Build stronger glutes and quads by swapping your bodyweight squats for these squats with weights.

By Tiffany Ayuda
October 09, 2020
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If you've been doing the same basic bodyweight squat for weeks in quarantine now, it's time to level up to doing squats with weights. No shade on bodyweight training — you absolutely can get strong and build muscle just using your own body, but if you have any equipment available, adding weight to your squats can only benefit you.

While squats primarily works your quads and glutes, doing a weighted squat has the added benefit of working your core as well, depending on your stance and the way you're loading weight.

Plus, "depending on which muscles you fire up before the squat, and the variation of the squat, the exercise targets different areas," says Nate Feliciano, owner and head of training at the private fitness studio Studio 16 in New York City. "If you're looking to make the squat more of a glute exercise, then do 3 to 4 sets of a glute activation exercise, like banded lateral walks, and then do a sumo squat variation. Or if you're looking to target your quadriceps, then fire up your quads with 3 to 4 sets of banded straight leg raises and then do a goblet squat variation."

Whether you're using dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell, doing squats with weights also offers a way to increase your strength and work toward muscle-building goals. Doing the same type of squats over and over again won't do you any favors in terms of getting stronger and bulking up. Over time, you need to increase your load to make the movement more challenging. This is a training strategy known as progressive overload.

"Progressive overload can help increase results in a shorter period of time, train the body to adapt to different training environments quicker, and more importantly, help to increase lean muscle mass," says CJ Hammond, XPS-certified trainer with RSP Nutrition. "Using weights is one way to increase the intensity of strength training instead of increasing repetitions to failure."

Sure, adding more reps can challenge your muscles, but increasing the rep range when doing bodyweight squats isn't going to give the same caloric burn and muscle exhaustion for hypertrophy (aka muscle growth) as increasing the weight, explains Hammond. But when you do squats with weights for progressive overload, you can keep the rep scheme neutral and increase the weight to see the results you want. (See: Training Volume Basics If You're New to Lifting Weights)

That said, Hammond and Feliciano offer up 10 variations of squats with weights to change up your workouts and help you reach your fitness goals.

1. Goblet Squat

A goblet squat can be performed using a kettlebell or dumbbell, holding the weight at chest height with both hands. "What makes this exercise great is that it focuses on quads while simultaneously strengthening your core and shoulders because of the location of the resistance," says Feliciano. If it feels easy, Feliciano recommends increasing the weight or pausing for a second or two at the bottom of the movement.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in front of chest with both hands, elbows pointing down.

B. Keeping chest proud and core tight, slowly lower into a squat, pushing hips back and down as if sitting into a chair. Thighs should be parallel to the ground. Avoid allowing knees to cave in toward the midline.

C. Press feet firmly into the ground to stand back up and return to start.

Learn more about how to perform a goblet squat

2. Split Squat

If you want to test your unilateral (aka one-sided) strength, a split squat is an excellent way to ensure you don't have any muscle imbalances. "What makes this a great exercise is that it not only focuses on strengthening your lower body and hip mobility, but it also puts your body in a position to work on balance and proprioception [aka awareness of the position and movement of your body]," says Feliciano. (This list of the best leg exercises has a great visual of how to do a split squat — just add weights.)

A. Stand in front of a chair or bench and place the top of one foot on the edge of it. Take a big step forward with the front leg and make sure the front ankle is aligned with the knee and hip. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms by your sides, or you can hold one heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in front of chest with both hands, elbows pointing down.

B. Engaging core and keeping chest proud, bend front leg until thigh is parallel with the ground. (Depending on the height of the platform, the back knee may be touching the ground.)

C. Press front foot firmly into the ground to straighten legs and stand back up to return to start.

Learn more about how to do a split squat.

3. Front Rack Squat

As a compound exercise, the front squat accesses multiple muscle groups and joints, including your front delts (the front of your shoulders) and core. To get the most out of this movement, take a deep inhale on the way down and exhale as you stand.

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand just in front of shoulders, resting one end of the dumbbell on top of each shoulder. Make sure to stack the weight over wrists with elbows pointing down.

B. Keeping chest proud and spine tall, lower into a squat, pushing hips back and down until thighs are parallel to the ground. Avoid caving knees in toward midline or flaring out to the sides.

C. Press feet firmly into the ground to stand back up and return to start.

Learn more about how to do a front racked squat.

4. Dumbbell Thruster

This compound exercise combines a front squat with a shoulder press, getting your heart rate up in the process. The dumbbell thruster allows you to use the power in your legs to press the weights overhead and finish with your biceps by your ears.

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand just in front of shoulders, resting one end of the dumbbell on top of each shoulder. Be sure to stack the weight over wrists with elbows pointing down.

B. Keeping chest proud and spine tall, lower into a squat, pushing hips back and down until thighs are parallel to the ground. Avoid caving knees toward midline or flaring out to the sides.

