Bodyweight Squats: How To Perfect Your Form Now

Picture of a man doing bodyweight squats in a CrossFit gym

Have you ever considered the importance of bodyweight squats?

Squatting is by far one of the best exercises.

Why?

Because it creates an anabolic effect that promotes muscle building. Not only in your legs, but throughout your body.

Due to lack of proper knowledge, there are many people who still avoid squatting.

They associate squatting with injuries. However, when done properly, it is, in reality, one of the safest exercises.

But there is more.

Aside from its muscle building properties, it can also point out weaknesses. Doing a squat is easy. Doing a proper squat can be difficult.

Let’s go ahead and see how doing squats using your bodyweight can pave the way towards better leg development, with less chance of injury.

Benefits of squats

Woman doing a squat with an empty barbell on her back

We’ve started this article with one of the benefits of squatting.

However, there are more benefits you should know of.

In this section we’ll present what we consider to be the most favorable outcomes to doing this exercise.

Anabolic effect

As we’ve stated in the beginning, squatting stimulates an anabolic effect throughout your entire body.

It creates a muscle-building environment; therefore, optimizing muscle mass growth.

This exercise is so effective that, if done properly, it forces your body to produce more testosterone and human growth hormone.

These hormones are crucial for muscle building.

We are by no means referring to steroid induced growth hormone. We are solely referring to the naturally produced human growth hormone (HGH).

Work multiple muscles at once

While the squat is a quadriceps dominant exercise, it is far from targeting that muscle group only.

Here are the muscles worked in a squat:

  • Quadriceps
  • Gluteus
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Core muscles

If you are performing the exercise using external weight, your arms will also play a role. Along with the upper back, the muscles in the arms are supporting the bar and its weight.

Develop core stability

The muscle groups starting from the pelvic floor, all the way up to the diaphragm, are known as core muscles.

Surprisingly, the core is not only the 6-pack muscle (rectus abdominis).

*slight sarcasm*

A great benefit of squats it that they force us to engage our core.

Even bodyweight squats.

The more weight you add to your squats (safely!), the more you’ll have to engage the core. With time, squatting will supplement any core specific exercises for optimal development.

Ingrain good posture habits

We know. This is more of a bonus.

It is not related to muscle building (or anything fitnessy for that matter).

As we’ve previously mentioned, if you want to perform squats with proper form you should keep your chest held high, shoulders pulled back and a slight arch in the back.

Look forward, slightly over the horizon.

This is the posture you'd like to have throughout your day. And it so happens that it is associated with confidence, being proven to make you feel good about yourself.

Others

Here we’ll just stack some of the benefits:

  • Increases jumping height
  • No equipment needed
  • Increases sprinting speed
  • Good fat burner

There you have them; the most significant squatting benefits.

In the following section, we’ll get a closer look at the muscle groups that engage during this exercise.

Muscles worked

Diagram showing the muscles worked in a squat

As you may already know, the squat is a compound exercise.

It means that it recruits more than one muscle group, and more than one joint.

In this case, the hip joint, the knee joint and the ankle joint.

However, not all muscles are created equal. Or trained equally.

Every compound exercise places the emphasis on certain muscles - primary movers - more than on others - secondary, stabilizing muscles.

Primary squat muscles

There are three primal movers in the squat:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes

You can slightly emphasize any of these through your squatting technique.

If you start the exercise by driving your hips back, you will recruit more of the hamstrings and glutes.

If you start the exercise by bending the knee, the emphasis of the movement will be placed on the quadriceps.

Secondary squat muscles

Secondary muscles support the primary muscles in the movement.

Furthermore, they stabilize the body, mainly through the tension in the core.

It should be mentioned that, with bodyweight squats, you won’t feel the secondary muscles working as much.

The intensity is too low.

The higher the intensity, the more you will feel the recruitment of these muscles:

  • Hip adductors
  • Hip abductors
  • Calves
  • Core

Bodyweight squats form

In sports, form reigns over everything.

This should be your mentality if you are serious about training. The concept holds true for everything, including the squat.

The rule of thumb for squats is: hips, knees and ankles should hinge naturally.

We’ll break down the form cues and explain how they affect the exercise.

1. Place the feet in a way that feels comfortable

A lot of people will tell you to start with your feet shoulder-width apart.

That is what generally works for the majority. However, bodies come in all different shapes and forms.

There is no gold standard you should attain in your form. It is all subjective.

