Squats are some of the most effective exercises. Squats target the large, calorie-hungry muscles of the legs and glutes while providing a secondary core benefit by strengthening the abdominal stabilizers and lower-back muscles. The only problem is that squats can become…BORING.
As a Pilates instructor, I’m always looking for ways to make my sessions and classes exciting. Here are a few of my favorite squat and lunge variations. Use these to spice up your next workout session!
DISCLAIMER: These exercises may be contraindicated for knee injuries. If you feel any discomfort, be sure to modify by reducing range of motion, or omit the exercise
1. Horse Squat Stance
BEGINNING POSITION: Begin in a wide stance (3 to 4 feet apart) with the hips opened externally so that the toes are rotated outward 45 degrees. Interlace the hands behind the head and widen the elbows so that the upper back engages. Pull the stomach in to support the back.
MOVEMENT DESCRIPTION: Inhale and squat as low as possible, keeping the knees tracking over the big toes; exhale and squeeze the glutes tight as you slowly straighten the legs and rise back to standing. Repeat 10x; on the last rep, hold the squat position and pulse up and down just 1 inch for 10 counts. Rest and repeat.
TIP: Keep the tailbone curled under and the glutes strong to protect the lower back, and focus on drawing your knees outward toward the pinky-toe side of the foot, helping to contract and sculpt the rotators of the hip. Pull the leg muscles up as you rise, as if you’re pulling up a pair of stockings.
2. Horse Stance Halo
BEGINNING POSITION: Low position, body upright.
MOVEMENT DESCRIPTION: Maintaining your low squat, inhale and side bend your spine to the right, then exhale and roll the spine forward, to the left and back up, extending the spine at the top with the eyes looking toward the ceiling. Inhale side bend the spine this time to the left, then exhale and roll the spine forward, right, and back up, arching the back once again to the ceiling. Keep alternating this back-and-forth circular action (“halo”) 5 times in each direction, then rest and repeat.
TIP: This exercise is articulated from the spine and not the hips — curl the tailbone under and keep the pelvis and legs stable, and allow the muscles of your core and spine to articulate the halo movement. Keep your elbows wide and your upper back contracted. And of course, the isometric hold of the thighs will burn just a little!
3. Toe Squat Parallel/Turn Out
BEGINNING POSITION: Feet parallel, 2 to 3 inches apart and balancing on the balls of the feet; hands interlaced behind head with the elbows wide; abdominals drawn in to facilitate centering and balance.
MOVEMENT DESCRIPTION: Inhale, slowly bend the knees, and lower the body down toward the heels as low as possible; exhale and slowly rise back up, extending the legs fully. Repeat 10 times, then rotate the legs externally and repeat the exercise another 10 times in turned-out position.
TIP: This exercise is all about control, so take your time and use your core to “feel” and interpret the movement. Push into your big toes so the feet don’t roll outward, and squeeze your glutes as you lower down and rise up so that both the front and back of the legs are working harmoniously.
MODIFICATION: Cross the arms in front of you to assistance with balance.
4. Double Lunge Twist
BEGINNING POSITION: Legs in parallel in a long stance, right foot in front, left foot behind and balancing on the ball of the foot; elbows wide, upper back contracted, abdominals in.
MOVEMENT DESCRIPTION: Exhale and slowly bend both knees while simultaneously twisting the torso in the direction of the front leg. Gently tap the back knee on the floor and look back behind you as you twist; inhale and rise back up, extending the legs fully and rotating the torso back to center. Repeat 10 times, then place the left foot forward and repeat on the other side.
TIP: Keep the body upright and your center of gravity over the back leg, which will help distribute the work evenly through both legs. As you lower down on the exhale, imagine that you’re wringing out your waistband like you might rinse water from a cloth. Twist deeper with each rep.
5. Double Lunge Bow
BEGINNING POSITION: Double lunge, low position, both knees bent at a right angle, torso upright; hands interlaced behind head, elbows wide, upper back contracted, abdominals in.
MOVEMENT DESCRIPTION: Maintain a low, double-lunge position and exhale as you roll the spine up and over the front leg; inhale and roll the spine back up and behind you in a back extension with the eyes toward the ceiling. Repeat this rolling forward-and-back motion for eight reps, then rest and repeat with the opposite leg forward.
TIP: Keep your body weight over your back leg and squeeze the back glutes vigorously to support the back knee. As you roll the spine forward and back, visualize lifting over a high bar placed at the level of your lower ribs. Never think “down” but rather “up and over,” which will give you much more benefit in the abdominals and spinal extensors. If the back knee is uncomfortable, gently place it on the floor or on a towel for support.