Squats vs pliés — what’s the difference?
The squat is a staple of a wide range of exercise modalities, from weights training to HIIT classes to bootcamps — and for good reasons. As a compound exercise, it trains multiple muscle groups at the same time, and as a functional exercise it trains muscles in ways that simulate loads and movements encountered in everyday life. The main muscle groups worked include some of the largest and most powerful groups in the body: glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
The plié (French for “bend”) is similar to the squat in that it also involves lowering the body by bending the knees, but that’s about where the similarity ends. The plié is quite a different movement with quite a different posture, and shifts some of the work from the big muscle groups used in a squat to the smaller, less powerful adductor muscles of the inner thigh. Those ballerina legs? This is how they’re made. (Can you feel the burn already?)
Let’s take a closer look. Here’s a squat:
- bottom is pointed backwards (like going to sit on an imaginary chair)
- feet are just a little more than hip-width apart
- feet are almost parallel to each other, only slightly turned out
Now here’s a plié in first position:
- pelvis is neutral and not tilted forward or back; bottom does not stick out. Instead of sitting back in a chair, it’s as if the body is sliding straight down between two planes of glass
- in first position, the heels are touching. The legs form a characteristic diamond shape.
- the legs are turned out from the hip; that is, the rotation isn’t just in the feet or knees, but in the whole leg from the thigh down.
And here’s the plié in a wide second position:
- again, pelvis is neutral (different from a “sumo squat”)
- feet are at least a foot-length apart
- legs are externally rotated
Don’t worry if the plié feels a bit un-natural at first. It takes getting used to! It’s deliberately targeting muscles that don’t otherwise get a lot of attention, and it’s not a functional movement in the sense that it’s not how we generally bend down to pick up the keys we’ve dropped. At least, if you ever do see somebody out-and-about plié-ing to pick something up from the floor, you can bet they’re a dance or barre addict…
The key things to remember are:
- keep the pelvis neutral
- keep the legs rotated as far as your thighs will allow
- keep sliding up and down between those imaginary sheets of glass (or as Lydia likes to say, the insides of a toaster — don’t burn those buns)!