Your complete guide to bodyweight squats

A squat is one of the most well-known and common bodyweight exercises. It is used to build endurance and muscle tone, mainly in the upper legs and glutes.

This detailed article is the ultimate guide for beginners, regular gym goers and even personal trainers and coaches. It walks you through what a bodyweight squat is, what equipment you need, what muscles it helps develop, proper technique, a guide to the weight to use, tips for success, variations and a description about what could go wrong and how to minimise the chance of injury.

What are you waiting for. Here it is …

The low down

A squat is one of the most well-known and common bodyweight exercises. It is used to build endurance and muscle tone, mainly in the upper legs and glutes.

Basically, a squat involves bending the knees from a standing position, squatting down and then standing up again.

To build real power, strength and size you will need to enter the world of weighted squats. And there you will find an exercise that works much more than just legs! For more information read our Power guide to weighted squats.

Other names

Squats aren’t really called anything else though some of the variations described below have their own name (for example, wide squats and sissy squats).

What does this one do?

Bodyweight squats mostly work your upper legs (being your quadriceps and hamstrings) and your gluteus Maximus (also called your ‘glutes’ or ‘butt muscles).

This exercise is good for the beginner, but even if you are fit and strong you can still get a good work out with high volume repetitions. Try doing 200 or 300 squats without a rest and see how you feel the next day, and the day after that!!

Equipment

Standard bodyweight squats require no equipment at all. Just find a place to stand, and get started!

If you are adding weight to your body you will also need a kettlebell, a weight plate, a dumbbell, a weight vest or anything you can hold onto really!

How do I do the standard version of this exercise?

Start by standing nice and straight with your legs shoulder width apart and your feet parallel.

Now, while keeping your head straight and your chest up, bend your knees and push your butt backwards, before squatting down as low as you can go.

Your knees should not track too far out over your toes and should track in line with your feet. That is, they should not drop inwards towards each other and they should not splay out to the side.

The movement is like sitting down on a chair.

By concentrating on keeping your chest up and your butt moving backwards and down you will keep a nice arch in your back and will help ensure that your knees do not track too far forward out over your toes.

Once you have reached the bottom of the rep, push through your heels and stand up again, remembering to keep your chest up and your head nice and straight.

And don’t forget to squeeze those glutes!

How much weight should I be using?

Bodyweight squats do not require any weight. However, to make it a little tougher, you can try doing the squats while holding onto a weight such as a weight plate, a dumbbell, a sack of rice or anything really!

True heavy weighted squats however is a whole different story!

Tips

Always, and we mean always, stretch and mobilise all the muscles you intend to work before you start.

Try and get nice and low in that squat position. To do this, you may need to work on your flexibility through the hips, hamstrings and even your upper thoracic (upper back muscles).

Also, to help you know if you are getting as low as you should, place a low stool, ball or some other item behind you. When you touch it with your butt you know you have gone low enough! Don’t sit on it though, just touch and go.

How can I mix it up a bit?

There are a good number of ways to mix up the bodyweight squat. Check out these variations:

Change the tempo: Changing the time it takes you to squat down and/or stand up during the movement can really bring on the burn. For example, lower down for a four count and stand up for a further count of four. If you are really up for a challenge, try stopping and holding at the bottom or at the half way point of the movement for a count of, say, 2.

Change your stance: You can try this squat movement with your legs wider apart. If you do, you should not keep your feet parallel. Instead turn your toes out slightly and make sure that your knees still track in the same line as your feet. This is called a wide leg squat or a straddle stance squat.

Come up on your toes: Come up onto your toes and balance there. Now complete a standard squat as described above. To help keep your balance you can use a block of wood or a couple of weight plates to rest your heals on. This variation is often referred to as a sissy squat. Let us tell you though, there is nothing sissy about them, feel that burn, oh yeh, feel it!

What could go wrong?

Being bodyweight only, nothing much can really go wrong with this type of squat. Though you should be careful of your knees, particularly if you are doing high volumes of squats. Keep that butt moving backwards and keep your knees tracking properly and you should be fine.

Some people also experience some soreness in their back. While this may simply be a sign that your back muscles are working, to keep that back safe, keep the chest up, concentrate on moving your butt backwards and maintain the arch in your back for the full movement – both down and up.

At the end of the day, just focus on keeping the full movement, both up and down, nice and controlled.

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