Although any two people can have very different strength training routines, at least some squat variation is typically found in almost every strength training plan.
But, what muscle groups do squats work?
Knowing the muscles worked by squats will help you plan your workouts to reach your fitness goals and determine possible muscle imbalances and functional deficits that might occur if you are only doing squats and not doing exercises that work some of the muscles squats do not target.
Keep reading as we answer your question, “What muscles do squats work?”
We will cover:
- What Muscles Do Squats Work?
- Muscles Worked By Squats vs Leg Presses
- What Muscles Do Squat Variations Work?
Let’s get started!
What Muscles Do Squats Work?
So, what muscle groups do squats work?
Let’s look at the muscles worked by squats first from a general perspective and then zoom in to examine how different types of squats work muscle groups differently or even work different muscle groups entirely.
Any type of squat exercise is primarily a lower-body strengthening exercise.
The primary muscle groups worked by squats are the glutes, quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves.Squats are considered to be a triple-extension exercise, meaning that the squat movement pattern involves the simultaneous extension of all three of the major joints in the lower body: the ankles, knees, and hips.
In other words, triple extension means that you are extending your hips, knees, and ankles.
You can visualize this as straightening your knees from a bent position and plantarflexing your ankle as if pressing the gas pedal on a car.
According to research, this triple extension movement pattern executed with exercises like squats helps improve running performance by increasing the push-off or propulsive power that you have in your running stride.
Triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips is also required when you jump and sprint, so squatting is a great way to improve running and jumping ability by strengthening the muscles that allow for this explosive triple-extension movement.
Let’s see how these squat muscle groups are involved in moving and stabilizing the body during squats.
Of all of the muscle groups worked by squats, the “primary movers” of the exercise are the quadriceps, also known as the “quads.”
When you perform a squat, the quads first contract eccentrically, which means that they are lengthening under tension when you initiate the movement and go from the standing position down to the squat where your knees are bent, and your thighs are parallel to the ground.
Because your legs have to resist the load of the barbell or even just your body weight as you descend, the quadriceps have to work to prevent your knees from rapidly buckling under the load by instead controlling the gradual movement of your body working with gravity.
The quads contract concentrically to straighten your legs as you stand back up.
This is the explosive portion of the exercise, where you are pressing with your legs by using your quadriceps to stand back up.
Note that you can increase the workload on your quads during squats by moving as slowly as possible during the eccentric portion as you lower your body.
Additionally, when comparing the muscles worked by front squats vs. back squats, front squat muscle activation is greater for the quads than it is during back squats because the load is anterior.
This means that the dumbbells or barbells for a front squat are positioned more directly over the quads than they are for the back squat, increasing the demand on the quads for the front squats vs back squats.
The hamstrings are one of the muscle groups worked by squats, though to a lesser degree than the quads; additionally, when comparing the muscles worked by squats vs deadlifts, deadlifts target the hamstrings more so than squats.
During squats, the hamstrings assist the glutes in extending the hip at the very end of the movement, just as you are standing back up to the erect position.
The hamstrings do not have to do much work in terms of flexing the knee when you squat down because gravity and your body weight and the weights you use naturally push your knees into the flexed position.
This is why the quads are targeted so much more with the squat.
They have to power the extension motion back up from the squat to standing and control what would otherwise be rapid knee flexion as you descend to prevent your knees from buckling under your body weight, gravity, and whatever dumbbells or barbell weights you are adding.
The hamstrings do have to contract eccentrically to control hip flexion as you squat down (again to prevent your body from collapsing under the load as you work with gravity), but generally, the quads are working harder to prevent the knee from buckling.
Calves and Shins
The muscles in your lower leg are also activated during squats because they help stabilize your tibias, and they power the ankle plantarflexion portion of the triple extension movement when you press back up to standing.
There are a number of small muscles in the lower legs, but the primary lower leg muscles worked by squats are the muscles in the calves (gastrocnemius and soleus) and the tibialis anterior muscle on the front of the shin.
