How to Do Bodyweight Squats to Wake Up and Strengthen Your Glutes

Learn how the humble bodyweight squat can help build lower-body strength and improve your day-to-day functioning — and how to do the exercise with perfect form.

Bodyweight Squats
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Ah, the squat. In recent years, the bodyweight squat (and its variations) has risen to the top of the exercise food chain, earning the reputation as one of the best moves for your booty. But is this exercise all it's cracked up to be?

Short answer: yes. The bodyweight squat is important to master whether you're interested in tearing it up in the gym, building strong glutes, or just making it through life uninjured. Here, details on all the benefits of the bodyweight squat, including the muscles the exercise works, and how to add it to your routine.

How to Do a Bodyweight Squat

ICYDK, the bodyweight squat involves shifting your hips back and "sitting" toward the ground while in a standing position, stopping once your thighs are parallel with the ground, then pushing through the heels to straighten your legs and return to standing. It seems simple, but the exercise actually calls on your entire body, says Anne Reuss, a NASM-certified personal trainer. "Bodyweight squats unlock strength simply by lowering yourself to the ground and standing back up without trouble," she explains. "[They're] easy on paper, [but] tough (good tough) in reality."

For a play-by-play of the proper bodyweight squat form, watch Reuss demonstrate the exercise below and read the detailed instructions.

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, with toes turned slightly outward and arms at sides. Brace abdominal muscles to engage core and keep chest upright.

B. On an inhale, hinge at hips to initiate the movement, then bend knees to lower into a squat position until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with the floor, heels begin to lift off the floor, or torso starts to round or flex forward. While lowering into the squat, simultaneously raise arms in front of body until they reach chest height.

C. On an exhale, press into heels and mid-foot to straighten legs and return to standing, hips and torso rising at the same time and lowering arms back to sides.

The Key Bodyweight Squat Benefits

Bodyweight squats may not seem as demanding as, say, heavily loaded deadlifts, but they still come with major benefits for your functional strength. Here, pros break down those key perks of the lower-body exercise.

Makes Daily Functioning Easier

The bodyweight squat isn't just an exercise, but one of the five main foundational movements for daily life, according to the American Council On Exercise. "You are meant to squat in everyday life and activities," says Reuss. "Over time, in the current state of our society, there’s the possibility of becoming sedentary, falling into patterns of sitting and bending over, or weaning off sports, and then your body can’t squat anymore. We can’t totally blame it on aging — it’s lack of movement."

Incorporating bodyweight squats into your routine, however, can help you re-establish this fundamental movement pattern, make everyday living easier, and even reduce your risk of injury while performing squats IRL. For instance, you might feel less achy crouching down to pet your cat, or you may find that getting up off the couch is a bit less difficult. "Training the squat will restore mobility, stability, and strength and unlock so many more movements and activities for you, from picking up your pup, to grabbing a book from the lowest shelf at your favorite bookstore, to getting up on a surfboard (if you’re chasing big goals)," says Reuss.

Recruits Multiple Muscles and Joints

The bodyweight squat — and many other squat variations, for that matter — is a compound movement, meaning it calls on multiple muscle groups and joints (in this case, the glutes, quads, and hamstrings, plus hips, knees, and ankles), says Reuss. When you use a handful of muscle groups together to perform a compound exercise, you create more strength, force, and power than you would by utilizing just one muscle group (aka an isolation exercise), so you're getting more bang for your buck, as Shape previously reported. Plus, these types of movements — including the bodyweight squat — requires better control, coordination, and timing of your muscles and joints, which can improve your functional strength IRL, Bill Kelley, D.P.T., A.T.C., C.S.C.S., owner of Aeries Physical Therapy in South Florida, previously told Shape.

Bodyweight Squat Muscles Worked

In short, the bodyweight squat is "the simplest exercise you can do while still getting the highest return," says Rachel Mariotti, an NCSF-certified personal trainer in New York City. "It works major muscle groups: your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and core," she explains. Plus, the exercise trains your hip adductors (the muscles along your inner thighs) and calves, adds Reuss.

