Squats are arguably one of the most popular exercises you’ll see at the gym and a staple of any leg day.
Bodyweight squats are an important exercise for beginners, teaching the correct form and technique needed to perform a squat safely and effectively. But, they’re not just for beginners…
Bodyweight squats can be incorporated into any workout, either a stand-alone exercise or as part of a warm-up before those heavier lifts. They’re that versatile.
What is a bodyweight squat?
The bodyweight squat is a lower body exercise that you can do virtually anywhere with no equipment and little space needed.
You simply take a shoulder-width stance, point your toes out slightly, squat down, pause, and then come back up. It’s that easy.
It’s a highly-functional exercise that targets the majority of your lower body, and when included in a HIIT style training session, can even be challenging on your cardiovascular system too!
The benefits of bodyweight squats and the muscles targeted
Bodyweight squats are perfect for beginners. They strengthen the lower body and will help you master the correct technique before progressing to weighted squats and other variations.
It’s a compound exercise, that targets more than one muscle at a time. Bodyweight squats will target your quads and glutes for the most part, with a small amount of hamstring activation. When performing a squat, you bend your knee and hip at the same time, so the length of the hamstring barely changes.
Bracing your core during the movement is a great way to activate your abs, which will also help protect your lower back — helping to decrease your risk of injury.
How to perform a bodyweight squat:
1. From a standing position, move your feet so that they’re shoulder-width apart. Your toes should be pointing out towards 10 and 2 o’clock and not straight ahead.
2. Bend your knees and slowly descend (like you’re going to sit back in a chair). Keep your heels on the ground and your back straight throughout the movement.
3. When your upper thigh is in line with the top of your knees, or you’re as low as you can go, push up off your heels and return to the starting position.
4. Repeat the movement for the desired amount of reps. Remember to rest between sets.
- Inhale as you descend. Exhale as you ascend.
- Looking straight forward can help you to keep the correct form.
- Keeping your chest proud can help stop you from falling forward.
- Putting your arms out in front can help you keep your balance.
Variations and alternative exercises
Once you’ve mastered the technique of the bodyweight squat and you’re feeling confident, you might want a make your squats more challenging. Well, we’ve got a few exercises that’ll do just that.
Barbell back squat
Once you’ve mastered the bodyweight squat, you can try adding extra weight to the exercise to make it that little bit harder.
You can add the weight in many different ways, like holding dumbbells in each hand. Or, you can hold a barbell across your upper back (standard barbells at the gym weigh around 20kg on their own). Once you’re comfortable with the barbell, you can look to add extra weight to increase the difficulty further.
As a guide, try adding 5-10% of your bodyweight as extra weight, so if you weigh 90kg, try adding somewhere between 4-9kg.
How to do a barbell back squat:
1. Start with the barbell resting on your shoulders and your feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Descend by bending your knees and keeping your back straight.
3. Continue all the way down, or as low as you can go, keeping your weight on the front of your heels.
4. When you’re at the bottom of the squat, drive your hips forward and push up through your heels to return to the starting position.
Smith machine chair squat
The smith machine chair squat is different to the barbell squat as it focuses primarily on the glutes, rather than the quads.
How to perform a smith machine chair squat:
1. Set the smith machine to just under shoulder height. Stand beneath the bar, resting it across the back of your shoulders.
2. Unlatch the bar and take a step forward, with your feet shoulder-width apart.
3. Keeping your back straight, descend until your thighs are at least parallel with the floor.
4. Pause for a second at the bottom, before pushing the bar back up and driving through your heels.
5. Remember to latch the bar back on once finished.
Bulgarian split squat
Bulgarian split squats are a great way of building single-leg strength in your glutes, quads, and hamstrings while improving overall balance.
How to perform a Bulgarian split squat:
1. Find a bench and get into a forward lunge position. Your torso should be upright, hips square to the body, and you back foot elevated on the bench.
2. With your leading leg around half a meter in front of the bench, lower yourself down until your front thing is almost horizontal. Your knee should be in line with your foot.
3. Pause for a second at the bottom, before driving up through your front heel back to the starting position.
4. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
Common bodyweight squat mistakes and how to fix them
Just like any exercise, the bodyweight squat has its own technique that needs to be followed. You can check your form in the mirror or ask the PT at your gym — who will be happy to help.
During the bodyweight squat, your spine should not be excessively flexing as you ascend and descend. This places more stress on the spine itself and not the muscles.
To reduce this happening, try bracing your abs as hard as you can during the rep, this will support the spine as you squat.
Knee valgus sounds fancy, but it’s simply the term given to the movement that happens to the knees as you squat. If you watch yourself in the mirror whilst you squat, and see your knees go out as you go down, but go in towards each other on the way up, that’s knee valgus.
This means your quads are dominating the movement, with your glutes not being involved as they should. You can fix this by pushing your knees out as you drive upwards from the bottom of the squat.
You can also try wrapping our resistance or Pilates bands around your knees. This will provide an external stimulus to help remind you to push your knees out.
How to add Bodyweight Squats to your workout
Bodyweight squats are extremely versatile, so can be performed at any time throughout your workout.
At the start of your training, bodyweight squats are the perfect warm-up exercise for seasoned lifters. They’re also a great strength movement for beginners too.
Alternatively, adding them to the end of your workout as a burn-out exercise would make sure you finish off whatever energy is left in your legs.
Take home message
The bodyweight squat is an exercise that can be added to any workout, whether it’s cardio or weights, helping to build lower body strength.
They’re so versatile that you can do these out at your gym, or even from the comfort of your own home.
Want to try some more exercises? Check out these articles: