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What Muscles Do Barbell Squats Work?

What Muscles Do Barbell Squats Work?

Nicollette Guido |

What Muscles Do Barbell Squats Work?

If you’re looking to build lower body strength, tighten your butt, and sculpt your legs, then barbell squats are the ideal workout for you.

Whether you are using a women’s Olympic barbell or universal 45 lb bar, this tried and true barbell exercise engages the entire lower body while stimulating abdominal muscles to encourage toning without adding too much bulk.

For those who desire a sculpted, more toned version of themselves with just one workout, the barbell squat is your key to keeping it tight!

The Major Muscle Groups Of Barbell Squats

In order to understand which muscle groups a barbell squat works, we must first understand which muscle groups the exercise is attempting to target. 

As with any exercise involving weights, there is a primary target group and a tertiary target group. Because the muscular structure of the body is interconnected, targeting primary muscle groups will often trigger smaller tertiary muscle groups to engage as well.

The three primary muscle groups that the barbell squat targets are as follows:

Gluteus Maximus

This is the technical term for your glutes (i.e., your butt). For those looking to tone, add mass to, or just generally tighten up the glutes - this strength training exercise is made for you.

Hip Flexors

Hip flexors aren’t just about being limber. The muscles that surround your hip flexors are connected to your lower abdomen and help to create that defined “V” shape in between the low abdominal muscles and high pelvis. Basically, performing this squat movement helps you get that super-toned beach body.


The quadriceps are one of the biggest muscle groups in the legs and are directly correlated with things like jump height and foot speed. While many believe that squats add mass to the quadriceps, squats typically do more to tone this area rather than add bulk or mass. While adding bulk or mass to the quadriceps is certainly a possibility, it all depends on the amount of weight you add to the barbell.

The Tertiary Muscle Groups Of Barbell Squats

 Each of the major muscle groups targeted with squats carries with it a tertiary group of muscles that also receives a good workout. Healthline indicates that the tertiary muscle groups which also receive a workout during barbell squats are:1

  1. The low abdominals - Connected to the hip flexors generating a tighter low abdomen
  2. The back - Connected to the glutes, this large muscle group supports the weight you are squatting
  3. Hamstrings - Connected to the glutes, the hamstrings must expand and contract as you squat and stand
  4. Calves - Like the hamstrings, the calves must support your entire upper body as you squat and stand.

What Are The Benefits Of Barbell Squats?

Though we briefly touched on the benefits of squats as we were discussing the muscle groups, the biggest benefit to squats is a stronger lower body. Often people equate the word “strong” with “big,” but this is not necessarily the case. 

In fact, most of the time, when someone first introduces squats to their lifting routine, they actually see their butt and legs get smaller at first. This phenomenon is actually caused by a decrease in fatty tissue as the body is attempting to generate new muscle.

While gains in the glutes and legs are certainly an inevitable reward for anyone who does squats for a long enough time, the primary benefit is a stronger, more toned lower body.

How Many Squats Should I Do To Build Muscle

How many squats you do and how often you do them will depend on the results you are looking for. Adding in squats once or twice a week is optimal for building muscle slowly and consistently, but we think up to three times a week is just fine.2 There are three possible outcomes for adding a weighted squat exercise to your regimen. You are either looking to lose fat and tone the current muscle, add lean muscle and tighten the muscle groups, or add bulk and muscle mass.

Here is the typical rotation for squats for each desired fitness goal:

  • To lose fat and tone muscle: 3 sets of 15 reps four times per week with light to moderate weight.
  • To add lean muscle and tighten: 4 sets of 15 reps with moderate weight four times per week.
  • To add bulk and muscle mass: 3 sets of 15 reps with heavyweight (x2) four times per week

 Typically squats should be done anywhere between 3 and 4 times per week as this gives your body enough time to recover between each session. Squats are a great staple for any lower body workout, so as long as it’s a lower-body day, feel free to throw them in!

Debating The Downside: Are Barbell Squats Worth It?

There are those who believe that squats can cause back problems, but the general consensus among industry experts is that squats are all about what you put into them.

Too commonly, people squat too much weight with not enough training on proper form and squat movement, which defeats the purpose of some of the best barbell workouts. The combination of bad form and excess weight is what leads to things like joint soreness in the knees and back pain as the result of spinal compression.

Squats are an effective and safe method of burning fat and building lean muscle, so long as they are done properly.

If you are serious about adding squats to your lifting routine, be sure to consult a trainer who can help you assess which sizes of barbells will work best for you. A trainer can watch you squat and make corrections as necessary to ensure that you are squatting with the appropriate amount of weight and proper squat form.

Part of the reason barbell squats are so popular is due to the undeniable results they produce. Anyone who has added properly executed squats to their lifting regimen can provide testimony that barbell squats are absolutely, or should we say “abso-glutely,” worth it.

Now that you have a better understanding of what muscle groups barbell squats benefit most, aren’t you wondering what muscles do barbell rows work? We’ve got you covered! From our Tru Grit team to you - happy lifting!


Healthline. 7 Benefits of Doing Squats and Variations to Try.

Muscle Armory. 6 Muscle Groups That Squats Work (And Variations).