What is true, in reality, is the fact that everyone will squat differently. That is based on genetic factors such as hip structure, limb lengths, and other anatomical differences.

Therefore, you should place your feet in a way that feels natural to you.

2. Keep the heels in contact with the ground at all times

A lot of beginners will lift their heels and get on their toes. That is bad and will lead to knee injury - especially if you are doing weighted squats.

If you cannot keep your heels in contact with the ground there is one issue: ankle mobility.

There are two ways to solve this issue:

  • Elevate your feet using a weight plate or lifting shoes
  • Address the ankle mobility by stretching the calves

The first solution is short term.

The second solution will take longer but is the most ideal one.

You can use exercises such as downward facing dog to increase the ankle mobility.

3. Keep the knees in track with the toes, rather than to the outside or the inside

Strive to keep the knee centered with the toes.

As I said, everyone’s body is different.

However, you should aim to NOT have the knees moving inward or too much on the outside of the foot.

4. Keep the chest up and shoulders back

A very important cue is to keep your chest up at all times.

Even though it will not affect a bodyweight squat, it will affect you when you add load through a barbell.

Imagine squatting 100% of your bodyweight (which is really not a lot) and your back rounds all of a sudden.

Ouch.

To avoid that unpleasant scenario, make sure you squat with your chest up and your shoulders back. Slightly arch the lower back. Hold this posture throughout the entire movement.

This will ingrain good habits that will stick.

Having good bodyweight squats form will translate to harder progressions later on in your journey.

5. Go down until the hip crease is below the knee

Some personal trainers say you should go all the way down A to G style (ass to grass).

For some people that may be too much for the lower back, or their mobility may be a limiting factor.

As long as your thighs go below parallel with the ground, you are fine.

Stopping before that is not ideal. You are putting extra strain on the knee joint and not training the muscles optimally.

6. Push back through your heels, not the toes or ball of the foot

Lastly, you want to make sure that you push back up through the heel.

Pushing through the toe or the ball of the foot will place strain on the knee joint and will not engage the muscles properly.

While some of the weight will still be on the ball of the foot, most of it will be pushed through the heel.

Common squat mistakes

Since this article is dedicated to bodyweight squats, we will only present the most common mistakes with this variation.

However, these are the overall most important movement flaws that need fixing.

The unweighted variation is the foundation. Set your safety up now by eliminating any form flaws you may have.

These are the most common mistakes:

1. Lack of tension in the body

Whenever you squat, keep tension throughout your entire body.

Keep your chest held high, a slight arch in the back and the core tensed.

This is not necessarily an issue with bodyweight squatting. The issue comes when you add weight.

Learn to hold tension without weight.

Then, when you switch to the weighted variation, you will not have to re-learn the movement.

2. Heels coming off the floor

Before you even think about adding weight to your squats, you must fix this issue. There is absolutely no way around it.

It may sound bossy but trust me - your knees will thank you for it.

Whenever your heels come off the ground, the weight is no longer equally supported by the muscles and soft tissues (joints) around the hips, knees and ankles.

Most of the weight shifts on the knee joint.

You can imagine how this can be disastrous.

Fix the tightness in your calves and this common mistake will be taken care of.

Start by doing downward facing dogs and stretching your hamstrings while keeping your feet in dorsiflexion (i.e. the motion opposite to pointing your toes).

3. Knees moving inward

Just as with the aforementioned mistakes, the knees moving inward won’t affect you that much unweighted.

However, when you add weight is when you start feeling pain.

It should be mentioned that even with bodyweight squats alone, you will still run into problems eventually. It just happens slower than if you had used weights.

Keep your knees in line with the feet throughout the whole movement to prevent injuries.

4. Half squatting

Any squat that stops before the hip crease is below the knee joint is considered a “half squat”.

If you stop before your thighs are below parallel with the ground, there is lots of pressure placed on the knee.

As you might have noticed, we are trying to do whatever we can to protect the knee joint.

Squatting ass to grass is not necessary.

Make sure that the hip crease is below the knee joint - that’s all.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is more to squatting than just a mere up and down movement.

Bodyweight squats are an important exercise, because they pave the way to other variations - including weighted squats.

They are the very foundation.

And for this reason, we should master them before we add weight, and before we do pistol squats or other, harder variations.

We should make sure that we don’t do any of the common mistakes, and that we are constantly ingraining good habits with our form.

This is the only way to longevity in training.

Over to you.