5 Best Squat Variations for Building Leg Muscle

Josh England
Written By: Josh England
July 14th, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
76.4K Reads
5 Best Squat Variations for Building Leg Muscle
The squat is the king of the exercises. And with these 5 variations, everyone will have a version of the squat to choose from so they can build big legs!

No one wants to be that guy.

The dude wearing the stringer tank to show off his huge upper body, but sweat pants to hide the pair of toothpicks he calls legs.

Listen gents – having proportional legs is important. And I’m not just talking about from an aesthetic standpoint either.

Sure, having lower limbs as thick as the trunks of the grandest trees is impressive, but what is even more impressive is the sheer power and performance that comes from a well trained lower body.

And what better way to build your legs than through one of the most important foundational movements of all time?

Today, I bring you 5 of the best squat variations to add to your workout program.

Knowing certain squat variations can provide a troublesome movement pattern to any given lifter, I’ve done my best to outline a variation for every individual so s/he can incorporate the squat into their program.

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1. The Back Squat

The barbell back squat is thought to be one of the big three lifts (squats, deadlift, and bench press). For this reason, people generally recommend that you perform this lift at least once a week and any leg day routine that doesn’t have at least three sets of barbell back squats gets scoffed at and followed by the question, “do you even lift?”.

Related: 4 Reasons You Can't Squat to Depth

Personally, I would never go that far because a lot of people simply:

  • Aren’t built from a genetics standpoint to take a loaded squat through the proper range of motion, thus they butcher the movement, go way to heavy, and greatly risk injury.
  • Or are seriously deconditioned and could benefit from starting off with one of the other squat variations outlined below.

That being said, the traditional barbell back squat is one of the big three for a reason. Since the weight of the load is placed strategically on your upper back and trap area via a squat rack set up, you’re going to be able to perform this exercise with a significant load.

And if we know anything, performing an exercise with a higher intensity in the right rep range can lead to better muscle growth1,2.

As mentioned, not everyone is built to back squat. If you’re one of these people, there’s no need to force feed a movement that poses risk to your health. But, if you can perform the back squat with no problems, it’s a good idea to include this variation into your workouts.

MHP athlete Chris Bumstead Performing Back Squats

2. The Front Squat

The next muscle building squat variation I want to cover is the barbell front squat. Whereas the back squat is posteriorly loaded, the front squat is anteriorly loaded. And since the set up is in a power rack, most lifters will be able to tackle some serious weight on this exercise.

Simply by moving the weight to the front of the body, those who struggle with leaning forward during the traditional back squat variation will be able to better keep an upright position.

That’s not to say the front squat doesn’t come with it’s own set of cons. For those of you who lack wrist mobility, you’ll likely notice some slight wrist pain during the set up of a front squat.

You could take more of a bodybuilding approach if this is the case and simply cross your arms to form an “X” in front of your body, but this can come with its own repercussions as well (i.e. having to use less weight to maintain control of the weight).

Related: Training Talk - Do You Really Need to Squat?

Another alternative would be to utilize straps to hold the weight in place during the movement, but again, you may have to make some sacrifices on the amount of weight you use when performing this exercise.

Regardless, for those of you who struggle with the back squat, the front squat is a great option. Not to mention, due to the shift of load and the increased recruitment of the quadriceps, it can be an excellent secondary movement for those who do perform back squats regularly.

3. The Goblet Squat

It’s funny how many people consider the goblet squat to be a beginner movement. Personally, this is my favorite squat variation. For those who struggle with getting good depth on the first two variations, you’ll likely love the goblet squat.

Since the weight is held underneath your chin by forming a “goblet” with your hand position, the weight you’re forced to use will be significantly less than that of a front or back squat. 

Like a front squat, those who experience that forward lean during a back squat will benefit from having the weight in front of them. And since the load is lighter, it will allow for a more controlled and deeper descend during the squat.

And best of all, despite what many people believe, you can still go relatively heavy with the movement. How? Due to the set up, it would be extremely difficult to get a heavy weight into the starting position, right?

Take this set up cue from Dr. John Rusin:

The goblet squat is great for beginners, as a secondary squat movement, or as a primary variation that you periodically perform hard and heavy.

4. The Box Squat

Achieving depth during a squat is difficult. Even more so for those coming off an injury or the older lifters who have nagging issues associated with age.

For these lifters, the box squat is a great leg building addition to their workout programs. Set up a bench, box, or platform at about chair height in a squat rack and get under the bar the same way you would a back squat. For this demographic, the box will provide a sense of security during the descent and enable them to train a key movement pattern.

Related: How to Fix the Dreaded Buttwink During Squats

The box squat can also be used to train explosiveness simply by exploding out of the hole once your butt reaches the box. As an added bonus, the box can be used as a cue to eliminate some of the posterior tilt during the squat.

The box squat is great for those retraining the movement pattern of a squat or as a muscle building secondary squat variation.

5. The Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is no joke. If you’re looking for a squat variation that will leave you gassed, your quads burning, all while you’re gasping for air during rest periods, then this is the one for you.

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There’s a couple of ways you can set this up, but the one we’re going to talk about today is the rear leg elevated dumbbell version. Grab two dumbbells (moderate to heavy weight), hold them to your side, and elevate your rear foot. Squat to parallel and return to the starting position.

Perform 8-12 reps of these and you’re going to both hate and love me. You’ll hate me for the pain, but you’ll love me for the gains.

This movement will best serve you as a secondary movement, but the carry over in strength gains to your primary squat variation will be well worth adding these to your leg day.

Wrapping Up

There you have it, 5 of the best squat variations you can add to your leg days to get massive leg gains.

While I tried to include a variation for everyone, I’m sure I missed several great variations along the way.

Did I miss one of your favorites? Drop a comment in the comments section below and let’s carry on this conversation!

  1. Shoenfeld, BJ. 2010. The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24(10):2857-72
  2. Shoenfeld, BJ. 2014. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28(10):2909-18