squat variations for beginners

10 Of The Best Squat Variations For Beginners To Turn Skinny Legs Into Big Legs

Do you want bigger legs, but completely stomped by the seemingly endless number of squat variations to do? Then fear not. Because today I will be sharing 10 of the best squat variations for beginners to build leg muscle.

The best squat variations for beginners will engage the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and gastrocnemius muscles with the stimulus required for muscular hypertrophy. Suitable exercises should also facilitate improvement in squatting form, technique, and balance. Combined, this will maximise increases in leg muscle size and strength.

Let’s face it.

There seems to be a f@*k-ton of squatting exercises you can do.

In fact- there seems to be so many squatting exercises, I’m surprised no one has written The Encyclopaedia Of The Squat.

I still remember being the skinny newbie who had just learnt about the importance of the squat.

I thought to myself:

“Great, I’ll just see how everyone else squats, and I’ll just copy them!”

The problem?

Everyone seemed to be doing different things!

Some were squatting with barbells. Others were using dumbbells. Yet others were using machines (why are there even so many different squatting machines?!)

Most people were in what most people would regard as the traditional squat position. Yet others were angling themselves in ways I didn’t even know one could!

It was all a bit of a headache to say the least.

That’s why today, I want to help you decipher the rat maze that is the squat list.

By the end of this post, you will know exactly which squatting variation(s) you should be including in your workouts. And most importantly, why you are including them!

So without further hesitation…

Lets’s jump right in!

Photo of me with bigger legs by performing different squat variations when I was a beginner

Why Should Skinny Beginners Practice Squat Variations?

If you are a skinny lad just starting your weight lifting journey, you need to perform squats.

Why so?

Squats are are powerhouse of a movement.

And not just for the legs either!

In fact, regular and intense squatting will also help the rest of your body to develop muscle.(1)

This 2014 study has attributed the muscle-building power of squats to an increased hormonal response.

More specifically, intense squatting has been shown to stimulate the release of testosterone and growth hormone. And both of these hormones increase protein synthesis as well as muscle hypertrophy (growth).(2)(3)

Furthermore- not only should you squat, but you should also perform different variations of the squat.

Checkout my other article to find out how often you should be lifting weights!

10 Of The Best Squat Variations Categorised By Equipment Required

Barbell SquatsDumbbell SquatsBody Weight SquatsMachine Squats
High/Low-Bar SquatGoblet SquatPistol SquatLeg Press
Front SquatDumbbell Squat
Split Squat
Box Squat
Zercher Squat
Hack Squat

4 reasons why a beginner should practice different squat variations include:

  1. Working all the leg muscles- the leg encompasses 4 major muscles (quads, hamstrings, glutes, and gastrocnemius). Adding variety to your squatting will ensure all muscles are targeted, and this will lead to balanced leg muscle development.
  2. Working all the leg stabilisers- minor muscles and tendons are responsible for stabilising the different squat movements. Performing different squat variations will engage all the different stabilisers, and this will increase your overall squat strength.
  3. Training motivation- following the same workout plan can become tedious. And this will indirectly affect your results if you can’t adhere to your programme. Adding variety will keep your training programme interesting and keep you motivated to get those big legs!
  4. Beginner-friendly exercises- the barbell squat is a great exercise. But it can also be hard for beginners to nail! So why not perform easier variations and build up to the barbell squat? Besides, even the most experienced of lifters incorporate a variety of squat exercises into their programme (for the reasons above).

Take Home Message

You should include a range of squat variations into your workout programme to ensure all the leg muscles are trained. These muscles include the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, gastrocnemius, and stabiliser muscles. This will lead to balanced gains in leg muscle hypertrophy, strength, and overall squatting capabilities.

Next, I will share my 10 favourite squat variations and explain why they are awesome for beginners!

10 Of The Best Squat Variations To Build Bigger Legs.

If you are new to squatting, your current leg strength is likely to be very under-developed.

But there’s good news.

Transforming your skinny legs to big powerful legs isn’t hard.

It just requires dedication and knowing which squat variations to perform.

