Do Bodyweight Squats Build Muscle? The Truth Revealed

Today, I’d like to answer the question, “Do Bodyweight Squats Build Muscle?”

You’ll generally hear a vast array of opposing opinions.

So, it’s difficult to know whether you can pack on size with bodyweight squats or whether you’re going to have to hit the weights.

But, don’t worry I’ve got you covered, and will reveal the truth about no-weight squatting once and for all.

Do Bodyweight Squats Build Muscle?

You can build muscle with bodyweight squats if you go to (or very near to) failure with every set. There have been numerous studies which prove that using similar training protocols, e.g. going to failure, while performing the same number of sets, irrespective of training volume, will typically result in muscle growth.

What EVERYONE Says About Muscle & Bodyweight Squats

A Skeletal Human Body Showing All The Muscles That Are Worked During The Squat

The vast majority of people will say that it’s pretty much impossible to build muscle with bodyweight squats.

They’ll tell you that the best way to build muscle, especially in the lower body, is through barbell squats.

Perhaps, they’ll even advise you to do some deadlifts as well to produce all-round great leg development.

Funnily enough, these are probably the same people who have NEVER actually attempted to build muscle through bodyweight squats.

They have followed the same advice that they have heard through various sources over the years.

And it happens to be advice that most of us adhere to.

  • You want to build strength, aim for 1-5 reps.
  • If size and hypertrophy is your goal then look to perform 8-12 reps.
  • And if muscle endurance is your thing then you should be doing 15+ reps.

I’m going to assume that you can already perform 15+ reps of bodyweight squats in one set, and probably a lot more.

So, based on the above principles, you can only ever train for muscle endurance with bodyweight squats.

This means that you will never be able to pack on muscle and size.

But, is this actually the case?

Proof That Bodyweight Squats Build Muscle

I mentioned earlier that using similar training protocols and sets, irrespective of volume still promotes muscle growth.

Basically, performing the same number of “hard sets”, regardless of weight, reps, etc. will build muscle.

An example may be that someone can barbell back squat 100kg for 10 reps.

They can perform the same exercise with 40kg for 30 reps.

This person performs 3 sets of each exercise.

So, workout one involves lifting a heavier weight for 30 reps total, and workout two uses a much lighter weight for 90 reps total.

Therefore, based on what we are typically told, workout one is a muscle-building routine, whereas workout two is for muscle endurance.

However, there have been numerous studies over the years that prove that muscle growth would be pretty much identical with both of these training protocols.

Strength and muscle endurance improvements may differ, but actual muscle and size is much the same.

Admittedly, the studies always involve the use of weights, but the principle still remains the same.

If your max bodyweight squat set is 200 reps, then performing 3 sets will elicit the same muscle fatigue and potential growth as above.

Here’s a fantastic article by Nathan Jones that goes into far more detail about volume training and muscle growth.

The People Who Have Built Muscle With Bodyweight Squats

Charles Atlas Advert For Exercise

There are actually quite a few examples of famous athletes who have used bodyweight squats solely to build the most phenomenal legs.

The comparable factor for all of these athletes is extremely high volume.

Possibly the most renowned bodyweight squatter ever is the Great Gama.

It’s difficult to narrow down the actual number of squats that this great Indian wrestler did in a day, but the most often quoted is 5,000.

These were baithak, or Hindu squats.

Gama had an awesome physique, which included his 30-inch thighs.

One of most famous bodybuilders of all time, Charles Atlas, was said to perform 600 bodyweight squats every single day.

Then we have Henry Lenz, another wrestler and bodybuilder.

Henry won the Mr. Texas title in 1950 and Mr. Muscle Beach in 1952.

He didn’t perform squats with weights that regularly, but would think nothing of doing 500-1,000 bodyweight squats on a daily basis.

Henry completed his squats in sets of 50 reps.

George F. Jowett, former wrestler, strongman, and weightlifter preferred bodyweight squats over the weighted variety.

It’s also worth noting that all of these men trained and competed in a time before performance-enhancing and muscle-building drugs were prevalent.

So, they produced some of the most outstanding muscular physiques with high-volume bodyweight squats.

How To Train Bodyweight Squats For Muscle

A Man Performing a Bodyweight Squat

In order to build muscle with bodyweight squats you will need to ensure that you’re doing enough repetitions.

I know high-rep training goes against the grain for many people.

And there are those who will argue that this will never produce any significant muscle.

Okay, I’ll admit that your overall muscular development will probably look very different depending on how you train.

I mean if you’re doing 200kg barbell squats twice a week, you’re not going to produce the same results by doing 200 bodyweight squats every single day.

That being said, just looking at the examples of the athletes above, you can still add significant muscle mass with the bodyweight variety.

Start Slow and Build Up

In order to build muscle with bodyweight squats you’re going to have to build up to a volume similar to many of the guys I’ve mentioned above.

