The squat is a simple strength-training exercise that most people can do, regardless of fitness level. Doing squats doesn't spot-reduce fat on your legs, but by working several major muscle groups at once it can burn more fat than exercises that single out individual muscles. They also build more muscle in less time, and the more muscle mass you have the higher your metabolism, which helps you lose weight faster (1). You'll want to include cardio exercise in your weekly exercise plan to get smaller legs because cardio burns more calories.
To do a basic squat, stand with your spine in a straight line, and have your feet a little wider than hip-width apart. Bend at the knees to lower your hips toward the ground and move them backwards, as though you're going to sit in a chair. Your shins should be perpendicular to the floor and your spine should stay straight. If you can't do a full squat by bringing your hips close to the floor, do a half squat or squat down as far as you can until you improve and can go lower (3).
Easy and Safe Variations
If you're new to squats, a variation that helps you learn the correct technique is the stability ball squat. It also takes some of the weight off your knees, making it safer if you have weaker joints. Hold a stability ball against a wall and place your butt against the ball. Lower into a squat and return to a standing position, guiding the ball up and down your back. Isometric squats are another knee-friendly variation: Stand with your back leaning against a wall with your spine straight and bend your knees as though you're sitting in a chair. Hold the squat for at least 30 seconds. Hold it as low as you can, aiming to get your legs make a 90 degree angle (2).
Once you've got the basic squat down, try some harder variations, like the split squat. Lower into a lunge, with your front foot on a bench, box or step, and squat. To do the single-leg squat, do a regular squat but with all your weight and balance on one foot, with the other leg straight in front of you. Hang onto a wall or chair for balance if you need to. Both the split squat and single-leg squat not only amplify the weight you put on each leg, but also challenge your balance and stability (2).
As you get stronger from doing squats regularly, instead of increasing the number of repetitions you do, add on weight for more fat burning in less time. When performing a basic squat, you can hold a barbell in three ways. Holding it on your upper chest in front of your shoulders works your arms and shoulders as well, while holding it behind your neck on top of your shoulders and back is better for lifting heavier amounts. Hold the barbell overhead with your arms almost straight to help you balance and to work your arms, shoulders and back. If you're struggling to balance a barbell, you could add weight by holding one dumbbell or a medicine ball in two hands in front of your chest (2).
Sets and Reps
There's a lot of talk about how many reps you should do to burn the most fat. However, it's your intensity level that determines how much fat you burn. Do between six and 20 reps of each squat. Make sure you use enough weight resistance so that your muscles are too tired to continue at the end of each set. Rest shortly between sets to recover for another bout of intensity. As long as you work your muscles to exhaustion, you'll release fat-burning hormones, burn calories and boost your metabolism (4).
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