The bodyweight squat is a core exercise for strengthening the posterior chain.
But there are obvious questions. Given that there is no lifting of external weight involved, what’s the point of doing air squats? Is there really benefit to doing bodyweight squats every day?
Not only are bodyweight / air squats effective for muscle building as well as for strengthening soft tissues, but you can make them super challenging by taking on single-leg squats like the shrimp squat and pistol squat.
Maybe you’re doing weighted squats at the gym. Could it be that simple dual-leg air squats are beneficial enough that it made sense to do them on your in between days? Thereby giving you, effectively, zero rest days? They are.
A brief history of squatting
People start out squatting as babies. The movement is completely natural to the human body, but we Westerners lost touch with it over time as we began to sit on stools, benches and later chairs.
I bet, even if you don’t remember, that you could spend quite some time in this position comfortably:
You could dig in the mud and play games for hours and not get uncomfortable, no? Some of that time you sat cross legged, other parts you squatted, and you didn’t think much of it.
Why’d you stop?
In Asian countries, people still squat for important daily functions. Squat toilets are still fairly common. (The Study Abroad Blog once shared an in depth writeup on how to use an Asian toilet because there are lots of things to know if you travel abroad)
In fact, there’s a pretty popular product available today that got an assist on Shark Tank; it’s called the Squatty Potty–designed to encourage “healthy elimination through squatting”! Now that’s a great reason do do an air squat. 🙂
5 Reasons to Do Air Squats in the First Place
Bodyweight squats deliver a number of benefits you should consider and look forward to, beyond just the simple fact that they’re a practical part of daily activities!
Here are some of the reasons you might work air squats into your routine:
- Strengthening muscles: Fitness consultant Nora Tobin points out that bodyweight squats impact your glutes, hamstrings, quads and hip extensions. That’s compound exercise that affects multiple muscles at the same time.
- Definition: Want your legs and butt to look good? Get off the couch!
- Strengthening soft tissues: Joints, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. Plenty of muscles get involved, but you’re also working out the other soft tissues which will prevent injury.
- Core stabilization and posture: By keeping yourself upright during the movement, you’re improving your posture and your core.
- Conditioning and cardio: Finally, by going with high reps, you’re working your cardiovascular system. Get to it.!
Now, many fitness pros swear by the weighted squat. It’s allegedly the best exercise for leg strength.
And if you’re going for a jacked body, that might be the route you want to pursue. But if you’re like me, a little older and more concerned with overall health and overall strength than you are concerned with maximum strength, you might find the risks outweigh the benefits.
Are you in a little too much lower back pain and hip pain to consider reading any further? You may want to consider working on your hip flexors. Improving hip flexor mobility can vastly improve your squats and your fitness in general.
A few years ago, Anthony Johnson got a lot of attention for suggesting: “Barbell Squat: the Worst Exercise in Existence?”
“Loading the top of the spine — which in many respects is a pyramid — with a 200, 250, 300, 350, 400+ … pound bar, and then moving that bar up and down a few feet, does not seem especially wise in and of itself.”
I’m with this guy:
Humans are blinded by successful outcomes and we ignore the failures. We shouldn’t be looking for the exercise that produces the most successful outcomes without examining the downside risks. We should be seeking the exercise that produces the most positive results with the lowest failure rate.
Now I totally get that weighted squats can be done safely, and lots of (primarily younger) guys in the gym do barbell squats all the time. Isn’t it interesting that most of the problems with squatting are around overloading the back?
Now, I don’t do exclusively bodyweight squats. But I’m also not advocating loading the back — especially if you have any sort of back pain or prior injury.
Equipment to Enhance Air Squats
To build additional strength, as part of a functional fitness approach, I work in a few weighted exercises using either dumbbells or kettlebells. Here are a few moves to consider:
- Goblet squats with kettlebells
- Shrimp squats with dumbbells
- Shrimp squats with weight vest
You can also do kettlebell swings which activate the legs pretty intensely.
It’s important to realize you don’t need a LOT of different exercises as long as you find a select group you like, and either increase the dumbbell weight over time or progress to more challenging versions. But work out regularly!!
NOTE: For ease of adjusting the weight and increased likelihood you’ll actually USE them, I recommend these Bowflex adjustable dumbbells. They’re a little expensive but you can snap on or remove additional weight very easily between sets, without having to unscrew the cap at the end.
How to Do the Bodyweight Squat!
Let’s review how to do a basic air squat before we consider more complicated moves.
In this exercise, you’ll lower and raise your body weight on your legs. The steps to an air squat are as follows, according to a classic post at Nerd Fitness:
- Stand with legs just outside your hips.
