Whether you're experiencing knee issues or you're ready for a challenge, these squat variations will help you get the most out of the lower-body exercise.
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Modify This Move - 8 Squat Modifications

Welcome to Modify This Move, the ongoing series where you'll find everything you need to amend a standard exercise to meet your goals, your body, and your mood. Each story breaks down how to perform a foundational fitness move, then offers various modifications based on your current fitness or energy level, present or prior injuries, or the muscles you want to target most. So check your ego at that door and ensure every workout meets you where you're at today.

You may not realize it, but you're constantly performing squats in your day-to-day life. You drop it down low to pick your dog's toy off the floor, you "pop a squat" into your favorite armchair, and you squat to the floor to look at the snacks on the bottom shelf at Trader Joe's.

Given how functional the movement is, the squat exercise should be a staple in your workout routine, says Keri Harvey, a NASM-certified personal trainer in New York City. "It's good to be able to learn the proper movement pattern in order to minimize injury," she explains. Plus, by practicing squats on the reg, you'll also improve strength and stability in your hips, quads, hamstrings, and glutes, as well as your core, which helps keep your upper body upright and stable throughout the move, says Harvey. 

While the bodyweight squat is the tried-and-true form of the exercise, it's not the only way you can get your lower body working. When you're in need of a gentle workout, listen to your body and consider a squat variation that's a bit less taxing on the body and mind. And if you're experiencing aches or pains in your knees or lower back, you can also use squat variations to score all the benefits of the exercise without exacerbating your existing health concerns, Says Harvey. Remember: Modifying a move, regardless of the reason, doesn't mean you're "going easy" on yourself. And there's no shame in choosing a squat variation that feels most comfortable for you at any given moment.

Ready to give the lower-body exercise a shot? Follow the instructions below to master the bodyweight squat, and then watch as Harvey demonstrates how to switch up the exercise with eight different squat variations she shared that work for all abilities and fitness goals.

How to Do a Bodyweight Squat

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes turned slightly outward and hands clasped in front of chest.

B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend knees to lower until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with floor, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through feet to straighten legs and return to standing.

8 Squat Variations

Just because you know how to do a traditional bodyweight squat doesn't mean you'll always be in the mood to perform it. Whether the OG move feels a bit too challenging or you're hoping to target specific muscle groups, don't be afraid to try a squat variation that will help you meet your individual needs and goals. 

Here, you'll find squat variations that scale the exercise up or down, including squat variations for knee and lower back pain, squat variations to improve your balance and mobility, and squat variations to target your hamstrings and quads. No matter which option you choose, continue checking in with your body as you power through your reps and try a different exercise if it doesn't feel right. 

Squat Variation to Level Up: Front Squat

By holding two dumbbells up in front of your shoulders throughout the entire movement, this squat variation puts your core, shoulders, and back to the test, says Harvey. "Because the weight is mostly in the front of your body, it's going to be easy for you to round your back as you're squatting down," she explains. "But you're going to have to fight against that to hold the chest nice and tall and hold the shoulders back in order to squat properly without straining your back."

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at sides. Bend elbows and lift dumbbells up to chest, resting the end of each weight up against shoulders.

B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend knees to lower until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with floor, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through feet to straighten legs and return to standing.

Squat Variation to Scale Down: Box (or Bench) Squat

If you're a total squat novice or simply want to master the form before moving on to the traditional bodyweight squat, consider trying a box squat. "Sometimes when you're squatting, you don't really know how far down to go, or maybe you don't fully trust yourself to sit back in your hips just yet," says Harvey. But placing a box or a bench at a comfortable height behind you can help you learn that you're not going to crash to the ground at the bottom of the squat," she explains. "It's a great way for you to learn to trust that you can sit back comfortably," she says. 

A. Stand in front of a box or bench with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes turned slightly outward and arms raised in front of chest.

B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend knees to lower until butt hits the box or bench, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through feet to straighten legs and return to standing.

