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12 Best Squat Accessory Exercises To Improve Form & Strength (Tips And Videos)

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There’s no getting around it.

Squatting is a staple full body exercise. It looks easy, but in fact, it requires a complex balance of strength, stability, and mobility.

That’s why it’s important to perform squat accessories to improve your strength and technique before attempting to lift heavy loads. There are several exercises you can do alongside heavy squats that will enable you to push your weights even higher, and stimulate hypertrophy in your legs.

The 12 best squat accessory exercises are:

Lets go over each of these squat accessory exercises and how to incorporate them. I'll also go over technique tips with videos.

Muscles Used In Squats

The squat can be a bodyweight or weighted compound exercise. It works the full body by activating several muscles at the same time.

Due to the amount of hip and knee flexion required, the quadriceps and gluteus maximus are the primary movers in any squat. Without strength in your quads and glutes, you will lack stability in a squat through the full range of motion. The deeper you squat, the more your muscles will be activated.

Studies show greater gluteus maximus activated in back squats compared to other squatting variations [1], and maximal gluteus maximus and hamstring activation with increasing loads [2].

Stabilizing muscles are required to keep your torso upright and prevent you from twisting throughout the movement.

The primary muscles used in squats are:

  • Gluteal muscles (gluteus maximum, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus)
  • Quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius) 
  • Hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus)
  • Calves (gastrocnemius and soleus)

The secondary muscles worked during pistol squats are:

  • The abdominal muscles (transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, and the obliques)
  • Ankle stabilizers
  • Erector spinae & multifidus

Why Are Squat Accessory Exercises Important?

The big, compound lifts are key to gaining strength. Squats, deadlifts, and the bench press will stimulate significant amounts of hypertrophy. However, do not discount accessory movements.

Squat accessories are just as important as squatting itself. They can help you perfect your technique, whilst building strength and muscle.

Most accessories require a lighter load, and instead focus on form and tempo. This also allows you to increase your training volume and frequency without overreaching in your workouts.

By adding in squat accessories, you will be able to challenge your muscles in new angles. They cause different stresses on the body that a traditional barbell squat will not create. Accessories reduce stress on the joints, whilst still allowing you to train effectively.

What Makes A Good Squat Accessory Exercise?

The squat really is like no other, but there are certainly exercises that act as a good accessory movement to it. 

A good squat accessory is one that emphasizes the lower body muscles, whilst requiring a good level of stability and mobility. It needs to target the leg muscles to stimulate power or strength gains, hypertrophy, or improvements in endurance. Accessories can be compound or isolated movements.

Squat accessories should also activate the core by forcing the lifter to maintain balance throughout the exercise. By the core, I mean the abdominals but also the spinal stabilizers and lower back.

12 Best Accessory Exercises for Squats

The exercises below will help you target all parts of the body, especially the leg muscles. They will allow you to identify the weaker areas of your body, so you know what your limiting factor is when it comes to squats.

Practicing these squat accessories will improve your strength and technique to improve your weak points and progress in your squats.

1. Pause Squats

What are pause squats?
Pause squats are performed like a regular squat, but with a short pause at the bottom of the rep.

Who should do it?
If you struggle with the deepest part of squats (the bit where you’re sat close to the floor), you will benefit from doing pause squats.

How they improve squat strength?
Pause squats increase the time that the muscles are under tension, thereby increasing the intensity. The lower body muscles will be challenged, especially if you are weaker in the bottom part of the squat.

Common mistake with this exercise
Often, lifters will compensate for the pause by decreasing the range of motion. So, they will not squat as deeply to make up for the increased time under tension, making the exercise easier.

How to program them?
I recommend starting with a similar number of reps to your usual squatting sets, but using a lower weight of around 60-65% 1RM.

2. Goblet Squats

What are goblet squats?
Goblet squats involve holding a dumbbell in the cups of your hands close to your chest. This exercise can also be done with a kettlebell or plate.

Who should do it?
Goblet squats are great for those of you who struggle to gain depth in your squats due to poor ankle mobility.

How they improve squat strength?
Holding the dumbbell in front of you enables you to squat deeper whilst remaining upright, placing more emphasis on the glutes and quads.