- Point your toes slightly outward.
- Look straight ahead, and keep your back straight.
- Keep your weight primarily on the heels.
- Lower yourself by pushing your butt backwards.
- Keep your knees over your heels as you descend.
- Do not stop until your hips are below your knees.
- Push back up by driving through your heels.
How many of these should you do regularly?
If you’re not lifting weights regularly, you should be working up to at least one hundred squats per day in my opinion. You’ll be working your flexibility and strength even if the movement isn’t loaded with external weight.
How to Fit Bodyweight Squats Into Your Routine
This is where the magic happens.
Ideally, you have a full-body calisthenics routine that you’ll perform two or three times per week to develop your overall strength, flexibility and balance.
That routine should by all means include some form of squatting movement.
If you’re like me, you’ll use the other days for a variety of other activities:
- Focused skill work.
- Cardio like walking, running, etc.
- Other types of sports like racquetball, ultimate frisbee, etc.
- Lying on the couch.
When I refer to focused skill work, I’m talking about practicing whatever move(s) you’re trying to perfect right now.
For example, I’m pretty good at the shrimp squat but I haven’t mastered the pistol squat. Therefore, some of my skill days consist of supporting exercises and attempts of part of the pistol squat progression.
Other days I’ll go for a lengthy walk in the spirit of low impact cardio. I’ve previously mentioned the philosophy of Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint — I believe in the value of low impact cardio to combat insulin resistance, among other benefits.
Some days involve playing a game, as Mark also advocates, just to have some fun and–most importantly–to take advantage of the fitness level y other days afford me.
99% of my days involve one of the above.
Occasionally I let myself become a slug and stay on the couch. But I beat myself up over that for weeks afterwards.
And even if I have an off day, I always start with a morning workout. And that workout consists of 100 pushups, squats and dips.
Here’s my advice:
No matter what your day will bring, start out by getting 20 or 30 minutes of exercise in. Some kind of exercise. Any kind of exercise.
For me, that often means knocking out pushups and squats, maybe 60-100 of each. Add some pullups and dips in for good measure. Why?
Morning exercise gets the blood flowing to the brain.
This isn’t entirely about physical strength.
This is about mental strength as well.
So get your daily exercise!
Air Squats Aren’t Risk Free
With our earlier analysis of the risks of barbell squats, let’s also not kid ourselves. Should you really do air squats regularly if there are risks associated?
Well, let’s take a look at those risks. Maybe they’re not that bad.
First, there’s overuse. If you jump quickly into doing large numbers of bodyweight squats too quickly, you can cause repetitive stress injuries. Just ease into it. Watch out for the knees:
Examples at the knees are, locking your knees when standing for long periods, climbing stairs, playing soccer, running or jogging, performing squat or lunge exercises in poor form, with too much weight, and too little weight with high repetitions.
There are several foot problems that can be caused by squats as well. Think tendinitis, metatarsal stress fractures, and even Morton’s neuroma.
Finally, think about the risks from not watching form. Perfect squat form isn’t necessarily a requirement, but you’ll certainly be at lower risk if you work hard to make every rep a quality one and stop once you’re feeling fatigued.
Overall though, the rate of issues caused by air squats appears to be pretty low.
What variations should I try?
I think air squats are a fantastic group of exercises. I occasionally make them more difficult by grabbing dumbbells. If I keep up Crossfit I’ll be doing weighted dumbbells, however…
The more I think about things I recognize that the risk of weighted exercises for an occasional athlete like me is that I’ll injure myself trying to do something I really shouldn’t, like lift a 200 pound barbell to get my ever-so-important personal record.
No, sorry, my PR is not worth all that.
Here’s a few of the squat variations I include in my routines:
The prisoner squat involves a forward facing bodyweight squat as the standard bodyweight squat, but with the arms extended out to each side behind the head.
In order to execute this properly, to engage your upper back muscles, you should extend your arms as far as possible–outside your peripheral vision, if possible.
It’s one of the rare variations that complements the force put on the lower posterior chain with isometric holds in the upper posterior chain. 
THE PLIE SQUAT
The plie squat is often seen in ballet. It involves pointing your knees far out to the sides and squatting.
THE SQUAT jump
In the squat jump, you’ll jump up in the air from the fully descended position, to add some plyometric explosion to the movement.
This is popular in Crossfit because the jumping action builds the explosive muscle fibers. Do it!
HOLDS AND PULSES
As with other exercises, you can always add pulses at the bottom of the movement or an isometric hold to add to the burn.
