Can a squat machine really give you that Instagram-coveted booty?
Those saddled machines are attention grabbers—but their benefits are up for debate.
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The humble squat is a staple of almost every kind of workout—from Pilates to yoga to Crossfit—both at home and in a gym. And there’s a good reason: With the correct form, squats strengthen all of the muscles in the lower body, including the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. What’s more, you don’t need anything other than your own body weight to do them effectively, though adding resistance—by holding weights or using bands—can make them more challenging and increase your muscle and strength building even more.
You may have seen ads recently for assisted squat machines, accompanied by claims that they can give you a perkier derriere, improved function in other workouts, and a higher calorie burn than what you might get from regular squats. But, if you think about it, some of these machines remove some of the resistance from the exercise (rather than adding to it) by supporting some of your body weight on the saddle as you go through the motion. So can they actually do what they claim? Here’s what you need to know about these machines, and if you need one in your home.
What is an assisted squat machine?
You have a few options when it comes to at-home squat machines. There are some that use a saddle, a spring, and vertical bar as a handle, like the Sunny Row ‘n’ Ride, which you may have seen on QVC, and the DB Method machine, a not-so-subtle acronym of “dream butt,” that you may have had pushed to you on Instagram. Because some of your weight is supported by the saddle and by you holding onto the handle, you can often get into a deeper squat than you would on your own. Plus, the angle of your joints may be modified, which can alter which muscles are doing more or less work.
You can also get weighted machines, similar to ones you might see at a gym, including the Smith Machine or a weight bench with a squat rack. These allow you to add load to squats. In the case of the Smith Machine, your movement pattern is controlled to some extent by the track the bar follows, making it feel less potentially dangerous than using a free barbell loaded with weight plates.
What are the potential benefits of an assisted squat machine?
First things first: You probably don't need one of these machines at home. “It’s not one of those things you have to have,” says Pete McCall, a personal trainer and fitness educator. “It’s not a top five or top 10 thing you must have for home.” Still, there is a reason why these machines have such appeal.
For one, if you’re interested in a certain aesthetic appearance in your lower body—namely the taut, hyper-rounded booty that’s ubiquitous among fitness influencers—a saddle-equipped machine can help you target the muscles that create that look more efficiently, according to McCall. A regular no-machine squat distributes weight and therefore the muscle building effects among your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. A machine can realign your posture and distribute the weight, and therefore the work, so it’s focused more on your glutes and hamstrings.
As mentioned, adding weight to your squat, as with the Smith-type machine or even a full squat rack, can increase the strengthening benefit of the movement.
What are the downsides to assisted squat machines?
A saddle-equipped squat machine may yield your desired aesthetic appearance—but it may come at the cost of poor form. In a no-machine squat, “the hips and the lower back should have a very specific range of movement,” says McCall. “If those get disrupted—for example if the hips can’t function properly—then the knees could receive more of the stress.“ Machines like the Sunny Row ‘n’ Ride and DB Method in particular can “reinforce poor biomechanics,” McCall says. “In a proper squat, the hips and knees move together. If the ankles have the proper flexibility, the shins can move forward to allow the hips more range of motion.” But by holding onto the vertical pole located at the center of the machine, the hips don’t receive all the weight they usually do during a squat, which can drive more weight to your knees.
Smith Machines also have some biomechanical concerns. That built-in track the bar traces along that make you feel more secure about loading weight onto it also forces your movement pattern to follow it as you squat down and stand up. This can also pitch your knees past your toes in a mechanically risky way and put undue pressure on the low back.
And if you get used to doing squats with the machine, it may affect your form when you do regular, non-assisted squats. And this matters because the squat movement is a fundamental one that we humans do all the time—namely, by sitting down and standing back up again.
If you were to get the machine, you may see those aesthetic improvements—both the Sunny Row ‘n’ Ride and DB Method machine boast thousands of reviews in which customers claim the machine did, indeed, give them their dream butt—but it could make it more difficult to do squats on your own in the long run and could even lead to future issues with your knees with prolonged or excessive use.
What can you do instead of using an assisted squat machine?
In short, you don’t need an assisted squat machine to punch up the impact of your workouts at home.
In fact, the first (and possibly only) thing to do is learn how to do squats the right way. When you dip down, make sure the weight is in your heels, your hips are back and down, and your knees align with your toes instead of surpassing them. You should also keep your back straight, torso erect, and bring your hips level with or just below your knee height.
For extra impact, add weight. If you have dumbbells or kettlebells, McCall recommends goblet squats. In this exercise, you hold the weight with two hands at chest height, bringing the weight to the front of your body. “This loads the quads, loads the glutes, and it uses the muscles in a way that stabilizes the squat,” he says. “And you don’t have to wrestle with putting something on your shoulders because that becomes a big challenge at home.”
You can also do a banded squat with a resistance band. Place the loop just above your knees and dip down into a squat position, holding your legs in a wide enough position to keep the band in place. This helps keep your knees from knocking together and helps focus the toning in your glutes and hamstrings, which is the intended purpose of many assisted squat machines.
In the end, whether you spring for a machine, grab some weights, or go for the bodyweight version, a few squats will do you well—just make sure you follow the correct form.