Here are 10 of my favourite squat variations for beginners to build bigger legs.

infographic showing the 10 best squat variations for beginners ranked by difficulty

1. High/Low Bar Squats Are Great All-Rounders.

Did you know that the traditional barbell squat alone has 2 different variations?

They are the high-bar squat and low-bar squat. Both differ in where the barbell sits on your back. Both will also shift emphasis on the different leg muscles.

So if you are a skinny guy, you should practice both to ensure all-round leg hypertrophy!

How To Perform The High Bar Back Squat

To perform the high-bar squat:

  1. Approach the squat rack with the barbell sitting on your traps (in line with the shoulder).
  2. Secure the barbell with a wide overhand grip (this holds the barbell in place).
  3. Unload the barbell.
  4. Lower the barbell whilst keeping your torso straight.
  5. Drive upwards as the hips dip slightly below the knees.

The high-bar squat works the whole leg. But due to the barbell sitting on the shoulders, you are forced to keep your torso more vertical. And this places emphasis on the quadriceps.

How to Perform a Low Bar Back Squat

To perform the low-bar squat:

  1. Approach the squat rack with the barbell sitting on your rhomboids (below shoulder-level).
  2. Secure the barbell with a wide overhand grip (this holds the barbell in place).
  3. Unload the barbell.
  4. Lower the barbell whilst angling your torso forward (nipples facing towards the ground.
  5. Drive upwards as the hips dip slightly below the knees.

The low-bar squat will also work the entire leg. But due to the angled torso, emphasis is placed on the glutes and hamstrings.

The low-bar squat is great because it reduces stress on the knees as you go through the range of movement.

This is because the quads pull on the knee joint in one direction. And the hamstrings pull in the opposite direction.

That being said, you will need to maintain good form for this squat. And this can be hard for beginners.

So consider working on the other squat variations in the list first!

2. Front Squats Are Quad-Builders.

To perform the front squat:

  1. Approach the squat rack with the barbell resting across your anterior deltoids and clavicle.
  2. Secure the barbell with either a cross-arm grip or clean grip (a clean grip makes it easier to prevent the bar rolling forward).
  3. Unload the barbell.
  4. Lower the barbell whilst keeping your back straight.
  5. Drive upwards as the hips dip below the knees.

The front squat is a great way to build bigger quads without loading a large amount of weight.

That’s because the front squat requires you to maintain a straight back. And this is a great way to isolate the weight directly onto your quadriceps.

So if you are a skinny dude looking to add volume to the front of your legs, try the front squat!

It’s a fun exercise to perform. But it’s also one of the more technical squat variations on this list.

And this means you should load with a low starting weight.

Check out my other article to find out how much weight you should load!

3. Split Squats Correct Muscle Imbalances.

How to Do a Barbell Split Squat - Men's Health

To perform the split squat:

  1. Approach the squat rack with the barbell resting across your traps (in line with the shoulders).
  2. Secure the barbell with a wide overhand grip.
  3. Unload the barbell.
  4. Place one foot forward and one foot backwards (similar to a lunge position).
  5. Lower yourself to the point where your upper and lower leg form a 90° angle (thigh parallel to the ground). Taking a wider step forward will help you achieve this.
  6. Drive upwards just before your rear knee touches the ground.

The split squat is great for developing your entire leg.

It’s also a unilateral exercise. And this means it works one leg at a time.

In the case of the split squat- the movement mainly works the forward leg. The rear leg is also engaged, just not as much as the forward leg.

Unilateral exercises are great squat variations for beginners who find that one leg is naturally stronger than the other.

So if you find one leg struggling to keep up with the other during a normal squat, you can correct for this imbalance by performing split squats!

4. Box Squats Develop Hip Form.

How To Box Squat (Our Form vs Westside Barbell) + Programming

To perform the box squat:

  1. Place a bench or a chair behind you.
  2. Approach the squat rack as if you were performing a high-bar squat (barbell resting across your traps in line with the shoulders).
  3. Unload the barbell and take a few steps back so you are standing in front of the bench.
  4. Lower yourself to the point where your glutes are touching the bench (make sure you don’t actually sit on the bench though!).
  5. A hip crease will form (where the hips join the upper legs). The bench should be low enough for the hip crease to drop slightly below the knees.
  6. Pause for a split second and drive upwards.

