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Every able-bodied person should be doing some type of squat. There are no mandatory movements, but training the squatting pattern is an important part of optimizing your lower body, both from an aesthetic and functional standpoint.
But we don’t all have to squat the same way. The best variation for you will depend on your structure and objective. Let’s look at several variations, their pros and cons, and who will benefit most from each.
But First, Let’s Talk About Squat Depth
Here are the categories:
It’s anywhere from a legal powerlifting squat to “ass to grass” or ATG. A legal powerlifting squat is when the hip joint drops below the knee joint. The upper thigh should be slightly below parallel.
The upper thigh is parallel to the floor. The knees are at 80-85 degrees.
Anywhere from a 90-degree knee angle up to around 110 degrees.
Depth and Muscle Size
A full squat is slightly more effective than a half squat and significantly more effective than a partial squat for hypertrophy.
Muscle damage is one of the main stimuli for growth. It occurs when you lengthen a muscle fiber that’s producing force/tension. By using a greater range of motion, you’re causing more muscle damage by lengthening the muscle’s fibers more and doing it while they’re producing a high level of tension.
But a half squat can absolutely cause growth. If that’s all you can do, you can build your legs just fine. However, partial squats aren’t as effective as either previous range when your goal is building muscle.
Depth and Strength
You can use all three ranges. The shorter the range, the more weight you can use. The greater overload you create, the more strength you can build.
However, strength is normally gained in the range being trained. So if your goal is to get stronger on the full-range back squat, focus mostly on training the full range. Although, squatting a bit higher (parallel) might help you get stronger in the full range by allowing you to use 5-10 percent more weight. It’s close enough to have good strength transfer.
But not everyone needs to be strong in the full range. Sprinters and throwers, for example, often stick to half and even partial squats because their knee angle never goes below 90-degrees in their sport. Sure, a full squat should be used to develop their muscle mass, but once they have enough muscle for their sport, they can focus on getting stronger in the zone they require.
Not surprisingly, a partial squat leads to a greater improvement in jumping performance than a full squat because you overload the specific range of motion you need.
The depth you’re using depends on your objective. No depth is inherently wrong.
The 10 Squat Variations
1. High-Bar Back Squat (Quad-Dominant)
This is essentially a normal squat. When powerlifters started using a low bar placement and more of a hip hinge to lift more weight, there needed to be a differentiation between the typical back squat and the technique used by some powerlifters.
In a high-bar squat, the bar goes across the shoulders at around the upper trap level. The torso is kept as upright as possible. As a result, the hips won’t move as far back as they would in a low-bar squat, and the knees will move forward a bit more. It’s more knee-dominant, while the low-bar squat is more hip dominant.
It offers a good balance of lower-body development with an emphasis on quads. The high-bar placement will put more emphasis on the quads (if you can maintain a proper torso position).
It’s not ideal for those with long limbs relative to their torso, especially if they have long femurs/short tibias. Those with a shorter torso and longer legs will have more trouble with the high-bar placement since their natural squatting pattern is to include more hip action. If they have long femurs, it’s even worse.
Long-limbed lifters will tend to do a high-bar squat with the same mechanics as a low-bar squat (hip-dominant), but when you combine that high bar placement with a hip-dominant squat, you’ll be limited in how much weight you can use.
Who It’s Best For
This should be the staple lower-body lift of those with short limbs and a longer torso, especially if they have short femurs/long tibias. It’s also very effective for those with a balanced body type, though the front squat may be an even better quad-focused lift for them.
2. Low-Bar Squat (Hip-Dominant)
It allows lifters to handle more weight during a powerlifting competition. While it’s named after the placement of the bar, the key is really the hip-dominant squatting mechanics.
You squat while pushing your hips back (sitting back). Naturally, this will make your torso lean forward. When you lean forward, the higher the bar is on your shoulders, the harder your lower back must work. So if you put the bar lower – on your back rather than shoulders – you reduce the resistance arm and the amount of force the lower back has to produce. You’re using a low-bar position to maximize the weight you can lift while using a hip-dominant squat.
Once someone’s efficient with a low-bar squat, it’s not unusual to use 10-20 percent more weight than what can be lifted with a high-bar squat. However, someone with a long torso and short legs won’t see much of a difference between their high and low-bar squats. In fact, someone with a long torso could squat less weight with a low-bar, hip-dominant squat.
