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Today is a perfect day to get back in the gym and work on some strength training, and one of the ultimate leg-toning moves is the squat. Squats can be done a variety of ways target different muscles, but primarily they work on your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. They are also great for your core, as you need to use your back and ab muscles to stabilize your body throughout the moves. Additionally, muscle-building moves like squats are great for strengthening your bones.
In a traditional squat, you begin standing straight upright with your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart. Extend your arms out so they are parallel with the ground, and take a deep breath in. As you breathe, move your hips back and down, bending the knees as if you are sitting into a chair. Make sure to keep your back straight and chest forward as you lower your butt, and don’t let your knees go over your toes in the front. You can go deeper, but a good aim initially is to squat until your quads are parallel to the floor.
Keep your core engaged throughout the move. Once you get as low as you want to go, pause, and then push back up through your heels. You should feel this in your glutes as you push yourself back up to your standing position. To make a traditional squat more challenging, you can add weights, either holding a bar behind your head or holding weights at your chest or to your sides.
There are ways to perform squats that work slightly different muscles. In the simplest way, you can spread your legs wider than hip-width apart and stand in a plié-like position with your toes facing slightly outward. This move works the inner thighs a little more, and it can also be made harder and more aerobic by adding a small hop while in squatting position. This is a great plyometric movement that can help burn fat while sculpting muscle. You can also do this move using weights, as with a traditional squat.
Another variation on the squat is the split-squat. Split-squats are also called static lunges; to do a split squat, you stand with your feet one in front of the other, separated by a few steps (approximately 2 feet, depending on your size). Then you lower your body straight down until your front quad is parallel to the ground.
This move requires more stabilization from the core. Again, once your front quad is parallel to the ground, you pause for a second and then push up through the front heel, engaging the front-leg gluteus maximus. You can make this move harder by holding weights in either hand. You can also make it into a plyometric movement by jumping straight up, switching legs mid-air, and squatting with the other leg forward. This jump split-squat move is much harder and requires more balance and use of stabilizing muscles, so I would only recommend it once you’ve mastered other squats and gained leg strength.
There are tons of other ways to do squats, and with all squats you should be careful to use proper form to protect your knees. If you have any doubts, consult a professional at your local gym, and if anything ever feels painful, trust your body and stop.
Content has been approved by Anita Mirchandani, NASM CPT.