Common mistake with this exercise
It’s easy to try and lift too much with this exercise because you are used to lifting heavy with traditional barbell back squats. However, remember that you are limited by how much weight you can hold in your hands.

How to program them?
It’s harder to overload this exercise, so program goblet squats with higher reps. Anywhere between 10-15 reps per set, and 3-5 working sets. You can also use this as an activation exercise prior to barbell back squats.

3. Front Squats

What are front squats?
Front squats require you to hold the barbell on your front deltoids instead of on your upper back.

Who should do them?
Anybody who struggles with their squat form would benefit from practicing front squats.

How they improve squat strength?
This exercise helps improve squat strength by improving form. Usually, when people come back up from a squat, their hips will rise, bringing the torso forward. The front squat corrects this issue by placing the load at the front of the body.

Common mistake with this exercise
A common mistake I’ve seen with exercise is people taking it to failure before they have perfected their technique. Make sure to nail your form before attempting to lift super heavy loads.

How to program them?
Program front squats with similar reps and sets as for back squats. If your goal is power, work between 1-3 reps. If you’re aiming for strength, anywhere between 1-5 reps is good. For hypertrophy, work within 8-12 reps. As for the sets, anything from 3-6 sets is great.

Another awesome front loading squat exercise is the Zercher squat. Check out my guide!

4. Reverse Lunges

What are reverse lunges?
The reverse lunge can be performed using a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells. It is a unilateral exercise where the lifter bends at both knees whilst taking one leg behind the body, to lower themselves towards the ground.

Who should do them?
If you struggle with stability and balance during the squat, practicing reverse lunges will allow you to work on these whilst still building strength and power. Lunges are also great to identify and improve muscle imbalances.

How they improve squat strength?
Although lunges look quite different to squats, they work the same muscles (lower body, core, and spinal stabilizers). They can be overloaded to stimulate hypertrophy, which can translate to a stronger squat.

Common mistake with this exercise
I’ve had many clients who do half reps with reverse lunges. They opt for a heavy weight and only lunge half way down towards the floor. Ideally, you want your back knee to be close to the floor, if not lightly touching it. This means you are working in the full range of motion for maximum gains.

How to program them?
Add in reverse lunges as one of your compound exercises at the start of your workouts. I recommend doing them just after heavy squats or deadlifts as an accessory exercise. Perform 6-12 reps per leg for 3-5 sets.

5. Front Lunges

What are front lunges?
Front lunges mimic the reverse lunge, expect the leg comes forwards in front of the body.

Who should do them?
For those of you who want to emphasize your quads, try front lunges. They target the anterior muscles more than reverse lunges or other squat accessories.

How they improve squat strength?
Front squats can be overloaded nicely. They target the lower body and core muscles, in particular the anterior chain. This is beneficial to improve squat strength by increasing power and strength in the legs. Because they are a unilateral exercise, they enhance balance and stability.

Common mistake with this exercise
Commonly, people struggle with their balance during front squats. This can lead to them wobbling all over the place, making the exercise less effective. Working on stability and improving core strength will reduce this unnecessary movement.

How to program them?
Front lunges can be placed near the start or near the end of a workout depending on the load you’re using. Try adding in 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps per leg into your next workout.

6. Box Squats

What are box squats?
Box squats are very similar to traditional barbell back squats. The difference is that you are squatting down onto a box. As you go into the deepest part of the squat, you come into contact with a bench, box, or step that is placed just behind you.

Who should do them?
When people struggle with their hip, knee, or ankle mobility, box squats are a great choice. They reduce the range of motion of the squat, putting less strain on the joint.

How they improve squat strength?
You can load up the barbell significantly with box squats. In fact, I’ve found that I can use a higher weight when doing box squats compared to normal squats due to the reduced range of motion.

This makes it perfect for stimulating hypertrophy and making strength gains in the lower body. By taking some time to work on box squats, you will probably find you can increase the weight you use for standard squats.

They are also good to practice explosiveness. Coming up from the bottom portion of the squat can be difficult. By using a box, you can get comfortable with powerfully exploding up in the eccentric part of the squat.

