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6 Squat Variations to Transform Your Legs

A woman doing squats in a sunny exercise room.
G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock

Squats are, undeniably, the best exercise for shaping and toning your legs. Check out these six variations to include in your workout and completely transform your legs.

You can do them anywhere, using just your bodyweight, or you can add weights or resistance bands. However you choose to do them, you just can’t beat squats for lower-body sculpting.

The Conventional Squat

As it’s the foundation of the exercise, the conventional squat can never be left out when making a list of the best leg-day exercises.

This ultimate compound movement needs the activation of your entire body—not just your legs. The conventional squat also requires some techniques you need to nail down to perform it correctly.

First, stand straight, with your legs slightly wider than hip-width. Your toes should point outward in the same direction as your knees when you begin to lower your hips.

Place your hands in front of you for better balance and tighten your abs, lifting your belly button and protecting your spine.

Inhale deeply and, keeping your spine straight, begin to lower your hips as if you’re going to sit in a chair behind you. Try to get your thighs as parallel to the floor as possible. Make sure you feel both your feet firmly pressed into the floor and spread your toes.

Continue to open your knees as you get deeper into the movement, but prevent them from going too far forward—you want them to remain aligned with your ankles.

When you reach the end of your inhale and the bottom of your squat, slowly start exhaling. Press your heels into the floor to activate your glutes. Keep your legs engaged, your core tight, and your knees spread just as they were before.

When you reach the top and the end of your exhale, squeeze your glutes and use every bit of your breath to work your muscle fibers.

The Sumo Squat

Unlike the conventional squat, the sumo squat really targets your glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

Although the movement is the same, the difference is in the stance. Your feet need to be separated wider, and your toes slightly more externally rotated, as your knees are bound to go wider, as well.

Make sure your knees aren’t pointing inward at any point—keep pressing them outward as you lower, and then rise. Keep your spine straight the entire time and stick out your glutes as you lower down. Once again, pretend there’s a chair behind you.

When you come all the way back up, squeeze your glutes. Really work that mind-to-muscle connection, so you feel them contract and release.

The Sissy Squat

If you’ve only heard of the sissy squat but never tried it, you might think it’s a “wimpy” version of a regular squat. The move is actually awkwardly named after Sisyphus from Greek mythology. This is because it helps build the same muscles Sisyphus used to perpetually roll a giant boulder uphill.

The sissy squat really puts the pressure on your quads and knees, making it a very efficient, but extremely difficult, exercise. When done right, it tones, strengthens, and grows your quads, while simultaneously improving the mobility of your hips and knees.

Holding onto something is a good idea if you’ve never attempted these before. Over time, you’ll get stronger, your core will be much tighter, and you’ll be able to do these fully unassisted.

Start with your legs hip-width apart. Place your arms in front of you and begin to lower. This time, though, instead of pretending to try to sit on a chair behind you, push your hips forward as you bend your knees, and lean your body backward.

Go slow and steady to help maintain your balance and keep a strong core. Once you’re fully down, stay for a few seconds before coming back up the same way.

If you have knee problems, be very careful when performing this squat. Always have someone there to guide you or check your posture so you won’t injure yourself even more.

The Split Squat

One of the best ways to isolate and work each leg individually, the split squat targets your hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves differently in each leg. This means you end up working multiple areas at the same time.

From a standing position, take one long step forward, just as you would when performing a lunge. Firmly press your front foot into the ground and lift the heel of the back leg, pushing into your toes. Keep your torso straight and your core engaged.

Slowly start lowering your hips downward until your front thigh is parallel with the floor, and your back knee is almost touching the ground (the full depth). From here, push yourself back up by activating both of your legs and digging your feet into the ground. Stay where you are and repeat.

To switch legs, just come back to the starting position, and then step forward with the opposite leg.

The Goblet Squat

Usually performed with a kettle- or dumbbell for additional weight, you can also do the goblet squat holding anything that will help you maintain your balance. Your back should remain straight throughout the entire exercise.

Separate your legs a bit wider than hip-width apart as you hold your preferred piece of equipment. With your back fully straight, inhale and begin lowering down, until you’re close to the floor. Your thighs should go beyond being parallel with the floor, and you should feel your lower back open and elongate.

Push your heels deep into the ground as you begin lifting up. Engage your glutes and hamstrings, and make sure your knees don’t start closing inward. At the end, squeeze your glutes, take a big inhale, and then start lowering downward again.

When holding a kettle- or dumbbell, pay attention to your upper back—make sure it’s not curving inward. Instead, open your chest and pull your shoulders away from your ears.

The Pistol Squat

The pistol squat is one of the most difficult variations. It puts all the pressure on just one leg, making you pull all of your weight on just one side of your body. It really pushes your muscles to the maximum.

There are a bunch of different progressions you can play around with before you build enough strength to perform the fully advanced version. Choose whichever one you want to start with, and then be patient with yourself. This is one of those moves you work on for months (if not years) before you can master it.

Always make sure your back is straight, core is tight, chest is lifted, and belly button is pulled up. Pay as much attention to how you exit the pose as you do to how you get into it. It’s not uncommon to pull with your lower back and hips, which causes pain and strain. This is why it’s important to stay on your progression step until you feel comfortable and strong enough to take it further.

If you start including these six challenging squat variations in your workouts, your legs will change, tone, grow, and strengthen over time!

Karla Tafra Karla Tafra
Karla is a certified yoga teacher, nutritionist, content creator and an overall wellness coach with over 10 years of international experience in teaching, writing, coaching, and helping others transform their lives. From Croatia to Spain and now, the US, she calls Seattle her new home where she lives and works with her husband. Read Full Bio »
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