Last updated on February 18th, 2023 at 05:44 pm
I’ll be honest and say that I often perform squats as a cardio session.
Basically, squats leave me out of breath, I can feel my heart racing, and I’m generally covered in sweat.
The main reason that squats make your heart race is due to the number of muscles you are working at the same time. The legs house the biggest muscles in the body, namely the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. So, whenever you squat, your heart must work extremely hard to send blood and oxygen to the working muscles. This is also why squats can often feel like a cardio workout.
Squats Work the Largest Muscles in the Body
Pure and simple, Squats are known as the “King of Lower Body Exercises” for a reason.
Squats work just about every muscle in your legs, as well as a host of other stabilising muscles.
So, it stands to reason that if you’re training the largest muscles in the body, you’re going to feel out of breath.
Basically, you’re putting all these muscles under a great deal of stress when you squat.
Plus, in order to function correctly, your body needs to send a huge amount of blood and oxygen to the working muscles when you squat.
And in order to achieve this your heart has to pick up the pace and send blood to the desired areas of the body.
You may even notice that your heart races even more when you perform squats with a heavier weight.
Granted, performing high reps with a lighter weight will still increase your heart rate, but it certainly isn’t in the same league as those really heavy sets of squats.
Once more, this shows the requirement for blood and oxygen when a muscle is being worked with high intensity.
In fact, a decent squat workout is often likened to cardio, and is perhaps even better for your overall cardiovascular health.
So, you can rest-assured that it’s perfectly normal for your heart to race when you squat.
Use the Correct Breathing Technique When Squatting
Okay, so it’s perfectly fine that your heart races during squats.
Essentially, it’s a good sign that your heart is working the way it should in order to provide your muscles with the “fuel” that they need.
However, that’s not to say that you can’t “control” your heart rate somewhat.
In fact, there is an ideal way to breath during squats.
Admittedly, the breathing technique, known as the valsalva manoeuvre, is more about providing support for your spine while squatting with very heavy weights.
But, it can certainly also help to keep your breathing even, and hopefully your heart rate down too.
In effect, the valsalva manoeuvre literally requires you to hold your breath during the actual squatting movement.
This actually involves you taking a deep intake of breath, bracing your core, and then breathing out once you’re back at the top of the squat.
However, most people follow the generally weightlifting principle of breath in on the way down, breath out on the way up.
This works quite well for just about every weighted exercise you can think of, e.g. bench press, but it will not work for squats.
Plus, if you follow this type of breathing, not only are you putting your lower back at risk, you’re also likely to find that your heart is racing more than usual.
In other words, improper breathing techniques can cause your heart to race more than usual when you squat.
The Valsalva Manoeuvre Explained
In order to squat correctly you must maintain proper spinal stability.
We all do this to some extent anyway, as if we didn’t, placing a loaded barbell on your shoulders would literally snap you in half.
However, I think most people simply contract their abs in preparation for a squat.
In truth, you need to do far more than this, and this is why the valsalva manoeuvre is essentially for heavy squatting.
What you’re basically doing is increasing intra-abdominal pressure, which is what will actually protect your spine.
In effect, you’re almost trying to make your core bigger by pushing it out to the front and to the sides.
The result is that the loaded weight across the back of your shoulders is well stabilised.
You can learn the intricacies of the valsalva manoeuvre from this great article over at Squat University.
However, I’ll provide you with the simplified version.
Take a deep breath in at the top of the squat, and hold this breath.
Next, brace your core muscles in exactly the same way you would if you were expecting a punch in the stomach.
Maintain the in-breath and braced core as you lower yourself into the squat.
Keep that breath in and your core braced as you rise up at the end of the squat.
Only once you’re back in the top position should you have a huge exhale of breath.
So, in reality, you only take one breath per squat, and you end up holding that breath for a few seconds (this is not to say that you can’t take a “break” at the top of the movement in order to catch your breath)..
But, this not only protects your spine and helps you squat better, it can also help you to control your breathing, as well as your heart rate.
How Long Are You Resting Between Sets?
As obvious as it sounds, are you resting long enough between sets when squatting?
I’ve already mentioned that I personally always feel my heart racing, plus I’m sweating profusely, after a decent high-intensity squatting session.
In effect, it’s much the same as performing cardio.
In fact, you could even liken it to interval training.
Your heart and body have to go through a great deal of stress while you squat, and then you rest to get your breath back, before going through it all again.
So, for me, I prefer to rest slightly longer with squats than I would with many other exercises.
This will obviously depend on which training protocol you’re following, but there’s nothing wrong with slightly extended rest periods when training for strength or hypertrophy.
When you think about all the things I’ve discussed so far, your body has to go through a great deal when you squat.
And this is why it makes more sense to rest slightly longer between sets.
You can allow your heart rate to return to more-or-less normal, while ensuring that your muscles are properly rested before hitting them again.
So, regardless of your rep-range, ensure you take enough rest between sets.
Key Learning Points
- Squats work the largest muscle groups in the lower body, i.e. quads, glutes, and hamstrings, plus various stabilizing muscles too.
- Your heart has to work extremely hard during squats in order to send blood and oxygen to the “working muscles”.
- Performing heavier squats with low reps will actually make your heart race more than lighter weights and higher reps due to the more intense muscle activation.
- Use the valsalva manoeuvre to control your breathing.
- Rest 3-5 minutes between sets when strength training with squats.
- Rest 90-120 seconds between sets when hypertrophy training with squats.
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.