How To Change Muscle Activation In Your Squat

Muscle activation is often talked about in fitness but getting different muscles to activate in a movement can be tricky, especially when you’re measuring performance and the individual has had a lot of practice performing that movement in a certain way.

In order to change the muscle activation in a movement we must first understand skill and how it relates to muscle activation.

In the squat the skill we use will be driven by our choice of technique, our habitual movement patterns, our physiology and any other variables that may arise, like weight, position of a barbell, shoes etc.

Movement Habits And Skill

squat-assessmentWhen we learn to squat, as with all skills, we forge a neural pattern that goes about completing the task at hand by recruiting the nearest muscles available. This isn’t always the best choice of muscle, but rather the easiest for our body to find at that moment in time.

The more squats we do the more we reinforce this movement pattern and dig ourselves a groove to sit in. This is basis of motor learning which is part of skill development.

The Functional Approach To Muscle Activation

The functional thought process around muscle activation suggests that as bones move, muscles stretch across joints and become more activated. So to activate different muscles in the squat you need to look at bone movement, joint feelings and muscle reaction and then manipulate the movement to produce the muscle activation that you want. This is where squat variations are useful.

Here are few variations of the squat that would provoke different muscle reactions:

  • Heels elevated squats
  • Wide stance squats
  • Box squats
  • Narrow stance squats

In the squat there is 3 dimensional movement from the foot and ankle complex (3 joints on a crude level), the knee, the hip, the spine, the scap-thoracic joints and the shoulders (particularly in the overhead squat) and each of these joints will move differently depending on the technique being performed and the individual.

Finding Different Muscles In The Squat

The way to find different muscles in the squat is to first look at the bone movement in the squat and then predict the muscles that are being activated from there.

If you want to use more of a particular muscle in your squat like glutes, then you need to move in a way that lengthens the glutes more, and at the right time. This change can happen from something as simple as a change in foot position, but ultimately you’re looking to change the pattern of the movement to favour the glutes.

Continuing with the glutes as an example, glutes respond well to the position of hip flexion, adduction and internal rotation – as this is most lenthened position for Glute Max and Glute Med  – so this joint position at the hip needs to be accessible to you in your squat.

This is where mobility, stability, strength and skill come into play. Each component must be there for you to be able to perform a new skill, so the thought process is to first try and perform the movement differently and if that’s unsuccessful you can then break down individual components of the movement, like mobility.

Timing is also important – the movement pattern at the hip must be correctly timed with the movement of the ankle and knee to get the greatest amount of glute.

Skill Change Vs Performance

When looking at changing a skill you also have to consider performance as changing a movement pattern or skill can often lead to lower performance initially. If you have a movement pattern that is deeply ingrained it’s probably the case that this is your strongest movement and trying to perform an equally strong movement in another way may be unsuccessful.

The bottom line is that if you want to change muscle activation in a movement you need to take the time to learn a new movement (or at least a new version of the movement you want to improve) in way that leads to different muscles contributing to the movement. Then practice will reinforce this new habit.

In squatting different muscle activation can come from the use of a specific warm up routine, different coaching cues, different feet positions or bar positions… the list goes on. What’s important is that a coach is able to see where you are failing and then provide a strategy to improve things.

So what about training muscle groups in isolation?

Now you may think that working on other muscle groups in isolation would help to change the way you move (glute bridge anyone?), but the chances are it wont. The neuromuscular skill we use to perform a squat is very different to the neuromuscular skill we use to perform a glute bridge and they should be treated as separate skills. This is why squat variations are popular in powerlifting circles – you can perform a different movement to add variety (skill development) into your training, but it’s still the skill of squatting.

Work With Us To Improve Your Squat Strength, Mobility, Form And Technique

Squat Video Analysis

If you want to improve your squat, we can help. We can work with you online to review your squat, break down your movement and provide a training strategy to help you move forward with your squat so that you can improve strength, mobility, form or any other parts of your squat that you may struggle with.

How It Works

Simply send us 3 videos of your squat – front, back and side – and we will assess everything for you.

Our Squat Video Analysis includes:

– A full voiceover video analysis of your squat
– A 9 bone, 8 joint movement breakdown
– A breakdown of the muscles you use and prefer in your squat
– A strategy for how to improve your movement

Once you’ve sent us your squat video and we’ve reviewed it and recorded the voiceover we will then talk via Skype to discuss the video and answer any questions you may have.

From here you can take away what you have learned or continue to work with us on a weekly basis to keep improving.

Following our success working with athletes 1 to 1, we are now able to help anyone, anywhere in the world with our online video analysis. Here’s what a few of our clients have said about us…


Just a quick one – incorporated the ankle movement drills in to my warm up today before squatting heavy (8RM) and had very MINIMAL knee pain. This is the first time in as long as I can remember that squatting hasn’t hurt my knee. Brilliant. Thanks again. Highly recommend!

Daniel Edwards, Coach – Dragon CrossFit

Had a session with Pete after my knee had been playing up for a few weeks. He was great! He went through lots of different exercises and identifiedmy problem. I’m now much more aware of how I’m moving whilst exercising. Definitely recommend! Thanks Pete

Poppy Mansfield, Cardiff, UK

Thanks for the OHS PB Pete! Awesome work helping me move more freely.

Mark Groves, CrossFit Cardiff