How to do a proper squat and 2 challenging variations to reap the most health benefits

How to do a proper squat and 2 challenging variations to reap the most health benefits

  • Squats strengthen your lower body and core muscles, burn calories, and may help you lose weight. 
  • However, it’s extremely important to perform squats correctly, otherwise, you risk painful injury.
  • A proper squat involves a straight back, engaged core, and wider stance than you might expect.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

If you’re looking for a strengthening exercise that benefits your entire body, the squat delivers on all counts.

Doing squats can not only help you perform athletically, but it also strengthens your body for everyday tasks like walking, carrying heavy items, and climbing stairs. 

However, it’s extremely important that you perform squats correctly, which is easier said than done.

1. Strengthen lower body and core muscles 

According to Timothy Suchomel, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Human Movement Sciences at Carroll University, squats primarily target the following muscle groups:  

squat muscles infographic

Shayanne Gal/Insider

As you can see, squats mainly work parts of your lower body, specifically your quadriceps and glutes. It’s your knee position in particular — bending them to a 90-degree angle — that helps activate these muscle groups effectively. 

Plus, every time you squat, you should engage your core to stabilize your body during the movement.

2. Burn calories and may aid weight loss 

Because squats work many muscle groups at once, the exercise causes your body to increase anabolic hormone production. These are the hormones that help you lose fat and build muscle.

A 2014 study specifically compared squats, as a free weight exercise, to the leg press, an exercise machine with added weight. While both moves work the same large muscle groups, the researchers reported that the body’s response was different: When done at similar intensities, squats engaged more muscles and produced a greater hormonal and physiological response, in particular more muscle activation, than the leg press. 

Squats, as a strength training move, can be an important part of any successful

weight loss
plan. Regular strength training helps speed up your metabolism and can decrease body fat

In fact, a 2013 study reviewed the health benefits of an eight-week regimen of bodyweight squats and found that it decreased body fat percentage and increased lean body mass in participants. 

3. Squats can reduce your risk of injury 

Besides being an effective exercise, regularly doing squats may also help reduce your risk of knee and ankle injury. 

That’s because the move strengthens the tendons, bones, and ligaments around your leg muscles, and can particularly help take some of the load off your knees and ankles. In fact, squats are used extensively for the therapeutic treatment of ankle instability. 

Suchomel says squats may also help increase bone mineral density, which can strengthen an individual’s skeleton, particularly the bones in the spine and lower body. Stronger bones help the body become more resilient against injury. 

However, injury prevention only applies if you do squats with proper form. A 2013 review found that shallow, improperly performed squats — without bending the knees fully to a 90-degree angle — may lead to degeneration in the lower back (lumbar spine) and knees over time. 

So, it’s important to practice proper squat form to protect against injury and gain these health benefits. Here’s how to do a squat correctly.

How to do a basic squat 


Make sure your back is straight and your knees stay behind your toes.

kovacicela/Getty Images

Squats are a move you can do anywhere, and they don’t require any special equipment. Follow these steps to do a squat with proper form:

  1. Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your chest up.
  2. Bend at your knees and hips, sticking your butt out like you’re sitting down in a chair.
  3. Squat down until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Your knees should be stacked over your ankles. Make sure to keep them behind your toes. 
  4. Pause for a second. Your back should be straight — not rounded.
  5. Press into your heels and straighten your legs to return to the upright, standing position.

Common mistakes that many squatters tend to make in their form include leaning forward too much or letting their knees sink inward.  

“That can be corrected to some extent by changing the eye gaze upward to correct head position, and working to push through their heels and not let the pressure move forward to their toes,” says Gregory D. Myer, director of Research at the Human Performance Laboratory for the Division of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. 

Overall, keeping your head up and eyes forward, and ensuring your knees stay in line, will help you maintain proper squat form.

Advanced squat variations 

Once you’ve mastered the basic squat, there are different types of advanced variations you can do for added strengthening.

Jump squats 

This type of squat can improve agility and provide cardiovascular benefits, as it is a bit more active and gets your heart pumping. 

Follow the steps for a regular squat, but when you hit the bottom of your squat, drive hard through your legs and jump up. Land softly to complete the move.

For more strength training moves that benefit cardiovascular health, read about the best type of exercise for heart health

Overhead squats 

Because you’ll be holding added weight over your head, these types of squats can also target your upper body muscles, including your shoulders and triceps. 

To do an overhead squat, you’ll need a barbell. Don’t add any weight at first to give yourself time to adjust to the barbell without additional strain. Once you master this variation, you can consider adding more weights to the barbell, but make sure you have a spotter if you do. 

Here’s how to do an overhead squat: 

  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed slightly outward.
  2. Grab a barbell with your palms down and your hands in a wide grip, almost at the end of the bar. Lift it overhead and lock your arms, extended. This is your starting position. 
  3. Push your hips back and bend your knees into a squat, making sure to keep your arms straight. 
  4. Bend until your thighs are parallel to the floor, and then drive your heels into the floor to push back up into the starting position.

If you don’t want to do an overhead squat, but want to squat with added weight, you can also try holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest as you perform a regular squat. 

Insider’s takeaway

Squats are one of the most effective and beneficial lower body exercises for your health. You can incorporate squats into your workout routine by doing three sets of 10, about two to three times a week

Remember these four tips to maintain proper squatting form and get all the health benefits safely:

  1. Keep a proper stance, with your hips shoulder-width apart. Going too narrow puts extra stress on your body.
  2. First learn to squat without any extra weight, says Myer. “Once the movement is mastered, then you can add external resistance.”
  3. Don’t extend your knees past your toes.
  4. Make sure you don’t round your back.

Finally, if you’re recovering from an injury or have sensitive knees, be sure to check in with your doctor before doing squats.

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