It’s painful to watch someone squatting with bad form, it’s an injury waiting to happen. And not to mention, it means they aren’t using the correct muscles to perform the squat safely, ultimately wasting their time.
If squats are not done properly you end up recruiting muscles that shouldn't be recruited, to compensate for the bad technique.
In this article, we will look into what muscles are used when squatting, different variations of the squat, and what to avoid.
What Muscles Are Used In The Squat?
To improve your squat it’s important to fully understand the muscles used. Certain muscles will be used more or less depending on the range of motion being adopted in the squat.
Whether you’re squatting deep or driving through a weak point. Several different variations of squats focus on specific muscles.
At the lowest part of the squat, the predominant muscles being used are the quads since your knees will be at their limit. The core muscles, specifically your erectors will be activated to stop you from falling forward or bending at the spine (A big no-no!)
As you drive up in the squat, your hips need to go up and forward which recruits the glutes and Adductor Magnus (inner thigh) to extend the hips forward.
The squat is one of the most compounded lower body exercises because it needs simultaneous action at all the significant joints, including the hips, knees, and ankles.
Squat Anatomy - The main muscles used in a squat:
- Adductor Magnus
- Abdominal and Obliques
- Upper/ Lower Back and Lats
The deeper you go into the squat the further forward your knee bend, engaging the quads more. To support this knee travel to extremes, you need strong quads.
The glutes are one of the biggest muscle groups in the body. They are made up of the gulte maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. In the squat, the main parts used are the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius.
The gluteus maximus is the large part of the glute that you sit on. This muscle is used to extend the hips, which is essential for locking out in the squat position.
As you come up from the low squat position, the hips need to rise up and forward to come back in line.
As a result, the gluteus maximus serves a fundamental role in the squat.
The glute medius is the side part. It is used to abduct the hip like you were sidestepping or performing the ‘opening the gate’ exercise (Knee away from the body).
When squatting it's important to keep the hip abducted so your knees keep tracking over your toes. If you don’t have a solid gluteus medius your knees may either collapse or fall outwards when squatting, which would increase the risk of injury.
Squat machines are great options for beginners and experienced squatters in making sure that they target their glutes effectively. The best glute machines are designed to reduce risk of injuries and to last even with heavy use.
The Adductor Magnus is part of the inner thigh and plays a part in the hip extension part of the squat.
It performs a similar role to the gluteus maximus, allowing the hip to fully extend. What’s different is that it's used in the mid part of the squat before the glutes or quads take over.
The hamstrings have multiple functions in the squat. The hamstring supports the glutes in the hip extension but only in a minor way as the primary driver of the hip extension is still the glutes. The hamstring simply offers support.
Secondly, the hamstring stabilizes the muscles surrounding the knee joining to prevent injury. When your knees are at the deepest part of the squat the hamstrings help stabilize the knees by countering the forces of the quads.
The erectors are the muscles that run either side of the spine, often seen as two ridges at the center of the back.
The erectors help keep the spine stiff during the squat. Ultimately they prevent the back from rounding which causes damaging stress on the back.
Abdominals And Obliques
These muscles are the ‘antagonists’ in the squat and help stabilize during the motion.
To be specific, the abdominals and obliques help stabilize the vertebral column and pelvis. They do this by preventing the erectors from pulling the spine into hyperextension.
Upper - Back And Lats
These muscles are working to keep the bar positioned stable and fixed. If they aren't being used correctly the bar will shift up and down the back during the squat causing discomfort and leading to poor technique.
They also support the erectors in maintaining spinal stability, since the erectors attach at the upper back as well.
The calves play a small role in the squat. As you go deep into the squat, your ankle flexes, and your shins move forward. The outside of the clave, known as the Soleus, helps bring the shins to a vertical position as you stand up in the squat.
Despite its small role in the exercise, calves are still at risk for injury and cramping, and should not be overlooked. Know how to stretch your calves and start incorporating them into your routine.
Different Types Of Squat
Barbell Front Squat
The barbell front squat places a barbell in front of the chest. Once you have the bell in front of your chest, you adopt the standard squat technique. It is a relatively easy exercise but make sure that you fully understand how to do front squats before performing it so that you target the right muscles and avoid injuries.
Barbell Back Squat
This is the standard big bar squat. This is often said to be easier than the front squat. Place weights on the trapezius muscles at the back of your neck.
This squat can allow you to go all the way to the glutes touching the floor. Make sure you maintain the correct technique to avoid injury.
Split Squat (Bulgarian Split Squats)
These can be done with dumbbells kettlebells, or other weights of your choice. You can also take it one step further by elevating the back leg on a bench.
Single-Leg Squat (Pistol Squat)
Single leg squats are advanced, they require strength and balance. These are great to do to ensure equal leg strength as when we use both legs, one tends to dominate, making the other leg work less.
Wide Stance Squat (Sumo Stance)
The wide stance adopted in this squat activates the muscles of the inside of the thigh such as the Gracilis and Adductor Magnus.
Smith Machine Squat
This is a framed rack of weights with linear guides, you’ll find one of these in most gyms. The bar is positioned between two rails to ensure safe tracking of the bar.
It’s commonly used for back and front squats. This is a great choice if you are looking for a safe way to introduce your body to the squat. Smith Machine is also an amazing space-saver so you can easily set it up at your own home. There is a huge array of options available but you don't have to feel overwhelmed in choosing the best one for you. Check out our guide to the best home smith machines here.
As the weight is on guides, it’s safer and you are less likely to injure yourself. The downside is that it limits the range of motion compared to free-weighted squats.
The squat will use the knee, hip, and back extensor muscles. At the bottom of the squat, you’ll use more quad muscles to extend the knee out of the hole.
As you transition into the mid and top-end range of motion, you’ll use less quad, and more glutes, Adductor Magnus, and hamstring to extend the hips.
The more forward torso lean you have, which will vary depending on your individual mechanics, the greater your erectors will work.
Squatting is a very useful exercise to understand and perform. It utilizes some of the body's biggest muscle groups.
Performing the squat correctly and knowing how many squats you should do a day are very important to maximize the effectiveness of muscle recruitment resulting in more strength adaptation. These will also ensure you avoid injury.
There are many variations of squats you can use, each focusing on slightly different muscles within the main groups used in squatting. It can be useful to mix it up to give yourself a broad range of strength within the motion of squatting.