodyweight alone, or you can add weight by holding a set of dumbbells in your hands. Joey Kelly, an Austin-based personal trainer with Camp Gladiator, loves to torture his clients by incorporating traveling weighted sumo squats into his boot camp workouts. In this move, you combine the sumo squat form with the lateral-traveling squat walk (exercise shown later), to further target your adductors and abductors (your outer thighs) while firing up your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. In other words, it takes your basic squat to the next level.

Prisoner squat

The prisoner squat, again, is much like your basic air squat, but this time you position your hands just to the outside of your ears, your elbows pointing out to the sides. This change in position requires greater core activation and it creates tension through your shoulders and back, working all the stabilizing muscles of your torso. It's a great option for beginners as it requires a lot of concentration to maintain proper form and to keep your weight in your heels, your shoulders back, and your chest lifted as you lower your glutes toward the floor.

Squat holds

Squat holds are just what they sound like — you lower yourself into a basic bodyweight squat (you can choose whether to perform an air squat, a sumo squat, or a prisoner squat), then you hold the position, firing up your quads, hamstrings, and glutes as you maintain a steady joint angle. The benefit of holding a squat at a specific angle is that it helps build strength at that specific point. This is especially beneficial for individuals recovering from an injury. If performing a full squat causes pain, you can start by working on squat holds, lowering yourself only as far as you can into the squat without causing pain. Hold the position for as long as you can, and repeat. Over time, see if you can lower yourself deeper into the squat.

Goblet squat

The goblet squat is an awesome way to start introducing added weight into your squat workout while reinforcing proper form. Laura Flynn Endres, a personal trainer and the owner of This Is Fit Workouts says, "I find goblet squats to be so perfect for most people to work on depth and keeping their backs upright. I also find most clients can load safely, so after they get their form dialed in, we can add a pretty heavy dumbbell."

To perform a goblet squat, hold a kettlebell or a dumbbell (positioned vertically) between your hands just in front of your shoulders at the center of your chest, as if it were a goblet you were about to drink out of. Perform a squat, keeping your weight in your heels and your chest lifted, maintaining the position of the weight throughout. At the bottom of the squat, your elbows should be positioned just to the inside of your knees, reinforcing proper form by keeping your knees aligned with your toes, preventing them from "collapsing" inward. Press through your heels to return to standing.

Endres adds that once her clients master proper form, she tortures them by having them do a bottom-half variation. This is where you squat to the lowest point, then perform the bottom half of the exercise for a full set, lifting and lowering halfway. "The bottom half variation takes it to the next level." says Endres, "That would be level 'evil.' If they're about to cuss me out by rep 10, I know I assigned the right resistance."

Weighted back squat

The weighted back squat is what most people think of when they imagine someone squatting at the gym. The main differentiation between the back squat and the other exercises mentioned so far is that the back squat uses a weighted barbell that's placed across the back of the shoulders. By placing the load across your back, instead of in front of you, you place more stress on the glutes, hips, and low back. This sounds like a bad thing, but in the world of exercise, stress is good! As long as you're using proper form and a reasonable load, stress is what brings change, helping you attain the glutes you've been gunning for. Plus, by positioning the load across your back, you're able to (eventually) use more resistance. It's a whole lot easier to pack on the weights when it's supported across your back than if you were trying to hold dumbbells in each hand.

Just remember, form is important. While the squat basics are always the same, it's easy to fall into bad habits when doing the back squat. Make sure you keep your shoulders back and your chest lifted, and lower yourself as far as you can, aiming to bend your knees to a minimum of 90-degrees with your weight in your heels. It's very easy to cheat and stop using a full range of motion, but it's better to use less resistance with good form and a full range of motion, than to add resistance, but allow your form to suffer.

Squat press

When you're short on time and you need to combine exercises to buzz through a quick, total-body workout, it's hard to go wrong with the squat press. For this exercise, simply hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder-height, your palms facing in. Perform a squat, just as you would normally, but as you return to standing, press your arms directly over your head to perform a dumbbell shoulder press. Reverse the press, bringing the dumbbells back to your shoulders before performing the next squat. In addition to targeting your shoulders, the squat press engages your core and the stabilizing muscles of your back and torso to help you maintain proper form.

Bulgarian split squats

If you're feeling pretty confident with your squat form and you're ready for a challenge, it may be time to try the Bulgarian split squat – a squat variation that unilaterally targets each leg, focusing primarily on building strength in your quadriceps, with your glutes providing a helpful assist. Brad Snedden, an Austin-based personal trainer and the owner of the meal delivery service, Deliver Eat Repeat, says, "I love the elevated (Bulgarian) split squat, especially with a single arm kettlebell held overhead to create more instability and to increase the intensity of the already-challenging movement." Sounds really tough.

To perform the basic exercise (you can try Snedden's level-up version later), stand with your feet shoulder-distance apart, your toes facing forward, so you're about a foot in front of a bench or sturdy chair, facing away from it. Shift your weight to your left foot and bend your right knee, placing the top of your right foot lightly on top of the bench or chair. Most of your weight should be in your left heel. When you feel steady, bend both knees and lower your right knee toward the ground. Keep your torso upright and make sure your left knee stays aligned with your toes. When you've lowered yourself as far as you can, press through your left heel and return to standing. Perform as many reps as you can on your left leg before switching sides. If you find you can easily perform 15 repetitions per leg, it's time to add weight. Hold a dumbbell in each hand as you do the exercise, or position a barbell across your shoulders, much like you would during a back squat.

Squat walks

Squat walks are an excellent way to target your abductors and adductors while also firing up your quads and glutes. The movement is fairly straightforward. Start with your feet together, then take a step to the right with your right foot before lowering yourself into an air squat. As you return to standing, step your left foot to your right foot before taking another step to the right to perform another squat. Perform five to 10 squats walking to the right, then change direction, performing the squat walks leading with your left foot. To make the exercise more challenging, start by lowering yourself into a squat, then once your knees are bent to 90-degree angles, start walking to the right, stepping first with your right foot and following with your left, all while maintaining the low squat. Once you've taken five to 10 steps in one direction, change direction and head back to the starting position.

Squat jumps

To work on explosive strength while adding a bit of cardio to your routine, consider trying squat jumps. This exercise certainly isn't easy, so you may only be able to do a few repetitions when you first start, but it's a great option when you're short on time and need to squeeze a high intensity interval training (HIIT) session into your day. As with all squats, form is incredibly important, and with squat jump, you have to focus on jumping and landing form, in addition to squat form.

Start with your feet shoulder-distance apart, your weight in your heels, your core engaged and your torso tall. Squat down, just as you would when doing an air squat, but when you reach the bottom of the squat, explosively jump into the air, extending your body and swinging your arms to help you gain momentum. As you land, make sure you come down first on the balls of your feet, your knees and hips slightly bent to help reduce impact, before you touch your heels to the ground, shifting your weight back to begin lowering yourself into another squat. Perform as many squat jumps as you can with good form.

Incorporating squats into your routine

Because squats are intended to develop strength in the major muscles of your lower body, you don't need to do them every day. To experience muscle growth, allow roughly 24 to 48 hours between sessions to give your targeted muscle groups the chance to rest and repair. Aim to include squats in your workout two to three days a week, always allowing a day between sessions. Choose one or two squat variations for each workout, and complete two to three sets of each exercise. The key is to perform each exercise to fatigue, so the last one or two repetitions of each set are challenging to complete. As you get stronger, add additional weight with dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells, or change up your routine with different variations to ensure you continually see results.