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January 16, 2024

How To Improve Your Squats With These 3 Exercises

There’s something about being in a gym setting as one of the 3 members who actually possesses the mobility, skill and strength to perform a solid squat. 

The kind of squat that makes people stare. 

Not because your Gymshark leggings are so far up your ass that they tickle your brain, but because your squat is GORGEOUS… 

…I hope you know what I mean! 

My name is Annie Miller, certified strength and conditioning specialist. I help you learn as you train and enjoy your lifts again. Today we do that by exploring exercises to help improve your squat.

Prefer to learn on video? Watch here:

These exercises are aimed at improving your squatting pattern, not necessarily your squatting numbers, or strength.

Though, I would hypothesize that if programmed at challenging loads and volume, you would see increases in squatting numbers via implementing these exercises, if anything due to pattern proficiency.

Before we get into the exercises to improve your squat; we need to understand what a squat even is.

I want you to think of the squat as a movement pattern, be it: 

  • Back squat
  • Front squat
  • Zercher squat 

Or some other variation… They all include or demand the following:

Triple Flexion: 

Flexion at the hip, knee and ankle (dorsiflexion). This represents the lowering and bottom position of the squat. 

Pillar Strength & Pelvic Stability:

You’ve got to be able to lower and ascend… Bend at the hips and knees while keeping the core and pelvis stable. This keeps the spine (mostly) neutral.

If you missed my blog on how neutral spine did me wrong, be sure to check that out HERE. 

Thoracic Mobility: 

You want to be able to enter that slight extension through your upper back.

Foot Stability:

If you’ve ever heard of, or used the cue “grip the floor,” that is simply referring to foot stability and contact with the floor. 

You want that big toe, ball of the foot, outside and heel pressing into the floor through the entire squat from start to finish. 

No rocking or lifting. 

This is not something to lose sleep about, but should be noted.

Alright, we know what a squat is… 

Now what are some common issues people run into?

To be clear, you don’t have to squat in the traditional sense – being a back squat. 

Remember, squatting is a movement pattern – a family containing many exercise options.

Unless you want to back squat, or need to for some reason, you have other options… 

In fact, two of the exercises we’ll cover today for improving your squat can actually be used as your “squatting” pattern in training. 

If hypertrophy is your main goal, you certainly do not need to back squat. But, it’s a classic exercise for good reason. 

It’s a massive compound movement (multi joint and muscle group, as well as axial or spinal loaded), and if you want to call it “functional,” I wouldn’t fault you for that… Even though some professionals are against the term “functional.”

I digress… 

Let’s get into weaknesses… 

Weaknesses/Gaps You May Have With Squatting: 

  • Lacking Ankle Dorsiflexion – The knee cannot reach or pass the toe. This will often manifest in lacking depth, and/or chest having to drop forward.

***Be careful assuming this is your issue as you also could just have a limb to torso ratio that requires a bit more of a forward chest.

  • Lacking Pelvic Control – you may see spinal flexion earlier than the true end range or bottom of the squat. The tail tucks under, or ribs flare through the front.
  • T Spine Mobility – chest caving or dropping forward.
  • Being Hinge Dominant – butt shooting up into the air as you come out of the hole. Not able to stay in your knees/quads and drive the floor away as you’re coming out of your squat.

Maybe you have those gaps of weakness, maybe you don’t, but either way…

These 3 exercises should give you or your clients the most bang for your buck and touch on these issues.

If you’re having PAIN when squatting, please seek out a PT who aligns with your values and needs as a trainee – a PT who wants to see under the barbell again.

One of my all time favorite exercises to improve squatting patterns is…


Choose or play with lateral or straight on step ups. My preference is lateral – which I’ll get to in a bit.

  • Box height at least thigh parallel to floor, hip crease slightly below top of knee.
  • Tackles unilateral or single leg strength. If we don’t actively push off the back leg, then this is a true single leg movement vs something like a Bulgarian split squat (one of my all time favorite exercises) – which is a single leg BIAS.
  • Controlled eccentric really gets after that ankle mobility and foot control.
  • Depth works end range or beginning of end range and pelvic control (again requires slow tempo). 
  • Use assistance and scale back as a progression. Pay attention to where the control is lacking. 
  • I prefer lateral step ups as I feel it best mimics an actual squat and allows practice in keeping your chest more vertical. Not dropping forward as can happen with a front facing step up. 

If you prefer front facing, try a back rack with a preloaded barbell, or front loaded with dumbbells. This can help with pillar strength and keeping the chest upright as well.


You should not be surprised that to strengthen the squatting pattern, you’ll need to spend time strengthening positions that are in, or mimic the squat.

