Spanish squats are often used as an effective rehabilitation exercise for those with knee injuries like jumper’s knee (patella tendinopathy).
However… the exercise may also hold a lot of value for those simply looking to bulletproof their lower body to avoid picking up injuries in the first place. Similarly, the ability to isolate the quads so effectively also means those looking to upgrade their hypertrophy (muscle building) workouts may want to take note as well.
In this exercise guide, we outline everything you need to know about Spanish squats, including the benefits, muscles worked and things to consider when doing the movement.
(If you currently have any sort of knee pain, such as suspected jumper’s knee, we’d recommend consulting a Physical Therapist first, before starting any sort of new exercise to ensure it is suited to your personal requirements).
What are Spanish Squats
Spanish squats involve squatting down with a resistance band/strap attached around the backs of the knees/upper calf and a secure fixing (e.g. a squat rack). The band/strap allows you to sit further back into the squat, which encourages your shins to be vertical. This creates less pressure on the knee joint.
Spanish squats can be done as a bodyweight exercise or as a weighted exercise by holding something like a kettlebell in front of your chest.
As the initial use case suggests (treating jumper’s knee), anyone who does a lot of jumping or running could likely benefit a lot from this exercise by including it in their fitness routine.
Spanish Squat Mechanics
To really benefit from Spanish squats, you want to sit back as you squat down to maximize the quad activation. Think of it like you’re doing a wall sit (except there is no wall, you are using the resistance band to maintain your balance). This means your shins and back should be vertical and your quads parallel to the floor.
How to do a Spanish Squat
To do a Spanish squat:
- Attach a thick resistance band to a sturdy object, such as a squat rack.
- Place the band around your upper calves or behind the knees.
- Step back until the band is taut.
- Lower yourself into a squat, ideally adopting a “wall sit” position, in which your back and shins are vertical, and your quads are parallel to the floor.
- Hold this position for the duration specified for the isometric variation or repeat this movement for repetitions.
- As you squat up, drive up through the heels to maintain balance.
Coach’s Tip – You can add additional weight to the Spanish squat by holding a kettlebell. The exercise is challenging in itself so opt for a light kettlebell to begin with and slowly work your way up. Only add additional weight once you can comfortably perform 10 Spanish squats with ease.
Spanish Squat Benefits
Add Load To Quads Without Knee Stress
There are lots of exercises that will activate the quads… however the stress put upon the knees will vary.
For those who are looking to protect their knees, opting for exercise that activate the quads without putting unwanted stress and pressure on the knees is definitely a bonus.
This means you can train and strengthen the quads and muscles around the knee… without putting unwanted strain on parts of the knee that might be causing discomfort or pain.
By holding a kettlebell in a goblet squat position, you can also add additional weight and still use progressive overload training in your workouts with Spanish squats too, further challenging the quads.
In-Season Knee Management
For anyone playing sports like basketball or volleyball, the management of joints like knees and ankles during the season is undoubtedly a priority.
After an intense game, the last thing your knees want is to be put through a tough weightlifting routine that involves putting heavy load onto the knees.
Exercises like the Spanish squat offer a great middle ground between strength training and rehabilitation… helping to minimize the impact on the knees, whilst also ensuring an athlete is still able to train their quads.
Shift Center of Gravity Backwards
The use of a thick resistance band means you can shift your weight back (as the band helps you from falling backwards). This shift in your weight ultimately means you are able to work your quads more than your glutes/hamstrings.
For anyone who naturally has a wide stance, or leans forward during squats, they may find their glutes and hamstrings take more of the load than they want during exercises like squats.
A Spanish squats helps to mitigate this by allowing you to confidently lean back and focus on the quads.
Lower Load on Back
Due to Spanish squats being a tougher movement than regular squats, you’ll quickly notice you don’t need to hold much weight at all for it to be a challenge (if fact, you may never need to hold extra weight).
This means you can reduce the load on your back during lower body movements.
If you’ve got any sort of discomfort in your back, a heavy back squat isn’t recommended… even though it’s predominantly a leg exercise.
The ability to train the quads effectively, without your back needing to support heavy weight might be a significant benefit for some.
(Another great option for those who want to lower the load on the back is to opt for b-stance or single leg variations. Our guide on b-stance deadlifts or shrimp squats are two great examples).
Minimal Equipment Needed
Spanish squats only require a thick resistance band and a secure fixing… which means they are very inclusive and suitable for home workouts too.
We would stress, however, that not all resistance bands are suitable. Long, thin bands won’t support your weight sufficiently so opt for the short, thick bands.
Also, make sure the band isn’t damaged… you don’t want it snapping mid-rep!
You could also use a suspension trainer, such as a TRX trainer too.
Leg Extension Alternative
If you’re following a workout that recommends leg extensions, but you don’t have access to a leg extension machine, Spanish squats are a great alternative to use, as the muscle activation is similar (i.e. the quads).
Avoid Knees Caving Inwards During Squats
Any sort of banded squat, including Spanish squats, help to encourage better squatting technique by making it very evident if your knees are caving inwards (as the band will simply fall down).
You’ll find you naturally need to engage your abductors more and keep your knees stable to allow for a smooth banded squat.
Encourages Slow, Controlled Repetitions
Spanish squats are very hard to do quickly, due to the instability of leaning back. You need to think more carefully about balancing yourself as you lower yourself into the squat.
The by-product of this is that it encourages nice and slow repetitions, which keeps the muscles under tension for longer… which is also proven to be an effective way at building muscle.
The primary muscles worked in the Spanish squat are the quadriceps. The glutes, hamstrings and calves will also be activated too.
The best alternatives to Spanish squats will largely depend on what you’re looking for (e.g. maximum quad activation vs lowest impact on the knees). Some exercises that are popular in the Knees Over Toes workout program, which is designed to maximize lower body strength and reduce impact on the knees include: sled pulls, tibialis raises, sissy squats, ATG split squat, and a Patrick step.
Raised heel squat variations, such as cyclist squats, are also great ways to focus on the quads.
Consider training the tibialis anterior
Arguably one of the fundamental pillars of Knees Over Toes workouts is the focus on strengthening the tibialis anterior. This fleshy muscle on the shin can help reduce the impact of activities like jumping and running on the knees. Our Tib Bar review is worth reading if this sounds of interest.
The Spanish squat has gotten a lot of attention recently, with both Strength Coaches and Physical Therapists. We think it’s a great exercise for quad activation and a way to encourage better squatting technique. For knee rehabilitation, the effectiveness will depend on the root cause of your pain so we’d recommend consulting a Physical Therapist to ensure a Spanish squat can help with your specific circumstance.
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Featured image and video demonstration credit- ThriveTraining