Bodyweight Squat Variations

If the traditional bodyweight squat doesn't feel right for your body or match with your needs, don't sweat it. Try one of these modification and progression ideas to make the exercise work in your favor.

Modification: Bodyweight Chair Squat

Feel like you haven't mastered the form of the basic bodyweight squat quite yet? Start by doing six point rocks, during which you rock your body forward and backward, touching your butt to your heels, while in a table-top position on the floor. "This is a very comfortable way to experience the mechanics of squats while you’re on all fours and communicate to your body what your goals are," says Reuss.

Then, try squatting onto a bench, chair, Swiss ball, or any other object that stops your butt before your thighs can lower below parallel to the floor, suggests Reuss, who demonstrates the modification below. "Having sensory feedback (via the supporting piece of equipment) helps with awareness of the body in space (also known as proprioception skills)," she explains. "Better awareness helps you learn and memorize form and overcome any mental hurdles knowing you have support and guidance!"

Progression: Bodyweight Tempo Squat

Remember: The bodyweight squat is your baseline, and you shouldn't try any variation of it until you have the basic exercise nailed down, says Mariotti. But if you're confident in your form, try upping the ante by adding a quarter squat (think: a small pulse) after every regular rep, doing a calf raise at the top of your squat, or pressing a small weight out from your chest at the bottom of the movement, which Reuss calls heartbeat squats. To get your heart pumping, try squat jumps, during which you leap up into the air rather than return to standing, she adds. If you’re trying squat jumps, remember to do them at the beginning of your workout and do just five to 10 reps to avoid excessive fatigue, says Reuss.

Or, simply increase the time under tension (TUT) to light your muscles on fire: Spend four seconds lowering into the squat, then return to the starting position at your normal pace, which Reuss demonstrates below. "Another personal favorite is a TUT of 5/5/5/1 — five seconds lowering, a five-second hold at bottom of the squat, five seconds to return to the start position, then 1 second of rest."

Common Bodyweight Squat Mistakes

Subtle changes in your lower body positioning can make or break your form. When lowering into the squat, make sure to push your hips back and sit into mid-foot and heels. And don't be afraid to squat below parallel or let your knees go over your toes, says Reuss. "Your knees are designed to flex and hinge, therefore you actually build strength and flexibility if you let your knees be knees," she explains.

As you return to standing, make sure to keep your entire foot flat on the floor, as lifting your heels won't allow you to recruit all the large muscle groups completely, says Reuss. And don't forget about your core! Continue bracing your abs throughout the movement to keep your back flat — and prevent lower-back discomfort or even injury. Most importantly, remember to stay in the moment — not looking around the gym or watching TV — to keep your form on point and get the most out of your workout, says Reuss. (Yes, the mind-muscle connection is real.)

How to Add the Bodyweight Squat to Your Routine

Before you test out bodyweight squat, consult with your health-care provider if you're feeling unsure about exercising in the first place, says Reuss. "The bodyweight squat is one of the entry points to becoming stronger — those who have any injuries in the lower back, hips, and lower body area should consult with a healthcare provider," she adds. "If you are cleared but are struggling, I’d invest in a personal trainer to get you to squat comfortably with the proper modifications!"

If you're ready to tackle the exercise solo, aim to do three to four sets of eight to 12 reps, or perform your reps until you have one to two left in the tank, suggests Reuss. Since the bodyweight squat calls on your major muscle groups, you'll generally want to place it at the top of your workout before those muscles get fatigued. Better yet, incorporate the move into a four- or five-exercise circuit for a full-body, time-efficient workout, she adds.

The bottom line? Even though those intense workout challenges you see on Instagram may add some spice to your fitness routine, they aren't necessarily better than "basic" exercises such as the bodyweight squat, says Reuss. "Among this 'noise,' focus on mastering the bodyweight squat, [a] timeless, effective, resilience-building move, promoter of health and longevity, and a confidence-booster," she says. "I promise, it is worth your time to refine, progress, and learn to love the bodyweight squat."

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