These are the puzzle pieces that make a solid squat.

The front rack bottom hold is something I am personally partial to because it will have positive carryover to other squatting variations. 

The front loaded position can be very taxing on the upper back and pillar strength.

But by all means, use a back rack position if you prefer that (either will be beneficial). 

You’re not just “hanging out” in this bottom position. The goal is to keep and hold tension in your end range. 

This will likely be more comfortable for those who have decent mobility. Whereas this might be very uncomfortable for those lacking mobility – in the upper back, hips or ankles.

Perhaps you hold for 30 seconds, or accumulate 30 seconds. 

The volume of this will largely be dependent on your baseline, and is something you can build over time. 

For load, start very conservative and adjust from there. It needs to be something you can both breathe through and hold tension through without literally passing out.


  • This does NOT mimic a squatting pattern necessarily as the midline travels forward and backward over a large range. 
  • The main purpose is MOBILITY and control through end ranges which will benefit the squat.

Shout out to Ben and the Knees Over Toes crew… I personally did his program. While I think it does what it’s meant to do, it was not my preferred style of training. 

So I took many bits and pieces from his methods and exercise selection but tend to implement those into more of a classic strength style program.

Regardless, check them out. He teaches in a very applicable manner. 

If I’m not mistaken, he’s also a fan of Charles Poliquin which is who I’d say I most align with from both a programming and exercise selection standpoint. 

He was one of my favorite coaches to study as I was building my overall philosophy. 

If you’ve taken Pure PROgramming, you have seen and know that. 

The ATG (ass-to-grass) Split Squat can easily be progressed or regressed – which again, is very Poliquin-esque.

  • Elevate the front foot
  • Use one dumbbell at your side
  • Do front loaded vs back loaded, etc 

It works the ankle dorsiflexion and hip flexion of that front leg, but it differs from the other exercises in that it also requires length and mobility of the rear quad and hip flexors (they can be sooo tight or even short on many people). 

Quick Note: “tight” and “short” are not inherently the same. Tight is a SENSATION we feel but can be paired with WEAKNESS, not shortened length. Short is an actual measurement and condition of the muscle. You’d need to do self strength balance and mobility assessments or be assessed by a qualified coach or PT to find that information, and take the best action. They can be the same, but are not always the same.

These 3 exercises to help improve your squats (the step up, front squat hold and ATG split squat) are not the only exercises that can improve your squatting patterns. 

And if you work with a 1:1 coach who assesses your weak points, you’ll likely progress much quicker due to having that individualized attention. 

Buuutttt we can also tackle a lot of common issues with these exercises.

I’d argue MOST people who squat regularly, or want to, could benefit from having these 3 exercises in their program.

Which brings me to HOW to use these in your workout schedule: 

This totally depends on the program split you’re following… 

Generally, I would add these in throughout your week, on lower body days – I don’t care if it’s a deadlift or posterior chain focused day. 

Or if you do a full-body workout every day… Great – you’re simply practicing and strengthening these skills. 

That’s exactly how I want you to think about the squat – as a SKILL.

If the back squat is the BIG skill, then these “accessory” exercises are supporting “skills” for that squat.

Now, here are three examples of how one *could* implement these exercises: 

ONE: 5 day split, upper, lower + full body

  1. Bench
  2. Squat – squat, High box step ups
  3. OH press
  4. Rest
  5. Deadlift – DL, hip thrust + RDL, ATG split squats
  6. Gap day (day used to strengthen weaknesses/work skills) – Front rack bottom hold, inverted rows, Turkish get up hinges
  7. Rest

TWO: 3 day split, full body everyday

  1. Back squat, Bench/horizontal press, RDL or hip thrust + High box step ups
  2. Deadlift, Seated row + bent over fly, bottom squat hold
  3. ATG split squat, Oh press + chin up

THREE: 4 day split, push pull

  1. Lower pull, upper H push 
  2. Lower push, upper V pull (ATG split for main lower, squat hold in accessory)
  3. Rest
  4. Upper V push, lower pull
  5. Upper H pull, lower push (Squat as main, High box step ups in accessory)
  6. Rest

NOTE: These should help improve your squatting pattern overall, whether you’re working on front, back, Zercher or some other squatting variation.

If you go through the motions like an asshole with any of these movements and do not focus on positioning AND tempo, you may be disappointed in your results.

This is not an end all be all…

Results may vary, blah blah blah. Happy squatting! 

Join The Discussion: 

Let me know in the comments below what you struggle with most when it comes to squatting and maybe I can help ya out.

I hope you enjoyed these educated gains and I will see you in the next blog. 

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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