Ah, the squat. In recent years, the bodyweight squat (and its variations) has risen to the top of the exercise food chain, earning the reputation as one of the best moves for your booty. But is this exercise all it’s cracked up to be?
Brief answer: yes. The bodyweight squat is crucial to master whether you’re interested in tearing it up in the gym, building strong glutes, or just making it through life uninjured. Here, details on all the advantages of the bodyweight squat, including the muscles the exercise works, and how to incorporate it into your routine.
How to Do a Bodyweight Squat
ICYDK, the bodyweight squat involves shifting your hips back and “sitting” toward the ground while in a standing position, stopping once your thighs are parallel with the ground, then pushing through the heels to straighten your legs and return to standing. It seems simple, but the exercise actually calls on your entire body, says Anne Reuss, a NASM-certified personal trainer. “Bodyweight squats unlock strength simply by lowering yourself to the ground and standing back up without trouble,” she explains. “[They’re] easy on paper, [but] tough (good tough) in reality.”
For a play-by-play of the proper bodyweight squat form, watch Reuss demonstrate the exercise below and read the detailed instructions.
A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, with toes turned slightly outward and arms at sides. Brace abdominal muscles to engage core and keep chest upright.
B. On an inhale, hinge at hips to initiate the movement, then bend knees to lower into a squat position until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with the floor, heels begin to lift off the floor, or torso starts to round or flex forward. While lowering into the squat, simultaneously raise arms in front of body until they reach chest height.
C. On an exhale, press into heels and mid-foot to straighten legs and return to standing, hips and torso rising at the same time and lowering arms back to sides.
The Key Bodyweight Squat Benefits
Bodyweight squats may not seem as demanding as, say, heavily loaded deadlifts, but they still come with major benefits for your functional strength. Here, pros break down those key perks of the lower-body exercise.
Makes Daily Functioning Easier
The bodyweight squat isn’t just an exercise, but one of the five main foundational movements for daily life, according to the American Council On Exercise.
You are intended to crouch in everyday life and activities,” expresses Reuss. “As time passes, in the present condition of our society, there is the potential to become inactive, adopting habits of sitting and stooping, or abandoning physical exercise, and consequently your body loses the ability to crouch. We cannot completely attribute it to the process of growing older — it is due to insufficient mobility.
Incorporating bodyweight squats into your routine, nevertheless, can assist you in re-establishing this fundamental movement pattern, make everyday living simpler, and even decrease your risk of injury while performing squats IRL. For example, you might feel less sore crouching down to pet your cat, or you may find that getting up off the couch is slightly less challenging. “Training the squat will restore mobility, stability, and strength and unlock so many more movements and activities for you, from picking up your pup, to grabbing a book from the lowest shelf at your favorite bookstore, to getting up on a surfboard (if you’re pursuing significant aspirations),” says Reuss.
Enlists Multiple Muscles and Joints
The bodyweight squat — and numerous other squat variations, for that matter — is a compound movement, indicating it calls on multiple muscle groups and joints (in this instance, the glutes, quads, and hamstrings, plus hips, knees, and ankles), says Reuss. When you utilize a handful of muscle groups together to perform a compound exercise, you generate more strength, force, and power than you would by using only one muscle group (aka an isolation exercise), so you’re receiving more value for your money, as Shape previously reported. Plus, these types of movements — including the bodyweight squat — necessitate better control, coordination, and timing of your muscles and joints, which can enhance your functional strength IRL, Bill Kelley, D.P.T., A.T.C., C.S.C.S., owner of Aeries Physical Therapy in South Florida, previously stated to Shape.
Bodyweight Squat Muscles Engaged
In short, the bodyweight squat is “the simplest exercise you can do while still obtaining the highest return,” says Rachel Mariotti, an NCSF-certified personal trainer in New York City. “It works major muscle groups: your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and core,” she explains. Plus, the exercise trains your hip adductors (the muscles along your inner thighs) and calves, adds Reuss.
Bodyweight Squat Variations
If the traditional bodyweight squat doesn’t feel right for your body or align with your needs, don’t worry
Attempt one of these alteration and advancement suggestions to ensure the activity functions to your advantage.