The box squat will work your entire leg, with particular emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes.

A proper box squat requires you to maintain constant tension in the leg muscles throughout the movement. This means you do not sit yourself on the bench (which can be tempting!).

If you allow yourself to sit on the bench, you are defeating the purpose of the box squat.

This makes the box squat a great for improving overall squatting form.

Many beginners will cheat by letting gravity do the work on the negative (downard) phase of a squat.

But by forcing yourself to maintain a constant tension in your glutes and hamstrings, you will prevent yourself from cheating this way.

Additionally, the box squat emphasises the movement of the hips during the squat. And this is often overlooked by beginners.

What you should be doing is swinging your hips back (in a controlled way) on the negative phase, and driving your hip forward on the positive phase.

5. Zercher Squats Reduce Upper Back Load.

How To: Zercher Squat

To perform the zercher squat:

  1. A barbell can be loaded either on the floor or on a rack (below chest level).
  2. Hold the barbell in the crux of your elbows, whilst keeping your arms tight to the side of your torso.
  3. Unload the barbell
  4. Lower yourself whilst keeping tension in your arms to prevent the barbell falling forward.
  5. Drive upwards when your hips reach just below your knees.

The zercher squat will work all your leg muscles.

A major benefit of doing the zercher squat is that your upper back and arm muscles support the weight of the barbell.

This means less weight is loaded directly onto the small of the upper back (which many beginners find uncomfortable).

Additionally, you will find that there is also reduced spinal compression which will also benefit beginners (who have not yet developed the joint strength which comes with long-term weight lifting).

That being said, you may experience some discomfort from holding a barbell at the elbow joint. But this can be relieved with a towel or foam padding.

6. Hack Squats Work The Quads And Arms.

Barbell Hack Squat

To perform the hack squat:

  1. Load a barbell on the floor.
  2. Stand in front of the barbell, bend your knees to lower your body, and grip the barbell with a wide underhand grip. This is also known as a reverse dead lift position.
  3. Maintain tension in the arms and shoulders.
  4. Drive upwards whilst keeping a straight torso.
  5. Lower yourself back to the reverse dead lift position.

The hack squat is will engage the entire leg, with particular focus on the quadriceps.

But a big bonus for the hack squat is that it also works your entire arm and shoulders isometrically.

And this is a great way for skinny beginners to develop definition in the arms and shoulders.

Therefore the hack squat gives you a big bang for buck when it comes to developing overall body musculature.

Additionally, the hack squat doesn’t load the weight directly onto your upper back. And this makes it great for beginners who have not yet adapted to the spinal compression that comes with upper back loading.

The torso should always be kept vertical during the hack squat. And if you are struggling to do so, you can stack some weight plates below the heels.

Doing this will leverage your feet upwards, and make it easier to maintain a straight back.

7. Goblet Squats Perfects Form.

To do the goblet squat:

  1. Grip a dumbbell vertically using the palms of both hands.
  2. Hold the dumbbell tight to the chest with the elbows facing downwards.
  3. You can also use a kettlebell should you wish (grip the handle with both thumbs).
  4. Take a wide-footed stance.
  5. Lower yourself by bending your knees, with the elbows coming in between the knees.
  6. Drive upwards when the hip goes below the knees.

The goblet squat will work the entire leg.

Not maintaining a straight back and having your knees cave inwards are two common beginner mistakes when squatting.

The great thing about the goblet squat is that the movement inherently prevents you from making these mistakes (if you do it correctly).

Firstly, supporting the weight of a dumbbell on your chest will force your lower back muscles to contract. And this will keep your back straight.

Secondly, as the elbows slot between your legs, you are forced to flare your knees outwards. And this will prevent the knees from caving in.

