Whether you love or hate them, there is no denying that squats are a crucial part of any lifter’s leg day. Whether you want to build the size of your quads, strengthen your glutes and hamstrings, or simply build overall functional strength in the lower body – there’s a squat variation to do just that.
The type of squatting exercise that works best for you will be influenced by your goals, experience level, access to equipment, and biomechanics.
The most common squat variation is the standard barbell back squat, which boasts an impressive amount of muscle activation in the lower body and the torso. But some lifters find that their back fails in a standard barbell back squat before their legs do, in which case they may want to consider an alternative: the belt squat.
We’ll go over the main differences between a belt squat and a back squat, the pros and cons of each, and which one you should be doing to meet your goals.
Table of Contents
- 1 Belt Squat vs. Back Squat
- 2 Pros and Cons of Each Movement
- 3 When to do an exercise
- 4 Belt Squat vs. Back Squat – Muscles Used
- 5 Form Differences
- 6 Helpful Form Cues
- 7 Common Form Mistakes
- 8 Frequently Asked Questions
- 9 Other Exercise Comparison Posts
- 9.1 Preacher Curl vs Bicep Curl: Differences, Pros, and Cons
- 9.2 Glute Bridge vs Hip Thrust: Differences & Benefits
- 9.3 Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row: Differences and Benefits
- 9.4 Barbell Row vs T-Bar Row: Differences, Pros, and Cons
- 9.5 Rack Pulls vs. Deadlifts: Differences, Pros, and Cons
- 9.6 Bench Press vs Chest Press: Pros and Cons
- 9.7 Glute Ham Raise vs Nordic Curl: Differences and Benefits
- 9.8 Split Squat vs Lunge: Differences & Benefits
- 9.9 Leg Press vs. Squat: Differences, Pros, and Cons
- 9.10 Romanian Deadlift vs Deadlift: When to do Each Variation
- 9.11 Hammer Curls vs Bicep Curls: Which is Better?
- 9.12 Hack Squats vs. Back Squats: Pros and Cons
Belt Squat vs. Back Squat
What is the main difference between a belt squat and a back squat?
The main difference between a belt squat and a back squat is the belt squat is more effective at isolating the leg muscles. Back squats engage other muscle groups like the back and abdominals. The belt squat is better for those who do not want to load the trunk and spine.
Another key difference between a belt squat and a back squat is where the weight rests on the body. In a back squat, the weight rests across the shoulders or upper back. This position allows the lifter to squat more weight but also places a lot of pressure on the spine, increasing recovery time.
The weight is attached to a belt around your waist in a belt squat, so the load is focused entirely on the lower body. While you may not be able to lift as much weight in a belt squat, there is almost no pressure on the trunk and spine, allowing you to isolate the lower body and recover sooner.
Pros and Cons of Each Movement
Squat variations all boast benefits for building the strength and size of your lower body. Depending on your training goals, injury history, training experience and access to equipment, one type of squat variation may suit you more than another. Here are some of the pros and cons of the belt squat and the back squat.
Belt Squat Benefits
Here are some of the advantages of belt squats.
- Easier to recover from. By removing the pressure on your spine that comes from a standard back squat, you can focus all your attention and energy on your lower body. Belt squats require less overall energy and muscle engagement and reduce your required recovery time.
- Great for isolating the quads. Belt squats are less demanding on the glutes and abdominals. They are also slightly less taxing on the hamstrings, making them a great exercise to target and build the quadriceps.
- Less risk of injury. Belt squats allow you to overload the lower body with confidence, knowing you won’t be putting yourself at risk of a back injury. One study published in the National Library of Medicine found the belt squat to be as effective as the back squat at targeting the leg muscles. Additionally, the belt squat does not strain the back and allows you to take sets closer to failure without fatiguing the back.
Belt Squat Drawbacks
Here are some of the drawbacks of belt squats.
- Limits total amount of weight lifted. You will not be able to lift as much weight in a belt squat as you can in a back squat because you don’t have any support from your upper body to assist the lift. If you are new to belt squatting, start with about half your usual squat weight while you get used to the new movement pattern.
- May be uncomfortable on the hips. If you aren’t used to experiencing pressure around your pelvis, the belt squat might take some getting used to. Even at a reduced weight, loading up the belt squat machine might feel uncomfortable, making it more difficult to lift heavy.
- Requires a more complicated setup. If you don’t have access to a specialized belt squat machine, you will need to load a dip belt and find a stable elevated platform to perform the lift on. The setup can take a considerable amount of time and equipment, making the belt squat less convenient for lifters with time or equipment constraints.
Back Squat Benefits
Here are some of the advantages of back squats.
