If there is one exercise that outshines all others in its ability to tone, strengthen and blast away fat it is the humble squat.
Overlooked for years by trainers seeking cutting-edge advancements in exercise, it is now firmly back in vogue. Spot an enviable celebrity body with a washboard stomach, lean thighs and toned buttocks and it has almost certainly been honed by squats. Top athletes love the squat for its ability to build power needed for speed, and celebrities adore it for its butt-firming properties. Asked how she keeps her physique in check at 47, the former supermodel Helena Christensen said that the key exercise for ageing was the squat’s closest relative, the lunge. “That’s the exercise for butts,” she said.
What makes it so effective? Steve Mellor, a personal trainer who set up Freedom2Train, a group of trainers (based at the gym at Claridge’s Hotel in London) who train high-flyers who want fast results, relies on squats in his workouts. He says that they “make the body work harder than any elliptical trainer or weights machine. They engage the biggest muscles of the body, the glutes. As muscles burn calories, that means that they gobble more calories than most other exercises. In ten minutes, you can burn about 180 calories, more as you add heavier weights.” Squatting also hits the core, shoulders and back.
In short, the squat simultaneously builds muscle and burns fat. It is also very good at strengthening the body in a way that will help it to ward off injuries that come with too much sitting at a desk.
The potential for variation with squats is huge. Scientists have found that much of what we thought we knew about the squat is wrong. Mellor says that sticking your bottom out is now considered outdated. Likewise, keeping your knees positioned directly over your feet is not the safest or most effective way to perform the exercise.
“You need to engage the large gluteal muscles in the buttocks. This can only be achieved if your knees are in front of your feet and your thighs are below parallel to the ground. It takes time and practice but it is worth it.”
Tone up in three weeks
Do your squat workout three times a week. Choose three moves from the list below, mixing it up throughout the week. Start with two sets of 12-15 repetitions and gradually build up to three sets over the next few weeks. Within three weeks you will notice changes to the shape and tone of your lower body, as well as a stronger core and a leaner overall look.
Try to do some of the basic squats barefoot, so you use your core muscles to keep you balanced.
1 Basic squat
1 With your feet shoulder width apart, point your toes and knees at the 1 o’clock and 11 o’clock positions. Raise your arms out in front.
2 Squat until your upper thighs are below parallel to the floor. There is no need to stick your bottom out excessively or to have your knees over your heels. Keep your chest up, with your weight on your heels. Slowly return to the starting position, squeezing your buttocks as you go. Repeat.
2 Goblet squat
1 Stand with your heels shoulder-width apart, toes at 1 o’clock and 11 o’clock. Hold a weight in the middle of your chest.
2 With your weight on your heels, push your hips back and towards the floor (before your knees bend). Keep your chest up and wedge your elbows in between your knees at the bottom of the movement. Drive your hips forward, squeeze the buttocks and push through the heels to return to the start position, and repeat.
3 Knee dips
1 Stand with heels shoulder-width apart. Raise your left foot, then bend the left leg to 90deg behind you. Keep your body upright.
2 Bend your right knee and swing both arms in front of you for balance. Squat as low as you can, keeping your left leg off the ground. Push back up through the heel. Do all the reps without placing your left foot on the ground. Repeat on the other side.
4 Sumo squat
1 Stand with feet turned out and one and a half times times wider than your shoulders. If you are more advanced, hold a weight with both hands.
2 Bend from your hips and squat, keeping your chest up and knees out. Your weight should be evenly distributed between both heels and your back kept straight. Bend until your bottom is lower than your knees. Push through both heels without bending your back; and straighten the legs to return to the start position. Repeat.
5 Squat and hold
1 You will need an exercise band for this, or a pair of tights tied together. Place the band over the knees to keep them in position. Keep your head up, back straight, heels shoulder-width apart, and toes and knees at the 1 o’clock and 11 o’clock positions.
2 As you squat, raise your arms out in front and drive out your knees against the band, holding the position momentarily. Push through the heels to return to the start position, and repeat.
6 Split squat
1 Stand with your hands on your hips and one foot in front of the other, a good stride apart. Raise your back foot on to the ball of the foot.
2 Squat by flexing the knee and hip of your front leg. Allow the heel of your back foot to rise while the knee of your back leg bends until it almost touches the floor. Straighten and push the hip and knee of your front leg to return to the starting position. Repeat. Do your reps then change legs.
7 Split squat on a step
1 Stand with hands on hips and one foot in front of the other, a stride apart. Raise your front foot on to a step/low bench. Shift your position so that the rear leg is almost straight. Hold dumbbells in each hand; keep your head and chest up.
2 Lower from the hips, keeping your back straight, until your back knee reaches the floor. Push through the front leg to raise again. Do your reps then change legs.
8 Bulgarian split squat
1 Stand with your back close to a weight bench, dining chair or a few stairs. Take three small steps before placing your right foot on the bench behind you.
2 Keeping your back straight and abs tight, bend your left knee to lower your body until your right knee reaches the ground. Your left knee should be in front of the left foot. Squeeze your buttocks to push back up. Finish a set of reps then switch sides.
9 Cossack squat
1 Stand with your feet really wide apart.
2 Squat by lunging as deeply as possible to the left, while turning the right toes upwards, but keeping the right leg straight. Lean forward slightly to maintain balance. Extend arms straight out from shoulders. Push from the left foot to lunge over to the other side in one sweeping movement. Then repeat the move lunging towards the right. That is one repetition.
10 Pulsing squat
1 Perform a basic squat until your upper thighs are below parallel to the floor, with your heels flat on the floor. Your legs should be at just below a 90 degree angle.
2 Push through the heels to raise up slightly, so that your legs are just more than the 90 degree angle. This is one repetition. Pulse for the set number of reps.
11 Thruster squat
1 Start in a basic squat position with heels shoulder-width apart and a weight in each hand. Bend your elbows and raise the weights to your shoulder. Bend the knees, the weights staying at shoulder-height.
3 Push up through the heels and simultaneously push weights up towards the ceiling with force, but without locking your elbows. Bend your knees and elbows to return to the start position. Repeat.
12 Jump squat
1 This is a dynamic version of the basic squat that helps to build power and strength. Start in a basic squat position, bending the knees until your upper thighs are below parallel to the floor, with your heels flat on the floor.
2 From this position, push forcefully through the heels and squeeze the glutes to jump off the floor. Land softly on the balls of your feet. Repeat.