You can use more weight by involving the hip muscles to a greater extent. It can develop the posterior chain.
It overloads the lower back and requires good shoulder mobility. It offers less quad stimulation and isn’t ideal for people with longer torsos.
A longer torso means that even with a low-bar placement, the lower back will have to work a lot more. This can counterbalance the strength gained from using the hips more.
Who It’s Best For
Those with long limbs and a short torso. For them, it’s the more natural way of squatting and will lead to the biggest weights being moved. But it remains more of a posterior chain exercise.
3. Front Squat
Place the bar across your shoulders in front. Ideally, elevate the delts slightly to create a “shelf” so that the bar doesn’t press against your throat.
There are three main ways to hold on to a front squat: with a clean grip, a crossed-arms grip, or using wrist straps:
Placing the bar in front facilitates squatting with an upright posture, which means that the hips won’t move as far back, and the knees will travel forward a bit more. This makes the exercise more quad dominant.
Long-limbed people or those with poor ankle mobility might need to elevate their heels slightly to be able to stay upright over the full range of motion.
More quad stimulation. Places greater demands on the upper back and core.
Requires more ankle mobility, and the rack position can be uncomfortable.
Who It’s Best For
People with long limbs will find that the front squat is best for developing their quads, although they might need to elevate their heels.
Those with a balanced body type who want to focus more on quads will also benefit from the front squat.
People with short limbs and a long torso might not need the front squat since the back squat will target the quads (for them) just as much and will allow them to use more weight. But they’re mechanically built to front squat, so they can definitely rotate it with their back squat.
4. Safety Bar Squat
This is the specialty bar that looks like a horse collar. That collar also has handles, so you don’t actually hold the barbell. This eliminates most shoulder stress.
The load is also higher up (on top of your traps) than even a high-bar squat. It forces you to squat more upright, making this a quad-dominant exercise.
Those who low-bar squat or have long limbs should expect a drop of as much as 15-20 percent compared to their regular squat weights. Those with shorter limbs will have a drop of around 5 percent. In the video above, I’m doing 500, which is around 5-7 percent lower than what I could do with a regular bar.
It’s more quad-dominant than a back squat but involves the hip musculature more than a front squat (it’s an in-between lift). There’s no shoulder stress, and it works the core.
If the collar isn’t placed properly, with a heavy enough weight it can create a compression of the trap/neck area that could make you feel like you’re blacking out.
It’s harder to maintain a proper upper-body position – the higher bar placement increases low back work for every degree of forward lean.
Who It’s Best For
Older lifters or those with shoulder issues. I put the safety bar squat in the same category as the high-bar squat when it comes to who benefits.
5. Zercher Squat
Hold the bar in the crook of your elbows. It’s even more front-loaded than a front squat, which further facilitates an upright posture. This allows you to emphasize the quads even more. But it’s also possible to do a hip-dominant Zercher squat.
People assume they’ll be limited by arm strength, but that’s absolutely not true. I’ve helped several individuals do more on the Zercher squat than on their front squat, with several guys going to the 400-500 pound range.
It’s not super comfortable, especially at first. But if you use a thicker bar, Fat Gripz attachments, or wear a hoodie, it’s not that bad. Once you’re used to it, you should be able to handle between 90 and 110 percent of what you can front squat.
On top of making it easier to squat upright, the Zercher is probably the most demanding variation on the core and upper back. As such, using it will make you stronger on other squat variations, as well as deadlifts.
Your biceps and traps will also receive some bonus stimulation.
It’s easier to squat upright and hit the quads. It stimulates the core (strongly) and biceps and strengthens the upper back and traps.
It’s not super comfortable and can put pressure on the elbow. It’s harder to bail out if you miss a lift.
Who It’s Best For
People with long limbs might like the Zercher to better recruit the quads. It’s useful for those who want to emphasize core strength. It’s also good for fighters and football and rugby players.
6. Anderson Back Squat
Do a normal back squat but start from the bottom using the safety pins in a power rack. You start each rep from a dead start.
If your Anderson squat is significantly lower than your regular squat, you might have a problem using your hips to produce force in a squat. So by extension, doing the Anderson squat will be a huge part of the fix.
It gets you a lot stronger out of the hole. Paused squats are okay for that purpose, but the Anderson squat is in a league of its own. It’s especially effective for lifters who are more explosive than strong and tend to rely heavily on the stretch reflex instead of contractile strength to get out of the hole.