8. Dumbbell Squats Are Easier To Maintain Balance.

How to Dumbbell Squat | Mike Hildebrandt

To perform the dumbbell squat:

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells in both hands, to the side of the body.
  2. Lower your body until the legs are parallel to the ground.
  3. Drive upwards once the hips have reached slightly below the knees.

The dumbbell squat will work the entire leg just like the traditional barbell squat.

But the dumbbell squat is a much more beginner-friendly variation of the barbell squat.

Firstly, the dumbbell squat limits the amount of weight you can load onto your squat. And this will prevent you from overloading (which will impact your ability to squat effectively).

Secondly, it is much easier to balance a pair of dumbbells than it is to balance a fully-loaded barbell. And this will help you develop your squatting form whilst also increasing your leg strength.

Thirdly, your arms take the brunt of the weight in a dumbbell squat. And this will reduce upper back compression which many beginners find extremely uncomfortable.

I would recommend you practice your dumbbell squats before progressing to barbell squats!

9. Pistol Squats Don’t Require Equipment.

How to Get Your First PISTOL SQUAT (Step-by-Step Progression)

To perform the pistol squat:

  1. Balance on one leg from a standing position.
  2. Stick one leg forward.
  3. Hold both hands forward to maintain balance.
  4. Lower yourself down on one leg by bending the knees, until the glutes are just above the ground.
  5. Drive yourself back up.

This is an awesome unilateral bodyweight exercise which works your entire leg.

The greatest benefit going for pistol squats is it’s convenience.

Since it’s a bodyweight exercise, you can do these at home. And this makes them great for beginners who do not yet have access to free weights.

Additionally, the pistol squat encourages maximum engagement of the stabiliser muscles.

This is due to the high amount of balancing and corrections required to hold the movement.

And developing your leg stabilisers will ultimately lead to a stronger squat down the road.

Also, don’t be fooled by the simple-looking nature of the pistol squat.

It’s a hard move!

If you struggle with balance or leg strength, you can start with half-pistol squats and build into full pistol squats as your confidence, leg strength, and balance increases.

Alternatively use a bench or chair to assist on balancing.

Then, when it’s time to level up, you can hold a dumbbell (or any heavy household object) to make the pistol squat even more challenging!

Check out my other article for more ways to build muscle at home!

10. Leg Press Machines Are Great For Beginners.

How To: Seated Leg Press (Cybex)

To perform the leg press:

  1. Sit on the leg press machine with your feet planted widely on the pressing plate.
  2. Unload the weight by sliding the safety handle.
  3. Lower the pressing plate towards your torso, allowing the knees to come as close to your torso as is mechanically possible
  4. Drive the plate away from your body.

The leg press replicates the movement of the free weight squat.

But since it is performed on a weight machine it’s much more beginner friendly.

That’s because the leg press machine restricts your movement solely to an up/down motion. And this will prevent balancing issues from affecting your form.

The leg press will also help absolute beginners get a feel for the squatting movement.

And it will also increase your leg strength in the process (assuming enough weight is applied).

But please note- free weights are ultimately superior when it comes to increasing leg muscle mass and strength. That’s because free weight movements require more stabilisation to perform.

Therefore you should move onto the other squatting variations as soon as you are comfortable performing the leg press!

Check out my other article to

Take Home Message

The best squat variations for beginners to build bigger legs are machine and bodyweight squats. Once you have perfected your form on these exercises, you can move onto dumbbell squats. And when you have the confidence to do so, you can then progress to the variations of the barbell squats.

Conclusion

And thats it!

Today I have shared with you my 10 favourite squat variations for beginners to add muscle onto skinny legs.

The best squat variations for beginners are the leg press and pistol squat. These are safe to perform and allow you to practice your squatting technique.

After you have developed your squatting confidence on these exercises, you can upgrade to dumbbell and goblet squats.

Finally, you can explore the barbell squat variations.

These squatting exercises are the best for building leg muscle. But they also require a high degree of form and technique to perform safely.

Which squat variation will you be trying in your next workout?

Let me know in the comments below! Maybe you have your own favourite squat which I have missed!

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Thanks for reading guys!

Peace Out,

Kal

(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)

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