First of all, I am not a bodyweight fitness guru.
I post A LOT about bodyweight fitness, mostly because it’s been incredibly eye opening to see how far a person can go using nothing but body against the earth’s gravitational pull.
The purpose of this article is to share information about how to go about using bodyweight ONLY squats to build strength and movement capacity.
Progressive bodyweight training is one of the most overlooked methods in fitness.
Exercises like squats, lunges and step-up variations are all INCREDIBLE for improving leg strength.
This article is focused on strengthening the legs using bodyweight ONLY squats.
The problem with a large majority of the information being shared about bodyweight fitness, is that the exercise variations do not contribute to gaining strength.
It’s hard to know if the authors don’t own advanced bodyweight exercises (therefore avoid sharing tips) or if they simply don’t know the progressions.
Here’s a classic example of a difficult bodyweight squat challenge that is MEDIOCRE (at best) for improving leg strength…
300 reps bodyweight air squats
Performing 300 continuous bodyweight air squats (a basic 2 legged bodyweight squat) is definitely challenging, but it does little to improve strength.
100 reps in, you’ll wonder why you’re doing it.
By definition, “strength” is the extent to which muscles can exert force by contracting against resistance.
The more you resistance your muscles can contract and overcome, the stronger you are.
To gain strength and expand movement capacity, it’s important to consider leverage progressive strategies:
- Increase the load being applied to an exercise.
- Decrease the base of support (bilateral to unilateral).
- Increase the range of motion of an exercise.
- Drill mobility: train active range of motion, articulate joints, expand control over end range, etc.
- Increase the complexity of an exercise (example below: pistol squat to dragon squat)
Fixation on Strength
It’s nauseating for me to read hyper-focused blogs or websites dedicated to sharing content on building strength, with zero mention of anything else.
A lot of these articles are written by gym rats who can lift big weight, but often neglect other important qualities such as active mobility and endurance.
It’s less than appealing to deadlift 700lbs, yet blow out your back while putting on your socks.
That being said, the average person needs to know how to go about improving strength.
Gain in strength make a huge difference with movement capacity, carrying over into real world tasks, boosting aesthetics (assuming diet is decent) and contribute to overall health.
Strength is a good thing to pursue.
Bodyweight Only Exercise Progressions
Paying attention to exercise progression while training is similar to following a road map to a destination.
An exercise progression increases the demand of any give exercise, somehow, someway.
Refer to the list in the opening paragraphs that describes ways to increase the demand of an exercise.
By progressively challenging an exercise with incremental load, body positions and range of motion, we can make quality progress while staying safe.
Move from bilateral to unilateral exercises
Without question, single leg exercises are super important when it comes to strengthening the legs using only the body as weight.
If you’re subscribed to a exercise professional, program, book, blog or website that’s center around bodyweight training, and they aren’t talking about the value of unilateral exercises, run away.
By transitioning from two legs to a one leg, you are decreasing the base of support, which increases the stability, balance, and coordination demands of the exercise.
The game changes when you start moving on one leg.
The ability perform well on a single leg is crucial for life and athletics.
Assisted Single Leg Squats
When you do make the transition from bilateral to unilateral exercises, do not be surprised if you need assistance to complete the exercise.
There’s zero shame here. Embrace it.
Assistance can be provided in many forms, but a simple approach is to place your hands on a steady object to help guide yourself up and down.
Suspension trainers work well here.
Limited Range of Motion
Limiting the range of motion makes a big difference when you’re attempting to learn these exercises.
The skater squat video above is a great example of what progressive range of motion looks like.
The yoga blocks are roughly 3 inches thick, so every time I remove a yoga block the range of motion increases by 3 inches.
You can feel this change in depth immediately.
I’m always amazed by what a few inches can do when it comes to a successful repetition versus a failed repetition.
“Ok, unilateral squats are great for building strength. Which exercise is best?“
It doesn’t work like that, ALL of the single leg squat variations are good.
Don’t make the mistake of ranking exercises.
Select a variation that is appropriate to your current fitness level, and work at it.
Practice them all for best results.
Developing efficiency, strength and control over a bunch of different movements is a good thing.
Expanding movement capacity.