However, if you don’t really train bodyweight, or you’re used to heavy barbell squatting, then your legs simply won’t have the endurance.

Your eventual aim is to build up to 500 reps of bodyweight squats in as few sets as possible.

You will typically do this in sets that are performed to near failure.

Depending on your strength and fitness levels, this may be completed in 5-20 sets.

That being said, you should start out with about 25-30 reps per set.

Each workout will initially consist of just 5-6 sets.

Your aim will be to add more reps regularly until you’re performing 50 reps per set.

Once you are doing 50 reps of bodyweight squats per set it’s time to increase the number sets.

How quickly you get to performing 500 reps of bodyweight squats really does depend on your starting point.

500 Bodyweight Squat Workout

In order to continue building muscle you want to be completing 500 bodyweight squats in as few sets as possible.

So work your way up to 60, 70, 100, 150 reps or more per set.

Or you could always aim for the ultimate prize.

The Ken Shamrock Method

Then again, you may want to try the Ken Shamrock route.

Ken, Ultimate Fighting Champion, pro-wrestler, and “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” had a torturous bodyweight training routine for fighter’s in his Lion’s Den dojo.

This required the “warriors” to complete:

  • 500 Bodyweight Squats
  • 100 Push Ups
  • 100 Crunches
  • 20 Chin Ups

Oh yes, and I should mention that the “Ultimate Warriors” in the dojo should eventually be performing these exercises all-in-one-go without any rest.

Few if any ever got past 300 bodyweight squats in a row.

You can check out T-Nation’s article on Warrior Training for full details of the “Ken Challenge”.

Should You Do More Than Bodyweight Squats to Build Muscle?

I have focused on using purely high-rep bodyweight squats to build muscle.

Additionally, performing an extremely high number of squats will also have a massive impact on your conditioning.

In fact, from personal experience, I know that performing very high-rep bodyweight squats for an extended period has had a huge effect on how lean and athletic I am.

So, there’s certainly more to this than just building muscle.

However, while this method will definitely work, if you’re looking for big muscular legs using only your bodyweight, then you’ll need to add a few more things into the mix.

I’m a big fan of changing feet position with bodyweight squats.

I’ll typically do a set with my feet in the standard shoulder-width apart position.

Then I’ll place my feet next to each other for an extremely narrow-stance set of bodyweight squats.

And then I’ll place my feet in a wide-stance and complete another set.

I also have a big love for jump squats and frog squats.

They definitely help to improve mobility and athletic performance.

I’ll then focus on exercises like glute-ham raises with both feet on the ground or the one-legged variety.

I’m getting better at performing pistol squats, but this may be too advanced for many.

There’s the sissy squat to consider, plus I love jumping in all directions, as well as the standard box jump and depth jump.

And the one exercise that trumps them all when it comes to building muscle is sprints.

However, let’s not take anything away from the humble bodyweight squat. You can definitely build muscle with this fantastic exercise.

10 Bodyweight Squat Variations

Final Thoughts

Do bodyweight squats build muscle?

Yes.

100%

Definitely.

There will always be those who will say that bodyweight training will never produce the same results as weights.

In fact, the bodyweight squat is probably one of the easiest bodyweight moves, so surely it can’t build muscle.

However, the various studies and old-time athletes prove that this simply isn’t the case.

So, yes you can definitely pack on muscle with the beloved bodyweight squat.

You’ll be interested to know that Lane Goodwin has produced an entire workout program based on just 8 bodyweight exercises.

He claims that you can produce a muscular, athletic and ripped physique from using only these 8 exercises.

And you guessed it, the bodyweight squat happens to be 1 of the 8.

For further details check out my Ripped With Bodyweight Review.

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8 thoughts on “Do Bodyweight Squats Build Muscle? The Truth Revealed”

  1. Very interesting, I always think of weight squats when working out and body weight squats for the warm up. From your article I can now see why you can build leg musle with body weight by adding a lot of reps. This would also cause less injuries and your endurance would be awesome. What if I was to use weights to cut back on reps. Would I end up with less endurance but still good legs?
    Thanks for this article I find it very interesting.

    Reply
    • Hey Rick,

      Thanks for your comments and your question.

      When it comes to weighted squats you can still work strength, hypertrophy, and endurance.

      This will all depend on the weights you use and how fatigued the muscles become.

      Plain and simple, for strength gains you should always aim to make the exercise as hard as possible.

      This will typically involve more weight on a bar and fewer reps when lifting weights, or doing an advanced variation of an exercise when using bodyweight.

      So, an example of this would be performing barbell back squats that you can only possibly lift for a few reps, say up to 6 reps as a maximum.

      In bodyweight training the same principle applies, so this may be pistol squats, which you ensure you perform as slowly as possible.

      Endurance will only ever really be built by doing more reps.

      A prime example of this is those who train solely for strength.

