Squats are a fabulous compound movement that hit the entire lower body in a single movement. Even if you’re not looking to build thighs like tree trunks, squats are a key exercise in getting great tone in the legs and glutes. Whether you're looking to place emphasis on the quadriceps or the glutes, multiple variations to the basic movement give you options to target either group, or both, all working towards a strong and toned lower body.
The squat is a go-to exercise for the lower body since the movement consistently works a large group of muscles at once regardless of variations to the exercise. The concentric phase of the movement as the knees bend activates muscles in the lower back, core and quadriceps. The eccentric movement as you push through the heels and straighten the legs shifts the work to the calves, hamstrings and glutes.
One variation to the standard squat is to take the feet wider than shoulder width. Taking a wider stance shifts the focus of the work to the lower back, hamstrings and glutes. The quadriceps are always a key player in any squatting movement, but the wider stance places extra emphasis on the posterior muscles of the lower body and focuses in on the glutes. You can even vary the foot placement a notch further and work a sumo squat with an extremely wide straddle. In addition to working the posterior chain of the lower body, sumo squats throw in the added treat of extra work for the inner thighs and allows for an extra glute squeeze at the top of the movement.
The other logical extreme is to narrow the foot placement taking a stance closer than shoulder width. Narrowing the stance shifts the work to the quads at the top and sides of the legs and recruits muscles in the calves and shins while pushing through the weight to straighten the legs. Check the knees to ensure they stay over the toes and don't dip inwards as they bend, and keep the feet no closer than hip-width apart to avoid undue stress on the hips.
You may not think to put the bar in front of the body as a variation to the squat, but the front squat is a great option for targeting the front and sides of the quadriceps. With the bar placed across the top of the chest the center of gravity shifts in such a way that the quads take the brunt of the work when straightening the legs in this variation. Other muscles of the lower body still engage in the front squat but the emphasis is placed on the quadriceps. Front squats are an advanced movement requiring an established level of flexibility and balance as well as upper body strength to control the barbell while maintaining proper form. Always start with conservative weights and ask a fitness professional about proper form and alignment before exploring any variation you may not be familiar with.
Jullie Chung writes regularly for various websites. She is a nationally certified fitness trainer and performance enhancement specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and trains regularly in yoga, flatwater kayaking, boxing and mixed martial arts. An avid outdoor fan, she regularly hikes, climbs and trail runs.