Here’s a list of single leg squat exercises organized in descending order of difficulty:
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats
Skater Squats with limited ROM Squats with limited ROM
Full ROM Skater Squat
Pistol Squat with limited ROM
Full ROM Pistol Squat
Shrimp Squat with limited ROM
Full ROM Shrimp Squat
Assisted Dragon Squats (partial ROM, less load)
Full ROM Dragon Squat
This is not the LAW, simply a suggestion of how to attack single leg squats.
I tweaked the order by including limited range of motion and full range of motion options, leading up to the mother of all single leg squats, the Dragon Squat.
Dragon squats require an insane amount of hip mobility and control over a really foreign pattern and body position.
As you descend, the non-working leg moves behind and out the front of the workin leg. There is timing involved in making this happen. This is not a simple maneuver.
Shrimp Squats are HEAVILY quad dominant, requiring plenty of ankle and hip mobility.
The final few inches right before, during and after touching the knee cap to the floor is intense.
Don’t be surprised if you can’t stand up after lowering down.
Where do we go from here?
Look, I know this is a bodyweight focused article, but the legs need progressive loading.
You need to add additional weight to these exercises to continue making progress.
The good news is you don’t have to have own an entire set of dumbbells, kettlebells or the nicest kevlar sandbag to add a loading challenge to any of these exercises.
You can add weight with common household items, children, pets, etc.
Weight is weight.
Your body does not know, nor does it care, if you’re progressively loading using a fancy piece of gym equipment, or a gallon of milk. Use whatever you have available.
Adding weight to an exercise/movement is simple and effective.
I’ve played around with ultra slow eccentrics for each of these movements.
Eccentric training has its place, but in my opinion adding weight to the exercises listed is the most effective path to building strength.
Rear foot elevated split squats are PRIMED for adding weight. You get the stability of the back leg on a bench, box or chair, while loading the front leg aggressively and safely. The rear foot elevated split squat is back friendly.
It’s an incredible exercise.
Reps, Sets and Tempo
3-5 sets of 5 challenging reps provides a great training stimulus.
Certainly, you have the option to lower the reps further and perform either singles or 2-3 reps with more weight.
Bang out one grinding rep, rest for a while, then attack another rep.
These exercises can also be adjusted for an endurance-like training effect. 12-15 reps or so. In this scenario, the load must decrease (compared to strength-focused training) and you might be using assisted pistol squats or bodyweight ONLY loaded pistol squats.
For a strength focused, lower to 3 reps and train strength.
If you’re training for strength, each rep should be a grind.
In order to make the reps difficult, consider slowing down the tempo of the movement or adding load.
My preference is to add load.
A weight vest, kettlebell, weight plate or sandbag. Anything that adds weight to the exercise and can be handled without risk of dropping on your toes is perfect.
The final few reps should be CHALLENGING.
I like to walk the line between technically great form and using the most load possible. When technique takes a sh*t and I start making odd shapes to complete a rep, I pull the plug on the work set.
Finishing a set of pistol squats, you should feel like doing another 1-2 reps was probably not going to happen, regardless if you’re training higher rep endurance or lower rep strength.
Some might disagree with this oversimplification, but I believe a GREAT training stimulus is achieved when you’re busting your ass in the work set (versus going through the motions).
The thing is, this approach to a work set applies to all methods of improving fitness. Strength, endurance, mobility, etc.
When you’re working, WORK!
The effort should be hard.
Tempo-wise, I really like the 30X0 approach.
3 seconds of eccentric
0 pause at end range
X explode up
0 pause at the top before starting the next rep
I love writing about bodyweight fitness because bodyweight training is incredibly resourceful.
If you understand how to make an exercise more difficult/challenging using nothing more than gravity, body positions, tempo, varying rep ranges and the weight of your body, you’re literally never without the opportunity for a workout.
Eliminating the need for a gym membership crushes a few of the common excuses people use for not exercising.
Money, equipment and time.
If I remove those barriers, what reasons are left?
Again, I am not asserting myself as a bodyweight fitness guru, I simply want to share how simple getting strong can be, if you’re willing to stay consistent and explore.
If you’d like to learn more about effective bodyweight training, I highly suggest checking the bodyweight based training program from Global Bodyweight Training.