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Squats build muscles in boot camp.
Mike Powell/Digital Vision/Getty Images
If you're committed to doing the squat, rest assured you have a good thing going. This compound exercise involves multiple muscles -- but it's not an exercise that tends to help you get smaller legs. In fact, it's probably going to do the opposite.
What the Squat Does
Squatting follows one of the basic tenets of strength training. That is, when you put your muscles under an additional stress or load, the muscle size is going to increase. Doing squats with just your own body weight will help you build muscle, but when you add load in the form of additional weight, you have the potential to add even more muscle.
When you perform squats regularly, expect to gain muscle size in your thighs and butt. The muscles of your spine, hamstrings and abdominals will be activated to help stabilize your body throughout the movement. They may not get larger, but they will get stronger.
Don't Compare Your Gains
Not everyone is going to have the same results. Women tend to build muscle more slowly than men, since they don't have the same amount of testosterone, a hormone that helps turn protein into muscle. Your body type can also affect the rate at which your legs get smaller or bigger in relation to training. If you're a mesomorph, you have the body type that tends to gain muscle quickly. The naturally slim body type of ectomorphs doesn't respond as quickly to muscle training.
The third body type, the endomorph, is generally rounder with more body fat. That person may be able gain muscle, but it's generally necessary to lose body fat for it to appear noticeable. The bottom line: You may be squatting the same amount of weight as a friend who weighs the same, but don't expect the results to be exactly the same.
The Bootcamp Paradox
If you're doing squats in the weight room, trust that you'll gain muscle. If you're doing them as part of a boot camp or aerobics class and you notice that your legs are getting smaller, it's not because you're not building muscle. Instead, it's probably because you're combining the squats with a lot of aerobic activity. Performing aerobic-style exercise for an extended period of time gets your heart beating faster and helps you burn calories. That calorie burn leads to fat loss, which in turn will make your legs appear smaller.
The Bottom Line
To get bigger legs, spend more of your workout time on strength training. To get smaller legs, perform cardiovascular exercise and add strength-training exercises such as the squat to strengthen the body and develop muscle tone. Whatever you do, squat properly or you may get hurt or develop muscle imbalances that can lead to chronic pains. Proper squat form includes keeping your chest up, looking forward, keeping your back straight and your feet on the floor. Squat deep enough to allow the hip joint to go below the knee joint, or you'll develop strength only in the quads and create an imbalance in hamstring and glute strength.