Bodyweight squats are a great exercise. You can do them anywhere, anytime, and they work virtually every muscle in your legs. But, like most exercises, you’ll get far better results if you do them properly. In this article, you’ll learn the secret of performing perfect bodyweight squats and also discover a few cool variations that will make your workouts even more effective!
It’s fair to say that squats work all of the muscles in your lower body. These are the major muscles used and how they contribute to the movement:
Gastrocnemius/soleus – your calf muscles: Stabilize your ankles and prevent your knees travelling forward of your toes.
Quadriceps – your front thigh muscles: Extend your knee joints and are the muscles you tend to feel working the hardest when you squat.
Hamstrings – your rear thigh muscles: Extend your hip joint and prevent you from falling forward as you squat.
Gluteus maximus – your butt: With your hamstrings, extend your hip and also abduct your thighs so they do not collapse inward.
Abductors/adductors – your outer and inner thighs: Stabilize your hips and prevent your thighs from falling inward or outward.
Erector spinae – your lower back: Stabilize your spine to prevent you from leaning forward.
This long list of muscles helps to explain why squats are such a valuable and effective exercise. In addition, the squat replicates many of the movements you perform every day such as sitting down and standing back up again, climbing stairs, jumping, and even using the toilet. If you lose your squat, many of these tasks will become increasingly difficult if not impossible so squatting is more than “just” a leg exercise, it’s a life exercise!
Proper squatting technique
This is how to do bodyweight squats correctly…
- Stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart
- Turn your feet out slightly to a “five to one” position on a clock face
- Stand up tall and look straight ahead
- Clasp your hands together and tuck them under your chin
- Inhale and brace your abs
- Shift your weight toward your heels and off your toes
- Push your hips back and then bend your knees
- Squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor
- Your shins should be fairly vertical although some forward knee travel is expected and okay
- Keep your chest up throughout
- Push your knees out as you descend to “make room” to squat down
- Stand up and exhale as you rise
Troubleshooting the squat
Even if you follow these instructions, you may still have problems performing squats properly. Here are some fixes for common squat faults…
Heels lift off as you squat – your calves maybe tight and need stretching, or you initiating your decent by bending your knees first. Remember: hips back first.
Knees cave in – this could be weak abductors or lack of coordination. Fix the former by doing exercises like lying side leg raises. Fix the latter by visualizing pushing your feet apart as you squat.
Rounded lower back – think “open chest” while you squat and make sure you do not lean forward at the bottom of the squat. Also, your hamstrings maybe tight so make sure you stretch them. If you back rounds at the bottom of the squat, don’t squat so deeply. Parallel is a good target but if it is at the expense of rounding your back, stop a little higher.
Knees travel forward of toes – some forward travel of the knees is unavoidable but it should be minimal if you want to avoid too much wear and tear on your knee joints. Push your hips back before bending your knees and make sure your weight is toward your heels.
The basic bodyweight squat is hard to beat but there are some cool variations you can use to spice up your workouts…
Pause squats – descend as normal but then hold the bottom position for a slow count of three before standing up. This variation will help improve mobility and squat depth plus each rep takes a little longer which will make the exercise more demanding.
1 ½ rep squats – squat down and then come half way up. Squat back down and then stand all the way up. That’s one rep. Adding an extra half a rep makes the exercise tougher and emphasizes your quadriceps.
Squat jumps – descend as normal but then jump explosively into the air out of the bottom of your squat. Land on slightly bent knees and then do another squat. This tough variation will pump up your muscle power.
Pistol squats – performed on one leg, this is the Cadillac of squat variations and only for the very fit. Standing on one leg, extend your other leg on front of you. Squat down while keeping your free leg extended in front of you and off the floor. Stand back up and repeat. Use a chair or exercise bench for support as necessary.
Squats – everybody should be doing them. Mechanically safer than most machine-based exercises, they are good for your knees and hips and strengthen some essential muscles. Bodyweight squats are also a great antidote to spending long periods of time sat down and if you want a firmer, shapelier butt, squats will deliver. If you haven’t already, make sure that squats become part of your regular workouts.