The barbell back squat is one of the most complete exercises to be used in any training program. It uses virtually every large muscle between the ankles and forehead and can be used to condition pain tolerance just as well as it can condition strength and endurance. However, making a few small tweaks to the the "King of All Exercises" can dramatically vary the training effect, which is important for catering to the specific needs of different athletes and lifters. Here is a short list of the best squat variations to keep your numbers out of a rut.
What it is: A squat where the bar is supported in the crooks of the elbows
Who its for: Strongman athletes are the most likely to incorporate this type of movement because the load is down around the abdomen as in a log clean, stone load, and sandbag pick. Nick Best is known for his regular Zercher squats that climb in excess of 600lbs; a true feat of upper back strength and hip horsepower!
Think there's a big difference between placing the bar high vs low on your traps? Try placing it in your elbows!
'Zercher' refers to any time the barbell is being supported in the crooks of the elbows in front of the body. This is a rarely practiced move that places a unique stress on the upper body in addition to changing the leverages of the squat. With the weight positioned somewhere between the bottom of the sternum and the top of the abdomen, the zercher squat places exponentially more strain on the muscles of the midsection, upper back and the glutes, so much so that a seasoned squatter will experience severe soreness after only a few light zercher squats their first time around.
To execute a Zercher squat properly, set the bar in the rack around hip level. Hook the elbows around the bar and wrap one hand over the other, pulling them into the chest. Chalk on the elbows and hands is essential, a towel to take the bite off the elbows is optional. The goal in a zercher squat is to stay upright; don't let the weight drag you forward! As you descend, try to emulate a high bar narrow stance squat or a front squat. As you reverse directions, you will likely feel the extra strain in the glutes along with a very noticeable struggle to keep stability in the back and midsection. This is where the benefit of Zercher squats lie; the struggle to maintain an upright position while holding hundreds of pounds across your waist. Several months of these, and I guarantee your upper back strength and loading capacity will skyrocket.
What it is: A squat where the lifter sits on a box or bench, pausing before standing back up.
Who its for: Any athlete who can benefit from more hip power will find value in a box squat. More specific to lifting, hip dominant (wide stance) squatters and anyone who needs more drive off the floor in their deadlift should incorporate box squats as well.
Box squats get a bad rap because they were so frequently recommended as a cure-all during the heights of Westside Barbell through the 90s and early 2000s. Many a follower was disappointed to realize that box squats did not, in fact, provide a 1 to 1 carryover to their raw squat, especially if their squat style was not a hip dominant wide stance squat. The boys at Westside, however, didn't use this squat variation to build their deep, raw, high bar squats; rather, they used it as a movement specific analog to their contest squat setup, which was typically a very wide stance very hip dominant movement. An added benefit to movement specificity for these guys was the devastating hip power that provided direct carryover to deadlift power off the floor. Anyone who has strained through heavy paused box squats for several cycles can attest to the extra compression felt at the start of a deadlift before the pull. If you are a wider stance squatter or otherwise desire some more gas behind your deadlifts, box squats are definitely worth your time.
Don't fall in to the box squat trap that so many novice lifters do. The point of the movement is to engage hip extension under a load from a dead stop. Slowly sit back to the box and, without rocking, relax the hip flexors as if you were going to pick your feet up off the ground (but don't). Imagine the box is going to disappear at any given moment and that you will have to support your own weight; if you rock, you will fall straight back. Once the hip flexors are relaxed, do a quick 2 count and reverse your hips back under you. The main movement cue here is hips back, hips forward. Always be striving to slam your hips through as quick as you can.
Box squats are a hip dominant movement and are best done right around parallel (if not slightly above) with the feet wide, knees out, and hips tracking back as hard as possible with the shins vertical. I've seen narrow stance squatters do them close stance and deep, but this resembles a run of the mill pause squat and will miss out on the hip loading that occurs off of a higher box with a wide stance. Remember, you aren't in a box squat contest where judges are taking inventory of your depth: this is a training tactic.
Safety Bar Squat
What it is: A squat done with a padded safety bar instead of a straight bar
Who its for: Lifters struggling with posture issues such as rounding over on squats and deadlifts can use the safety bar to help correct these issues.
