Squats come in many variations and you can benefit from learning about what makes one squat variation harder than another in order to appropriately integrate it into your programming.
So, which type of squat is the hardest? The hardest squat variations are the ones that have the greatest range of motion, time under tension, and challenge weaker muscle groups. Additionally, certain squat variations have increased levels of mobility, balance, and coordination, which can make them harder based on your individual body proportions.
In this article I will go over the different factors to consider when assessing the difficulty of a squat and then will apply these principles to 14 common variations to help you determine what to expect from each.
What Makes A Squat “Hard”?
The 6 reasons that make a squat variation harder than a traditional back squat are:
- It challenges a weak range of motion
- It challenges a weaker muscle group
- It’s harder based on our individual mechanics (limb lengths)
- It’s technically more challenging (greater coordination, balance, proprioception)
- It has a greater time under tension
- It requires a greater level of mobility
It Challenges a Weak Range of Motion
One of the most simple ways to make a squat harder is to challenge a weak range of motion.
In the context of a squat that usually means sinking lower into the squatted position or adjusting the squat in a way where the bar path is slightly altered and so the range of motion is inadvertently affected.
An example would be going lower than parallel or sinking to ATG (ass-to-grass) positioning. This when compared to a box squat, for example, will feel significantly harder.
It Challenges a Weaker Muscle Group
The squat is mostly controlled by the quadriceps which is the muscle group at the front of your legs, however the glutes, back, hamstrings and even calves are all still involved in helping control the squat movement.
Therefore, in squat variations where an element is altered in a way to focus on one muscle group more strongly than another it will feel more difficult since that group may not be used to being recruited in that manner or to that degree.
An example of this is narrow stance squats which place added stress to the quads, more so than in wider stance squats.
It’s Harder Based on Our Individual Mechanics (Limb Lengths)
Every body is slightly different and as a result our bodies move slightly differently as well. Typically squats tend to be a struggle for those with long thigh bones relative to their torso size and they tend to adopt more of a forward lean during squats.
With that in mind, certain variations may place even more difficulty to these lifters and as such will feel even more difficult.
An example of this would be high bar or front squats potentially feeling more difficult since the forward lean position is less forgiving in these variations than in a low bar back squat.
Think you’ve got long legs? Check out our article for more guidance: How To Squat If You Have Long Legs (10 Tips)
It’s Technically More Challenging (Greater Coordination, Balance, Proprioception)
Certain squat variations simply are more challenging because they require more coordination and general proprioception and require you to keep more things in mind in order to execute them appropriately.
An example of a squat being more technically challenging would be something like a pin squat where the barbell comes to a complete stop at the bottom.
Harnessing power to move the barbell from a dead stop is technically challenging and as a result will result in it feeling more difficult to control.
It Has a Greater Time under Tension
Almost any exercise that exists can be made more difficult by increasing time under tension, or in simpler terms, slowing the exercise down.
When it comes to squats you can slow down your descent or you can add pauses at various points in the squat.
Even just comparing partial range of motion squats vs full range of motion squats you will see an added difficulty with the full range of motion because of the increased time under tension.
A simple example of this is pause squats which are most commonly paused in the bottom portion of the squat before the lifter pushes the weight up.
It Requires a Greater Level of Mobility
While not everyone has limitations when it comes to mobility, many lifters do. Certain positions can be a challenge depending on your injury history and your current lifestyle, which will inevitably change how difficult you perceive a squat to be.
With squats it can come down to ankle or hip mobility or even upper body mobility such as the lats and the wrists.
An example when it comes to squats would be front squats since the front rack position can be a pain point for many and may detract from your actual ability to squat the weight.
Struggle with mobility when it comes to squats? Check out one of these articles:
- How To Increase Ankle Mobility For Squats: 13 Exercises
- How To Increase Hip Mobility For Squats: 13 Drills To Follow
Want to improve your squat technique?
Are Box Squats Harder?
Box squats are not harder than a standard, full range of motion back squat because they operate in a partial range of motion since the movement is brought to a stop by a box instead of your own strength and it requires less time under tension and less overall mobility as well to execute.
Box squats are used for training the hamstrings, glutes and lumbar region of the back and takes stress off of the quads. The difficulty of the movement can however be altered based on the height of the box.
Higher box squats allow overloading since the range of motion is significantly reduced, but box squats with a lower box squats can also feel just as difficult or more difficult because of the stopping of the motion once you reach the box within a similar range of motion.
For more information on why you may want to include box squats into your program, check out:
- Box Squat vs Back Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- High Box Squat: 5 Reasons Why It Makes Sense
- 5 Best Box Squat Alternatives
Are Front Squats Harder?
Front squats are more difficult than back squats because of the mobility and technical demands in maintaining upper body stability. In addition, the front loaded position challenges muscle groups like the back and core and are often the limiting factor in front squatting as much as you back squat.
