The squat is a compound lift that’s ideal for growing your quads and glutes. And, depending on how you squat, you can also use it to build stronger spinal erectors and a bigger upper back.
The squat is one of our Big 5 bulking lifts, and in this article, we’re going to go over the best strategies for integrating the squat into your bulking routine. This article has nothing to do with powerlifting or even powerbuilding, just with using the squat to build muscle and gain general strength.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- Whether your main variation should be the low-bar, high-bar, or front squat.
- How to assess your weaknesses and fix them.
- How to choose assistance lifts for the squat.
- How to choose accessory lifts for the squat.
This article is still bulking: It will grow over time. Occasionally we’ll trim off some fat.
The squat is the strength training lift. Like the deadlift, it’s a great lift for strengthening your body from your neck down to your toes. In fact, its claim to fame is that squatting stimulates over 200 muscles.
However, powerlifters squat with the goal of improving their max-effort strength. That means choosing the variation with the best leverage, trying to emphasize their very strongest muscles, and minimizing their range of motion.
If our goal is to gain overall size and strength, we’re going to approach the squat differently. Less like a powerlifter, more like a weightlifter. We’re going to use a large range of motion, we’re going to use it to bring up weak links, and we’re going to choose a variation that develops our quads and hips, sure, but also our core and upper back.
What Muscles will the Squat Grow
The squat is famous for stimulating over 200 different muscles. Most notably, we’ve got:
- Spinal erectors
However, most of these muscles aren’t limiting factors on the squat. As a result, they won’t be challenged enough to provoke an adaptation, and so they won’t grow.
Let’s take the lats as an example. Your lats will put in work to help stabilize your spine, sure. But they won’t be a limiting factor. Not even close. They won’t be challenged enough to stimulate any muscle growth. If you want to bulk up your lats, that’s where the chin-up comes in.
The squat is best for bulking up just a few major muscle groups:
- Adductors (inner thigh)
- Spinal erectors
Note that the hamstrings are off the table. You’ll often hear people say that the squats are a complete lower-body exercise, doing a great job of bulking up both the quads and the hamstrings. However, that’s simply not true. The squat is a terrible hamstring exercise. Yes, the hamstrings are active during a squat, but not anywhere near active enough to bulk them up.
It’s the deadlift that takes care of the hamstrings, which is why you’ll want a good balance of both squats and deadlifts while bulking up your lower body.
The Main Squat Variations
The Low-Bar Squat
The low-bar squat has you positioning the barbell lower on your upper back, usually on top of your rear delts, like so:
This “low-bar” position gives your hips great leverage and requires the least amount of upper-back strength. Upper back strength can then be reduced even further by squatting with a wide stance, allowing for a more upright torso. This allows most people to low-bar squat about 10% more weight than they can high-bar squat and about 25% more weight than they can front squat.
However, this extra leverage comes at a price. With the low-bar squat, people bend more at the waist, less at the knees. Problem is, that extra bend at the waist can cause your hips to jam up against your femurs, reducing your range of motion, and possibly leading to hip issues down the road—a common injury for powerlifters.
Minimizing the involvement of the back muscles also makes the low-bar squat more of a specialized lower-body lift instead of an all-around size and strength builder.
Is the low-bar squat good for building bigger hips? One reason someone might favour the low-bar squat is that they want proportionally bigger glutes. The low-bar squat would allow them to “sit back” into the squat and then muscle their way back up with their hips. That’s going to cause more glute growth with less thigh and upper-back growth.
Furthermore, because there’s so much emphasis on bending at the hips, the low-bar squat would train your glutes through a larger range of motion, which is great for building up a bigger, rounder butt.
Conclusion: This is a great squat for powerlifters and hip growth. However, if you’re not a powerlifter, and if you’re not trying to prioritize hip development, this probably isn’t the squat for you.
The High-Bar Squat
The high-bar squat has you positioning the barbell higher up on your back, on top of your traps. This allows you to maintain a more upright torso, which is great, as it allows you to sink quite a bit deeper. It also reduces your leverage, forcing you to use a weight that’s around 10% lighter. However, most people can still high-bar squat around 15% more weight than they can front squat.
The high-bar squat is a bit harder on your back muscles than the low-bar squat, but not by much, so it’s still a poor lift for your spinal erectors. This means that if you wanted to squat with an emphasis on lower-body development (thighs and glutes), the high-bar squat is a pretty good choice.
Conclusion: This is a good all-around squat, and it’s good for emphasizing lower-body development, but we can do better.
