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July 28, 2020 10 min read

If you could only do one exercise for the rest of your life, what would it be?

And before you say the bench press or deadlift, let’s narrow things down a little and make it a bodyweight exercise.

While there are several strong contenders for best bodyweight exercise, chances are that many of you said the squat. And while leg day might be the bane of many us, the squat does deserve the respect it holds—even if its sometimes begrudgingly given.

One of the three main lifts every gym-goer does, the squat is a fantastic way to not only get a jacked posterior chain but also develop full-body conditioning. Nevertheless, we often shy away from the bodyweight version of this movement since it’s easy to doubt its effectiveness without a barbell on your back.

That does not, however, have to be the case. 

Not only useful in a pinch if you can’t make it to the gym, bodyweight squats (or air squats) also come loaded with the same benefits as their weighted counterpart. It is, as always, important to carry out this exercise with perfect form in order to reap all of its benefits.

Do bodyweight squats well and do enough, and your entire body will be thanking you. Want to step it up a notch? There’s a ton of variations that’ll really put your lower body strength to the test.

Why Squat?

Odds are that you’ve already heard about all of the things that elevate the squat into a juggernaut of an exercise, so we won’t bore you too long with the details. But if you’re not sold on the squat as the best single-exercise-for-life, then read on. 

We all know that they build an insanely strong lower body, along with activating the core and the posterior chain.

What might not be so obvious is that they’re also terrific stimulators for the release of muscle-building hormones in the body. This includes testosterone and growth hormone, and since the movement requires almost every major muscle group in the body, that effect will only be compounded. Want to burn body fat and build muscle? This is the exercise for you.

Squats improve flexibility as well. This is a feature that bodyweight squats can even be better at since your body will be more comfortable going into a deeper squat without a load on its back (or front). A deeper squat means an increased range of motion, and an increased range of motion means greater flexibility in the end.

Building off of increased flexibility, your proneness to injury will also be lessened. With increased muscle mass around important joints such as the knees and hips, your chance of injury while running and jumping will see a massive reduction.

And speaking of jumping, if you’re working on your dunk or layup, then squats are essential. The explosive energy needed in these athletic feats requires your hips to be able to extend powerfully—a strength that squats are quick to develop. 

Lastly, as much as you might like the gym, you don’t want to spend all of your time in it. If you’re looking for a more efficient training program so you can spend more time on the court or on the field, squats are an excellent way of combining full-body engagement within a single movement. 

Two people doing bodyweight squats in a gym.

Why Bodyweight?

Let’s address the elephant in the room. But why bodyweight squats?

For the most part, training usually requires some kind of level of progressive overload on your muscles—an aspect that’s difficult to achieve if you’re just working with the weight of your own body. We’ll take a closer look at this down below, but first lets hit on some bodyweight benefits.

Bodyweight workouts (such as lunges or pull-ups) are considered to be closed kinetic chain movements. What does this mean? 

Instead of you having to move a load toward or away from your body, bodyweight exercises rely on you moving your body closer or further from the ground. This means that any movement necessitates the cooperation of all of your muscles that make up the kinetic chain. This effectively engages more muscles than it would otherwise. 

Let’s take a bench press and push-up as examples. In the former, your core is supported by the bench. In the latter, your core has to stay engaged in order to complete the movement. 

Furthermore, bodyweight exercises also help to develop your body’s sense of internal awareness (known as proprioceptive awareness, or kinaesthesia). While this can mean simply knowing where your arm is at all times even if you can’t see it, this sense also helps us to do things like balance and tells us what kind of surface we’re standing on even if we’re wearing shoes. 

Getting Jacked with Bodyweight

While that’s all well and dandy, what does it mean in terms of gains? Some level of progressive overload is obviously necessary for building muscle and strength training, but it might not be as necessary as you think.

It can be particularly difficult to train legs with bodyweight exercises since they contain some of the largest and most powerful muscles in your body. What it’s going to come down to is how advanced of an athlete you are, what your goals are, and what works better for your routine. For example, you’ll see much more improvement as a beginner than a powerlifter would.  

If you’re worried that you’re not going to get that jacked physique you’ve been keen on with a bodyweight routine, then that’s not necessarily true. A perfect example is Jason Statham.

Check out our previous article on him, but the gist is that he uses a bodyweight routine himself to keep in shape. And no one can deny that Statham looks ripped.

In the end, it depends on your goals and how fit you already are. But it’s almost always good to mix weightlifting up with some calisthenics, bodyweight, or plyometric exercises. This will give you the best of both worlds and won’t hem you into one method of training.

Bodyweight Squats with Perfect Form

Squat form is one of the more difficult movements to master, especially for people who are beginners in the gym. Thankfully, the bodyweight version of this exercise is a terrific way to become comfortable with the movement while also making sure you’re not leaving any gains on the table.

1. To begin, you’ll want to stand with a straight back while looking straight ahead. Your feet should be hip-width to shoulder-width apart, and either pointed straight or just slightly out. There is no one-size-fits-all foot positioning when it comes to squats, but it should feel comfortable.

2. Bracing your core, you want to begin the movement by hinging your hips while maintaining a spine in neutral alignment (straight back). It should feel like you’re sitting back in a chair. It will be helpful for your arms to be out in front of you for balance, but you can change the difficulty by changing your hand position (for example, a prisoner squat with your hands behind your head).

3. Keep your weight on the mid-foot area. As you enter into the bottom of the movement, make sure to squat in between your legs, and not on top of them. Your knees should be bending in line with the way your feet are pointed, and not bowing inwards.

4. Squat until you can squat no further—but your feet have to be flat on the floor, your back straight, and you have to stay balanced. If you’re starting out, aim for your thighs to be at least parallel to the floor, but you’re really aiming for your hamstrings to rest on your calves.

