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5 Ways To Make Air Squats More Challenging (Without Adding Weight)

Woman doing air squats in the park

Air squats may just be one of the most popular and efficient exercises in fitness.

The regular bodyweight squat has been continuously tweaked and modified, evolving into front squats, back squats, Bulgarian split squats, deep squats, and everything in between. And if you're sitting here thinking, "What's the big deal about air squats?" the answer is simple:

They work.

Bodyweight squats train your core, legs, and entire posterior chain. Plus, there are numerous modifications to make an air squat more challenging — even without weights.

Below, I explain why air squats are one of my favorite exercises, and why I use them frequently in my workout programs. Plus, you'll learn how to progress a simple air squat to make it more challenging.

What Muscles Are Used In an Air Squat?

An air squat is a compound exercise. In other words, the squat taxes multiple muscle groups in a single movement.

All squats — whether you're performing a front squat, goblet squat, or sumo squats — are a quad-dominant exercise. However, your quadriceps aren't the only muscles working in a squat exercise

A regular squat will tax your abdominal muscles, which keep your core stable and prevent you from topping over (this is especially true in weighted squats, where a barbell or kettlebell pushes your torso forward). In addition, squats work your entire posterior chain, particularly your glutes and hamstrings. Strong glutes and hamstrings prevent your knees from caving in, thereby decreasing your risk of injury

How To Do an Air Squat

Asian woman doing air squats at the gym

Below, you'll find detailed instructions for how to do an air squat. When performing an air squat, be sure to maintain proper form — otherwise you risk straining your lower back

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, your feet firmly connected with the ground. You can keep your arms at your sides or out in front of you, parallel with the ground (whichever is most comfortable).
  2. Roll your shoulders back and down, squeeze your core, and keep your chest proud. Push your butt back toward the wall behind you, preparing to lower into a squat.
  3. Drop into a parallel squat position, or as far as your hip and ankle mobility will allow. Your goal is to get your quadriceps at least parallel to the ground. At the bottom of your squat, keep your core engaged and your chest out — do not allow your upper body to slump forward.
  4. Return to a standing position. As you stand, push through your heels and keep your knees pointed outward — do now allow your knees to cave in. 
  5. Before you do a second rep, reset in your starting position. Keep your feet hip width apart, re-engage your core, roll your shoulders back and down, and squeeze your glutes.

3 Cues To Decrease Your Risk of Injury

Even though the air squat is a bodyweight exercise, it's important to maintain correct form. Performing a squat with improper form can cause knee or back pain

To maintain proper squat form throughout the entirety of the exercise, keep these cues in mind: 

1. Squeeze Your Core

When performing any exercise, particularly a back squat, squeeze your core as though someone is about to punch you in the stomach. This keeps the pressure off your low back, which prevents injury. 

2. Roll Your Shoulders Back and Down

Shrug your shoulders up toward your ears. Now, push your raised shoulders back toward the wall behind you. Finally, drop your shoulders back down, as far as you can go.

This perfect posture (a straight back) is the same stance you should maintain throughout a squat. Keep your chest out and your shoulders back, preventing yourself from hunching forward and injuring your back.

3. Keep Your Knees Pointed Outward

Allowing your knees to cave inward is one of the most common mistakes in an air squat. As you raise from a parallel squat to a standing position, keep your glutes engaged and your knees pointed out, thereby preventing knee pain.

Fully engaging your glutes can prevent your knees from caving inward. If you have trouble firing your glutes, try performing glute activation as a warm-up before doing air squats. Exercises like glute bridges or clam shells can help keep your glutes engaged throughout the entirety of your workout.

5 Ways To Make Air Squats More Difficult

Think air squats are easy? Think again.

Bodyweight squats can easily be modified to suit your fitness level. Here are five ideas to make an air squat more challenging, without adding weight. 

1. Add a Pulse or Hold 

Adding a pulse to the bottom of an air squat helps burn out various muscle groups, such as your quads or glutes.

A static hold is an isometric exercise — or an exercise that causes your muscles to contract, without moving your joints or muscles. Combining an isometric (static) move to an exercise helps fatigue your muscles, thereby making it more challenging.

2. Add a Source of Instability

Have a bosu balance ball laying around? Adding a source of instability — like standing on a bosu ball — will make air squats increasingly challenging. 

When you stand on an unstable surface, a squat — which is typically a lower body exercise — transforms into a balance challenge. Working on a balance forces you to fully engage your abdominal muscles and glutes, preventing you from toppling over.

3. Try a Single Leg Squat

Transforming a regular bodyweight squat into a single leg squat challenges your body in several ways. 

First, by balancing on one foot, you're forced to fully engage your core to prevent yourself from toppling over. Second, with your full bodyweight on one leg (instead of two), you increase the "resistance" of the exercise. Lastly, single leg squats target your glutes and hamstrings more effectively, increasing the muscle recruitment for the exercise.

4. Add a Hop

Want to transform a bodyweight exercise into a cardio exercise? Add a hop or a jump to the top of the movement. 

Perform a full bodyweight squat, then explode into a vertical jump. The acceleration into a jump will get your heart rate pumping, while building strength in your quadriceps.

5. Use a Resistance Band 

Dumbbells are heavy and hard to store. Resistance bands, on the other hand, are the perfect piece of at-home workout equipment because they can be tossed in a drawer or cabinet.

Wrap a resistance band around your quads, just above the knee. When you perform a bodyweight squat, the resistance band will force you to fully engage your glutes. As an added bonus, the resistance band will remind you to keep your knees pointed out throughout the squat. 

Air Squats Are One of the Most Effective Exercises for Leg Day

Asian woman doing squats and working out at home

Air squats help build body strength throughout your legs, core, and posterior chain. In a single movement, you work multiple muscle groups — which is one of the many reasons I program it in my workouts.

This effective exercise can easily be modified to suit your fitness level. Even if you don't have a pair of dumbbells laying around, you can increase the intensity of a squat workout by adding a pulse or hop between reps, standing on an unsteady surface, or transforming it into a single leg movement. 

Squats are one of the many exercises I program within the Build Bullet-Proof Health program. With weightlifting, HIIT and cardio workouts, nutrition tips, and recovery work, it encompasses every pillar of fitness. Plus, you don't need any fancy equipment or a great deal of space. In fact, by using bodyweight moves like lunges, pushups, and squats, each workout can be done from the comfort of your living room.

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