olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, squat

What Muscles do Squats work?

How many muscles do Squats work?

The Wikipedia definition of a squat highlights just how pivotal squatting is to overall leg development:

In strength training and fitness, the squat is a compound, full body exercise that trains primarily the muscles of the thighs, hips and buttocks, quadriceps femoris muscle (vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius and rectus femoris), hamstrings, as well as strengthening the bones, ligaments and insertion of the tendons throughout the lower body”

The squat effectively and efficiently works almost every muscle in your legs. It’s an (almost) essential exercise whose high energy demands are equally taxing on your CNS and endocrine systems.

So you need to use periodised programs effectively.

But it’s not just the musculature of your body that receives the benefits. Of equal importance is the bone, ligament and tendon development you’ll be grateful for in later life.

But I appreciate nobody squats for that reason.

You squat because you know it’s the most well-balanced and athletic way to improve your leg and core strength.

The variety of squats available to increase performance or body composition ensures it’s status as a fundamental exercise.

The trickier part is knowing what squat type to use and when.

What Primary and Secondary muscle groups do Squats work?

Typically most squats work the below to varying degrees:

  • Gluteus Maximus
  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Core
  • Thigh Adductors: Adductors are muscles in the upper thigh region that pull the legs together when they contract. A strong set of Adductors typically increases stabilisation.
  • Gluteus Medius / Minimus
  • Thoracic / Lumbar Spine
Diagram of the anatomy of your lower body
Diagram of each muscle in the human leg

So really, the only muscles squats completely miss out on are calves. They aren’t an effective way to train your hamstrings either.

Some people may tell you otherwise, but as someone who has squatted 2-3 times a week for a significant amount of time, squats don’t train your calves.

They definitely improve ankle and foot stability, but your calves won’t grow.

> Now Read: How often should you squat?

If you are to correctly use each squat variation for muscular development or improving athletic performance, you could get by without any hypertrophy focused exercises.

But it would be taxing unless properly programmed.

What muscles do Back Squats work?

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Gluteals High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Quadriceps High Explosive power production (jumps) & knee injury prevention
Hamstrings Medium Explosive power production (sprints) & functional motion improvement
Thigh Adductors Medium Knee injury prevention & knee cave mitigation when squatting
Abdominals Medium-Low Core strength improvements & lower back stability
Lumbar Spine (Lower Back) Medium-Low Hip flexor and abdominal stability
Thoracic Spine (Upper Back) Low Deadlift lockout strength & neck injury prevention

Good for: Overall leg development, power production and improving your hips, glutes and lower back specifically, whilst increasing testosterone in the short-term. The back squat is a highly efficient, but taxing compound movement.

Weakness: like any compound movement, it’s particularly taxing on your CNS and endocrine systems. This also depends on whether you run the high bar or low bar variety. For example, Low bar squats have been known to cause persistent lower back injuries when overloaded / overused.

What muscles do Front Squats work?

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Gluteals High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Quadriceps High Explosive power production (jumps) & knee injury prevention
Abdominals Medium Core strength improvements & lower back stability
Thoracic Spine (Upper Back) Medium Deadlift lockout strength & neck injury prevention
Thigh Adductors Medium-Low Knee injury prevention & knee cave mitigation when squatting
Hamstrings Medium-Low Explosive power production (sprints) & functional motion improvement
Lumbar Spine (Lower Back) Low Hip flexor and abdominal stability

Good for: Excellent for developing quad and upper back strength.

Weakness: The most taxing variation of the squat – even more so than the back squat. Some Olympic level athletes will front squat multiple times a week, but unless you’re a high level athlete, once a week should suffice.

What muscles do SSB Squats work?

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Gluteals High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Quadriceps High Explosive power production (jumps) & knee injury prevention
Abdominals High-Medium Core strength improvements & lower back stability
Thoracic Spine (Upper Back) Medium Deadlift lockout strength & neck injury prevention
Thigh Adductors Medium-Low Knee injury prevention & knee cave mitigation when squatting
Hamstrings Medium-Low Explosive power production (sprints) & functional motion improvement
Lumbar Spine (Lower Back) Low Hip flexor and abdominal stability

Good for: Increased core stability and reduces the stress on your knees, hips and lower back. An excellent squat accessory for developing quad strength and for those with limited shoulder flexibility.

Weakness: You’re limited by abdominal and quad strength, so if those are weaknesses it can take some time to adjust (but obviously this will massively benefit you in the long run). Also, most gyms won’t have this piece of equipment, so you should replace this with the front squat instead

What muscles do Pistol Squats work?

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Gluteals High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Quadriceps High Explosive power production (jumps) & knee injury prevention
Hamstrings Medium Explosive power production (sprints) & functional motion improvement
Calves Low Ankle and feet stabilisation

Good for: Single leg strength development. By incorporating single-limb training, you’ll be able to better express your potential power output.

Weakness: Youare limited by bodyweight and flexibility when it comes to pistol squats. They require potentially substantial training to get right.

What muscles do Split Squats work?

Man split squatting with a barbell with his back leg up on a raised bar
Note how the back leg isn’t used at all in the split squat
Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Gluteals High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Quadriceps High Explosive power production (jumps) & knee injury prevention
Hamstrings Medium Explosive power production (sprints) & functional motion improvement
Thigh Adductors Low Knee injury prevention & knee cave mitigation when squatting
Calves Low Ankle and feet stabilisation

Good for: An exercise that builds significant single leg strength, reinforce the bottom position and reduces the risk of injury, whilst adding significant muscle size to your glutes and quads in particular.

