How to do squats: Build up your legs and core with this back-to-basics move

Want to start training your lower body? Here’s how to do squats, along with variations and common mistakes

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you’re just starting your fitness journey or you're preparing for the January fitness boom, you might be on track to do a 5K run or trying to get stronger by doing push ups and sit ups. The next stage in your fitness journey is to start training your lower body with a simple exercise you can do anytime, anywhere. 

The bodyweight squat is the perfect exercise to work on building up strength in your bum, legs and core, with no equipment needed (and if later on you want to ramp up the effort levels, try adding one of the best kettlebells into the mix).

According to Harvard University, bodyweight squats develop flexibility in the hips, knees, feet, and ankles. It also trains muscles like the quads, gluteals (the muscle group that makes up your bum), hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves. These developments will help in everyday life, whether you’re running a marathon or simply walking up a few flights of stairs. 

Squats can also be performed at any age, with some supervision from a qualified professional such as a personal trainer, and you’ll still see benefits. 


(Image credit: iStock)

One study from Asahi University found bodyweight squats - even when performed by elderly patients with an average age of 78 - increased muscle strength, decreased overall body mass and even improved balance while standing. 

Want to get started on this very simple muscle-building move? Follow the steps below, check out our form tips and once you’ve mastered the basic move, try out our dynamic variations. 

How to do squats

Bodyweight squat

(Image credit: Future)

If you want to give your thighs a good workout, there are few better exercises than the simple bodyweight squat.

  • Stand up tall with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Your arms should be held out in front at shoulder level. 
  • Slowly lower your backside as far as you can by bending your knees and pushing your hips back. Your weight should be on your heels. 
  • Pause for a few seconds, before slowly returning to the starting position. 
  • Throughout the exercise, your core should be braced, by pulling in your abdominal muscles and holding them in that position.

How to do squats: Common bodyweight squat mistakes


(Image credit: iStock)

A good squat begins before the move actually starts. First, make sure your stance isn’t too wide or too narrow: you don’t want to be stood with your feet too far inwards, but neither do you want your feet to be so wide you look like you’re riding a horse! Instead, keep your feet around shoulder width apart, or a little wider, depending on what’s comfortable for you. 

As the model is doing in the image above, keep your head up for the duration of the exercise, as this will help keep your back straight.

To get the full benefits of the move, make sure you’re squatting deep enough. Ideally, you’ll want to lower your bum until your thighs are at least parallel with the floor. If you only squat part of the way, you won’t recruit as much muscle as somebody that squats deeply. However, some people have a restricted range of motion, so this isn’t an option for everyone (at least, at first). If you find the movement difficult, or if it causes joint pain of any kind, consult a professional. 

Variation: Bodyweight squat jump  

Squat jump

(Image credit: Future)

This variation on the bodyweight squat adds in a jump for a more intense cardiovascular workout. If burning fat is your goal, squat as low as you can before jumping.

  • Place your arms out straight in front of your chest, with your palms facing the floor. You should be standing with your feet shoulder width apart. 
  • Lower yourself into a squat position by pushing back your hips and bending at the knees, keeping your back straight. 
  • Once in the squat position, dynamically jump upwards, aiming to get as high as you can. As soon as you land, squat and jump again.
  • Keep your arms still when you jump – the movement to jump should just be powered from your legs.

Variation: Explosive bodyweight squat jump

Explosive squat jump

(Image credit: Future)

In this variation of the bodyweight squat jump, pause before jumping as it helps you to jump more explosively and use more of the individual fibres that make up your muscles. 

  • Stand up tall, hands behind your head, your elbows drawn back to shoulder level and your feet shoulder width apart.
  • Squat down in the usual fashion and pause for five seconds. Get as low as you can
  • while squatting. Ideally, your thighs will be parallel to the floor.
  • Explosively jump as high as you can. Once you have landed, repeat the exercise for the set number of repetitions, or at least a minute.

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Matt Evans
Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and Channel Editor at Fit&Well. He's previously written for titles like Men's Health and Red Bull, and covers all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen kickboxer and runner. His top fitness tip? Stretch.