Squats are truly the king of exercises. Few exercises are more recognizable and work more muscles in the lower body than a squat does. No wonder almost any exercise routine includes squats and, often, a variety of squat variations. Squatting is a functional move we do in everyday life as well. How many times do you squat down to pick up something you’ve dropped? Plus, squats are a compound exercise, an exercise that involves the movement of multiple joints and targets more than one muscle group at the same time. Exercises like this are real calorie burners, especially when you compare them to isolation exercises that only work a single muscle group.
You probably already know that squats offer more benefits than just burning calories. By working so many muscles in your lower body, including the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, you build lower body strength and do it in an integrated, functional manner. When you master the biomechanics of squatting, you perform better in sports and in daily life. Squatting down to pick something heavy up becomes easier. Strengthening the muscles in the lower body also reduces the risk of injury and enhances sports performance. Plus, squatting improves hip mobility as well. Squats are a powerful, multi-faceted exercise!
You probably think that to get benefits from squats, you have to do them holding heavy dumbbells or a barbell. No doubt, increasing the resistance forces your body to work harder and sets the stage for building strength, but you can still get benefits from doing bodyweight squats, especially if you tweak the exercise a bit to make it more challenging. And, there may be times you don’t have access to weights and want to still work out those lower body muscles. With bodyweight squats, you can do that.
When you first begin doing squats, you become stronger even when you don’t use resistance. That’s because when you’re still untrained, the movement is novel to you and your body adapts to any new stimulus you place on it. At first, even bodyweight squats may be challenging. But, if you continue to squat week after week without increasing the resistance or changing the exercise in some way to make it harder, you’ll soon hit a strength and hypertrophy plateau. The strength gains will slow as will your muscle development. So, how can you make bodyweight squats more challenging without using dumbbells or barbells?
One way to increase the difficulty, when you don’t have access to weights, is to add resistance using resistance bands. This is an alternative if you’re traveling. Throw resistance bands in a travel bag and you have a portable gym. But, you can tweak a bodyweight squat and challenge your body differently without any sort of added resistance. Here are some ways:
Go Deeper into the Squat
Most people don’t go deep enough into a squat, especially when they use weights. Not going low enough limits the gains you get from this move. By putting aside the weights and using your own bodyweight, you can focus more on descending lower, below 90 degrees. EMG studies show that squatting deeper activates the muscles in the posterior chain more than partial ones and this can lead to greater gains in strength and size as well as the ability to jump higher.
Do Shorter Reps at the Bottom of Bodyweight Squats
You can also increase the challenge of bodyweight squats by doing a few short reps at the bottom of the movement. For example, once you reach the bottom of a bodyweight squat, do 5 partial reps where you bounce off the bottom. The additional stimulus can help you squeeze even more benefits out of this multi-joint exercise.
Change the Tempo of Bodyweight Squats
If you really want to ramp up the benefits you get from bodyweight squats, increase the tempo. When you speed the movement up, without using momentum, you add a power component to the move as well. Increasing the temp also boosts the calorie burn and gets your heart rate up for greater cardiovascular benefits. To eliminate momentum, pause for a second at the bottom before moving your body as quickly as possible back to the starting position and repeat. Move even faster and you can turn bodyweight squats into an explosive move. For example, propel yourself off the ground at the top and do a squat jump. Doing this will add a cardiovascular component to squats and increase lower body power.
Vary the tempo of your bodyweight squats by doing super-slow, controlled squats. When you squat, make the move last for 3 seconds. Do as many as you can, using full range-of-motion. No cheating! It sounds easy but it’s not. You’ll probably find that your thighs are burning after only a minute. Super-slow squats place more stress on your quads and hamstrings because you’re keeping the muscles under tension longer. This, theoretically, should lead to more growth.
Do Single-Leg Bodyweight Squats
Single leg squats are a tougher beast. Many people have problems doing a single one when they first start out, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll appreciate how it can help you build lower body strength even without holding weights. The added perk of doing one-legged squats is it sharpens your balance and proprioceptive abilities. Plus, they’re great for correcting strength discrepancies between legs. Simply do more one-legged squats on the side that’s weaker.
Use Perfect Form
You’ll get more benefits from bodyweight squats if you use impeccable form – and most people don’t. Putting aside the weights will help you perfect your form, so you’ll get more benefits when you do use weights. So, get more out of squats by dropping the weights once in a while and focusing exclusively on form.
The Bottom Line
Squats are still the king of exercises and you don’t always need to use dumbbells or barbells to get benefits. Bodyweight squats are handy when you’re on vacation and don’t have your weights and are also a good way to work on your form. It’s easier to use good form when you aren’t using added resistance.
Poliquin Group. “Don’t Be Afraid to Squat Low: 7 Reasons to Squat Deep”
Strength and Conditioning Journal 31(1):76-85. February 2009