One of the benefits of squats is that you can strengthen the calves and shin muscles in a functional movement pattern, which can then translate to improvements in your running and walking gait patterns and vertical jump height.
This is because when you are performing squats, these muscles (especially the soleus and gastrocnemius) have to contract to stabilize the tibia as your thighs, hips, and torso move.
Building stability or the ability to keep the tibia relatively vertical even when the rest of the body is loaded and moving can help support proper biomechanics when walking, running, or standing for long periods of time.
It can also build stability in your ankles for trail running or walking on uneven surfaces.
The glutes are involved in the hip extension portion of the squat exercise at the end of the movement when you stand back up and extend the leg at the hip.
The smaller glute muscles aid in controlling and stabilizing the hips during squats and are much more active during split squats and lunges vs back squats or any version of a bilateral squat.
This is because of the added difficulty of stabilizing the body with a unilateral movement pattern and narrow base of support.
Muscles Worked By Squats vs Leg Presses
Although the primary muscles strengthened by squats are those in the lower body, squats also work the muscles of the core, including the abdominals, pelvic floor muscles, and lower back muscles.
This is because you have to activate your core to stabilize your spine and brace your core while performing squats.
In fact, the major difference in the muscles worked by squats vs leg presses is with the core muscles worked by squats.
A leg press machine helps you execute an exercise that resembles a squat in terms of the movement pattern and muscles worked, though there are differences between squats and leg presses.
Like squats, the leg press machine strengthens all of the major muscles in your lower body.
However, because you sit on the machine to do the leg press, you do not need to stabilize your body in space (sitting on the leg press machine stabilizes your body for you).
Therefore, when comparing the muscles worked by a squat vs leg press machine, the workload on your back and core for the leg press vs squat is significantly less.
For this reason, squats are generally considered to be a more functional exercise than leg presses.
However, the leg press machine helps you isolate the lower-body muscles so that you can lift more weight than you would be able to squat, leading to better muscle gains in the legs (hypertrophy).
For this reason, there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the weight machines when you want to strengthen the muscles worked by squats in a safer way.
Oftentimes, weightlifters who try to squat too heavily and use weights that they cannot manage through the full range of motion will often not squat low enough for fear that they will not be able to get back up out of the squat under the weight.
This is where doing the leg press vs squat can actually maximize your gains and potentially improve safety.
The fixed path of motion allows you to safely lift more weight without needing to balance or stabilize your body or if you don’t have a spotter for heavy barbell squats.
Additionally, the leg press is an excellent alternative leg exercise to target the muscles worked by squats for those who may experience back pain.
Because you are seated and pressing the load from the weight stack, your spine is not placed under the load of the weighted barbell.
This removes compression stress on the spine when doing the leg press vs squats with a barbell or dumbbells.
What Muscles Do Squat Variations Work?
The muscles worked by squats vary somewhat depending on the particular type of squat you are performing.
For example, answering the questions: “What muscles do back squats work, and what muscles do front squats work?” will have a fair amount of overlap, but there will also be differences in the muscles worked by back squats vs front squats.
We will see even larger diversions in the muscles worked by squats when comparing muscles strengthened by squat variations that are even more disparate from one another.
For example, answering the question: “What muscles do Bulgarian split squats work versus what muscles do hack squats work?” will elucidate that there are indeed different muscle groups worked by squats, depending on how the squat exercise is performed.
Below, we will point out a particular muscle or muscle group targeted more by the type of squat variation:
- What muscles do Bulgarian split squats work? Elevating your rear foot isolates the demand on the quad muscle on the front leg, and the unilateral nature better activates the core muscles and smaller glute muscles (gluteus medius and minimus).
- What muscles do front squats work? The front squat is one of the best quad exercises because the weight is located in front of the body, more directly loading the quads.
- What muscles do sumo squats work? Abductors and adductors.
- What muscles do goblet squats work? Core muscles and improves grip strength more than regular squats.
- What muscles do back squats work? Glutes and quads.
- What muscles do hack squats work? Quads.
To supplement your squats workouts, check out our guide to the best posterior chain workout here.