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Squat Variations: What do they train and why do we use them?


Squats are one of the most essential exercises for any rehab or fitness program. This total body exercise can be used to increase strength, power, muscular endurance, bone mineral density, and cardiovascular endurance. Squatting is one of the most functional exercises because it resembles every day movements such as standing/sitting from a chair, getting on/off the toilet, crouching down for something on the floor or a low shelf, and many more. There are a variety of squat variations to target specific muscle groups. The movement or position of weight can be modified to accommodate different body structures or mobility limitations.  




The goblet squat is a great variation to either teach or retrain the squat pattern. Holding the weight in a goblet position requires minimal shoulder mobility and creates a natural counterbalance, making it easier to keep your torso upright with minimal stress to the hip joint. This exercise can be performed with either a dumbbell or a kettlebell for gradual loading.  




The high-bar back squat is the most common type of barbell squat. The bar is positioned just across the shoulders, resting on the upper traps. The high-bar back squat mimics an athletic stance and will build strength that can be transferred to sport. This squat variation strengthens quads, hamstrings, and glutes without much bias towards any one individual muscle group.

For optimal strength output, the bar should follow a vertical path and remain over the forefoot from start to finish. Positioning the bar on your back naturally produces a slight forward trunk lean, but the chest must stay lifted in order to maintain a vertical bar path. Placing the bar on your back also creates healthy loading of the spine. It is a very effective exercise to help develop bone density of the spine and hips in individuals with osteoporosis.   




For the low-bar back squat, the bar sits across the shoulder blades opposed to resting on the upper traps. Positioning the bar lower on your shoulders allows for more forward trunk lean in order for the bar to follow a vertical path and remain over the forefoot. The forward trunk lean increases glute and hamstring activation and requires less ankle and knee mobility than the high-bar back squat.  The low-bar back squat generally produces greater force compared to high-bar and is typically seen more often in powerlifting. 




For a barbell front squat, the bar is placed across the front of the shoulders contacting the collar bone and crossing the throat. The bar is stabilized by the fingers under the bar with elbows lifted requiring significant amount of lat, triceps, and wrist flexibility. Positioning the load in front of the body promotes a more erect torso, requiring less hip flexion mobility while increasing quad and core activation. Adequate shoulder and wrist mobility, thoracic extension, and ankle dorsiflexion are required in order to maintain a vertical bar path. If you do not have the shoulder mobility to hold the bar correctly and still want the benefits of a front loaded squat, the zercher squat is a good alternative.





The zercher squat is a brutal variation targeting the legs, upper back, and core. The barbell is placed in the crooks of your elbows held in front of your body. This can be a bit painful for the elbows, so a barbell pad can be used for increased comfort. Like the front squat, positioning the weight in the front of the body increases anterior chain activation emphasizing quads and core. The Zercher squat also requires a significant amount of upper back strength to hold the weight firing up the rhomboids and traps. It is a good alternative to the front squat if you lack the required shoulder, wrist, or thoracic mobility to hold the bar across the front of the shoulders. 




The overhead squat incorporates shoulder strength and stability in addition to strengthening the legs for a total body exercise. The overhead squat also requires a significant amount of core strength in order to stabilize the spine through a loaded overhead movement. To maintain a vertical bar path, the overhead squat requires full shoulder flexion mobility and thoracic extension and should not be performed unless both requirements are met. 




The Spanish squat is performed with either a specific piece of equipment designed for Spanish squats, like the one shown in the video below, or can be performed by attaching a very thick resistance band to something in front of you and placing the band behind the back of the knees. The stable piece of equipment allows you to sit way back in the squat while preventing the knees from moving forward over the toes. The Spanish squat is designed to emphasize the quads without placing high loads on the patellofemoral joint.  This variation is commonly used to treat early stages of patellar tendinopathy. The Spanish squat allows for heavy loading of the quads without aggravating irritated or inflamed structures in the front of the knee.




The elevated heel squat allows you to squat deeper while maintaining and upright torso. This variation requires less hip and ankle mobility, allowing you to drop the hips way below the knees. Elevating your heels promotes forward translation of the knees over your toes, increasing quad activation. Slight elevation under the heels can be used for individuals who lack sufficient ankle mobility. It allows them to safely perform a deeper squat with heavy resistance. A more aggressive elevation can be used to increase stress to the front of the knee and place a higher load on the patellar and quad tendon. This variation is is often used for patients with patellar tendinopathy.





The box squat can be used as a teaching tool for people who tend to keep all their weight on the balls of their feet and let the heels pop off the floor as they lower into a squat. Sitting the hips back to touch the box helps keep the heels grounded and the weight evenly distributed in the foot. I usually progress the box squat to a goblet squat as the patient improves motor control to allow for a more natural squat pattern. 


There is a squat variation for everyone. Check out our recent blog post to learn more about finding your optimal squat stance and improving squat depth.


Written by Hannah Sweitzer, DPT, OCS, CSCS



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