If you think of working out like building a house, then squats would be like pouring the foundation. Squats are an essential move to help strengthen your lower body, and they help fortify the base for all the rest of your movements.
Squats are a crucial move not only because they work so many different muscles in your body (like your quads, hamstrings, and glutes), but also because there are so many different ways to do them.
Many people choose to use a rack to help them squat heavy. But if you don’t currently have access to a rack, have no fear. There are still dozens of ways to get a great workout in with different squat variations. Depending on which variation you choose, you’ll target different fitness goals.
Building the basics
Before you start trying out various types of squats, it’s important to always remember to keep proper form. Doing the exercise properly is important for getting the best results possible and for keeping you safe from injury.
In general, it’s important to protect your knees and your back. Focus on lifting with your thighs and butt muscles, not just bending your knees. You should be thinking about moving back and down at the same time. As you complete the movement, be sure to keep your core tight and back flat.
Add a cardio boost
Once you’ve mastered the basic squat and proper technique, you can start experimenting with different add-ons. If you don’t have access to a rack to help you push your strength to the next level, then try pushing your cardio instead.
The most popular cardio movement is a jump squat, which involves propelling yourself upwards and adding a hop at the top of your squat. Again, remember to gain all your power and momentum from your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
Take your jump squat even further by adding a 180° rotation. Instead of just jumping straight up, you add a twist for an even tougher cardio burn.
Take it up a notch
Even without a rack, you can still add some weight to your basic squatting motion. If you have a barbell, then you can do front squats. These don’t require a rack because you keep the barbell in front of you instead of resting it on your shoulders. When you’re lifting the bar into position on your chest, make sure you lift with your legs and not your back.
If you only have dumbbells or kettlebells, those can also be used for your weighted squat. Heavy dumbbells can be placed on your shoulders or held to your chest to add extra resistance to your chosen squat variation. You can also hold a kettlebell to your chest, or you can choose to swing it in front of you as you rise from your squat.
One leg at a time
Another way to add difficulty is to focus on one leg at a time. One-legged squats, often called pistol squats, are tricky to master but come with some serious benefits.
If your leg strength or balance isn’t quite up to the challenge yet, then you can try a modified version to help you work up to it. Stagger your feet slightly and focus your weight on the front leg. Your back leg is simply there for balance if you need it. If you have access to a suspension system, that’s another great way to build up to a full single leg squat.
Elevate your workout
If you have access to a bench or sturdy chair, you can elevate your workout with a Bulgarian split squat. Simply place one leg on the elevated surface behind you and lower down until your front leg bends to 90°. As demonstrated in the video below, make sure your front leg is the correct distance away from the elevated surface.
Another way to take your workout to new heights is to elevate your heels by placing weight plates or sturdy dumbbells under them. This elevation shifts your weight and helps really target your quads. You can do this either for a traditional squat or a sumo squat with a wider stance.
Increase your reps
Without a squat rack, it can be difficult to get your barbell in the correct position to squat heavy. But that shouldn’t stop your gains. Instead of completing fewer reps with heavier weight, try more reps with slightly less weight.
When you increase your reps, you help build more muscle endurance. While this may not be helpful for building muscle mass, increasing your endurance is still an important part of overall fitness. If you’ve reached a plateau in your current routine, mixing things up and varying your reps can help.
Add a soundtrack
If you need a little extra push, try adding a musical element to your squat workout. One popular example is the song “Flower” by Moby. Choose the squat variation and weight element of your choice, and simply follow the lyrics in the song.
When you hear the words “green Sally down,” lower into the squat position. “Green Sally up” is your cue to come back up to a full standing position. Throughout the song, you’ll alternate between typical squat reps and isometric holds.
Mix things up
Yes, this article is all about squats. But one way to get better at squats is to actually take a break and try other exercises that work similar areas.
Glute bridges (with or without weights) do not involve a squatting motion, but they do build some of the same muscles. You can do these with just your bodyweight, or you can add some weight to your hips for some added resistance.
Deadlifts and lunges are two other exercises that target some of the same muscle groups with slightly different movements. Maintaining good form for these exercises is just as important.
The bottom line is: no squat rack is no problem. The squat is such a versatile exercise that it can be completed with whatever equipment you have available to you.
So whether you’re doing a jump squat, front squat, Bulgarian split squat, or whatever other variation suits you, you can still get a great lower body workout even without heavy duty equipment. With the right motivation and proper form, you can find the type of squat that works best for you to help reach your personal fitness goals.