      So, these people may not have the most carved or muscular physiques, but they are very big and very strong. They will typically train with very heavy weights and low rep ranges.

      Now, if they were drop 50% of the weight and then asked to perform 15-20 repetitions of the same exercise, most would struggle, and would be extremely out of breath by the 8th to 10th rep.

      So, you can look big, you can look muscular, you can even have the best looking body (and legs), but your endurance is absolutely useless.

      So, by training very high-rep bodyweight squats you can definitely look extremely athletic and muscular, but unfortunately you won’t be anywhere near as strong as these big guys.

      Another great example of this is the Strongman competitions like, World’s Strongest Man.

      You’ll notice that some of the events not only require great strength, but also the ability to carry heavy weights over a longer distance (endurance).

      This is typically why the smaller guys tend to better on events like the lorry pull, farmer’s walks, and atlas stones.

      The big guys run out of puff.

      Partha

      Reply
  2. Hi Partha,

    I’m glad I’ve came across your article because the exercise regime I started on 4th Jan as part of my 2021 plan, I am still sticking to it strictly. The regime is as follows:

    Skipping with rope for 3 mins.
    40 lunges with dumbells in hand.
    25 squats – to increase as I get stronger.
    25 press ups – to increase as I get stronger.
    Plank for 1 min
    3 sets of 30 sit ups.
    20 leg raises – to increase as I get stronger.
    4 sets of dumbell weight training.

    Squats definitely do help with building muscle so I agree with you 100%. It’s only been two weeks for myself but I can feel it working well.

    Thank you for sharing and keep up the great work.

    All the best,

    Tom

    Reply
    • Hey Tom,

      Great to hear from you.

      I’ll tell the best thing you’ve done here with starting a new training regime this year – it’s your aim to stay consistent with it.

      To be honest, I often tell people not to INITIALLY worry about the type of exercise their doing unless they have very specific goals.

      Just getting into a regular habit of exercise should be the starting point for everyone.

      Only once you have created that habit only then will the rewards start to come.

      Seems to a decent enough workout Tom and I’m glad to see that you have left room for progression.

      Another thing I like is there is a good concentration on the lower body here.

      I truly believe that pretty much all the best results in body composition, whether someone is looking to get stronger, build muscle, or lose body fat, stems from working the lower body just as much (if not more) than the upper body.

      Let me know how you get over the coming weeks Tom.

      Partha

      Reply
  3. I have not been able to do leg stuff for a number of years now, not that I ever did weighted squat of dead lifts.
    I have been dealing with hip problems, repair of laburnum in left hip and totally hip replacement of right.
    The hips are now working OK but it’s not recommended to to use “weights” so I will now start my n=1 and just do squats in all the different forms. I plenty of strength so will just have to rely on reps. My main goal is to keep the hips functional.

    Reply
    • Hey Steve,

      I totally get you.

      I think for some people heavy squatting and deadlifting is the be all and end all, and while they are great exercises, they’re not for everyone.

      I’m glad to hear that your hips are now working well, and having seen some of your workout videos, you are certainly moving very freely on them.

      As I’ve mentioned here, I really don’t see the need to train heavy, and as you say there are so many different squat variations, and different leg exercises to do, bodyweight will always suffice.

      Partha

      Reply
  4. Hey Partha,

    thanks for sharing this great “myth-buster” article about body weight squats and muscle building. I really like the “holistic” approach of your article, especially how you go into theoretical details and then finish off with some advice on how to actually implement squats in our daily training routines.

    I mentioned in another commont on one of your articles how I like to work.out together with my son using Nintendo’s ring fit adventure. And this article reminded me of the squat excercise that you can do there. Whenever I do it, I am really exhausted afterwards. I never thought much about it, but I never had the feeling that this excercise wouldn’t benefit muscle building. After all, it’s really hard (though I am not the best-trained athlete in the world – haha 🙂 )…

    I assume that there are very specific excercises for an athlete’s particular goal, be it weight loss, building muscle mass, muscle endurance etc. However, it is good to read that my workout isn’t for nothing and that it’s worth it, and contributes to building muscle mass!

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge with us, Partha!
    Wish you all the best,
    Chris

    Reply
    • Hey Chris,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Hahaha, I hear you – don’t worry you don’t have to be the best trained athlete in the world to get some benefits from squatting.

      I think the main thing for many people is that they view bodyweight squats as the most basic form of the exercise.

      It’s also true that we typically believe that we need to complete a certain number of reps to maintain a certain type of training protocol.

      So, most people would say that performing hundreds of reps of bodyweight squats would never build any muscle.

      My advice would be to take a look at what various athletes in history have taught us, and then to try it for yourself.

      You never know unless you try.

      I see that you’ve certainly experienced “the burn” when performing bodyweight squats, Haha, so you already know that it’s doing you some good.

      The same can be said for anyone of any fitness level too.

      Partha

      Reply

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