Cardio? Weightlifting? A little of both? If you’re short on time, as most of us are, what should you do to get the most out of those quick sessions? Research indicates that squats are where the money’s at in terms of all-over exercises, and you can do sets that will also get your heart rate up. Use a flexible gym membership, and you can get all you need from a simple routine that will fit into a busy schedule.

What makes squats so great?

A properly done squat will actually work all your major muscle groups: quads and glutes, abs and back, shoulders and arms (the operative phrase here is ‘properly done’). It also uses a variety of joints, and contrary to the assertion that squats will ‘hurt your knees’, your joint health is improved by the development of the supportive muscles around those joints.

Overall musculoskeletal fitness is key for lifelong health and squats and lunges are an easy way to develop that fitness. Plus, while doing squats, you can use weights, stability balls, or a barbell bar in different ways so as to build or maintain muscle. And all the while you’re developing flexibility in your hips, knees, and ankles.

How to do a proper squat

You’ll find loads of videos on how to perform this exercise, but here are the essentials:

  1. Start with your feet slight wider than hip width apart, with your toes pointed slightly outward. Hold your arms out front, with palms parallel to the floor.
  1. Keep your spine straight but otherwise neutral (if ‘neutral’ for you is a slouch, don’t keep your spine like that). Your weight should be evenly distributed between the balls of your feet and your heels; don’t tense or grip with your toes. Look straight ahead, not up or down – you don’t want the position of your head to compromise your spine.
  1. Start by moving your hindquarters back as you lower yourself, with the break coming from your hips. Don’t just drop by bending your knees. On the way down, keep your knees in line with your toes, feet flat on the floor, chest up, and all your muscles engaged, arms and shoulders included. Moving your hips back will help you keep your balance.
  1. Lower yourself until your upper legs are at least parallel to the floor, preferably a bit lower, and remember not to rock back on your heels or pitch forward onto your toes. Stopping before you get to the parallel position actually puts more strain on your knees because your hamstrings are not fully engaged.
  1. Keep the same tight form on the way up and squeeze your glutes at the top.

It sounds like the stuff of infomercials, but the squat really is the mother of all exercises – and you can do it with no or minimal equipment in a short amount of time.

Of course the other great thing about the squat is that it can be practised pretty much anywhere. However with added weights involved you can really pack on the pounds. If you go to a gym, a flexible gym membership is highly recommended so that you are only paying for what you use. Look for flexible membership options all over the UK – some examples include Clifton College Sports Centre in Bristol, Pemberton Centre Rushden, Lewes Leisure Centre and The Rapids Romsey.