Tired Of The Barbell — Give Bodyweight Squats A Try

After many years of heavy barbell training you sometimes have to admit that you need a break.  All that heavy weight can really stress you out when things get too tough.  That’s when bodyweight squats come in handy.  

Lifting just your bodyweight will give your central nervous system a HUGE break.  Bodyweight squats will help to keep you strong, more well conditioned and help speed up your recovery.  

It is not enough to just keep pushing yourself to the breaking point.  If you push the limits too much, guess what happens?

The limits push back.

Our bodies are not as strong and tough as we would like to believe.  They actually are very fragile.  If you push yourself too much you WILL break.  

By using the various types of bodyweight squats in this article you will be able to stay in the gym and maintain all of your progress while you give yourself a nice deload from your training.   

How To Perform A Classic Bodyweight Squat

The truth is….. I lied.  

I am not giving you 10 bodyweight variations.  Instead I’m going to give you 11.  

After all, how can you perform and master the bodyweight variations if you don’t know how to do the most basic version first.  

Benefits of Squats
Notice how my knees are not going over my toes.  Also my spine is completely straight and my weight is evenly distributed on my feet.

This is the classic bodyweight squat, or the air squat.  Here’s how you do it.

First position your feet shoulder width apart.  Keep you toes pointed straight forward.  

At the same time, keep your weight centered on your feet.  This means keep the majority of your weight between the heels of your feet and the balls of your feet.  

From here, squeeze your glutes, anteriorly tilt your pelvis and push your hips back.  The bend your knees and descend.  

Go down as deep as possible.

Once you are in the bottom position, push through your heels AND the balls of your feet and begin the ascent. 

Keep your chest up the whole time and keep pushing into the ground until you are standing straight up again.  

That’s one rep.

Spotting Bad Form On Your Bodyweight Squats

Since the best sports scientists have found that quality movement is the most important part of training, you want to make sure that you are performing these squat variations with nearly perfect form.  

The biggest mistake you will catch yourself doing is coming up on your toes in the bottom position.  This is usually due to two things: hip mobility and ankle mobility.

If your joints do not have the right mobility, then you will not be able to get down into the right position.  Thus you will compensate with bad form.  

Also another symptom of poor mobility is the chest collapsing forward in the bottom position.  If the hips cannot open up enough, then your lower back will start to kick in to try and help you stand up.  

Finally, the last mistake you will catch yourself doing is allowing your knees to bow inward during the ascent.  

This is usually form having weak glutes and not using your vastus medialis (tear drop muscle).  These two muscles help to keep the knee in line.  If they become weak, then the outer quads and hip flexors will take over.  

You will eventually catch yourself making these mistakes at some point or another.  So make sure you master and perfect your air squat before moving onto the tougher variations.  

Try to perform at least 100 reps per day to really drill down the technique. 

**Note**  Toes In Or Out?  During a weighted barbell squat, you would want to keep your toes out for better activation of the glutes and vastus medialis.  But for a bodyweight squat, you should keep your toes in.  Why?  Because bodyweight squats should supplement your current training program.  Keeping your toes forward ensures you have the optimal level of mobility necessary to perform heavy weighted squats SAFELY.     

Bodyweight Squat Variations

All of the variations below are variations of the air squat.  So if you haven’t read the previous section, be sure to do that.  

Without taking the time to properly develop your air squat, your form on any of these variations will be faulty and might lead you straight to an injury.  

However, if your form is good, then you can start trying the variations.  

All of these variations can be used for a different purposes.  Some can be used for mobility while others can be used to build strength.  

Add them to your training program as YOU see fit.  If you are currently trying to add strength, then add in some of these exercises to your regular workout.  

Ok let’s dive in!

Goblet Squats

Although goblet squats are not technically a bodyweight exercise, they are still pretty damn close and they are an excellent addition to your leg day.  

You will hold a kettlebell or a dumbbell against your chest while squatting down as low as possible.  

Goblet Squats
Both the top and bottom of the dumbbell MUST maintain contact with my body the entire time.

This exercise works much better with a dumbbell than a kettlebell.  With a dumbbell you can hold yourself accountable.  You need both the top and bottom half of the dumbbell to be pressing against your chest the entire time.

