- The squat is a compound, multi-joint movement that works the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower-back muscles.
- You can modify the traditional squat movement to make it easier on your body while still getting the muscle-strengthening benefits.
- You can also modify the squat to make it more challenging.
Love it or hate it, the squat shows up in practically every full-body workout. No surprise, right? After all, this compound exercise attacks all of the powerhouse muscles in your lower body and then some.
But what if you’re dealing with a nagging knee injury or you just want to shake things up a bit? How do you take the traditional parallel back squat movement and turn it into something that’s safer or more challenging?
If you want to take advantage of the butt-building, quad-crushing benefits that come with squatting, but you’re looking for some variations to the traditional squat, we’ve got you covered. INSIDER asked three fitness pros to share some tips on how you can modify a squat exercise.
Do you need to modify?
One of the best things about strength training is that you can modify practically every exercise including the squat. Marie Urban, group training coordinator with Life Time, told INSIDER you might want to consider modifying the squat exercise if you have any of the following:
- Tight lower back or hamstrings and don’t have the proper range of motion
- Knee pain due to muscle imbalance or knee injury
- Balance issues
- If you want to make it harder or increase more individual muscle integration
When it comes to squats, Stan Dutton, fitness expert and head coach for personal training platform, Ladder, told INSIDER that if you struggle with getting low enough, experience any discomfort in your back, knees or ankles, or feel like you’re going to fall backward, chances are you’re just not doing the right type of squat for your body.
Traditional squats can be modified to be safer or more challenging
In addition to doing different squat exercises, you can also make adjustments within the movement to make it easier on your body. For example, if you have a tight lower back, tight hamstrings, or an injured knee, Urban said you can modify the squat by decreasing the range of motion (limit the distance traveled towards the floor).
“A tight lower back or tight hamstrings will pull your body forward, putting a lot of pressure on your knees, which can cause further injury,” she explained. Make sure your weight is pressed towards your heels and pay attention to the tightness. “The more your release those muscles and balance them out, you’ll be able to go further down and ultimately see better results with less pain,” she added.
If you’ve mastered the basic squat and need to make it more difficult, Urban said you have tons of options.
- Change or increase the weight or modality by using a barbell or kettlebell instead of dumbbells.
- Change the weights position: front squat, back squat, Zercher squat.
- Add another motion in between squat reps: squat to alternating backward lunge back to squat, squat to calf raise, squat to lateral or curtsy lunge, “skinny” squat to wide squat.
- Slow the tempo down. Focus on the negative (the downward part). Go slower, pause at the bottom then push up.
Stability ball squats are great for those who struggle with balance
If you have balance or weight issues, Urban said you can modify a squat by using a stability ball. “The pressure you are able to put on the ball helps keep your body stable and will naturally assist in getting your body in the right form,” she explained.
To do: Begin by placing a stability ball on a wall, leaning against it, and slowly gliding your black down the ball until you hit a squat position.
High-lateral box step-ups increase lower-body strength and power
Tony Carvajal, certified CrossFit trainer with RSP Nutrition, told INSIDER that the high lateral box step-up is a great variation especially if you are caving forward during air squats or weighted back squats, which can happen if you have issues with your hips. Carvajal said this exercise increases lower-body strength and power — particularly in the glutes and quads, and it increases single-leg strength and stability.
To do: Standing to the side of a box, step up onto the box with the inside leg, and drive up with that same leg so that you are standing on top of the box. Do four to eight reps per leg on the highest box possible depending on your tolerance.
Box squats won’t put too much pressure on the knees
Another great alternative to a regular squat is the box squat. Carvajal said box squats are a great way to still load the body with heavyweight to get a reaction from the central nervous system while taking pressure off the knees. “This is the ideal squat for anyone suffering from tendinitis or any pain in the knee capsule since you will be able to work around the pain while still engaging the legs,” he explained.
To do: Find a box that is the same height as a chair. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart in front of the box with a loaded barbell resting on the back of your shoulders. You can also do this movement holding a dumbbell in each hand, holding a kettlebell with both hands in front of your body, or even just your bodyweight. Push your hips back, and bend at the knees to get into a half-squat position. Descend into a full-squat position, on the box top. Pause at the bottom and raise back up to the starting position.
Bulgarian split squats are perfectly safe and easy to learn
“The Bulgarian split squat is one of the best exercises you can do for developing your quads, hip flexors, and posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and back),” explained Carvajal. Plus, he also said it’s easy to learn, load, and program, and when it’s performed correctly, it’s also perfectly safe.
To do: Find yourself a step, bench or any other contraption that you can rest a foot on, it needs to be about knee height. Get into a forward lunge position with torso upright, core braced, and hips square to your body, with your back foot elevated on the bench. Your leading leg should be half a meter or so in front of (a) bench. Lower until your front thigh is almost horizontal, keeping your knee in line with your foot. Don’t let your front knee travel beyond your toes. Drive up through your front heel back to the starting position, again keeping your movements measured.
Heel-elevated squats are best for those with tight calves
For Dutton, the holy grail of squat modifications is the heel elevated squat. If you have limited ankle mobility or tight calves, Dutton said this helps you squat lower since it requires less movement from the ankle.
To do: Place your heels on something that’s 1 to 2 inches off the ground (If you’re in a gym, Dutton recommends using 5-pound plates) and squat down like you normally would.
Goblet squats will work your core
If you struggle with staying upright during squats and feel that your back is working too much, Dutton said the goblet squat is a game changer.
“The reason these are so helpful seems completely counterintuitive, but by holding a weight at your chest, your body must actively do two things,” he explained. First, you have to activate your core (bracing your lower back). Second, you have to counterbalance the weight being in front of you by standing taller and straighter. Dutton said this almost instantly improves your squatting posture.
To do: Grab a dumbbell or a kettlebell and hold it in front of you under your chin. With your feet slightly wider than hips-width apart, and toes pointed slightly out, squat down. Pause at the bottom and push back up. How far down you go depends on your comfort level and flexibility. You can go down as far as parallel or only squat down half the distance.