Tag Archives: bodyweight squats

Bodyweight Squats-Strengthening Your Legs Safely

The squat is a very basic, functional human movement. You essentially “do squats” anytime you get into and out of a chair or couch, for instance. Or you may need to drop to the ground to pick something up, then stand back up again. (if picking up anything heavy at all, you’d want to perform a squat to lift the object, rather than bend over and try lifting with a rounded back). Understandably, we all therefore need to be able to perform this everyday movement properly, which makes this an optimal home exercise.

the 2nd one is how many of us lift things--russian roulette with your back!

the 2nd one is how many of us lift things–russian roulette with your back!

Lower back and knee pain—two very common complaints related to getting down and back up—are not normal results of exercise or aging, etc. Rather, they are the product of the cumulative effect of various abuses or neglect.

Inevitably, you may use dumbbells, bands or a weight belt (no massive barbell loaded on the fragile spine near the neck), but first we need to develop the most sound, safe and effective form for getting the most out of the squat movement. Because any problems with form done without any resistance/weights is only exacerbated by increasing the load. Let’s head off problems before they start or become worse.

Preparation:

If you’ve barely been moving around, start with some light warm-ups, ensuring your knees and legs overall are ready to do some exercise.

If you haven’t done any actual squats in a long while, start off practicing in and out of a chair first. You’ll be more free to test it, knowing the chair “has your back” in case you lose your balance. As noted, this is an ideal movement for your home workouts.

The first thing you’ll want to ensure is a stable stance to help you descend and come back up properly. Stand with your feet about shoulder width, toes either pointed forward or slightly out. To aid with balance (and keep you less inclined toward falling backward), feel free to point your arms forward. Look roughly straight ahead, not considerably up or down. Your abdominal muscles should be fairly tight and your shoulders back and down, with chest out. This will all help keep you from rounding your back as you reach the bottom of the movement.

Ideal start and finish for bodyweight squat

Ideal start and bottom position for bodyweight squat

The Critical Descent–Knees

Many think about the upward phase almost exclusively, envisioning coming up with the body to a standing position and feeling those quads (front, upper leg muscles) doing their work. But you create the story for your legs (and back) in the downward movement.

To descend, many people want to do so from their knees, but you should think of breaking down instead from the hips and stick the rear back. This automatically lessens the high tension your knees experience when you emphasize your weight upon them. It also ensures that the knees won’t move  past your toes, as they should not be any more than the slightest bit beyond them, if at all. If you follow this advice, your knees will appreciate it!

Another cue is the way your feet are feeling. If you notice your heels raising, then you’re likely over-emphasizing your knees in the movement. Your weight should be more toward the heel than the front of the foot. (see pic below for example of knees in poor position with heel raised)

note knees extended far beyond toes; raised heels are another cue

Basic No-No’s for squats: note knees extended far beyond toes; raised heels are another cue

The Critical Descent–Back

Your back should maintain a very natural, slight curve, not a dramatic arch. Ideally, you would descend until your thighs are about parallel to the ground. If you feel your back starting to round a little, that’s alright, but only a small amount. As well respected strength coach Eric Cressey notes, “Flexion is fine (and a normal functional task) when it isn’t accompanied by compressive loading.”

Since we won’t be compressing the spine with heavy barbells, a bit of rounding is actually acceptable if done with focus. Still, to ensure you don’t overdo this, keep your abs engaged (tight) to help your back remain reasonably neutral.

When you’re doing these without a chair to sit in, only go down as far as you comfortably can, where your back isn’t excessively rounding or your knees aren’t buckling just to get the extra depth. It’s always better to guarantee quality and safety over quantity. Instead, you may need to work some on flexibility, though that can at least partly be remedied just with repetition. The more you practice this movement, the more you’ll gradually be able to descend further.

Coming Back Up

As you engage your quads (upper legs) to drive you back up out of your seated position, you want to be sure you are coming up from your hips, just as the hips were your focus in going down. Because if you start your ascent by raising your shoulders, it’s going to create considerable strain on your lower back. The hips and shoulders, instead, should come up at the same rate, as James Wilson of MTB Strength Training Systems aptly emphasizes.

squats are great for much of the body, but especially the quads

squats are great for much of the body, but especially the quads

If you focus on intensely driving up from your heels (ensuring you’re warmed up sufficiently), your quad muscles will feel it! This is also where you’ll note safe and effective form, as coming up on the balls of your feet will indicate too much weight distributed toward your knees, so just refocus on the heels and coming back down the next time from your hips, sitting back into the lowered position.