Squat Variation to Target Hamstrings: Sumo Squat

This squat variation involves a wider stance than a traditional bodyweight squat, which alters the way your weight is distributed and, in turn, the muscles the exercise calls upon, says Harvey. "It's a lot more hip and hamstring involvement since you're already in a wider stance as you push the hips back," she explains. "You'll feel the hamstrings fire on a little bit quicker than you would probably in the bodyweight squat. 

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of hips.

B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend knees to lower until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with floor, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through feet to straighten legs and return to standing.

Squat Variation for Bad Knees: Stability Ball Wall Squat

If you're nervous your knees can't handle a full-fledged squat, add a stability ball and a wall into the mix. As you squat down, your back will stay in constant contact with the ball, which can make you feel more stable and as though there's less pressure on your knees, says Harvey. "That's something I'd do for someone who's super nervous about their knees, but after a few tries with that, I would definitely move them to the box squat," she adds. "You can always make a box higher or lower so you can work with being able to trust your own core and your own knees to squat."

A. Place a stability ball against a wall and stand in front of it so the ball is resting against the small of back. Lean against the ball and position feet shoulder-width apart roughly six inches in front of body, toes turned slightly outward. Raise both arms in front of chest.

B. On an inhale, push against the ball, sit back into hips, and bend knees to lower until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with floor, keeping chest up.

C. On an exhale, press through feet to straighten legs and return to standing.

Squat Variation for Lower Back Pain: Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Holding a kettlebell in front of your chest with both hands in this squat variation serves as a reminder to keep your chest tall as you sink to the floor. As a result, it can actually help prevent lower back pain from developing or existing aches from worsening. "It's already forcing you to have the proper upper-body posture, which means that we have no choice but to sit back into the hips," says Harvey. "Lower back pain comes when you're not really hinging the hips back enough"

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes turned slightly outward and hands holding each side of a kettlebell's handle in front of chest.

B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend knees to lower until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with floor, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through feet to straighten legs and return to standing.

Squat Variation to Target Quads: Elevated Heel Squat

This squat variation is similar to the traditional bodyweight squat, just with a slight tweak: Instead of standing flat on the floor, you'll prop your heels up on a pair of dumbbells. "When you're in that position with your heels up high, you're able to get a little bit lower in your squat than you probably would if you were just standing on a level surface," says Harvey. "Because of that, you're going to work your quads just a little bit more to stand right back up."

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, both heels resting on top of a dumbbell's handle and toes turned slightly outward. Raise both arms in front of chest.

B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend knees to lower until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with floor, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through feet to straighten legs and return to standing.

Squat Variation to Improve Balance: Bulgarian Split Squat

Placing one leg up on a bench to perform this squat variation not only amps up the balance challenge but also allows you to think more precisely about your squat form, says Harvey. "It helps you to break down the squat a little bit more," she adds. "Is it my hip that's making me feel a little less balanced? Is it the fact that I'm not pushing through the ground fully? It helps you put a microscope on your squat form in general and figure out what is throwing off the balance." (Related: Watch Brie Larson Beast Her Way Through This Set of Bulgarian Split Squats)

A. Stand in front of a bench holding a dumbbell in each hand, feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Take one step forward, then place right foot on top of the bench behind body, instep resting on the surface.

B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend left knee to lower until both knees are at 90-degree angles, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through left foot to straighten leg and return to standing. Repeat on the opposite side.

Squat Variation for Mobility: Cossack Squat

You can think of this squat variation as a side lunge, but instead of stepping out to each side, you'll keep both feet in a sumo stance and shift your weight from side to side. The result? "You're working hip mobility and you're also giving some attention to the joints in the knee — you're not giving them a full break since you're moving right back and forth," says Harvey.

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward and hands clasped in front of chest.

B. On an inhale, shift weight to left side and sit back into hips, keeping right leg fully extended out to side. Keep chest up and prevent back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through left foot to straighten leg and return to standing. Pause, then repeat on the opposite side.

Photography and art: Jenna Brillhart
Model and fitness expert: Keri Harvey
Hair and makeup: Tee Chavez

Leggings: Aerie
Workout Bench: Ignite by SPRI