- Engages more muscle groups. The back squat is a great exercise for targeting multiple muscle groups and joints. Back squats can trigger strength and size gains in the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, abdominals and spinal erectors, making them a highly effective exercise for a lower-body or full-body session.
- You can probably lift more weight. Most lifters will be able to put more plates on the bar for a back squat compared to other variations. Back squats are a competition lift for powerlifters and allow most lifters to put as much weight on the bar as possible.
- More effective at engaging the glutes. Back squats give the legs a more even stimulus, engaging the front (quadriceps) and the back (hamstrings and glutes) of the legs. If you want to work your posterior chain and your glutes, back squats would be a better choice.
- Builds postural strength and stability. Back squats require engagement from the muscles in the front and back of your torso to stabilize the weight as you squat. This can help strengthen your back and core muscles, improving your posture and building a stronger upper body.
Back Squats Drawbacks:
Here are some of the drawbacks of back squats.
- More strain on the lower back. Back squats can promote a forward lean in the torso to keep the weight over the feet and engage the glutes and hamstrings. Squatting in this position under heavy loads can strain the lumbar spine, intervertebral discs, and ligaments. Lifters with a history of back injuries may feel unsafe or uncomfortable doing heavy back squats.
- Can lead to injuries. Back squats can be an intimidating lift to take to or close to failure. If you find yourself unable to complete your rep, it is more difficult to safely drop the weight and escape from the lift. Getting trapped under a heavy barbell is dangerous, so if you are reaching your weight limit in a back squat it is best to have a spotter and/or safety bars to catch the barbell if you drop it.
- Less beginner-friendly. The back squat is a highly effective exercise, but only if performed correctly. To get the full benefit of a back squat, lifters require an understanding of proper form, foot placement, and squat depth, among other factors. Doing heavy back squats without good technical skills can be ineffective and even dangerous.
When to do an exercise
When to do a belt squat
If you want to train your legs without putting any strain on your spine, the belt exercise is a great variation for you. The belt squat focuses the pressure around your pelvis, bypassing the need for your trunk muscles to stabilize the weight. This variation may be preferable for people with a back injury or people who want to train their legs more frequently. Isolating the lower body makes the belt squat easier and faster to recover from, so you can fire up your quads and hamstrings more often.
When to do a back squat
If you want to lift as much weight as possible, the traditional barbell back squat may be more suitable. Loading the weight across the upper back engages muscles in the torso as well as the legs and glutes, allowing for a greater total mechanical load. Back squats are better for those wanting to engage their core, back, and legs, especially the glute muscles. The back squat is a more convenient choice for those with minimal equipment as they only require a barbell and a squat rack.
Belt Squat vs. Back Squat – Muscles Used
The belt squat triggers less engagement of the muscles of the back and is slightly less effective at engaging the gluteus maximus. The back squat distributes the weight more evenly across the trunk and lower body but does not isolate the legs as much as a belt squat.
The belt squat and back squat are similarly demanding on the quads and hamstrings, making both variations an effective lower body exercise.
Belt Squat Muscles Used
Belt squats isolate the lower body by attaching the load to a belt around the hips. This places all the pressure around the pelvis, placing the majority of the strain on the muscles of the legs.
- Primary: Quadriceps, Hamstrings
- Secondary: Glutes, Spinal Erectors, Abdominals
Back Squat Muscles Used
Back squats target the entire lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. They also recruit the muscles in the torso to stabilize and help lift the weight.
- Primary: Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Minimus, Quadriceps, Hamstrings
- Secondary: Calves, Abdominals, Spinal Erectors, Traps
The primary difference between a belt squat and a back squat is the setup. In a belt squat, you attach the weight to your pelvis, either by using a dip belt and standing on an elevated platform or by using a specific belt squat cable machine. In a back squat, the weight is loaded to a barbell in a squat rack before being unracked onto your shoulders. Follow the steps below to correctly perform these squat variations.
How to do a belt squat with proper form
- Load the desired weight onto a belt squat machine or a dip belt. Set yourself up by standing on the belt squat machine, or a stable elevated platform that creates enough space for the weight to lower between your legs to reach an adequate squat depth.
- Make sure the belt feels secure and is not digging into your hips.
- Stand with your feet between hip and shoulder-width apart. Externally rotate at the hips so that your femurs and toes begin to turn outward.
- Stand up tall, breathe in, and brace your core. If using a belt squat machine, hold onto the handles provided. If using a dip belt and a platform, place the hands together and in front of you for added stability.
- Bend at the knees and push your hips back to lower the weight.
- Once you have reached the desired depth, push through your feet and drive the weight back up.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and sets.
Check out this video demonstrating the correct form for a belt squat.
How to do a back squat with proper form
- Set up your barbell in a squat rack at about shoulder height so you can unrack the weight and maintain stable footing.