It develops the capacity to produce tension in the bottom position. Those with sub-par hip musculature will have a problem creating lots of tension in the bottom position. That decreases strength and stability while also making you more likely to lose your position when you reach the low part of a squat. This makes it hard to have a precise, repetitive technique, which can increase injury risk.
It improves hip mobility. Simply getting into the proper position without the weight “pushing you there” during the eccentric will do wonders to free-up your hips.
It has a very good transfer to the deadlift, especially if you’re more explosive than you are strong. It’s more specific to deadlifting because you have to create tension right from the bottom and can’t use the stretch reflex, making you stronger off the floor in the deadlift.
You can do it with either a low or high-bar position depending on your preference and body type.
It requires good hip and shoulder mobility to set up directly in the low position. It can force you to dramatically lower the weight, which can under-load the top of the range of motion.
Who It’s Best For
It’s rarely used as a primary squat variation, but it can be helpful for someone who’s weak in the bottom position of a squat or has trouble with the first half of the deadlift.
Anderson Front Squat
If you’re an Olympic lifter or a CrossFit athlete and have a hard time recovering from heavy cleans, despite having a fairly strong squat, this is the answer.
If you have trouble standing up from your cleans (you have to use a big rebound to stand up, or your hips shoot up faster than your torso), you probably suck at producing tension in the bottom position of the squat. It’s even harder to do so in a front squat because of the more upright torso angle.
The Anderson front squat trains that skill. You should see a significant improvement in your clean recovery after 4-6 workouts.
Same as for the Anderson squat. It can strengthen the bottom of a front squat as well as the start of a deadlift.
The set-up is actually a bit easier than the Anderson squat, but it’s still awkward. It will also limit how much weight you can use, so it’s not as good as a regular front squat for overall strength and size gains.
Who It’s Best For
Those who either have problems recovering from a heavy clean or who have a weak bottom position in a front squat.
7. Box Squat
I’m not a huge fan. There are too many drawbacks for it to be a universally effective exercise. That’s not to say it’s useless or that I don’t include it in a program from time to time. But when I do, it’s for a very specific purpose.
A box squat isn’t simply squatting down onto a box. It has to be done a certain way. First, you don’t squat down to the box; you “sit back down” on the box. In the bottom position, the shins should be perpendicular to the floor (or even angled backward).
This is one of the main benefits of box squatting: you can sit further back than you would in a regular squat, which will stretch the hamstrings and glutes more, increasing their recruitment. You pause on the box, then stand back up.
It increases glute and hamstring recruitment, and it can teach proper depth. It can train your capacity to produce a higher force through muscle contraction at the start of the movement, and it’s a good assistance exercise for the deadlift.
The main benefit of dead-start lifts is that you can’t use the stretch reflex or rebound to increase force production. Everything must come from voluntary muscle contraction. This can really strengthen you in the bottom position. The box squat is a good exercise to strengthen the start of a deadlift.
If you’re a competitive powerlifter and are willing to take a risk to get a few more pounds on your squat, go for it. But for most, the risk might not be worth the reward.
It’s more potentially dangerous than regular forms of squatting and less effective for growth stimulation. It doesn’t always transfer well to the regular squat because it doesn’t train the transition between eccentric and concentric. That can become a weak point.
There’s much more spinal compression in a box squat than a regular squat. When on the box, the spine is essentially in between two bookends: the bar pushing you down and the box blocking you.
While you can do this safely, it doesn’t take much – like relaxing a bit too much, slamming into the box too hard, or sitting at the wrong angle – for something to go wrong.
While disconnecting the eccentric from the concentric can be detrimental for muscle growth, that turnaround action is where a lot of the muscle damage and mTOR activation occurs. Both are powerful growth stimuli. Removing that transition decreases the hypertrophy potential of the exercise.
The turnaround between the lowering and lifting phase is one of the most critical parts of the squat. It’s often where people get off track by changing body position too much (leaning forward, shooting their hips up, shifting their weight to their toes, etc.). Since the box squat doesn’t train it, it might worsen your squatting performance by making the turnaround less efficient.
Powerlifters competing with a squat suit or super-tight knee wraps don’t have that issue because the suit and wraps do a lot of work in the bottom position when they’re fully stretched. As such, in “equipped” powerlifting, the bottom position is often the strongest point of the range of motion. In a “raw” lift, it’s the weakest. Since you have more support at the turnaround, it doesn’t matter as much if you’re not efficient in that phase.
