Despite being a relatively unknown exercise, when it comes to strengthening the hip flexor muscles, reverse squats are second-to-none.
The exercise can be performed using a cable machine (with a reverse squat attachment) or using resistance bands, and offers a simple way to improve hip flexion.
As discussed further down, doing reverse squats can provide some significant benefits to your overall mobility, including better sprinting performance and reduced knee pain.
But there are a number of things to consider when you do them, such as how to increase the load safely, how to program the exercise into your fitness routine and who should actually be doing them?
In this exercise guide, we outline everything you need to know about reverse squats so you can decide if they are right for you or not.
What Are Reverse Squats?
The reverse squat is an exercise designed to target and strengthen the hip flexor muscles. It involves lying on your back and bringing your knees to your chest, with some sort of resistance attached to your feet (either a strap attached to a cable machine or a resistance band).
The exercise has long been a staple for sprinters and athletes that need to harness explosive lower body power, such as running backs.
More recently, the ATG Knees Over Toes program has helped showcase the value this exercise can have on not just professional athletes but for the rest of us too.
Despite the name, the exercise isn’t a variation of the traditional squat and is instead, an effective way to strengthen the hip flexors.
The exercise shouldn’t be confused for another exercise common in powerlifting that involves using bands during a traditional barbell squat (which is also sometimes called a banded reverse squat).
How to Perform Reverse Squats
To perform reverse squats on a cable machine:
- Start by attaching your feet to reverse squat straps or something similar.
- Place the pin through the appropriate weight on the cable machine and sit back, so the weight is lifted.
- Point your toes to the ceiling and lay onto your back (as you inhale).
- Pushing your back against the floor, brace your core and lift your knees towards your chest (as you exhale).
- Pause for a moment before straightening your legs again (as you inhale).
- Repeat for repetitions and sets.
Coach’s Tip – If you have access to a cable machine, we would recommend opting for this variation instead of using a resistance band. This is because you can track and monitor the weight more precisely and increase the weight over time (progressive overload training).
Selecting a Weight for Reverse Squats (Cable Machine)
Reverse Squats With Bands (At Home Variation)
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can do reverse squats with bands.
Attach a resistance band around a sturdy object and loop them around your feet. Sit back so the band is tight and perform the movement as you would on a cable machine.
The further away you sit from where the band is attached to an object, the harder the exercise will be.
Although this will certainly help to work your hip flexors, it is harder to track progress and to progressively overload the muscles like you can with the cable machine. To overcome this, you may want to get thicker bands to use as these will provide greater resistance.
Reverse squats primarily work the hip flexors (psoas major, iliacus, and pectineus). The exercise also requires a stable core during the hip flexion which works the abdominals and obliques.
Reverse Squat Benefits
Stronger Hip Flexors
Ultimately, reverse squats help to develop stronger hip flexors. The exercise is effective at building muscle in the psoas major, iliacus, and pectineus. These muscles are often overlooked and can naturally be much weaker than they should be if you spend a lot of time sat down and sedentary.
But what’s the benefit of stronger hip flexors we hear you ask?
Well, for a start, weaker hip flexors can lead often lead to all sorts of MSK problems, such as poor posture and back ache.
Stronger hip flexors not only help avoid such problems, but also make it easier for you to lift your legs meaningfully. This is incredibly useful for athletes, such as sprinters, as well as for healthy aging and for improved functional movement.
Reduced Load on Knees
When we have weaker hip flexors, the knees tend to take more of the load during activities like running. This can ultimately increase the risk of associated injuries.
By strengthening the muscles required for hip flexion, it means we can lift and lower the legs with better control, which is very useful for anyone wanting to reduce unwanted pressure on the knees.
Although the movement is primarily a hip flexion exercise, it requires a strong and stable core to support the movement. The exercise will help to improve core stability by strengthening the abdominals and obliques.
It’s worth highlighting though, that the movement does require quite a good existing level of core strength to provide the stability during the leg lift… so you may need to work on this to perform the exercise safely.
A 2021 study by Nobuaki Tottori et al, showed that there was a significant difference between elite sprinters and us mere mortals when it came to the size and strength of the psoas muscles… demonstrating the importance of hip flexor strength for better sprinting performance in elite athletes.
If this muscle isn’t strong, especially for those with large legs, the hips will struggle to lift and lower the legs quickly. This means overall speed, agility and quickness isn’t optimal.
A common misconception is that limited hip mobility is solely down to “tight” hip flexors that just need stretching out. The reality is, however, that weak hip flexors are often the cause as well.
By strengthening the hip flexors to improve overall hip mobility, it means you can unlock newfound lower body movements and improve basic exercises like squats and deadlifts.
A good test of your existing hip mobility is Asian squats. This will demonstrate if your hips are limiting your movements.
Things to Consider
Reverse squats are incredibly effective at strengthening the hip flexors… however, they do require a good existing level of core strength. Simply lying on your back and bringing your knees to your chest can be challenging enough without any additional resistance.
As a result, you may find it is your core strength and stability that tires before your hip flexors do… which isn’t the purpose of the exercise.
If this is the case, we’ve highlighted some alternatives below which don’t require such core strength to perform.
It’s also important to actively stretch your hip flexors as well, especially if you’re doing strengthening exercises. Samson stretch is a simple bodyweight stretch that reaches deep into the hip flexors that is worth trying.
Banded psoas marches also share a lot of the biomechanics of reverse squats. This exercise can be performed both stood up or lying down.
You can also use free weights, such as a tib bar, to do standing psoas marches, if you prefer that sort of set up compared to using a cable machine. This makes it a more suitable alternative for those exercising at home.
The movement involves bringing your knees towards your chest, which provides a similar movement pattern to reverse squats.
Psoas marches are usually performed unilaterally (single leg).
Strengthening the hip flexors is important for everyone, just not professional athletes. If you spend a lot of the day sitting, or being sedentary, your hip flexors are likely to weaken and tighten up… so including exercises to strengthen and stretch this muscle group can provide significant benefits.
Reverse squats do require a strong core to support the movement, so if you are struggling to maintain stability in the trunk as you lift your knees to your chest, try some of the alternatives mentioned in this exercise guide, such as psoas marches, as more suitable options that provide similar outcomes.
Featured image and video credit – Justin Smith