- Grip the barbell with your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart, brace your core and upper back and step underneath the bar. Once the bar is resting across the traps, unrack the bar.
- Take a step or two backward. Pull your shoulders back and down and brace your abdominals.
- Choose your stance. Some lifters will need to have their feet a little wider than others, especially if they have long legs. As a rough guide, your feet should be between hip and shoulder-width apart. Some lifters prefer to have their feet pointing directly forward while pointing the feet slightly outward will be more comfortable for others.
- Brace your core and grip the bar firmly, pulling it into your body slightly to remove any slack.
- Bend at the knees and push your hips back to begin the squat. Go as low as you can without rounding your lower back.
- Once you’ve reached the bottom of the squat, drive through your feet and stand back up.
- Repeat for the total amount of desired reps before carefully re-racking the bar at the end of your set.
Check out this video from the National Academy of Sports Medicine demonstrating the correct form for a barbell back squat.
Helpful Form Cues
Belt squat form cues
- Tuck the pelvis. With the added pressure of the weight slung around your hips, it is important to keep the lower part of your spine neutral. Think about tucking your pelvis slightly forward to remove any hyperextension in the lower back.
- Stand up tall. Even without the weight of a barbell across your traps, it is important to keep a tall, neutral spine. Brace your core before you squat, and keep your torso tight as you come back up.
- Slow and controlled in the eccentric. Avoid speeding up your reps too much, especially in the lowering (eccentric) phase. Think about slowing down and controlling the weight on the way down and coming up with speed and power.
Back squat form cues
- Look straight ahead. Your neck is an important part of your spine.Make sure it stays neutral while doing a back squat. Some lifters look down at the ground or up at the ceiling in a back squat which can compromise the position of the spine and lead to poor form or even injury.
- Pull the bar into your body before unracking it. Pulling the bar into your back or ‘breaking’ the bar helps ensure your upper back and core remain braced. It is much safer and easier to pull the bar into your body before stepping back from the rack. Removing any slack from the bar helps it to feel less heavy and protects the spine.
- Brace and breathe. Ideally, you should not be breathing mid-rep, especially in a heavy back squat. Think about taking a big breath into your diaphragm (stomach) and bracing your entire body before each rep. This ensures your torso is stable for each squat rep while ensuring your body is getting enough oxygen.
Common Form Mistakes
Belt Squat – Form Mistakes
- Heels coming up. Belt squats are great for isolating the lower body. Make sure you reap the full benefits by controlling the weight and pushing through all four corners of the foot. Coming up onto the toes or lifting the heels can strain or injure the knees.
- Leading with the hips. Break at the knees first, and then push your hips back. Pushing your hips back first can change the exercise into a hybrid between a squat and an RDL, placing pressure on the lower back. Think about moving the lower body as a single unit to evenly distribute the load.
- Going too heavy too soon. You will probably have to lower the weight when doing a belt squat compared with a back squat. Without your torso to help lift the weight, the belt squat puts more pressure on the hip flexors, quads, and knees. Start with about half your usual squat weight and progress from there to get used to the exercise and avoid injury.
Back Squat Form Mistakes
- Not hitting full depth. You should be aiming to reach at least parallel for your squat depth. This means that your hips should be in line with your knees and your thighs are parallel to the ground. Don’t compromise hitting an adequate depth to lift a heavier weight. Your form should always be your priority.
- Bouncing the weight. Avoid the temptation to lower into your squat too quickly. Control the eccentric (lowering phase) and hold the bottom of the squat for a second to make sure you are using your muscles, not momentum, to lift the barbell back to its starting position.
- Allowing the knees to splay out or cave in. As the weight starts to get heavier, many lifters find their knees falling in towards each other or splaying out. Make sure your knees remain in line with and behind your toes throughout the lift. If you cannot maintain a stable knee position, lower the weight.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are belt squats better than back squats for growing my quads?
Belt squats and back squats are similarly effective at recruiting the quadriceps. Belt squats may have an advantage for training the quads, as they require less engagement from other muscle groups in the body. This allows you to isolate the quads, meaning a faster recovery and more energy to direct towards the muscles you want to target.
Do belt squats engage the glutes?
Belt squats are not as effective as back squats for engaging the glutes. If you opt for belt squats over back squats, you may want to consider adding other exercises to target the glute muscles, such as barbell hip thrusts.
Should I do back squats or belt squats?
Exercise selection depends on your goals. If you want to target the stabilizing muscles of the torso as well as the legs, back squats will be more effective. If you want to isolate the quads, belt squats may be a better choice. You can also alternate between the two variations, doing back squats when you want a more full-body exercise and belt squats when you want to target your legs while giving the muscles of your back and core a break.
Other Exercise Comparison Posts
If you enjoyed this post, check out our comparisons of other popular exercises below.