Weightlifters and lifters who prioritize training of the front squat may not have difficulty from a mobility or technical aspect, however even a well trained athlete who trains both back and front squats will likely still be able to back squat more simply based on positioning of the bar.
Front squats are a great tool for building the quads as well as core and back strength and stability since more emphasis is placed on those areas with a front squat.
Struggling with front squats? Check out my articles here:
- Ultimate Front Squat Guide (Technique, Benefits, Tips)
- Is The Front Squat Choking You? Try These 5 Tips
- Is The Front Squat Bar Slipping? Try These 8 Tips
Are Safety Squat Bar (SSB) Squats Harder?
Safety squat bar squats usually feel harder from a strength perspective than back squats because of the technical challenge of moving with a more forward centre of mass. It may feel easier to some because it’s similar to a back squat in the muscles used and removes the need for upper body mobility.
The SSB is most often used by powerlifting athletes, however, it is a type of squat that can be utilized by anyone looking to change up their routine. It’s also great to help combat chest falling during squats as well as bracing mechanics. It is particularly an excellent option for those with limited upper body mobility or even struggling through an injury.
For example, with the help of others to set up the weight, SSB allowed me to do squats even while my wrist was fractured and sprained. The movement pattern itself is very comparable to regular back squats with just a slight adjustment in the centre of mass.
Why should you add SSB squats into your program? Check out:
- 4 Reasons To Do Safety Bar Squats (Plus, How To Program It)
- Safety Bar Squat vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
Are Sumo Squats Harder?
Sumo squats may be harder than regular stance squats because of the added technical challenge of balance, hip mobility and different muscles used like the inner thighs and glutes. However, some with greater mobility, wide hips and strong glutes may prefer it.
Sumo squats are performed with your feet in a wide stance with your toes pointed outward, similar to how they would be positioned for the sumo deadlift. It can be a good tool for focusing on your glutes and inner quads.
You likely won’t be able to move as much weight because the positioning is less stable but it can be a nice accessory to add that can potentially carry over to both your squat as well as your sumo deadlift. Some wider set lifters may adopt a more sumo-like stance as their regular squat stance but this is not the majority and is more common in equipped powerlifting.
Are Pin Squats Harder?
Pin squats are typically regarded as a squat variation that is harder and will require a load modification due to the added technical difficulty of lifting a weight from a dead stop, which also challenges weaker muscle groups to fire without the benefit of a reflex.
Pin squats are performed in a rack where the safeties are set up high enough to catch the bar when you are in the bottom position. It’s important to not bounce off the safeties, but rather stop with the barbell and then push the weight back up.
This is a great movement to add to your program if you are someone that struggles with hitting a consistent and stable bottom position or with coming up out of the position with enough strength and power.
Are Dumbbell Squats Harder?
Dumbbell squats are harder than barbell squats because the load is carried in your arms instead of on your back, so the strength of the movement will ultimately be limited by your upper body and not necessarily how much load your lower body can handle.
Dumbbell squats can be used as an accessory to build the quads or as a regression for anyone who is not yet ready to place a barbell on their back. It requires less upper body mobility and is easier to set up in general. However, increasing the load will eventually be difficult because it requires you to have the arm strength to hold the dumbbells.
Dumbbell squats can be performed with two dumbbells being held straight by your side or up at the shoulders. Either option is acceptable and will work your muscles in a similar way.
Are Heel Elevated Squats Harder?
Heel elevated squats are typically easier especially for those with hip and ankle mobility limitations and are a great option for beginners. Elevating your heels shifts your centre of mass and allows you to increase your range of motion and fire all necessary muscle groups in an efficient manner.
Elevating the heels in the squat eliminates the need for great ankle mobility and will oftentimes resolve many mechanistic issues someone may have with hitting depth or maintaining strength and stability throughout the squat.
Those who can squat comfortably in flat shoes may sometimes want to elevate their heels to get more engagement out of their quads, but those who struggle with flat foot squatting are fine to opt for keeping their heels elevated as their default squat style.
For more information on squatting with elevated heels, check out any of these articles:
- Squatting With Plates Under Heels: Should You Do It?
- Heel or Flat Shoes While Squatting? (6 Things To Consider)
Are Ass-To-Grass (ATG) Squats Harder?
ATG, or ass-to-grass, squats are harder than a typical squat to parallel or just below parallel because of the increased range of motion, greater time under tension, increased mobility demands as well as individual mechanics. This squat style is inaccessible to many lifters because of these factors.
ATG squats are more useful for those who participate in weightlifting or CrossFit because the Olympic weightlifting movements like the snatch requires the lifter to assume a deep squatted position in order to catch the weight.