Who It’s Best For
Powerlifters competing in equipped/geared federations (especially if they have problems reaching legal depth), lifters who excessively use the stretch reflex to bounce out of the hole, and those wanting to increase strength with less muscle growth. You can use it as a secondary method to increase squat frequency.
High Box Squat
The height of the box is set so that when you’re seated, you’ll be in the half or even partial-squat range. Every downside I mentioned in the low-box squat section applies here.
You can use more weight than you could with a full range and standardize the depth by doing half or partial squats. This allows you to significantly overload the upper half or third of the range of motion. This part is normally “under-loaded” in regular squats because the amount of weight is limited by what you can lift from the bottom.
Bigger weights can make the muscles stronger faster. But because strength is gained mostly at the angles trained, it won’t transfer completely to the full-range lift. However, it might be a helpful exercise for an athlete because it’ll allow them to get stronger in the range of motion they need for their sport.
Every athlete should build his foundation using full-range squats, but half squats could actually lead to a greater performance improvement once his foundation is built.
The main issue is that both the potential risk and the low hypertrophy stimulus are magnified. You’re using more load while compressing the spine, and you’re not stretching the muscles much, decreasing muscle damage and mTOR activation.
It’s effective for strengthening the top half of the range of motion. It can get you mentally used to handling big weights and can potentially increase your vertical jump and sprinting more than full squats.
Higher risk of injury, ineffective for muscle growth, and it doesn’t strengthen the full range of motion that well.
Who It’s Best For
Mostly running and jumping athletes, after they’ve already built a foundation of overall leg strength. It can be used for a short duration to get you used to having a very heavy weight on your shoulders to make your regular squats feel lighter.
8. Frankenstein Squat
This is essentially a front squat without holding the bar. It simply rests on the shoulders, making it absolutely impossible to lean forward too much; otherwise, you drop the bar.
It’s mainly a tool for learning technique. You have to stay stable and solid on the way down; otherwise, you drop the bar. It’s also a good assistance exercise for the front squat if your weakness is rounding the upper back on the way up.
It emphasizes the quads. It’s a great technical exercise to learn proper squatting form, and it strengthens the core. It also strengthens the upper back for front squatting.
It’s not super comfortable and can limit the amount of weight you’re using. Although, once you’re used to it and have solid technique, you should be able to use 85-90 percent of what you use on front squats. You also need to use bumper plates in case the bar falls.
Who It’s Best For
Anyone using it for warm-up sets prior to front squatting, or those who front squat with too much forward lean or upper back rounding.
9. Goblet Squat
I rarely use goblet squats. Past a certain point, it becomes almost impossible to load it heavily enough. Once your squat technique is solid and your strength is up, you’ll need to graduate to something more demanding.
The arms are the limiting factor. While a strong guy can probably hold a 120-pound dumbbell in the goblet position, getting it there will be really awkward, and so will bringing it down. Even if you can get there, you’re still only squatting 120 pounds.
Anyone who can front squat over 200-pounds for reps will have a tough time overloading the legs with goblet squats.
Good for learning proper squat mechanics: it prevents you from leaning forward too much and also has you keep a straighter thoracic spine. It’s a low-stress exercise to introduce beginners and kids to squatting.
Not really an option for anybody past the beginner stage or who’s decently non-weak.
Who It’s Best For
Beginners and kids.
10. Lumberjack or Landmine Squat
It’s the adult version of the goblet squat because you can use more weight, but you’ll still be limited by the amount of weight your arms can hold. It can have some value for higher-rep sets in a muscle-building program.
The main benefit is that the position of the bar prevents forward leaning (otherwise, your chest will hit the bar), which forces even the long-limbed to stay upright and get more quad involvement.
The landmine squat helps with proper mechanics more than the goblet squat since the bar automatically provides a slight arc. This teaches you to sit back, giving you a more even spread of the load between the legs and hips.
It almost automatically teaches proper squatting mechanics and can provide sufficient loading for higher-rep hypertrophy work. It’s a low-stress movement since there’s no spinal compression, and you can easily bail out if you hit failure.
The load will be limited by how much weight you can hold or even bring into the starting position.
Who It’s Best For
It’s great for those who are new to the squat, long-limbed individuals and those who need an assistance exercise to build quads.