Weakness: Can be a tricky exercise for a beginner as it requires grip strength and enough flexibility / single leg strength to be properly performed

What muscles do Lunges work?

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Gluteals High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Quadriceps High Explosive power production (jumps) & knee injury prevention
Abdominals Low Core strength improvements & lower back stability
Thigh Adductors Medium Knee injury prevention & knee cave mitigation when squatting
Hamstrings Medium-Low Explosive power production (sprints) & functional motion improvement
Thoracic Spine (Upper Back) Low Deadlift lockout strength & neck injury prevention
Lumbar Spine (Lower Back) Low Hip flexor and abdominal stability

The only difference between split squats and lunges is that the back leg is at rest when split squatting. The lunge uses both legs at the same time.

Good for: A unilateral exercise that works both sides of the body. It can boost hip flexibility, reinforce your bottom position and allow you to express your potential power better.

Weakness: Stability issues and flexibility are common problems that can cause a beginner to drop the exercise. It’s an (almost) essential component of leg training and shouldn’t be ignored.

> Now Read: What Muscles does the Bench Press work?

Olympic vs Powerlifting Squats

The first thing to note is that the squat isn’t a competition lift in Olympic weightlifting. It’s seen as the best way to build strength with carryover to the clean and jerk and the snatch.
The primary differences between Olympic and powerlifting style squats are:

Olympic squats are performed in the high bar position, whereas powerlifting squats are typically performed in the low bar format. This is because Olympic lifters need to express their strength using the clean and jerk and the snatch.

I actually utilise a hybrid squat stance. Somewhere between narrow and wide in the high bar position, as I think this allows me to best utilise my quads and hips:

Olympic weightlifters stay relaxed under the bar and have a ‘long spine’ with an emphasis on speed.

Powerlifters are primed to lift more weight, so the forward torso displacement in the low bar squat allows your body to take advantage of it’s natural hinges and best utilise your back, legs and hips.

Both the clean and jerk and the snatch are so upright and quad dominant that the low bar squat would have almost 0 carryover to the lifts due to the forward torso displacement.

So although you can typically express absolute strength better with the low bar squat, it doesn’t promote leg strength the same way it’s high bar cousin does.

Powerlifters also tend to squat with a wider stance because you can usually incorporate more hip strength. A wide-stance low bar squat allows you to engage your lower back and hip strength better than a high bar can.

High bar squats are entirely leg dominant. Powerlifters typically use high bar squats as a way to build up leg strength. Essentially a very close variation of their 1RM squat type.

Wide Stance vs Narrow

Typically narrow stance squats are thought to be more quad dominant, hence why they’re preferred by Olympic weightlifters.

Wide stance squats are thought to activate more hip power and are typically used by powerlifters.

Man squatting 4 plates in knee wraps, with a belt and a wide stance
Man squatting 4 plates with a very wide stance

However over the last 2 decades various studies have found no difference in quadriceps (or vastus medialis) activation between narrow stance and wide stance barbell back squats.

This particular study by Escamilla et al found that there was almost no difference in quad activation between narrow and wide stance.

However the 3D analysis found that knee and hip moments were greater in the wide stance squat.

Ankle plantar flexor net muscle moments were greater during the narrow stance squat type. Dorsiflexion occurred when the stance widened.

So narrow stance squatting utilises the 3 muscles on the back of the leg for plantar flexion (gastrocnemius, soleus and plantaris). Wide stance utilises the tibialis anterior on the front of the leg.

Now Read: Do you need Powerlifting Shoes?

Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting Squats

Bodybuilders aren’t looking to get incredibly strong. Working with such heavy weights over a long period of time increases the risk of injury and limits sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
Volume and muscular isolation exercises have always been key for bodybuilders. High bar, narrow stance squats have long been implemented as it’s thought they activate more quad muscles. [Although we now know that may not be the case.]
So bodybuilders use squats for volume, but don’t definitively have to use them. They also may not go below parallel as they have no need to develop such strong hips.

Compare this to powerlifting and it’s almost the absolute antithesis. Below parallel, very rarely any sets above 8 reps (cardio) and more often than not in a low bar format as it allows you to move more weight.

So what’s the right squat type for you?

That’s a nuanced question. But it’s probably easier to break it down into sport types or end goals:

Bodybuilding: To increase leg size and strength, sets of 8-12+ for both back and front squats are your bread and butter. You’ll also want to incorporate lunges and split squats for additional hypertrophy work.

Powerlifting: Build leg strength with high bar back squat, express it with a low bar squat. Don’t neglect the front squat for quad strength that has great deadlift carryover. Lunges or split squats are great for building single leg strength. Pistol squats have their uses, but aren’t necessary.

Olympic Weightlifting: Narrow stance, quad dominant high bar squats. Very little need for any additional hypertrophy. The front squat at least once a week to help reinforce clean and jerk positioning.

Sports Performance: Totally sport dependent, but whatever you choose it has to improve your performance, not break you down too much. Unilateral, single leg exercises are critical, as is anything that reduces injury and increases power production. But you need to keep volume to a minimum outside of the off-season.

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