There are many exercises that can be incorporated into a program to help you get strong, but if you’re looking to focus on improving squat strength it’s important you zero in on some key exercises.
The 20 exercises to help you improve squat strength are:
- Front Squats
- Leg Press
- Split Squats
- Goblet Squat
- Barbell Hip Thrusts
- Sumo Deadlifts
- Belt Squats
- Glute Bridge
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Glute Ham Raises
- Hamstring Curls
- Good Mornings
- Conventional Deadlifts
- Bent Over Rows
- Back Extensions
- Weighted Plank
- Ab Rollout
- Calf Raises
Not every exercise listed will necessarily be right for you so it’s important to look at your squat and determine where your greatest weaknesses are and which exercise will address it.
In this article we will look at the different ways in which you can improve your squat strength as well as which exercises will target which muscle groups to help you increase the weight on the bar over time.
What is the Fastest Way to Improve Squat Strength?
Before you tackle what part of your body needs to be strengthened in order to squat better, it’s important to determine whether your technique is good.
The squat in particular is a very technical lift where deficits in mobility or the wrong cues can have you moving in a way that is not effective or efficient.
To learn more about ways to identify some common mistakes and improve your technique, check out any of the articles below:
- 11 Squat Progressions From Beginner To Advanced
- How To Increase Hip Mobility For Squats: 13 Drills To Follow
- Top 17 Squat Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
- 22 Exercises To Improve Squat Depth (That Actually Work)
Assuming your technique is good to go, the next way to help your squat reach new heights is by selecting the correct exercises and targeting the muscles involved in the movement itself.
Exercise selection goes hand in hand with specificity, so first make sure you are squatting frequently enough before. But beyond the squats there are many exercises you can add as secondary or accessory movements to help accelerate your progress even more.
Exercise Selection for Improving Squat Strength
When choosing which exercises will improve your squat strength it’s important to first understand what muscles are actually involved in the squat.
The primary muscle groups involved in squatting include:
The extent to which each muscle group is used definitely isn’t equal; however, I will touch on each just to give you a full picture of what’s going on and help you identify the area of most need for you.
It’s also important to note that while the following exercises are split up by muscle group, many do cross over and several exercises that work the quads will also work the glute or your core as well.
For a more in-depth look on the muscles used in the squat, check out Muscles Used In The Squat (Ultimate Guide)
Quad Exercises to Improve Squat Strength
Quads can be considered the primary muscle group involved in giving you the strength to squat. If you are struggling with strength in your quads you will find your hips are rising faster out of the bottom of the squat than the shoulders, resulting in a more hip hinge-like ascent.
Your quads are the 4 muscles found at the front of your thigh and can be strengthened with the following exercises:
1. Front Squats
Front squats are a variation of the back squat where the bar is resting in the front, on your collar bone region, instead of on your back. Because of the bar placement this version of the squat places more emphasis on the quads and as such can be a great alternative squat variation to increase strength and hypertrophy in your legs.
For more information on front squatting and how to overcome some common obstacles, check out any of our articles below:
- Is The Front Squat Choking You? (Try These 5 Tips)
- Is The Front Squat Bar Slipping? (Try These 8 Tips)
- Front Squat With Straps: How & Why Should You Do It?
2. Leg Press
The leg press is a machine movement that is great for isolating the quads and works well to build both muscle and strength. Because it’s typically a machine exercise there is little to no stress placed on other areas of your body and isn’t limited by grip strength or balance the way other leg exercises tend to be such as lunge and split squat variations.
To place more emphasis on the quads and not have your glutes take over, make sure to set your feet up in a narrow stance with your feet pointing forward.
For more information on leg pressing, check out any of our articles below:
- Leg Press vs Squat: You DON’T Need To Do Both
- Leg Press Foot Placement: 5 Stances Explained
- How To Leg Press Using Your Glutes (6 Tips)
3. Split Squats
Split squats are a great way to isolate and activate the quad muscles of one leg at a time. This is great for any lifter but especially helpful if you do have one very dominant leg.
Split squats can be done with dumbbells or a barbell on the back and can be set up with the back foot elevated (Bulgarian Split Squats), front foot elevated split squats or regular split squats with no elevation.
The key to targeting the quads more than the glutes is by standing more upright; however, if you do wish to engage your glutes as well then leaning forward slightly in a bulgarian split squat will help you accomplish that.
If your legs are shaking in the squat, it could mean that there’s an imbalance between your right and left leg, which split squat would help fix. For more info, check out my article on Why Do My Legs Shake When I Squat?
4. Goblet Squat
Goblet squats are a lighter squat variation done with a single dumbbell held at chest level.
This is an exercise you’ll want to include to improve your squat strength because it has greater specificity to the squat and will allow you to easily shift the emphasis on the quads or the glutes depending on what you need.
For more emphasis on the quads, you can try bringing in your feet and doing a narrow stance goblet squat, although just doing the goblet squat with your regular stance will still add additional squat volume into your week and help you build your leg muscles.