C. Press feet firmly into the ground and drive powerfully through legs to stand and use the momentum to press the dumbbells overhead, finishing with biceps by ears.

D. Lower the dumbbells to shoulders to return to start.

Learn more about how to do a dumbbell thruster

5. Suitcase Squat

The suitcase squat serves as a great reminder of how to properly squat down to carry heavy grocery bags or other items such as, yep, a suitcase. It not only tests your glutes, quads, and core, but it also challenges your grip. With a suitcase carry, you're engaging your forearms, triceps, and lats to hold the weight, putting less pressure on your shoulders.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms by sides. Grip the dumbells tightly with palms facing in, packing shoulders back and down and flexing triceps, so the weights aren't touching thighs.

B. Keeping core tight and spine tall, lower into a squat, pushing hips back and down until thighs are parallel to the ground, lowering weights along the sides of legs. Avoid caving knees toward midline or flaring out to the sides.

C. Press feet firmly into the ground to stand back up and return to start.

Learn more about how to do a suitcase carry, so you can master the grip for a suitcase squat.

6. Sumo Squat

The sumo squat uses a wider stance than a traditional squat, so it targets more of your adductor (inner thighs) muscle group, as well as improve your hip mobility, says Hammond.

A. Stand with feet wider than shoulder-width apart with toes pointing out. Hold a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell at chest height.

B. Keeping chest proud and spine tall, lower down into a squat until thighs are parallel to the ground. Make sure knees track over toes and aren't caving in toward midline.

C. Press feet firmly into the ground to straighten legs and stand back up to return to start.

Learn more about how to do a sumo squat.

7. Landmine Squats

Feliciano likes landmine squats because it provides all the benefits of a barbell squat but has less impact on your joints. If landmine squats with no weight are too difficult, he recommends doing partial squats or dumbbell front squats instead.

A. Stand facing the landmine with feet hip-width apart. Hold the end of the barbell with both hands at chest height.

B. Keeping chest proud and spine tall, lower into a squat, pushing hips back and down as if sitting into a chair. Thighs should be parallel to the ground. Avoid allowing knees to cave in toward midline or flare out to the sides.

C. Press feet firmly into the ground to straighten legs and stand back up to return to start.

Learn more about how to do a landmine squat.

8. Barbell Back Squat

Barbell squats are the ultimate tool for increasing strength, and by loading the weight on your back, you're forcing your upper body to help pick up some of the slack. Because the bar alone can weigh up to 45 pounds, you can test your strength just by using the bar and add plates as you progress and get stronger. "The back squat will help target glutes and quads with neutral demand on both muscle groups. If you have limited ankle range of motion, this is a common exercise to strengthen the lower body," says Hammond. (Here's a video that will coach you on exactly how to do a barbell back squat.)

A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart under the racked bar and place the barbell on traps, just above shoulders.

B. Unrack the bar and take a few steps back, until there's enough room to squat. Keeping back straight and core tight, lower into a squat, and sending hips back and down. Get as low as possible, ideally until thighs are about an inch below parallel to the ground.

C. With core engaged, press feet firmly into the ground and drive hips forward to straighten legs and stand back up to return to start.

Learn more about how to do a barbell back squat

9. Barbell Front Squat

Unlike the barbell back squat, the barbell front squat reduces pressure on your spine and puts more emphasis on the quads. "The front squat is a staple in Olympic lifting to help athletes improve quad strength. This item is the quadriceps allowing individuals to improve on other Olympic lifts that have a high demand for those muscle groups," says Hammond. To make this move a little harder, focus on the eccentric (downward) phase of the squat and slowly lower down.

A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart in front of the racked bar and place the barbell on upper chest, wrapping fingers under and around the bar, wrists facing forward, allowing elbows to lift forward.

B. Unrack the bar and take a few steps back until there's enough room to squat. Keeping chest lifted and spine tall, lower into a squat, sending hips back and down. Get as low as possible, ideally until thighs are an inch below parallel to the ground. Make sure hips stay under the bar.

C. Pressing feet firmly into the ground, drive hips forward to straighten legs and stand back up to return to start.

10. Single-Leg Squat (Pistol Squat)

The pistol squat is a pretty advanced exercise, so make sure to move slowly and nail down the body-weight version before adding weight. "This will help improve ankle range of motion and reduce spinal compression when increasing volume and squats. It will work the glutes hamstrings and quads," says Hammond. (Once you nail the pistol squat, give the shrimp squat a try.)

A. Stand with feet together and hold a light dumbbell or kettlebell with both hands at chest height, elbows pointing down.

B. Extend one leg straight forward with heel hovering a few inches above the ground.

C. Keeping core tight and spine tall, slowly lower down, bending the knee of the standing leg while keeping the other leg extended forward. (Ideally, the lifted leg will be parallel to the ground.)

D. Press the foot of the standing leg firmly on the ground to straighten standing leg and stand back up to return to start.

Learn more about how to do a pistol squat.

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