Powerlifters and other gym go-ers have no need to consider ATG squats as necessary, however they can be utilized to challenge a new range of motion and build up power in the glutes and quads.
Want to learn more about ATG squats and its use cases? Check out:
Are Banded Squats Harder?
Banded squats will feel harder than squatting with just plates on the bar because the bands add an extra factor of instability and will challenge your stabilizers in order to keep you squatting in a way that prevents you from shifting forward or backward.
Adding bands looped around the barbell and the bottom of the rack makes it so that the bands stretch as you stand up and it feels more difficult than it normally would to lock out your hips and knees. It is also a good tool for reinforcing good lifting mechanics and an efficient bar path.
Therefore, banded squats should be used for those looking to improve lockout strength as well as improving their squat bar path mechanics and overall muscular stability throughout the squat.
Interested to know more about the best bar path? Check out:
Are Goblet Squats Harder
Goblet squats are harder than back squats because the weight is loaded on your chest and stabilized with your arms, which are not as strong as your entire back. Therefore, the amount of weight you can lift will be significantly lower with goblet squats.
Goblet squats are performed with a single dumbbell held vertically at your chest and supported by your arms.
It is a common squat warm up and accessory movement because it enables most people to get a bit deeper in their squats and target the quads without involving the back.
Similar to dumbbell squats, the goblet squat is limited by the amount of weight you can keep up with your arms and chest; however, you will likely be able to stabilize a bit more weight with the goblet positioning than with a dumbbell in each arm.
Interested to see if goblet squats are a good option for you? Check out:
Are High Bar Squats Harder
High bar squats are harder for some when compared to low bar squats because your back is in a more upright position and there is more emphasis placed on the quads over the glutes. However, it may feel easier for those whose upper body mobility limitations get in the way of the low bar position.
It’s difficult to generalize since many can squat very similar, if not more, weight with a high bar position simply because they train it more frequently. However, most individuals, if their upper body allows them to hold the bar lower on their back they will find they can harness more strength over time with it.
This is because of increased activation of the glutes in the low bar position, as well as the slight forward lean of the torso which eliminates the extra stabilization required to stay more upright.
Low bar squatters do, however, implement high bar squats periodically to challenge their upper and lower body in a slightly novel way without getting rid of the squat movement pattern entirely from the program.
Interested to know more about the different bar placements? Read my article:
Are Pause Squats Harder?
Pause squats are harder than regular squats because they increase time under tension and challenge the muscles at a difficult and vulnerable point of the squat movement. It requires superior muscular control and coordination.
Pause squats are a commonly used accessory movement and dreaded among many because it is quite challenging and oftentimes uncomfortable. Even just 1-2 seconds of increased time under tension can feel like minutes and makes the second half of the lift significantly more difficult.
It’s usually enough to pause just for 1-2 counts however some will go as far as 3 second pauses. Pauses can also be placed in other areas of the lift where you may be weak like during the eccentric or the concentric, rather than right at the bottom of the squat.
Curious to know more about pause squats?
Are Narrow Squats Harder?
Narrow stance squats are generally harder than a wider stance squat because they place more emphasis on the quads and the narrow foot and hip position makes it more difficult to sink to your desired depth, especially if your individual hip anatomy prefers a wider stance.
Narrow stance squats are squats where you bring your feet inward slightly so they are roughly shoulder width apart or even narrower. Although most won’t be able to get their strongest squats in this position, it is a great lower body building exercise and is sometimes done in lieu of a leg press.
The narrow stance will also be quite difficult from a mobility perspective and so many who do opt for a narrow stance squat often do choose heeled squat shoes or to elevate their heels to help them get to at least parallel.
Not sure if you should try narrow stance squats? Read more about them here:
Are Hack Squats Harder?
The hack squat is not harder than a back squat because the machine eliminates the need for your back and core to work and it instead isolates your quads and glutes. Also, the hack squat machine allows you to sink lower with more ease and is accessible to those with mobility restrictions.
Hack squats are a very popular exercise among bodybuilders in particular because of the ability to target the legs without tiring out your back and core. It can be used as a muscle building tool even among strength athletes and one that will not exhaust them in the way that a barbell squat might.
You can also adjust your foot position in a hack squat to target the quads with a narrow stance or to target more of the glutes in a more sumo-like stance.
Want to know whether the hack squat is worth your time? Check out:
In conclusion, there are a plethora of ways to adjust the squat in order to focus on different weaknesses. To determine whether any type of squat will feel harder than your standard back squat you will need to look at the various factors such as time under tension, mobility, your body proportions and which muscles are focused on, among other things.
All types of squats have a time and a place and once you can pinpoint your weaknesses you will be better equipped to select the right types of squats to help challenge them.
Curious to know more about what may be wrong with your squat? Check out: Top 17 Squat Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
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.