5. Pause at the bottom of the movement so you don’t utilize the “bounce” at the bottom to have an easier rise. How far you’re able to get down will depend on your range of motion and flexibility, but this will improve with time.

6. To get back up, engage your core, glutes, and thighs. Rather than thinking of simply “standing up”, you want to  “push” the ground, driving through your feet. Your hips should act as a hinge only, and your spine should remain neutrally aligned. Finish at the top of the movement in the starting position, remembering to keep your back straight and eyes ahead.

7. Reverse the movement and repeat for the desired amount of reps. 

Tips for Mastering Bodyweight Squats

While the steps above will get your foot in the door of perfect squats, there are a few things to keep in mind to really take your form to the next level.

One of the most important things that people often get confused about is foot positioning.

We’ve already touched on it above, but it really does come down to what’s most comfortable for you. You want a position that puts the least strain on your hips and knees—but you also want a position that produces the most power for your legs. Not to mention that you also need to stay balanced.

For most people, this is anywhere from hip to shoulder-width apart, with feet either pointed straight ahead or at up to 30-degrees outwards. It’s important to experiment if you feel like something’s wrong.

Speaking of feet, you want to be able to spread your weight across your entire foot (mid-foot balance), rather than too far back or frontwards. An evenly spread weight will make for a more powerful squat. 

Driving Through the Feet and the Hip Hinge

While you want to be driving down through your feet, try to make sure that it’s the whole foot you’re driving through and not just the back or front of it. This will help make sure that your knees track right over where your feet are pointed, and the alignment stays with the ankle joint throughout the entire movement.

Your knees should work alongside with your hips as they hinge inwards. Your butt should reach backward as if about to sit on a chair—remembering to keep your back straight. While this movement may sound as if you’re just bending over, that’s exactly what you don’t want to do. Depending on your hips and knees range of motion, you’ll “bottom out” at some point.

For your knees and hips to track properly, it’s essential that you keep your spine aligned. Especially avoid arching the lower back when you’re going down into the squat. And when you’re at the bottom of the movement, also avoid rounding the upper back. 

Core Activation and Breathing

Along with your glutes and thighs, make sure to squeeze your abdominals throughout the movement, but especially when you’re coming back up. 

Not only will this protect your spine, but it’ll also tone more of your body while allowing you to generate more power with the squat.

The most common breathing technique for squats, used by people training their strength and conditioning, is an exhalation when you’re coming to the top of the movement, and inhalation when squatting down. The exhalation towards the top should match up with strong core activation, expelling the air in your lungs. 

There’s also another breathing technique that reverses the inhalation and exhalation from the above, but while it is technically a more efficient breathing pattern, it doesn’t allow for the same level of power generation. 

Common Squatting Mistakes

Things such as rounding/arching your back or letting parts of your feet come off the floor are definitely big no-no’s which we’ve touched on above.

But you should also make sure that you’re squatting deep enough and utilizing your full range of motion. Furthermore, don’t squat too fast and make sure that the movement is smooth from start to finish—it also helps if you pause for a few seconds at the bottom of the squat.

When it comes to your knees, make sure they track over your toes and they don’t bow inwards or outwards. Lastly, if you’re keeping the form correct, there’s no reason for your knees to travel past your toes at any point in the exercise.

Two people doing bodyweight squats in a gym.

Bodyweight Squat Variations

So, let’s say that you’ve mastered the basic bodyweight squat and you’re ready for some more advanced stuff.

Thankfully, (much like traditional barbell back squats), bodyweight squats have a ton of variations that add new twists and dimensions to this already useful exercise.

For example, the variation can be as simple as placing your hands in a different place other than in front of you. With the prisoner squat, your hands will go behind your neck and fingers will lock. Without your arms out in front of your balancing your weight, you’ll need to activate more of your stabilizing muscles and keep a more upright back.

Or we have the Bulgarian split squat. This unilateral exercise is a modification of the single-leg squat, with an added bench to really test your legs.

With one foot placed on a bench behind you, this exercise has you squatting down with one foot while the other one stays elevated on the bench. The focus here is primarily on the quads, more than other lower-body compound movements. Furthermore, this will also be a great test of your balance. 

A more advanced variation is the pistol squat. While it’s also a unilateral compound exercise, this time you’re squatting with a single leg while the other one is flexed out in front of you. This movement takes a high amount of flexibility and strength in your leg, especially if you want to get the full range of motion.

But it’s absolutely essential when it comes to developing your joint integrity, mobility, and lower body strength. Furthermore, the fact that it’s a unilateral exercise means that your stronger side won’t be able to make up for your weaker one.

Want to up the ante? You can always try jump squats or add a load with dumbbells or kettlebells for a goblet squat. 

Squat Your Way to Better Fitness 

The ability of the squat to turbocharge your fitness journey can’t go overstated.

Squats are a bread-and-butter lift for reason but don’t be fooled into thinking you need a full barbell and squat rack to be able to do them. 

As we’ve seen, the bodyweight version isn’t just a great way to get into squatting with weights, but it also comes packed with benefits that’ll get you those tree-trunk legs and an iron core. And if it’s still not scratching that itch, we’ve only touched a tiny bit of the dozens of variations that exist out there. Some easier, some more difficult—but all effective. 

Outside of good form, there’s still a lot you can do get the most of out bodyweight squats.

Remember to always warm-up, and a little cardio never hurt anyone. Of course, it’s always important to eat clean, whole foods. Even if you have perfect form, you won’t get far without any energy. The same goes for proper rest. Rest days are essential if you want to advance in not only the arena of squatting but also on your overall fitness journey.