Another variant of the isometric squat hold is a wall squat, a torturous exercise that burns more and more the better you get at it. Prop yourself against the wall for 30 or 60 seconds and see if you don’t agree!
Feel the burn! And if you’re in an especially aggressive mood, lift one leg up while you’re doing a wall squat to make it a one-legged wall squat.
And a few more – think about which ones make sense for your squat progression:
- Standard Air Squat – This one is the simplest. Hands behind the head, bend at the hips to a 90 degree position, then rise to the starting position.
- Dumbbell Squat – For this one, I grab a dumbbell in each hand, retract my shoulder blades and do the squat. Good way to add extra weight, NOT compress the spine, and work those glutes.
- Dumbbell Shrimp Squat – Try the above, but with a dumbbell in each hand. this means you’re putting all of your bodyweight plus the weight of the dumbbells on one leg as you squat. In my case I’m grabbing a total of half my bodyweight in dumbbells, so as it turns out, I am putting quite the load on my leg during the squat. Don’t tell me I can’t bulid strength!
- Bulgarian Split Squat – The Bulgarian split squat is a great approach to the one legged squat: It holds your inactive leg steady for the duration of the movement, while not reducing the amount of weight placed upon the active leg. It’s really one of the best one-leg squat training movements!
- Weighted Pistol Squat – This is the way I’m able to complete a pistol squat–by holidng a ten or 15 pound dumbbell out front as a counterweight. I didn come up with it, but it works. I’m close enough that I’ll soon be able to do them consistently without weight, and then I can brag a little 😉
- Squat Hold – Sometimes called the Pause Squat, this is where you stop at the lowest point in the movement and hold your position there for some number of seconds. Boxlife magazine pubslished this list of reasons why the Pause Squat is good for you to do.
- Squat Pulse – Once you’re at the bottom position, bounce a little. This one may be more for the ladies 🙂
The Shrimp Squat is the Most Accessible Single Leg Air Squat
The shrimp squat is the more accessible of the two most common one-legged squats. But perhaps not so much if you try to do it correctly!
And no, I’m not doing the Shrimp because of my height. 🙂
I was acquainted with the shrimp through Mike Fitch of Global Bodyweight Training. His video shows the “reverse lunge shrimp squat,” which I now realize I adapted for my own technique.
Here’s what I do:
- Raise the inactive leg back and to the ground with my knee resting on the ground.
- Lower my weight using the active leg.
- Lean forward with both arms outstretched to shift my weight on the active leg.
- Raise my entire body with the active leg.
This is very similar to Mike Fitch’s variation called the Reverse Lunge Shrimp Squat. The inactive leg is used to help lower the weight from a standing position by catching the weight in a lunge pattern. This is a bit less challenging than what I’m doing, to my surprise, but it makes sense as a stabilizing action.
This is an exercise that can help train you for some of the strength and balance required for the pistol squat.. Have a look:
This is a good way to get into shrimp squatting, but there’s more. I discovered that keeping that inactive leg pointed back makes the exercise easier from both a balance and a strength perspective.
The way I found out was when I attempted to emulate the Al Kavadlo tutorial with my foot held up to my butt.
That makes it significantly tougher!
Al points out that both arms in front is a way to manipulate the leverage a bit and make the exercise easier. Or, you can make it tougher by holding both hands behind your back. I haven’t tried that yet.
The Pistol Squat is the One Legged Air Squat that Wows People
The pistol squat is pretty entertaining to watch, and it’s damn challenging to perform.
While lowering oneself, putting the non-lifting leg straight out, along with both arms, puts the body into approximately the shape of a pistol.
As I’ve discovered in trying this exercise before I was ready, it’s tough enough to lower oneself into this position at all, but it’s especially difficult the closer one gets to the ground.
Translated: I fell on my ass a bunch of times.
Given that bodyweight fitness is an exercise in leverage, there’s a way around that. It turns out that what I did twice is a counterweighted pistol squat.
I’ve been able to do a reasonable number of pistols, and I can tell you that I have to exert quite a bit of force and concentrate mentally to avoid falling. It’s not easy!
Here’s a video of one of my favorite trainers, Al Kavadlo, demonstrating a progression that you can follow in order to prepare for the pistol.
I can do the assisted, the counterweighted, a pure pistol, and the bench pistol. I can’t do the “advanced pistol” or the plyo, although with more practice I believe I’ll get there.
Training for the pistol squat requires a vertical pole to hold on to. Why not grab the power tower already in your home gym?
What about Pain?
