Most people who practice bodyweight squats, or “air” squats, do so briefly. They quickly “move on” to something more “advanced,” after impatiently having asked “how do I make bodyweight squats more difficult?” The expected answers to this question usually involve something like adding weights or working one leg at a time. But to the same question of how to make bodyweight squats more difficult, and without trying to be funny or clever, *I* say “do them correctly and do more of them.” Many, many more.
You see, most people who think they have mastered bodyweight squats can do twenty or twenty-five or maybe more with bad form. And the more they try to do, the worse the form. They do not descend below parallel, and they pop up and down quickly. These are partial reps and are generally done this way out of impatience, inaccurate information (such as that going below parallel is bad for the knees), a lack of mobility and flexibility, an outdated notion that high reps do not build strength and muscle, a lack of understanding about proper technique, or some combination of these factors. In fact, most believe that bodyweight squats are not a “real” or “serious” exercise.
However, of the Big Three Exercises that I perform regularly (the other two being push-ups and pull-ups), squats enjoy by far the highest rep counts per set, yet are by far the most technically challenging exercise that I do. Performed correctly, you should descend below parallel and with a relatively straight back. And you should do many repetitions per set. This requires strength, flexibility, and mobility in the hips, ankles (especially), knees and lower back. It requires quite a bit of practice to master this, and my squats are certainly still a work in progress. I have a long way to go before I master this exercise.
Even if performed correctly and regularly, one can still build up to quite a few squat reps per set, which is not the case for most upper-body exercises. Can you imagine working up to a set of 100 push-ups with good form? Does this fact make bodyweight squats a waste of time? I’d like to suggest here that, rather than being a waste of time, high rep sets of bodyweight squats performed with good technique are liberating, transforming, strengthening, conditioning and worth their weight in gold. And the fact that you *can* perform many reps is what actually makes them absolutely not a waste of time.
Without regular practice I can do a pretty good set of 25-30 squats on demand. WITH regular practice, I have worked up to three sets of 50 reps a day before “moving on to something else”. This is somewhat impressive, especially for a 57 year old, but it certainly stands to reason that I could eventually do more, like working up to three sets of 100. Imagine this. No, seriously, imagine it! Three sets of 100! Although I would not have thought so without a more complete appreciation of this magical and transformative exercise, I now believe that such a goal, three sets of 100 squats a day done with good form, is absolutely a worthy goal.
The required mechanics to pull off three sets of 100 squats a day make proper technique high rep bodyweight squats the best bang-for-buck exercise of them all in this modern world of epidemic sitting and long periods of inactivity. Everyone sits at a computer all day and on the couch all night. Everyone’s hips are tight. Squats fix this. Everyone’s knees are sore and tight and their legs are weak. Provided you can do them, squats also fix this. Ankle strength and mobility? Lower back? Poor conditioning? Check. Check. Check.
High repetition bodyweight squats performed with good technique require equal parts strength, mobility, flexibility and conditioning. It’s like an entire workout in one exercise. This fact is what really helps to lend the exercise its magic. Mobility work, flexibility work, strength work, and conditioning work all in one move!
But the biggest factor that in my opinion makes bodyweight squats singly supreme may surprise you. It’s about the amount of time, consistency and discipline it takes to master the movement and then to work your way up to very high repetition sets. It’s almost like a cure for one of the biggest afflictions we face today – divided attention and lack of focus. How many times have you worked on an exercise or a workout for a while, maybe two or three weeks, and then once the initial excitement and rapid gains wore off, quickly jumped to something else? I have done this so many times I hate to even think about it, and now I can’t help thinking how good I would be at these exercises if I had stuck with them. Jack of all trades and master of none. It’s a little like using a streaming music service versus playing a vinyl record. There are just too many choices. How many times have you jumped away from a song before it’s over just to get to the next one? Is this a healthy activity? Is this listening to music, or are we just getting really good at being impatient and losing focus?
It takes at least a few months to master the mechanics of the squat because so many factors are involved (and I’m not there yet), but because so many factors are involved, mastering the squat pays high dividends. And once the form is good, it takes yet another considerable amount of time to build up to high rep sets. Presently I’m adding about two to five total reps (across three sets) every few days, and my rep counts per set are in the low 30s. And then if I do something that smokes my legs, like play a game of baseball or ride my bike to work and back, I have to dial it back and work back up again. But no worries!
If I get to three sets of 100, and that’s a Big If, that’s 300 reps and right now I’m at about 90. So at this rate it will be at least a month to six weeks to reach the goal, provided I can continue to add three total reps a day. But that’s not likely. There will be setbacks and plateaus. Is this a reason not to do it? Not, it’s a reason TO do it! Once I get there I’ll be at triple my current leg work volume, and who knows how many times my current attention span.
I’m really excited to see where this takes me.
2 thoughts on “Bodyweight Squats Will Set You Free”
Awesome post Stephen! This makes ABSOLUTE sense to me. I do my squats slow and controlled these days rather than pumping them out. This makes them way harder to me. Building up to 50-100 reps per set will take a long, long time but as you say will be a worthy goal. Keep up the great work!
Thank so much for your comment, Simon. Yes, slow and controlled is the way to go. I’m doing the same and trying to get to 100 using rest pause. So I’ll crank out 20 -25, rest a few seconds at the top, and then do 10 more, etc. Have only gotten to 50 so far doing this but I think it will add up pretty quickly. Thanks again for your comment.