Are Bodyweight Squats Effective for Building Strength and Muscle Size?

Are Bodyweight Squats Effective for Building Strength and Muscle Size?

(Last Updated On: July 26, 2020)

Bodyweight Squats

A bodyweight squat is a squat you do without weights. Therefore, the only resistance is your own body weight. Most people start out doing bodyweight squats until they perfect their form and get comfortable with the movement. At some point, most move on to doing squats with a dumbbell in each hand or a single barbell across the shoulders. We know that squats using resistance, such as a barbell or dumbbells, is one of the best ways to hypertrophy and strengthen the muscles in the lower body, especially the quads. But what about bodyweight squats? Do they provide enough stimulus to your muscles to hypertrophy them?

The Benefits of Bodyweight Squats

How effective bodyweight squats are for building strength and muscle mass depends on your level of training. When you first start out and you’ve never trained your lower body against a resistance, you’ll gain some strength and hypertrophy your muscles doing only bodyweight squats. Squats are a “must do” for building lower body strength. They work so many muscle groups, including your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and even your core. Being a compound exercise, they’re also a calorie burner too. Any time you work more muscles at the same time, you burn more calories. Plus, the squat is a movement that integrates the action of several muscle groups, making it an excellent movement for boosting functional fitness.

One of the biggest benefits of doing bodyweight squats is it helps you nail the mechanics of the exercise without worrying about extra weight. You need to get your form right before doing squats with resistance. If you don’t, you’ll be at a higher risk of injury when you grab a pair of dumbbells or a barbell. Spend more time doing bodyweight squats and it’ll pay with better form when you add resistance. In turn, better form leads to greater strength and hypertrophy gains. So, time invested in getting the form right without weights will pay off later.

Plus, bodyweight squats are a movement you can do anywhere, even at the office. You need no equipment and very little space to do this versatile exercise. If you do metabolic conditioning workouts, bodyweight squats are a good addition. With metabolic conditioning workouts, you go from one exercise to the next without resting between exercises. The goal is to challenge the two main energy systems, the ATP phosphocreatine energy system and the glycolytic system. Therefore, you want fast-paced exercises that get your heart rate up such as burpees, push-ups, and mountain climbers, etc. Doing bodyweight squats in an explosive manner is an ideal exercise for a metabolic conditioning workout session.

Limitations of Bodyweight Squats

Bodyweight squats have their limitations too. Since you’re only using your own body weight as resistance, it’s harder to lose progressive overload, and without progressive overload, your hypertrophy and strength gains will be limited. You can add overload by doing more repetitions and sets of bodyweight squats, but you’ll eventually reach a ceiling where your muscles won’t grow further without forcing them to work harder.

Can You Make Bodyweight Squats Harder?

As mentioned, you can do more squats and sets of bodyweight squats. Another way to promote muscle growth is to reduce the tempo and do squats in a slow and controlled manner. Slowing the tempo increases the time your muscles are under tension and this can stimulate muscle growth. Also, pausing at the bottom of a squat for 4 seconds increases time under tension even more.

There are also benefits to increasing the tempo of bodyweight squats. Increasing the tempo of your bodyweight squats will help you improve the power capabilities of the muscles in your lower body. Move as quickly as you can during the concentric phase of the squat. You can even make bodyweight squats an explosive movement by using a super-fast tempo.

The take-home message? When you do bodyweight squats, vary the temp to get more benefits from the exercise. But even then, work towards adding resistance to your squats if your goal is to maximize your strength and hypertrophy gains.

You can also increase the benefits of bodyweight squats by doing deep squats. A deep squat is a squat where you lower your body below the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor.  One benefit of going deeper into a squat is it fully stretches the muscles in your lower body, and this can improve your flexibility and mobility. That’s important since limitations in flexibility and mobility also limit your performance when you do a number of strength-training exercises. When you first start doing deep squats, it’s safest to start with bodyweight squats since going deeper is more difficult.

The Bottom Line

Bodyweight squats are a great training tool for learning proper squat form, buy doing bodyweight squats exclusively will limit your gains. Don’t hesitate to incorporate them into your metabolic training workouts and use them as a refresher when your form could use some work, but to make continuous gains without reaching a plateau, graduate to using some form of resistance after 3 or 4 weeks of bodyweight squats. Your body needs progressive stimulation to keep making gains.

After mastering a bodyweight squat, most people start with a light dumbbell in each hand and increase the weight of the dumbbells over time. Using a barbell has benefits too and may be more effective since you can use higher loads but wait until you do several sets of dumbbell squats before graduating to a barbell. Another way to add resistance is to squat while holding a single kettlebell with both hands.

Whether you use your own bodyweight, a barbell, dumbbells, or a kettlebell, keep doing squats. They’re one of the most effective exercises for building lower body strength and one that belongs in your strength-training routine.

 

References:

  • Arthritis Foundation. “How to Squat Correctly”
  • McCall, Pete. “How to Get Real Results with Metabolic Conditioning.” ACE Fitnovatives Blog, October 26, 2012.
  • Physiotherapy Research International. 21 (3): 164–173. doi:10.1002/pri.1631. PMID 25962352.
  • Journal of Sports Sciences. 23 (10): 1045–55. doi:10.1080/02640410400022094. PMID 16194981.

 

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