The basic bodyweight squat is one of the most fundamental exercises anyone can do.
Squatting does so many good things to your body that you would be a fool not to implement them in a strength routine. Firstly, it’s a big compound exercise. It works a very large group of your biggest muscles: Quads, hamstrings, glutes and, if done properly, also lower back and abdominal muscles.
But in order to reap all the benefits from squats, you have to know squat!
Continue reading if you want to know how to correctly perform squats and why they’re such a neat exercise.
Being proficient in the bodyweight squat opens a lot of physical doors to you. Want to lift heavy weights? Well, if you cannot bust out crisp and clean bodyweight squats, don’t even think about putting any weight on your shoulders. Bad squatting form is not optimal with just your bodyweight, but it’s very dangerous with additional weight.
Want to do other advanced leg exercises like pistols or box jumps? Squats are your foundation.
Learning and practicing good squat form also promotes better blood flow to the area below your waistline (you know why this is a good thing), improves posture and counteracts the effects of long periods of sitting.
Being a big compound movement means squats will generate a strong hormonal response in your body that triggers all the nice things like improved metabolism, mood, sleep and muscle building.
So, if you’re a guy who wants to pack on significant muscle mass, or a woman who wants to improve the appearance of her butt, legs and abs, or you’re an athlete who wants to improve overall strength, squats are your best friend.
Proper Squat Technique
Okay, so how is a proper bodyweight squat really done? Here are the key points of good form to keep in mind when performing a bodyweight squat:
- Start by standing somewhere with straight posture, feet about shoulder width apart. Feet are turned slightly outward.
- Focus on looking straight ahead (not at the ground and also not at the ceiling/sky).
- Keep a straight posture throughout the movement. Keep leaning forward to a minimum. Do this by actively engaging your abs and lower back muscles.
- The “classic” squat ends with your quads just below parallel to the ground (like in the title picture of this article). I think even better are “ass-to-grass” squats, where you’ll use your full range of motion (ideally your hamstrings touch your calves).
- Get back up to the starting position while maintaining tight, straight upper body and front gaze.
- Feet are always flat on the ground.
Visualize sitting down on an imaginary chair. It helps to reach your arms out in front of you for balance. If you’re new to strength training, this gives you an additional challenge for your shoulders. But no swinging with the arms! Avoid any momentum that’s not generated by your legs.
Use flat shoes or squat barefoot for maximal benefits. Running shoes with elevated heels will actually make it less challenging. And I think squatting while feeling the ground beneath you has a more primal notion. But I’m weird.
Using your full range of motion by performing ass-to-grass (ATG) squats makes the exercise more challenging. If you lack flexibility and/or strength to do this, stick to classic squats (quads slightly below parallel). Increased range of motion will come with time and patience. Also note that a perfectly straight back might not be possible at the end range of ATG squats. You should still aim for it though, but be aware of the fact that there are anatomical restrictions that can vary greatly from person to person.
There are lots of squat variations (like sumo squats, narrow squats, split squats, pistol squats, etc.), which are mostly derived from different stances. A barbell squat is performed with a slightly wider stance and feet turned outward a bit more to add stabilization for lifting a heavy weight.
But before you play around with any of these moves, you have to be able to bang out clean squats with ease. A good rep range to shoot for are 50 crisp and clean bodyweight squats, ATG preferably.
Progressing to Squats
So maybe you’re a complete beginner, or were sedentary for a long time or suffered from an injury. It might be the case that you’re not able to perform a classic, full squat. And after reading all this, you’re asking yourself how to work your way up to a squat?
Most people do something on a daily basis that they’re not even fully aware of: sitting down. This is basically what you’re gonna do to practice a light variation of the free bodyweight squat: Seated squats.
Pick a stable surface that’s about knee high. Stand about the length of one foot away from the edge of the surface. Now slowly sit down on the surface while keeping the key points of squatting form in mind: Upright upper body, front gaze, core engaged, arms reached out. Come off the surface with minimal momentum as soon as possible. Work on minimizing the time you sit on the surface.
Progress by finding lower surfaces until you no longer need a surface.
The obvious way to make squats harder is to add weight. If that’s your thing, go ahead and enjoy barbell squats, they’re an awesome exercise. But only if your bodyweight squat is rock solid.
But, as I always say, you don’t need a gym. It’s absolutely possible to get ultra-strong legs by just doing bodyweight leg exercises, using bodyweight progression. This works by experimenting with different stances, or putting your hands behind your head or back. Putting weight on only one foot gives you the most resistance from your bodyweight. Examples are lunges, side lunges, split squats and one of the best exercises there is: the pistol.
This tutorial should give you sufficient information to squat the hell out of your legs. No excuses for chicken legs! Leave me a comment if you have any questions or additional info.
Photos: Sabine A
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