Lunges are another great quad developer and, similarly to split squat, will help you isolate one leg at a time. The main difference between lunges and split squats is that lunges involve your feet moving either forward or backward whereas split squats do not.
Lunges will activate both your quads and glutes in a more dynamic way and as a result provide the added challenge of stability which can be good for both your feet and core, two important players in a strong squat.
Glute Exercises to Improve Squat Strength
Glutes are made up of 3 muscles and are a main contributor to a strong and efficient squat because of their importance in locking out the lift and keeping the knees and hips in optimal position throughout the movement.
To strengthen your glutes try the following exercises:
6. Barbell Hip Thrusts
Barbell hip thrusts are the best way to activate your glutes and are one of the few glute-specific exercises where you can load heavy weight.
Therefore, if your glutes are a limiting factor for your squats, this movement should definitely be included into your program as both a tool for lockout strength and/or overall glute hypertrophy.
If you feel more quads than glutes while doing the hip thrusts, then check out my article on 9 Tips For Feeling Your Glutes More When Hip Thrusting.
Curious to know more? Check out Do Hip Thrusts Help Squats? (Science-Backed)
7. Sumo Deadlifts
While conventional deadlifts can help develop the back strength for squats, sumo deadlifts can help you place focus on your glutes and even quads. You can swap conventional deadlifts for sumo, add in another deadlift day or program lighter deadlifts at higher rep schemes to just focus in more on glute hypertrophy and and getting in some extra volume.
The sumo deadlifts are performed with a wide stance and toes pointed outward and help build strength in the externally rotated hip position which is key for squatting as well.
8. Belt Squats
Belt squats are a great movement because of their similarity to actual squats but without any of the fatigue that comes from loading a barbell on your back. Your upper body gets a break with the belt squat while your glutes and quads do all of the work.
Belt squats are a great tool to add more weekly volume for your glutes and work on locking out the top of the squat.
A belt squat machine can be found in most gyms that cater to strength athletes, but a similar movement pattern can be created by placing your feet on elevated platforms and then fastening weights to a weight belt, allowing the weight to move through the space between the platforms.
Check out my complete article on the Best Belt Squat Alternatives.
9. Glute Bridge
The glute bridge is an exercise similar to the barbell hip thrust however it is performed from the ground. It can be done with no weight, a dumbbell, a band around the knees to better activate the glutes.
The glute bridge helps strengthen your glutes while placing minimal to no strain on any other muscles and can be used as both a warm-up tool or an accessory after your primary lifts.
For more information on warming up for squats, check out: How To Warm Up For Squats (Mobility, Dynamic Stretching, & Activation)
Hamstring Exercises to Improve Squat Strength
The hamstrings are the 3 muscles found at the back of your thighs that oppose your quads.
It may not seem obvious how hamstrings are involved in the squat; however, they help support the glutes and are activated most at the bottom of the squat where they act to stabilize.
The following exercises will help you build strong hamstrings:
10. Romanian Deadlifts
Romanian deadlifts are a deadlift variation where you start in a standing position while holding the barbell, you keep your legs straight as you bring the weight down and then stand back up before the barbell touches the ground.
This exercise is primarily felt in the hamstrings but has the added benefit of also activating your upper and low back, your glutes and your abs.
11. Glute Ham Raises
Glute ham raises are done on a glute ham developer and are great, as the name suggests, for both the glutes and the hamstrings. To get more hamstring activation it’s better to not point the toes out so much whereas if you wish to use it as a glute exercise, angling your toes out will likely work better.
This exercise is great because it requires you to have excellent hamstring awareness and strength and will carry over to both squats and deadlifts.
This can be a difficult exercise to do with just body weight for many but once you become more experienced, holding a weight is an easy way to add an extra challenge.
If you can’t do a glute-ham raise, then check out my article on the best Glute Ham Raise Alternatives.
12. Hamstring Curls
Hamstring curls are a great way to isolate the hamstrings without causing fatigue in the rest of the body and as a result are a great accessory to but used to build some muscle.
They can be done with a ham curl machine or by rolling a stability ball with your feet in a lying down position.
I personally like to do hamstring curls with a slow eccentric tempo to get maximal activation of the muscle.
Back Exercises to Improve Squat Strength
Back exercises are important to include for the squat because it is what helps you hold the barbell on your back and prevents any caving of the torso. It’s important to strengthen both your upper back like your lats as well are your lower back to ensure a safe and effective squat.
If your back is weak include the following exercises:
13. Good Mornings
I’ve categorized good mornings as a back exercise however they will give your glutes and hamstrings some activation as well as your core muscles.
The good morning is performed as a hip hinge, similar to a romanian deadlifts, except with a barbell on your back. It will be especially important for those who have a weaker lower back.
This is not an exercise you want to go very heavy on and should be utilized as an accessory movement.
14. Conventional Deadlifts
Conventional deadlifts are an excellent exercise for activating and strengthening every part of your back. They will not only help your low back become more resilient but also build strength in the lats and traps from gripping the bar in place.
If you normally sumo deadlift try adding in some conventional just for the sake of developing your posterior chain and helping your squat progress.