Common mistake with this exercise
It’s easy to think that having the box behind you means it’s time for a quick break in the middle of each rep. In other words, sitting on the box for a few seconds before coming back up from the bottom of the squat.

This can be used to your advantage if your goal is to increase power, but most people pause for too long on the box, which takes all of the tension off the muscles and reducing the muscle building signal.

How to program them?
Program box squats into your routine just after your traditional squats. Perform 3-5 sets of 1-6 reps at 70-80% 1RM.

7. Banded Squats

What are banded squats?
Banded squats involve placing a rubber or material band around your legs while you squat.

Who should do them?
If you’re looking to switch up your normal squats, add in a band. They are great to increase tension and resistance, which challenges the muscles in a different way. Those of you (girls and guys!) who want to grow a booty should consider using a resistance band in your squat sets.

How they improve squat strength?
Adding a band around your legs increases resistance, forcing your legs to work harder during each squat. In particular, the band places emphasis on the gluteal muscles.

The band increases the pull of gravity. It emphasizes the eccentric part of the lift, forcing the lifter to drive through their heels to push themselves back up from the bottom of the squat.

Common mistake with this exercise
When a band is added to the squat, your knees will want to cave inwards due to the added tension. Allowing your knees to do this increases risk of injury and places excess stress on the knee joint.

How to program them
To start, use a light resistance band. Once you get comfortable with the band being there, work your way up to heavier resistances. Maintain a rep range of 3-6 using 60-70% 1RM. Focus on driving your knees outwards to pull the band apart.

8. TRX Lunges

What are TRX lunges?
The TRX consists of two long handles attached to an anchor. To do a TRX lunge, your back foot is placed in one of the handles, elevated a few feet above the ground. From this point, you simply perform a normal lunge.

Who should do them?
As this is a unilateral exercise, anybody who has muscle imbalances will benefit from TRX lunges. It’s also a good exercise to improve your balance and stability.

How they improve squat strength?
TRX lunges improve single leg strength by targeting each leg at a time. They can be adjusted to focus more on the quads or glutes, depending on your goal.

Common mistake with this exercise
Often, people will not use the full range of motion with this exercise. Especially if you have poor balance or mobility, you might want to only do half reps because this feels more comfortable. However, it’s important to work through the full range of motion with every lunge to gain the most benefit from this exercise.

How to program them?TRX lunges are a bodyweight exercise. For this reason, they are difficult to overload, so you are best using higher reps between 10-15. Try programming these into the end of your workouts as a ‘burnout’.

9. Box Jumps

What are box jumps?
Box jumps are a plyometric movement where you explosively jump onto a box.

Who should do them?
Anybody looking to improve their power should practice box jumps. They are also great to enhance aerobic capacity and efficiency of the cardiovascular system.

If your goal is to build muscle whilst maximizing fat loss, box jumps can increase calories burned whilst also increasing power output.

How they improve squat strength?
This exercise increases power. It focuses on explosiveness movement, which translates into your squats, especially with coming out of the ‘hole’ (the bottom of the squat).

They also target the cardiovascular system, which builds endurance in the whole body. This is particular helpful if you enjoy doing higher reps with squats.

Common mistake with this exercise
There are a couple of common mistakes I want to point out.

The first mistake is using a box that is too high. It’s good to challenge yourself, but using a box that’s almost impossible to jump on it’s just silly! If you jump and your feet are halfway off the edge of the box, this places excess stress on the joints and connective tissue, and you need to reconsider the height of the box.

The second common mistake is jumping off the box after each rep. The idea behind box jumps is to focus on a powerful jump on a box. If you jump back down to the ground, you are changing the exercise into an endurance-based exercise. Plyometrics should always be performed moving forwards or sideways, not backwards!

How to program box jumps?
Box jumps can be programmed using lower or higher reps. It’s best to use a rep range that works best for your current fitness levels. Work within a range where you get fatigued, but your form is not compromised. The focus here is powerful explosive jumps, not to do as many jumps as you can.

10. Leg Press Machine

What is the leg press?
The leg press machine comes in two variations. One involves sitting upright and pushing a horizontal platform away from you. The other involves lying with your feet elevated above your head and pushing the weight upwards.