If the bottom part comes off your chest, then your doing them wrong.  I have written an entire article on goblet squats and their benefits.  Be sure to check it out for more info.  

Add these to your workouts for 3 sets of 20 reps at the end of a leg workout.  You’ll thank me later.

Wall Squats

A wall has many uses.  Besides keeping you warm in the winter and holding up your house, a wall can be very useful for squats.  

By placing a Swiss ball behind your back you can squat down with a completely vertical torso and really work your quads.  

Wall Squats
The wall helps you keep your torso vertical which takes pressure off the lower back.

I especially like this exercise to target weak areas on my quads.  One in particular, the vastus medialis.  With a wall squat, you will learn to push through the ball of your big toe and really activate that muscle.  Plus you will not have to worry about balance.  

If you keep both feet together, you can really target the vastus lateralis and develop a nice outer quad sweep.  

Also patella tendon issues can be addressed with wall squats by placing a ball, or foam roller between your knees.

Perform this exercise during your warmups, or on your “off” days for 3 sets of 15-20 reps.   

Hindu Squats

Hindu squats are not a common exercise you see in most gyms.  This is a very versatile exercise that has many applications. 

To perform you want to stand with your arms out straight in front of you.  Inhale and bring your arms into extension behind your back.  

Keep your torso vertical and squat all the way down onto your toes while swinging your arms in front of you.  

Now exhale and push through the balls of your feet while you stand up.  

Now I know what you are thinking, “How does squatting on your toes help me squat in real life?”

Well the main benefit is not the toe squatting, It is the movement patterns.  

The exact movement pattern of the Hindu squat is the same as a vertical jump.  So think of it as a way to really drill down perfect jumping technique.  

Also there is a rhythmic breathing pattern to the Hindu squat.  You inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up.  Plus you have to inhale into your lower body.  

This is the same place you want to inhale if you want to squat big weights under the barbell.

It is best to perform these on your off days for as many reps as possible.       

Prisoner Squats

If you are having trouble with front squats, then prisoner squats are for you.  The prisoner squat is the bodyweight version of a front squat.  

Front Squats
The prisoner squat is the bodyweight version of the front squat.

Simply perform an air squat while placing your hands behind your head.  Be sure to keep your chest up and DO NOT pull on your neck!

Keep your hands behind your head but don’t apply any force.  

Aim for 3-5 sets of 10-15 reps.

Overhead Dowel Squats

If the prisoner squat helps with front squats, then the overhead dowel squat helps you improve your overhead squat.  

Overhead Squats
The overhead dowel squat would look identical to this except you would be using a broomstick and NOT a barbell.  

This is extremely valuable if you are a weightlifter and trying to improve your snatch.

Simply perform an air squat while holding a dowel, or broomstick above your head.  Widen your hands as far as you can to make this exercise easier.  

Keep the dowel directly over your spine.  Do not hold it in front of your head or behind it.  

If you are not a weightlifter it is still very valuable and has many applications.  

For starters it develops incredible overhead mobility in your shoulders which will help you stay injury free. 

Also it develops a tremendous amount of balance.  Definitely a plus for any lifter.

Shoot for 1-2 sets of 10 reps every day with perfect form. 

Split Squats

Bulgarian Split Squats
The Bulgarian Split Squat is a split squat with the rear foot elevated slightly.  A regular split squat would have the back foot on the ground.  

Now we are getting into single leg exercises.  The split squat is on of the most valuable single leg exercises you can do.  

It is easily available to everyone and can be done anywhere.  

Simply place one leg in front of you and another behind you in a straight line.  From here keep your torso straight and lower yourself down until your knee is just above the ground.  

Keep the angle of the front knee to 90 degrees and don’t bang your knee on the ground.  Also push through the ball of your foot on the back leg.  

To make this exercise more difficult, elevate your back leg.  This version is called a Bulgarian split squat.  

Perform 3 sets of 10-15 reps on each leg during you leg workouts.

Pistol Squats

Of all of the bodyweight squat variations, this one is the hardest.  I takes a tremendous amount of balance, strength, flexibility, mobility and coordination.  

Pistol Squat
Notice the pistol squat is a full depth regular squat on one leg.  Notice how I keep my arms in front of me to counter balance.  

Pistol squats are a brutally effective lower body bodyweight exercise.  They will expose and strengthen any weakness you have with no mercy.  

