Last updated on January 6th, 2023 at 11:36 am
I’m someone who has probably performed bodyweight squats in their millions over the years.
And no, that isn’t an exaggeration.
I’ve been through stages of doing high-rep squat workouts for many weeks on end, as well as using them for warm ups, or even as active rest between sets.
So, I guess if anyone is going to know whether bodyweight squats build muscle, you’d hope it would be me.
Beginners can gain muscle from doing bodyweight squats. However, an advanced trainee, who already has substantial leg mass through resistance training, will find it difficult to build muscle through bodyweight squats alone. That being said, extremely high-rep bodyweight squat workouts will eventually switch from recruiting slow-twitch muscle fibres to fast-twitch, which is ideal for hypertrophy.
Bodyweight Squats Won’t Build Muscle For Everyone
So, as you can see, there is no definitive answer.
Essentially, as someone new to exercise, so someone who has never trained their legs before, performing any type of exercise can lead to muscle growth.
This stands to reason if you think about it.
Building muscle mass comes down to working your muscles against some type of resistance, and this can include bodyweight training.
So, if you suddenly go from never working your legs to performing 100-200 bodyweight squats per day you’re going to add some muscle.
Conversely, if you’re a regular gym-goer and you pump out a few sets of 225lbs barbell back squats, a couple of times per week, bodyweight squats definitely won’t have the same effect.
Realistically, bodyweight squats may not feel like anything more than a warm-up routine for an advanced trainee.
So, you could say that bodyweight squats will build muscle for new trainees, but not for experienced trainees.
However, in truth, this is a very basic way to look at this, and there is actually far more to it.
Bodyweight Squats Aren’t the Greatest All-Round Leg Exercise
Performing bodyweight squats and resistance-based squats definitely aren’t the same thing.
Granted, you are using exactly the same movement pattern, and you will hit many of the same muscles, but certainly not to the same extent.
A prime example of this is that both bodyweight squats and barbell back squats will activate the quads and the glutes.
However, bodyweight squats do very little in terms of hamstring activation.
That being said, I know for a fact that many trainees have fairly sore hamstrings after they perform barbell squats.
Additionally, bodyweight squats don’t really activate the calves, and although barbell squats won’t blow up your calves, they’ll certainly activate them to a far greater extent.
Realistically, you could just perform barbell squats and produce very muscular legs, especially your quads and glutes.
And although you’re only hitting the hamstrings and calves as secondary groups, you can certainly add some mass to these areas too.
However, this definitely isn’t the case with bodyweight squats.
Even Out Your Bodyweight Leg Training
Now, it is possible to build muscle with bodyweight training, and this is even true if you are an advanced trainee who has spent many years doing resistance training.
But, in order to achieve this you really need to even out your bodyweight leg training.
For me, this should involve performing glutes bridges, both bilateral and unilateral (both legs and single-leg).
Furthermore, you’ll want to introduce some plyometric work, as well as sprints.
And if you really want to hit those hamstrings hard, make sure to include uphill sprints.
The reason for this is not only to give you a better all-round training routine, but also to ensure you activate different muscle fibres.
Bodyweight squats will typically work your slow-twitch muscle fibres, which are more focused on muscular endurance.
But, in order to build muscle it is better to hit your fast-twitch muscle fibres.
And guess what?
You’ve got it, plyometrics and sprinting will both activate the fast-twitch muscle fibres.
And with plyometrics you don’t have to do anything advanced.
Simply performing jump squats, box jumps, depth jumps, and even jumping over boxes will produce the desired results.
The Role of High-Rep Bodyweight Squat Workouts
We typically look at building muscle, and other training protocols, as very black and white in terms of what’s required.
As an example you’ve probably heard of something similar to this:
Now, while there is some truth to this, there is evidence which shows that building muscle generally comes down to muscular fatigue and overall training volume.
So, in effect, let’s say that you performed 3 sets of 30 reps of barbell back squats, you’re also likely to gain muscle mass, as well as increasing muscular endurance.
Okay, I’ll admit that you may not blow up your legs into massive tree trunks, but you’re definitely still going to gain muscle mass.
Nathan Jones goes far more into detail about training volume and muscle growth.
The “Mysterious” Proof That Bodyweight Squats Build Muscle
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.
So, they produced some of the most outstanding muscular physiques with high-volume bodyweight squats.
Personally, I think this has a lot to do with also activating the fast-twitch muscle fibres, which can obviously lead to increased muscle mass.
Yes, I’ve said that bodyweight squats will typically activate the slow-twitch muscles, so not so great for hypertrophy.
However, with such a huge amount of reps, eventually your body will almost “burn out” from activating slow-twitch muscle fibres.
This means that those fast-twitch muscle fibres are now working, which will help with increasing muscle mass.
The moral of the story is, if you want to build muscle through bodyweight squats, as an experienced trainee, then you have to go BIG.
Admittedly, you won’t produce the same results as heavy barbell squats, but very high-rep bodyweight squat workouts can certainly add some muscle mass to your legs.
Key Takeaway Points
- You can build muscle from bodyweight squats if you have never trained your legs before.
- It will be extremely difficult for an advanced trainee, who regularly performs resistance based work, to build muscle with bodyweight squats.
- For a better all-round bodyweight leg workout you should include plyometrics and sprints.
- Both plyometrics and sprints activate the fast-twitch muscle fibres, which is ideal for muscle growth.
- Nathan Jones has written in detail about the effects of muscle fatigue and overall training volume on hypertrophy.
- There are numerous famous athletes who have produced extremely muscular legs though bodyweight squats alone. However, this involved extremely high-rep workouts, typically done throughout the day.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.
8 thoughts on “Do Bodyweight Squats Build Muscle? (it Depends!)”
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.