Who should do it?
If you have a weaker core or struggle to stabilize yourself during squats, the leg press will allow you to make progress and see muscle growth. However, do not neglect core strength! I recommend working to improve your core strength alongside the leg press.

How it improves squat strength?
Although it is not a free weight exercise, the leg press machine confers many benefits to the squat. They are beginner-friendly, and can be loaded to challenge the muscles. They are also useful to isolate specific lower body muscles and remove requirement of stabilizing or core muscles.

Common mistake with this exercise
Without even realizing, people can place the emphasis on one half of their body. This can further accentuate muscle imbalances.

How to program the leg press?
Add the leg press to your workouts using a rep range between 5-10 per leg. Perform 3-5 sets.

11. Leg Extension Machine

What is the leg extension?
This is a machine exercise that requires you to list a padded bar with your legs.

Who should do it?
If your quads are the limiting factor in your squats, the leg extension can help. They isolate the anterior chain and build quad strength.

How it improves squat strength
The leg extension machine targets predominantly the quads. As the quads are a key muscle used in the squat, practicing the leg extension will help you improve squat power and strength.

Common mistake with this exercise
By far, the most common mistake I see with the leg extension is people using way too much weight. Overloading the exercise too much leads to a lot of stress being placed on the knee joint. It also leads to you having to recruit other muscles, or use momentum, to swing the weight up.

How to program the leg extension?
The leg extension is best used with higher reps, lower weight. This is because using a super high weight will place unnecessary stress on the knees. Try doing 3 sets of 12 reps.

12. Hamstring Curl Machine

What is the hamstring curl?
The hamstring curl machine comes in two options. One is a sitting machine, and the other is a lying curl machine. Which you use will depend on your preferences. Personally, I enjoy the lying hamstring curl machine as I can really activate my posterior chain when I use it.

Who should do it?
Anybody who has weaker hamstrings should use the hamstring curl machine to increase strength and endurance in the posterior chain.

How it improves squat strength?
The hamstrings are important for squats. Working on improving hamstring strength using the hamstring curl machine will therefore help your squat strength and form.

Common mistake with this exercise
People tend to overactive their calves when using this machine. This reduces the tension placed on the hamstrings, making the exercise less effective. To avoid this, make sure your feet stay flat (do not point your toes) to stretch out the calves and remove them from the exercise.

How to program the hamstring curl?
I like to perform 3 sets of 12 reps with the hamstring curl machine. However, if you prefer using lower reps, try 3 sets of 5-8 reps.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Many Accessories Should I Do Per Workout?

Squat accessories should be done after your traditional squats or other compound lifts. I recommend choosing 3-4 accessories to do on a lower body day, and throwing in 1-2 accessory movements in a full body workout.

Why Should I Do Squat Accessories?

Squat accessories can be used to increase your squat strength and endurance. They are great to identify and work on muscle imbalances or weak areas. Squat accessories can improve both stability and mobility issues.

Final Thoughts

Although they should not be the main focus of your workout, squat accessories are great to improve your power, strength, and technique to enhance your usual squats. To gain the maximum benefits, they should be programmed correctly depending on your goals.

All of the squat accessory exercises mentioned above support smaller muscles and can balance out weaknesses or muscle imbalances, which will contribute to a better, stronger squat.

References

[1] Evans TW., et al. Comparison of Muscle Activation Between Back Squats and Belt Squats. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S52-S59. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002052.

[2] van der Tillaar R., Andersen V., and Saeterbakken A. Comparison of muscle activation and kinematics during free-weight back squats with different loads. PLoS One. 2019 May 16;14(5):e0217044. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0217044. eCollection 2019.

DISCLAIMER: This article is for intended for educational purposes only and not as an individualized exercise prescription, therefore no one can be held liable in the occurrence of injuries, damages or monetary losses as a result of the information.

About The Author

Athina Crilley

Athina Crilley is a Biochemistry graduate and a qualified health, nutrition, and recovery coach. She believes that health and fitness is a lifestyle and should be enjoyable. Athina currently works with online clients to achieve their goals and creates helpful and informative content online through her podcast and social media platforms. She has also written and published a book all about her struggles and recovery from an eating disorder called ‘Diaries of An Anorexic’.

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