Modification: Bodyweight Chair Squat
Feel like you haven’t perfected the technique of the fundamental bodyweight squat just yet? Begin by performing six point rocks, during which you oscillate your body forward and backward, making contact between your buttocks and your heels, while assuming a table-top position on the floor. “This is an exceedingly comfortable approach to acquaint yourself with the mechanics of squats while you’re on all fours and convey to your body what your objectives are,” states Reuss.
Then, attempt to perform squats onto a bench, chair, Swiss ball, or any other object that halts your buttocks before your thighs can descend below parallel to the floor, as advised by Reuss, who provides a demonstration of the alteration below. “Having sensory feedback (via the supportive piece of equipment) assists with spatial awareness of the body (likewise known as proprioception skills),” she elucidates. “Enhanced awareness aids you in learning and memorizing the proper technique and surmounting any psychological obstacles, knowing that you have support and guidance!”
Progression: Bodyweight Tempo Squat
Remember: The bodyweight squat serves as your fundamental point of reference, and you should refrain from attempting any variation until you have mastered the basic exercise, according to Mariotti. However, if you possess confidence in your form, challenge yourself further by incorporating a quarter squat (think: a small pulse) after each regular repetition, performing a calf raise at the apex of your squat, or exerting pressure on a small weight outward from your chest at the nadir of the movement, referred to as heartbeat squats by Reuss. To elevate the intensity of your workout, consider engaging in squat jumps, during which you propel yourself upward into the air instead of returning to an upright stance, she adds. If you decide to incorporate squat jumps, ensure that you execute them at the commencement of your workout and limit the repetitions to only five to ten in order to avoid excessive exhaustion, as recommended by Reuss.
Alternatively, you can simply prolong the time under tension (TUT) to ignite your muscles: Take four seconds to descend into the squat, then return to the starting position at your regular pace, as demonstrated by Reuss below. “Another personal favorite is a TUT of 5/5/5/1 — five seconds to descend, a five-second pause at the lowest point of the squat, five seconds to ascend back to the starting position, then one second of rest.”
Common Bodyweight Squat Errors
Subtle alterations in the positioning of your lower body can determine the success or failure of your form. When descending into the squat, ensure that you shift your hips backward and lower yourself onto the mid-foot and heels.
And don’t hesitate to perform squatting below parallel or allow your knees to surpass your toes, asserts Reuss. “Your knees are intended to bend and pivot, thus you genuinely enhance your power and adaptability if you permit your knees to function as knees,” she clarifies.
As you rise to an upright position, ensure that you keep your entire foot flat on the ground, as raising your heels will not allow you to engage all the major muscle groups fully, according to Reuss. And do not overlook your core! Continue to brace your abs throughout the movement to maintain a flat back and prevent discomfort or potential injury in the lower back. Most importantly, stay focused on the task at hand and avoid distractions like looking around the gym or watching TV, as this will help you maintain proper form and maximize the benefits of your workout, advises Reuss. (Yes, the mind-muscle connection is a real phenomenon.)
How to Incorporate the Bodyweight Squat into Your Fitness Routine
Before attempting the bodyweight squat, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional if you have any doubts about exercising, says Reuss. “The bodyweight squat serves as a gateway to building strength – individuals who have any injuries in the lower back, hips, or lower body region should seek guidance from a healthcare provider,” she adds. “If you have been cleared but are struggling, I recommend enlisting the help of a personal trainer who can assist you in performing the squat comfortably with appropriate modifications!”
If you are prepared to tackle the exercise on your own, aim to complete three to four sets of eight to twelve repetitions, or perform the exercise until you have one to two repetitions remaining before reaching fatigue, suggests Reuss. Since the bodyweight squat engages major muscle groups, it is generally recommended to prioritize it at the beginning of your workout, before those muscles become tired. Even better, incorporate the exercise into a circuit consisting of four or five different exercises for a time-efficient, full-body workout, advises Reuss.
The key takeaway? Although those challenging workouts you see on Instagram may add excitement to your fitness routine, they are not necessarily superior to “basic” exercises like the bodyweight squat, says Reuss. “Amidst all the noise, focus on mastering the bodyweight squat – a timeless, effective, and resilience-building exercise that promotes health, longevity, and boosts confidence,” she emphasizes. “I assure you, it is worthwhile to invest your time in refining, progressing, and learning to love the bodyweight squat.