The resistance you use when you work with weights depends upon your goals. For example, if your main objective is to build strength, a heavy resistance (80 to 90% of your one-rep max) will best help you get there. High resistance and lower reps is the recipe for building strength. If hypertrophy is your primary goal, training with a moderate resistance (60 to 80% of one-rep max) and doing a moderate number of reps is a pathway to success. But what if you want to build muscle endurance? To enhance muscle endurance, lighter weights (40 to 60% of one-rep max) and higher repetitions boosts a muscle’s ability to sustain muscle contractions for a longer period of time.
The squat is a compound exercise that can build lower body strength, size, or endurance. It’s also a functional movement that helps your body better perform the tasks you do on a daily basis. When you squat, you might reach for a challenging weight. However, sometimes you should lighten up on the resistance or even do bodyweight squats. There’s no shame in doing so and you can get benefits even if you’re not using a heavy barbell or holding a heavy dumbbell in each hand. Let’s look at some situations where you will benefit by lightening up on the weight when you squat.
You’re Just Starting Out
Everyone wants to be a pro who lifts heavy and with good form from day one, but it’s important to master the fundamentals before you do exercises with heavy weights. That’s especially true of a multi-joint movement like the squat. When you haven’t mastered squat form yet, stick to bodyweight squats until you’ve mastered your form and the movement becomes second nature to you. If you start with weights, it’s easy to form bad habits that can stick with you and make it harder to do the exercise with good form after adding more resistance.
You’re Trying to Squat Deeper
At some point, you’ll want to squat below parallel, where your hips descend below your knees and your booty approaches the floor. The best way to start is to use lighter weights or, even better, your own body weight. Why start with only bodyweight? The risk of injury is higher when you squat below parallel and your buttocks almost touch the floor. Until you’re comfortable with the movement and can squat below parallel without resistance, practice using only your bodyweight.
Why should you go deep? The increased range-of-motion of a deep squat improves muscle development, flexibility, and mobility more than a standard squat. If you play sports, they also help you build greater vertical jump height. Despite the much-repeated idea that squats are bad for your knees, research shows they help build knee stability and lower the risk of injury.
You’re Warming Up
Bodyweight squats are a good preamble to a lower body workout. Squatting without weights increases blood flow to the muscles in your lower body, boosts your heart rate, and gets your muscles ready to work. It also gets your nervous system into the groove to help you get the most out of the exercise when you add resistance. Always begin a set of squats by doing the exercise using your own body weight first.
You’re Recovering from an Injury
If you’ve had a recent injury and are on the mend, it’s safest to do bodyweight squats until you can do weighted squats safely. Once body weight squats no longer cause discomfort, progress to lighter dumbbells and, only then, to a barbell. Let pain be your guide. Save the heavy resistance and barbell until you’ve completely recovered from your injury. It’s better to lighten up and work out safely than “be a hero,” use too much weight, and re-injure yourself.
You Want to Build Muscle Endurance
When you squat with heavy resistance, you activate more fast-twitch muscle fibers, those involved in building strength and power. When you lighten up on the weight and do higher reps, you hit more slow-twitch fibers, those that help you sustain exercise for prolonged periods of time. If you’re a long-distance runner, you might not want added muscle size but instead want to boost muscle endurance, the ability of your leg muscles to contract for long periods of time without fatigue. Squats with good form and range-of-motion using lighter weighs is the best way to meet your goals.
When you squat for muscle endurance, keep the resistance less than 50% of your one-rep max. Using this resistance should allow you to do 15 to 20 reps before fatiguing. When you squat with lighter weights, you boost hip mobility and muscle endurance without greatly increasing muscle size. You might also want to periodize your workouts so you’re lifting heavy during one cycle, using moderate resistance during another, and light resistance during the final cycle.
When You Do One-Legged Squats
You might not do one-legged squats at the moment, but you should. Squatting with one leg builds strength and muscle size, but it also enhances balance, mobility, and core stability. It’s a particularly good exercise if you have asymmetric muscle development in your thighs or you play a sport where you spend time on one leg. One-legged squats are more difficult to execute with good form. You can hold a light dumbbell or kettlebell when you do this exercise but start without weights. This is not an exercise where you want to go heavy to get benefits.
The Bottom Line
Squats are one of the most effective exercises you can do for your lower body. Learning to squat properly builds lower body strength, improves bone density, boosts flexibility, burns calories, and, if you do one-legged squats, will help improve balance. You’ll get benefits from this exercise, even if you use lighter weights. So don’t think you have to max out all the time. Know when lightening upon the weight is a better option.
Studies also show you can build muscle, even using lighter weights, as long as you work your muscles to fatigue. It’s not just the resistance you use that counts, it’s the effort you put into the exercise.
- American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687-708. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181915670.
- com. “Squat research review”
- com. “The Difference Between Muscular Strength And Muscular Endurance”
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