The Front Squat
The front squat has you holding the bar in front of you, resting on the crease between your shoulders and your collarbones, up against the front of your neck, like so:
Holding the barbell in front of you like this forces you to maintain a near perfectly upright torso, allowing you to sink even deeper into your squat. Furthermore, holding the barbell in front of your body increases the moment arm for your thoracic spine, putting around 235% more load on your upper back muscles, and thus stimulating a ton of muscle growth in your upper back.
Front squats are, hands down, the best squat variation for building upper back strength.Greg Nuckols, Stronger by Science
This makes the front squat an incredible lift for not only your legs but also for your entire posterior chain.
It’s a magical lift:
- Deeper range of motion: Front squats are done with a more upright torso, which makes it easier to use a larger range of motion, and makes it less likely that you’ll jam your hips into your femurs.
- Better for your upper back and core: Because the barbell is held in front of you, front squats do a better job of bulking up your upper back, which is going to have greater carryover to your deadlift. They also do a better job of strengthening your core, which has great carryover to your push presses.
- It’s great for your spine: squatting with an upright torso puts your spine under plenty of compressive force, which gives you some great adaptations, but also less shear stress. This makes it pretty safe and easy on your spine.
- It forces better squatting technique: Poor front squat technique can lead to the barbell falling off your shoulders. This means that even when lifting heavy, and even when approaching failure, front squats continue to reinforce good technique. This keeps the lift safe even as you push yourself hard.
- It’s better for your posture and shoulders: A typical back squat requires developing shoulder mobility so that you can crank them backwards, which is fine, but it won’t improve your shoulder health. Front squats, on the other hand, require developing t-spine mobility so that you can get into a proper rack position, which improves your upper back (t-spine) mobility and posture. It’s a better shoulder adaptation.
- Just as much quad and glute development: front squatting means lifting less weight, but since you’re lifting through a larger range of motion, it still produces the same overall amount of muscle growth in your quads and glutes (study).
- It’s easier on your knees: the front squat is easier on your knees (study). Admittedly, that doesn’t matter for most people, but it’s certainly an advantage for those who already have cranky knees.
- It’s less demanding on your lower back: this would be a bad thing if we weren’t also deadlifting, given that we do want the benefits of greater spinal loading (such as denser bones and a more resilient spine). But since we’re already training that area so hard with our deadlifts and rows, the front squat gives your lower back a well-earned break.
The front squat is also by far the lightest squat variation, with most people front squatting about 25% less than they can low-bar squat, and about 15% less than they can high-bar squat. Part of this is because of the extra range of motion, part of this is because the front squat is so challenging for the upper back muscles.
Still, even though you’ll be lifting less weight, and even though there’s less hip involvement, a study by Bret Contreras, PhD, found that front squats stimulate all of your lower-body muscles just as much as high-bar squats.
However, the front squat is a brutal lift with a rough learning curve. I’d say it’s a lift that only a mother could love, but we’ve asked plenty of mothers to try it. They don’t like it either.
The front squat looks like a painfully awkward way to strangle yourself with a barbell.–Michael Matthews
It gets worse, too. Most people don’t have the wrist mobility to hold the barbell properly when they first start trying to front squat. They try it, can’t get into the right position, feel like they’re being choked to death, and abandon it forever.
Don’t abandon it. If you do some wrist stretches during your warm-ups, you’ll probably be able to get at least a couple of fingers under the bar. That’s enough to start with. And yes, it might feel awkward up against your neck, but that pain will pass after you get used to the lift.
Give it a chance. In return, it will give you tremendous gains.
Conclusion: The front squat tends to be the best variation for building overall muscle mass, improving posture, and gaining all-around strength. It’s also hard to learn.
Finding Weak Links
Your squat will fail for one of three reasons:
- Your back will round because it’s not strong enough to support the weight. To fix this, we need to strengthen your back. We could strengthen your back with extra front squatting, but it’s usually easier to strengthen your back with: deadlifts, bent-over rows, and good mornings. Using a lifting belt and improving your bracing technique can also help.
- Your hips will shoot up at the bottom of the squat because your quads aren’t strong enough to lift you up. To fix this, we need to strengthen your quads. We could strengthen your squads with extra front-squatting, and in this case, that’s often a pretty good approach, given that the quads are the prime mover in the front squat. However, you can also use the leg press, hack squats, step-ups, and split squats.
- Your form doesn’t crumble, but the bar won’t rise because your hips aren’t strong enough. This is more likely to occur with the hip-dominant squat variations, especially if you “sit back” into a low-bar squat. You can bring up weak hips with more hip-dominant squatting, but you could also use glute bridges, hip thrusts, deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts.
Assistance Lifts for the Squat
Assistance lifts are similar to the main variations, but they’re specifically designed to help us double down on our strengths or to fix a weak link. Adding in this extra variety will also give our joints and connective tissues a break from doing the exact same movement over and over again. Furthermore, they’ll work our muscles in a slightly different way, stimulating new muscle fibres, and helping us to develop fuller muscles.