The safety squat bar has turned into a favorite tool among lifters, largely for its increased difficulty and versatility with other squat variations. It rides across the shoulders in a way that doesn't require the hands to be on the bar; great for those who's elbows and shoulders need a break from the straight bar. The pad is a blessing for those who frequently use good mornings, and the curve in the bar shifts the load slightly in front of the lifter, testing midsection and upper back stability by making squats feel like a hybrid between a back squat and front squat.
Keep in mind that, for squat variations, the primary benefit of incorporating a safety squat bar is destabilization in the upper back and midsection. A long time strongman competitor and friend who boasted a 700lb deadlift right around 220lbs of bodyweight recommended overloading the movement to a really take advantage of this fact; he would use 1-200lbs more than in a typical squat workout by taking the weight to a high box and doing partials. The upper back strength required to make it through these working sets guaranteed that it would not be a weak link on max effort deadlift attempts.
What it is: A squat held for several seconds at the lowest bottom position
Who its for: Pause squats can improve performance in both the squat and deadlift, specifically lifters who can benefit from more starting strength out of the bottom position.
This is another hip horsepower movement, since it requires a larger effort from the musculature of the hip to break the weight without the benefit of stretch reflex. Much in the same vain as the box squat, the pause squat conditions starting strength by increasing time under tension at the bottom of the movement and starting the weight from a dead stop. Unlike the box squat, it is a much more specific movement to the lifters squatting style; there need be no change in bar or hip position, simply squat to depth and hold it for a 3-6 count. Seasoned squatters will still report substantially sore glutes in the first weeks that pause squats are present in their rotation.
As a training stimulus, pause squats are more effective for longer duration holds, up to 5 full seconds. Because it takes several seconds for stretch reflex to dissipate once the bar stops, quick half-counts that get passed as pauses don't vary enough from normal touch and go squats to provide an added benefit. The longer the count is held at the bottom, the more strain on the supportive musculature of the upper back and midsection and the more effort required to overcome inertia. This all adds up to better results. Remember to stay tight in the bottom by not letting air out; holding the breath for 3-5 seconds under a load shouldn't be an issue as long as you can get your air at the top.
What it is: A squat with a straight bar supported to the front of the neck across the shoulders and collar bone
Who its for: Everyone. Front squats carry over to more real world athletic events and supplement the squat by taxing all of the same muscle groups.
In a game of chess, if the squat is the King of All Exercises, the front squat is the queen. This is one of the most underused tools in the entire tool shed, given an impressive array of benefits that assist lifters and strength athletes alike. Front squats force a more upright position which coaxes flexibility in the ankles, knees, and hips. The weight rides in the front which simulates real world situations where the direction of force is always going to be in front of the athlete. It requires a stronger midsection. It builds a denser upper back. It's used by bodybuilders to bring up the quads and by strongmen to bring up the glutes and hamstrings. This is one of the few lifts that is so effective at making good athletes better that it can almost substitute the squat as a primary mover. I said almost.
When considering proper setup for a front squat, finding an optimal bar position is always first. The bar should ride right along the collar bone, back up against your trachea, and behind the caps of your delts. A solid front squat rack position won't even require your hands be on the bar: I routinely have new front squatters hold their hands out in front like a mummy and practice keeping the bar in position as they squat. If it is behind the shoulders and you are upright, the bar shouldn't go anywhere.
Some will use an Olympic lifting rack position, while others will crossover. In my more flexible days, I preferred the Olympic rack because it forced me to stay more upright and carried over to catching cleans. As my shoulders grew and basic flexibility was put on the back burner, the only real option for me was to cross over. If you are an Olympic lifter, this issue has already been answered. If you are not, it doesn't matter at all. The trick in executing a front squat is to keep your body as upright as possible. Longer limbed squatters will have more of a problem with this since their hips will be forced back. Play around with foot and knee position and stretch diligently to optimize range in the ankles, knees, and hips.
As you descend, cue the hips to stay under you and the knees to track forward past the toes. The slope of your torso should hardly change. If there is any substantial forward lean, your back will round or you will dump the bar, neither of which is ideal. As reps go on, you will find it harder to breath and maintain position. As your ability to exist under the bar for longer heavier sets increases, so will other movements that require a strong back and powerful hips.