If you haven’t heard of the Kang squat, you’re not alone. This variation of the back squat, though often performed in some CrossFit classes and bodybuilding gyms, has yet to permeate the mainstream fitness world. But it recently got more exposure, thanks to an Instagram video series posted last week by Los Angeles–based celebrity trainer Ashley Borden, creator of the exercise program ABFitApp.
The post, a compilation of 10 lower-body moves, answered a question Borden says (in the caption) she receives often: What does her client Rumer Willis do for glute development? Kang squats ranked first, followed by variations on some well-known butt moves like reverse lunges, deadlifts, and hip extensions.
You can check out the move, via @ashleybordenfitness, blow. The Kang squats are the first slide in this post:
The Kang squat is a combination of two lower-body strength moves.
The Kang squat is a good morning—a strength training exercise that targets the back, glutes, and hamstrings—that transitions into a regular ol' squat, and then back into a good morning. This combination makes the Kang squat “a very high-skilled move that requires complete body awareness and connection,” Borden tells SELF. “You cannot do this move without intention.”
It’s a complex and technically challenging move, Jason Pak, NASM-certified personal trainer, USA Weightlifting certified sports performance coach, and cofounder of Achieve Fitness Boston, tells SELF.
The good morning portion, if performed with a barbell as Willis demos (you can also do this move with a dumbbell, says Borden) involves putting the barbell in a very high position on the upper back and then pushing the hips back and leaning the torso forward. Due to the extremely high position of the bar on the upper back, when you bend your upper half forward, the bar ends up far in front of your base of support, explains Pak. This provides you with very little leverage to bring the bar back, he says, and by getting into this specific position, you essentially isolate your posterior chain, the backside of your body, in particular the entire back and hamstrings. “Not many other muscles can contribute to the motion,” explains Pak, which means these backside muscles are really put to work. (For that reason, if you have a history of injury or pain in your back or hamstrings, and/or your knees, you should chat with your doctor or physical therapist before attempting this move.)
A big plus of the good morning position is that you don't need to add much weight to get a significant benefit, says Pak. “That means there's a lot less risk because you don't need to put a lot of weight on the bar to really challenge yourself,” he explains. Then, by descending into a squat before coming back up into the good morning position again, you end up getting just enough rest so that the fatigue in your back doesn't build up as much and compromise form and safety, which might happen if you were doing rep after rep of good mornings alone, says Pak.
On top of that, the Kang squat requires constant tension throughout your body for the entire duration of the exercise, adds Pak. Do this move and you’ll work essentially all of the major muscle groups on your backside, including your hamstrings, glutes, back, and spinal erectors (muscles that line your spine), as well as your rectus abdominis (what you think when you think abs), obliques (muscles on the sides of your stomach), and quads, says Borden.
It can also help improve your squat form.
Because it’s complex and has multiple steps, the Kang squat forces you to slow down and focus on perfect form, especially at the bottom of the squat—which is the point where people typically lose their core engagement and bottom out with form, says Borden. The chain of movements in the Kang squat helps you focus on correct hip, foot, knee, core, and back positioning, says Borden, and all of these components are important for good squatting form.
The movement patterns emphasized in the Kang squat can also help your form with other weightlifting moves, like deadlifts, regular squats, back extensions, Olympic snatches, and Olympic cleans, says Borden. Plus, it helps strengthen your core, which is essential for maintaining proper form in every other lift.
It shouldn’t replace the traditional back squat, though.
The Kang squat is a great warm-up and a great assistance exercise, but it shouldn't replace the traditional back squat, says Pak. A good strength training regimen is composed of “main lifts”—i.e. traditional compound movements like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, that allow you to increase the amount of weight you’re using over time— and “assistance exercises,” like the Kang squat, that complement those main lifts, explains Pak.
Building strength with assistance exercises can have a lot of carryover in improving your ability to perform the main lifts. Because you have very limited leverage when performing the Kang squat, it’s really difficult to progress in weights, and for that reason, it's not thought of as a main lift, explains Pak.
“The back squat is better in terms of overall lower-body strength and muscular development, whereas the Kang squat really targets and emphasizes the posterior chain specifically, which is where a lot of lifters tend to be not quite as strong,” explains Pak, who recommends performing the Kang squat after traditional squats as a “great way to cover all your bases while also improving your weak links.”
Here’s how to do the Kang squat:
The Kang squat is about perfecting the movements with light or no weight (just the barbell), says Borden. If you do regular back squats, your weight with the Kang squat will be much less. If you’re new to the move, start very light, using just the barbell itself or a body bar. As you become stronger, you can increase the weight by about 10 percent, says Borden. Only do so when you feel totally comfortable with the move.
Pak recommends starting with an empty barbell and adding 5 to 10 pounds to the bar at a time until the exercise feels like a 7 out of 10 in terms of intensity over the course of five repetitions. “That's a pretty solid starting point that takes into account what your body is feeling while performing the lift,” he says.
- Get into position by racking the bar on your upper back. Squeeze your upper traps and shoulder blades together like you would for a back squat so that it creates a muscular "shelf" for the bar to rest on.
- Standing with your feet about hip-distance apart and keeping your weight in the middle of your foot, bend your knees slightly, push your hips back, and with a flat back, allow your torso to come forward over the course of two slow counts (like a deadlift motion). If you have the flexibility, get to a point where your torso is parallel to the floor. If you don't have the flexibility, just stop right before the point where your back feels like it wants to round forward.
- From that bottom position, bend your knees and let them come forward and get your torso more upright to transform into a deep squat position over the course of two slow counts. Focus on engaging your core the entire time.
- Hold at the bottom of the squat for two slow counts.
- Then, instead of standing up as you would in a regular squat, press through your heels and reverse the movement so that you return to the good morning position with your torso nearly parallel to the floor. From here, fully straighten your knees and stand back up. This final portion—returning to the good morning and then standing up—should be done over the course of two, slow counts.
- This is 1 rep. Try for 4 to 6 reps in a slow, controlled manner, suggests Borden. If you feel comfortable with the move, do 2 to 3 sets.
Lastly, remember this move is pretty complex. It may take time to master, so start light, be patient, and focus on good form over anything else. With practice, you'll get closer to nailing it—and seriously work your backside in the process.