If you wanted a single exercise to strengthen your whole body, squats would come close. Squats primarily target your thighs and derriere, but they also tone your hamstrings and calves. Your back muscles and abs work to steady your spine during the movement, making squats a core strengthener. Even your breathing muscles get a workout when you're squatting.
Thigh and Hip Muscles
Squats are a great all-around thigh toner. They primarily target the quadriceps, the muscles on the fronts of your thighs that straighten your knees. They also work the adductor muscles on your inner thighs, responsible for drawing your legs together, and the hamstrings on the backs of your thighs, which help you extend your hips. They strengthen your backside too, targeting the gluteus maximus and medius muscles. Frederic Delavier writes in "Women's Strength Training Anatomy" that squats are the best exercise to develop a shapely rear end. (See Reference 1)
How Low To Go?
How low you go when you squat determines which muscles you'll target. Deep squats, in which your hips descend below your knees, focus on the glutes. Squatting to 90 degrees targets the quadriceps more. Because the hamstrings play a stabilizing role, squat depth doesn't affect them. Although many people believe that squatting low is bad for your knees, current scientific research doesn't bear that out, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association. (See Reference 3) However, if you've got a knee injury, avoid deep squats.
Squatting with poor form can stress your lower back, especially when you're using heavy weights. Your back should stay extended, with your chest lifted, throughout the movement. Rounding your back during a heavy squat puts unsafe pressure on the disks between the bones of your spine. To keep your spine extended when you squat, your back muscles work isometrically. Your abs also play a role, firming your belly to stabilize your spine from the front. And, while you might not think of squats as a way to strengthen your breathing muscles, keeping your chest lifted develops your ability to expand your ribcage.
Try variations on the squat to target specific muscles. Squatting with your feet wide and your toes turned out will focus on the adductor muscles of your inner thighs. Front squats, with a bar supported on the fronts of your shoulders, target the quadriceps. If you have difficulty keeping your heels down when you squat, or if you have long thigh bones, support your heels on a low block. With your heels lifted, the quadriceps get more of a workout.
- Women's Strength Training Anatomy; Frederic Delavier
- Exercise Prescription: Full Squat
- National Strength and Conditioning Association: Hot Topic: Squat Depth Biomechanics
Joe Miller started writing professionally in 1991. He specializes in writing about health and fitness and has written for "Fit Yoga" magazine and the New York Times City Room blog. He holds a master's degree in applied physiology from Columbia University, Teacher's College.