Do you find yourself with nagging hip or lower back pain when you squat? There are a few things you should try, according to a physical therapist at T-Nation:
- Narrow your stance
- Don’t overstretch your hip flexors.
- Work on your hip internal rotation
- Work on ankle dorsiflexion
- Practice 360 degree core bracing
Now if you’re not paying enough attention to your hip flexors, that could be the issue right there. The hip flexors are the most under appreciated muscle in the body.
Untreated tension in the hip flexors can make bodyweight squats, weighted squats, lunges, and other exercises quite painful.
Consider spending time on them if you’re not already.
First, let me clarify–I don’t recommend barbell squats unless you’re under the supervision of a trainer. Too much risk of injury for the home gym or bodyweight enthusiast, and let’s face it, my drive is to build my body primarily without barbells. There are two kinds of weighted squats I recommend.
But I do recommend the goblet squat. The goblet squat involves lifting a kettlebell or a dumbbell held at your chest for the purpose of increasing the weight. With a good sized dumbbell you can definitely build lots of size and strength–probably as much as possible without doing back-breaking barbell lifts at the gym. Here’s how they look:
Dumbbell squats are done with dumbbells either hanging on your sides, or lifted up to your shoulders. The dumbbells let you work the weight separately in each arm, giving you a little more control than a barbell, and avoiding some of the spine injury risk.
To give yourself the best flexibility at home, I suggest dumbbells that can be easily adjusted–not with a catch on the outside requiring you to screw and unscrew it to release plates, but instead dumbbells that easily clamp on/off additional weight with very little work
These Bowflex dumbbells are expensive but worth it!
Who does bodyweight squats every day?
Herschel Walker, it turns out, is known for an intensive bodyweight routine.
“Still doing no weights. Everything has been body exercises. Almost like a gymnast. I can do the rings. I can do that pommel horse. And people are shocked that I can do it.”
The focus away from weights is something Walker credits to what’s kept his joints so healthy. He doesn’t believe weights are necessarily bad for working out, but too much weight can be harmful. He recommends that most people do less weight, but more reps. To avoid injury, Walker recommends stretching the muscles out and to consider a Pilates or yoga class.
“Almost everybody wants to look like a body builder and do 500 pounds on the bench. That sounds good, but all of sudden you’ve got back problems and all these other problems.”
Walker does 1,500 pushups per day and apparently fits in 1,000 squats per day. So you can at least do 100!
Sure! I’m not the first guy to think about doing 100 per day.
Ted Carr created his website “100 Squats a Day” as motivation. He’s vegan and also runs a fresh fruit website – the squats and change in diet were his way of taking control of his life.
Exactly the kind of transformation I believe is possible with bodyweight training and proper nutrition (although I’m not going vegan like he did).
So here are a few bodyweight / air squatting programs I’ve seen that you could consider starting with:
- The TravelStrong Squat Challenge – This challenge has three different levels, beginner/intermediate/advanced and includes demonstrations of a number of the different squat variations.
- The Jailhouse Strong Challenge – This challenge is a progressive card stacking exercise where sequentially stacking ten playing cards with corresponding numbers of squats for each card results in 100 squats. This is one you could work up to every day. Here’s an excerpt:
Start with 10 cards and line them up about 3 inches apart.
Squat and pick up the first card, then move to the next card and place the first card on top of the second card.
After which, you squat twice more to pick up each card individually, before moving to the third card.
Walk to the third card and squat twice to stack each card, then squat three times to pick up each card before carrying the cards to the fourth card, and proceeding with the pattern.
See that one can be taxing AND fun!
- The Isometric Squat Challenge – In this challenge, you’ll hold for 30 seconds at the bottom of the squat movement, then stand up and perform a complete squat. Then do another hold followed by two squats. Keep increasing the number of full squats until you max out. Why? Puts your muscles under tension for longer and forces you to work out of the hold. Give it a try!
- The 100 Rep Fitness Blender Squat Challenge – Fitness Blender ” combines 10 different squat variations in order to target all of those muscles, from multiple angles, making it more effective than hundreds of repetitions of the same exact motion.”
Let’s watch a few!
Now here is XHIT with a video of an intense young lady coaching you through 200 air squats! She’s a little scary 😉 but the accent makes it worth listening to!
Now, here’s the Fitness Blender routine above in video form:
Now for those of you who are especially ambitious, here’s a lady doing 1,000 Squats…from Blogilates:
Hope that inspired you! There’s almost infinite ways to do air squats. Find a way to work some of them in each day, each morning before you go to work. It’ll help your body, and the exercise gets your body moving and helps your brain.
Let’s get to it!