I won’t get into too much detail here because I have already written an article about pistol squats.  

But if you don’t already know, a pistol squat is simply a one legged squat while keeping your other leg in front of you.

You will only be able to perform around 3-5 reps when you are first starting with these.  But over time the volume will increase.  

Perform these during your leg workouts if you are already proficient with them.  Otherwise do them on a separate day.  Pistol squats deserve a workout in and of themselves.    

Qi Gong Wall Squat

This is probably not one of the squat variations you were  thinking about, but it is one of the best ones on the list.  

All you need is a wall.  Hopefully you have one of those.

Stand in front of a wall and face the wall.  Bring your feet as close to the wall as possible.  If you are a beginner, you should aim for 6 inches from the wall.  Intermediates can try 3-4 inches and advanced can try actually getting their toes up against the wall.  

From here the goal is simple.  All you do is perform an air squat.  But you CANNOT touch the wall at all.  

This provides the perfect way to self coach yourself on squats.  Think about the biggest problem people have with squats, leaning too far forward.  

The wall solves this problem.  

Do’t think of this exercise as a workout.  Think of it as practice.  Try to perform at least one set of 5-10 reps every day.  

Try to challenge yourself as well.  Once regular wall squats become too easy, do them prisoner squat style to make them more challenging.  

With these you are only limited by your imagination.  

Jump Squats

Time to add a little speed training to this list.  Jump squats provide a great athletic stimulus to your training program.  

Hindu squats help to build the vertical jumping motor pattern.  But actual jump squats will build the explosive force and endurance necessary to take you to new heights.  

Simply perform an air squat and on the ascent.  Push through your heels with as much force as possible and explode off the ground as high as you can.  

Land and go back down immediately to the bottom position.  Then immediately explode back up again.  

This trains the bodies elasticity.  If you learn how to train this effect it will help you to become faster and stronger.  

Keep the reps low on this one.  About 5-8 max will do.  Remember you want quality with these, not quantity.  

Training with good form and less reps will do much more for you than bad form and high reps.  

Box Squats

Box squats are one of the most versatile of all the variations on this list.  But they are not done the way you think.  

The box squat is actually another teaching exercise for learning the squat.  Specifically the low bar back squat.  

The box teaches you to push your hips back behind you and to reach for a target.  This allows for greater hamstring and glute activation.  

Plus by lowering the box you can train yourself to reach depth and maintain proper hip and knee mechanics in the bottom position.  

To perform a box squat.  Place your feet wider than shoulder width apart and point your toes out by about 30 degrees.  

Initiate the movement by squeezing the glutes and pushing your hips back behind you.  Keep your spine neutral and keep your eyes down on the ground about 10 feet in front of you.  

This allows for better hip activation.  

Go down slowly onto the box.  When you reach the box.  Maintain tension in your torso but allow your hips and legs to relax.  

From here explosively contract your hips and legs and drive yourself off the box as explosively as possible.  

This builds tremendous strength for your squat and it will also help to drill down your form.  

Perform about 3 sets of 10-15 reps on your “off” days or at the end of your leg workouts.   

Conclusion

That was quite a list!  

If you look at all of the bodyweight squats on this list, there is one common theme you will notice among all of them.  

Movement.

Earlier I said that bodyweight squats will build tremendous amounts of conditioning for your regular squat.  

Not just for burning fat, but also for your movements.  The best athletes and lifters are those who move the best.  

By taking your time with these exercises, you are literally wiring your nerves to become superconductors.  Thus your movements with the actual barbell squats will be extremely efficient. 

If you truly want to become the strongest person in your gym this is how you do it.  

This doesn’t just apply to squats either, but ALL of your exercises.  

Now stop reading and start taking action.  Pick at least one variation on this list and start practicing it today.  

Go get it!


Tony G
Tony G

Anthony is a fan of all things gym related. Growing up very overweight and out of shape, Anthony whipped himself into shape and stunned his entire community becoming a "fitness guru". Tony then set his sights on strength sports (Weightlifting/Powerlifting/Strongman) and learned all about body mechanics, mobility work and injury prevention. Tony found his true love in the strength sports, particularly Olympic Weightlifting. He earned a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree from Fitchburg State University in Exercise and Sports Science. He is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA.

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