Goblet squats are done by picking up a dumbbell and holding it in front of your chest. The weight is in almost the same place as in the front squat, which keeps the torso upright and challenges the upper back. The difference is that you’re holding the dumbbell in front of you instead of letting it rest on your shoulders, which requires far more shoulder and biceps strength.
Goblet squats are one of the best bulking lifts of all time, for a time. They work all of the same muscles as front squats, but they add in your biceps and all of the muscles in your shoulder girdle. It’s a true full-body lift. The only problem is that you’ll eventually grow too strong for them.
We use goblet squats as a main squat variation in the first couple phases of our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, and they’re perhaps our single favourite squat variation. However, because of the sheer amount of muscle mass goblet squats work, once you can do more than ten reps with the heaviest dumbbell, it will become more of a cardiovascular exercise than a bulking exercise.
Now, it’s important to improve your cardio as you bulk up, so even then, goblet squats can still have a role in a good bulking routine, but they’ll stop stimulating as much muscle growth. If you can’t do ten reps with the heaviest dumbbell yet, though, choose these as an assistance lift.
Squat to a Box
Squatting to a box can help correct our tendency to squat with a shorter range of motion as the weight gets heavier. This is important because if your range of motion is getting shorter as the weight gets heavier, you aren’t actually giving your muscles a greater stimulus. You’d just be making the lift easier to account for the heavier weight.
If you practice squatting to a box for a few weeks, your squat depth should become much more consistent. Problem solved.
Squatting to a box is separate from a box squat. There’s a squat variation called the box squat, where you squat down to a box, sit on it, and then squat the weight back up. This isn’t that. Squatting to a box is where you do your squats just like normal, but you make sure to tap your butt against the box at the bottom of every rep.
If you have trouble keeping your upper back from rounding while front squatting or deadlifting, the Zercher squat will do a good job of strengthening your upper back muscles.
Zercher squats are where you hold the barbell in the crook of your elbows, down near your abs. These make a good accessory lift for both the sumo deadlift and the front squat, given that it works a number of the same muscles:
- Spinal erectors
- Upper back
Like the front squat, is holding the weight in front of you will allow you to keep a more upright torso and squat with a deeper range of motion. However, many people are able to go sink deeper when doing Zercher squats, which is another reason why they’re such a valuable assistance lift.
The main downside is that it’s hard and it hurts, but another significant downside is that it’s hard to lift as heavy on the Zercher squat as you can go on a front squat, with the biceps often being the limiting factor.
Accessory Lifts for the Squat
In one study, they compared the muscle development of people doing just squats compared with doing squats, leg presses and leg extensions. The volume was equated, so both groups were doing the same amount of lifting overall, and so as you’d expect, both groups gained the same amount of muscle mass,
However, the participants doing a greater variety of exercises got more balanced muscle growth—all heads of the quads grew proportionally. Surprisingly, the greater exercise variety even resulted in a greater increase in squat strength.
Now, if you’re still learning the lifts, there’s a good case to be made for practicing them over and over again until your technique is solid. So if you’re still struggling with your front squat technique, it may be best to stick to front squats and goblet squats until that groove is fully greased.
But once you know how to squat properly, you don’t need that same relentless practice, and you can capitalize on the benefits of exercise variation.
The list of accessory lifts for the squat is endless, but here are our favourites:
- Leg press: the leg press is fairly heavy while also limiting the stress on your back muscles, allowing you to emphasize your lower body. If your quads are holding you back on the squat, the leg press is a great choice.
- Good morning: if your squats (or deadlifts) are limited by your back strength, good mornings are great for bulking up your spinal erectors. They’re good for your hips and hamstrings, too, making them a great accessory lift for both the squat and deadlift. If your quads aren’t limiting you on the squat, these are a solid choice.
- Step-up: this is another great exercise for bulking up your quads. Step-ups tend to be a bit easier and lighter than the leg press, allowing you to toss them onto the end of a tiring workout.
- Leg extension: this is another good way to bulk up your quads. However, leg extensions only bulk up your quads, making them fairly inefficient.
- Split squat: split squats work well but are a nightmare to do, making them a suitable exercise choice for people who hate themselves but still want awesome results.
If your hip strength is limiting your squat, you could always switch to a low-bar squat position to emphasize it a bit more. However, keep in mind that you have a whole movement pattern designed to bulk up your hips: the deadlift. So if your hips are lagging behind, that might be a reason to deadlift more often or to use more deadlift accessories (such as hip thrusts and Romanian deadlifts).