15. Bent Over Rows
Bent over rows are a great exercise that works mostly your upper back muscles. These muscles will be important to build up so that you can create a strong and sturdy shelf for the barbell to sit on throughout the squat.
Because the rows are bent over you will also be engaging some lower back and core muscles which will also carry over well for squat training.
16. Back Extensions
Back raises can be done on a back extension bench or a glute ham developer and are great exercise for developing the lower back.
It’s different from glute ham raises in that the legs should be wedged in place and you are only moving at the hip with just enough range to activate the back in a neutral spine position.
Tip: If you’re looking to get more upper back and lower back action you can do an isometric back extension hold on a glute ham raise while rowing a pair of kettlebells.
Check out my article on How Do Powerlifters Train Back.
Core Exercises to Improve Squat Strength
The core includes both your abs as well as your erectors. A sign that your core may need some work is having your back round during the squat or a history of discomfort in the low-mid back when squatting.
Some of the back exercises mentioned will also strengthen your erectors but make sure to also include the following as well:
17. Weighted Plank
The weighted plank is performed on your toes and forearms with your core engaged and a weight plate on your back.
Although a body weight plank can also be a good exercise for the core, adding the extra weight can help bring awareness and better activate the core for those who can already do a bodyweight plank with ease.
Deadbugs are an exercise great for developing core stability which will help you activate the brace better when squatting. To do a deadbug you will need to lie on your back with all 4 limbs up in the air, arms straight and knees bent.
The point of the movement is to extend the opposite arm and leg while keeping your core activated. A good cue to keep in mind is to press into the ground with your lower back.
19. Ab Rollout
The Ab rollout is a more advanced movement and particularly great for targeting the abdominals. It involves using an ab wheel and with a braced and activated core, rolling your upper body forward.
Check out this video for a demonstration how to perform the ab rollout:
For more powerlifting-specific ab exercises check out our article here: The 9 Best Ab Exercises For Powerlifters (Don’t Skip These)
Calf Exercises to Improve Squat Strength
Calves are involved to a much lesser extent than the other muscle groups mentioned but they do play a role in ankle flexion and extension, meaning they stabilize you in the bottom position and allow you to come up and straighten out your shins.
To work on your calves try the following:
20. Calf Raises
Calf raises are a fairly simple movement that can be done in a number of different ways. This includes using a plate-loaded calf raise machine, a standing calf raise machine or holding dumbbells or a barbell while completing them freestanding.
One way to add challenge to calf raises would be to add a pause to the movement. Doing calf raises can also be a way to build some mobility in your ankles if that is something that limits you in reaching depth.
For more on ankle mobility check out How To Increase Ankle Mobility For Squats: 13 Exercises
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Calf Raises Help Squats?
Calf raises can help your squats if you have particularly weak calves. The calves have a relatively minor role to play in squatting but they do allow you to keep the foot and ankle stable and so doing some calf raises may be beneficial if this is something you are lacking.
Do Glute Bridges Help Squats?
Yes, glute bridges, in its various forms, can help squats as either a warm-up and activation tool or as an accessory movement. They help activate the glutes without any stress placed on the back or quads and can transfer over to lockout strength needed for squats.
Do Lunges Help Squats?
Lunges, whether walking or stationary, are a great tool for improving the squat because of its emphasis on one leg working at a time. They can also easily be made challenging with extra weight. This is a great tool for those struggling quad strength, foot stability as well as unilateral leg strength.
Do Sumo Deadlifts Help Squats?
Yes, sumo deadlifts can be used as a squat accessory because of the great activation of glutes and quads and the demands on external hip rotation. This will be particularly important if you find yourself weak at the bottom of the squat.
For more information on the relationship between squats and deadlifts check out Does Deadlifting Carry Over To Squats? (Yes, Here’s How).
Do Wall Sits Help Squats?
Wall sits are likely not the best exercise choice to help with barbell squats since the focus is on endurance and the position of the wall sit is not specific to the actual mechanics of a squat. However they do place stress on the quads so using them as a burnout tool may be somewhat beneficial.
Do Pull Ups Help Squats?
Pull-ups are a great exercise for the lats and lats are important when it comes to good positioning in the squat. Therefore, getting stronger at pull ups may help improve your squat through increased strength and stability in the upper back, which will prevent the back from rounding.
Do RDLs Help Squats?
Romanian Deadlifts, or RDLs, can be used to improve your squat because they activate the hamstrings, glutes and back muscles, which are all muscles necessary for good squatting. They can be particularly good for those who have strong quads but a weaker posterior chain.
The squat is often called the king of all lower body exercises because it requires the activation of so many muscles simultaneously and there is definitely some merit to that reputation.
However, sometimes our squats can get stuck in a plateau or need some extra help from other exercises to help get all those muscles to the place they need to be in order to hit that next PR. The exercises mentioned in this list are sure to help you get moving in the right direction no matter your current weaknesses.
Stuck in a plateau and need more help? Check out: 9 Tips To Break Through A Squat Plateau
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.