Additional Tip:

I’ve noticed that if I squeeze the glutes at the top for 1-2 seconds after coming up, it makes dropping down from the hips much smoother! You’ll have to make that determination yourself though. Also note the longer you contract there, the more time you’re not keeping your upper leg muscles under tension. Generally, the less rest between repetitions, the more effective the exercise.

Whether you can only do one, or 100, focus on the form in the manner noted in the article. Details are critical in all exercise movements, and this is no exception. As noted, the focus for this at home workout movement isn’t to lift enormous poundages, but to greatly stimulate your quad muscles while, most importantly, ensuring the safest path to do so.

Bert

Less Workout Time, Greater Benefits

In addition to at home workouts simply saving time from preparing for and driving to and from the gym, you can further cut time in those exercise sessions done in your comfy confines.

It’s called supersetting, and it’s also a very sensible approach to training, because it helps ensure much better body balance, which not only looks good and provides greater functional fitness, but even more importantly acts to prevent injuries.

You do, however, need to be highly familiar with the home exercises you’ll be using, since you will be moving more rapidly and switching movements frequently. This will require concentration, familiarity, and decent cardio capabilities, especially the faster your pace.

The basic concept is to work a particular muscle group for a set, for instance, the chest press (eg, dumbbell bench press or pressing laying back on an exercise ball–more on chest exercises here). Since your chest needs a little time to rest in order to effectively handle another set, shift to the opposite side and work that, in this case your back.

First stage of push-pull superset

You can do dumbbell rows, for example, or use exercise bands, creating a pulling movement; the exact opposite from the pushing done with the chest exercise.

After doing one “round,” (a set of chest followed by a set for the back), do a second and then a third round of this same combo before going to two totally different body parts.

Another superset example would be doing an exercise that works predominantly your quadriceps (front muscles of your upper legs) followed by a hamstring exercise for the back of your upper legs.

great exercise for your lower backside, an area often neglected

great exercise for your lower backside (hamstrings and glutes), an area often neglected

For the front, you can do squats, either bodyweight or holding dumbbells (or even adding a weight belt if desired). These do hit the back of the leg some, but still work the quads more. Follow that up with doing something like a glute-hip raise (see pic immediately above), as the movement has various names), where you start off lying on the floor, elevate your feet on something like a bench or exercise ball, and then raise your hips off the ground by utilizing those hamstrings.

After doing one round of squats followed by glute-hip raises, you should then be ready to do another set of squats, followed by the glute-hip, etc, for a total of three rounds.

This front-back concept also would apply for the arms, where you can do a set of dumbbell curls, followed by tricep extensions or kickbacks.

front-back concept diagram for biceps and triceps

front-back concept diagram for biceps and triceps

Another superset can be shoulder presses matched up with pull ups or a lat pulldown (if you have a home machine; if not, you can use exercise bands for the same effect).

Yet one more superset would include your all-important core, where you’d do a set of crunches followed by a set of hyperextensions (note pic below). I’ve found personally the most readily available way to do this is with the ever portable exercise ball.

Here’s an example superset workout for the whole body, albeit a fairly abbreviated one. Remember, in this article, we’re here to save time!

3 rounds of each superset

Superset #1:

Dumbbell bench press (or pushups) followed by dumbbell rows

Superset #2:

Shoulder press followed pull ups or lat pulldown with bands

Superset #3:

Bicep curl followed by tricep extension or kickback

Superset #4

Bodyweight squat (or holding dumbbells for added resistance) followed by Glute-hip raises.

Superset #5

Exercise ball crunches followed by Hyperextensions

excellent instruction on hyperextensions

excellent instruction on hyperextensions

*If you have done three rounds of each of these supersets with minimal rest between rounds and supersets, you should be reasonably tired. However, if you still have something left in the tank and feel the desire, re-do Superset #4 (legs), since the first three supersets were upper body.

Hopefully, you’ll find this type of home workout both challenging and refreshing, especially considering the amount of physical activity and resulting health benefits you can achieve in a relatively short amount of time. Home exercises allow for many possible superset combos, so you can obviously modify based on what you have available or simply what you feel like performing at the moment.

I have plans for a new article soon that lists many at home exercises to choose from, virtually all of which can be used in some combo with another to create any number of possibilities for superset based home workouts.

Bert