If you haven’t had access to a barbell or significant weights in a while, you’ve probably started worrying about your squat strength. A lot.
And sure, you’ll have to get back into the gym slowly — seriously, no 1-rep max tests right when you get back. Just like you do ramp-up sets (you… better be doing ramp-up sets) on a regular training day, you’ll have to ramp back up, over at least a couple weeks, to get back toward your barbell squat strength when you hit the gym again.
But, even if you’re training without weights, all is not lost. Frankly, you can improve your squat without weights in ways you probably wouldn’t have the discipline to do if you had loads of barbells to play with. Strip the weights away, and yes, you can still maintain a lot of muscle and strength with no equipment — but you’re also going to have the opportunity to work on your squat mechanics.
So by the time you do get back to lifting at your pre-quarantine capacity, your movements will be more precise, you’ll squat with less leaked force, you’ll have ironed out imbalances, and you’ll actually have the ankle mobility to squat to depth without using a good morning squat to come back to standing.
So yes, you can improve your squat without weights — you’ll just have to get a little unconventional in your focus.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Mobility, Not Just Strength
More often than not, when you’re in the gym, you’re focusing explicitly on building strength, not mobility. Mobility work is humbling, and the process is often slower and less noticeable than adding a couple of five-pound plates to the bar each week.
Plus, because of how often mobility training is overlooked and underutilized, we’re generally not trained to incorporate it into our programming.
But unlocking your ankle, hip, and shoulder mobility will allow you to train heavy at peak efficiency. When your ankles aren’t mobile, you’re not able to squat to depth without a low-back risking butt wink or forcing out a good morning squat to get the rep up. When your hips are locked up (which also happens when your ankles are locked), it’s rare that you’ll be able to properly square your hips, creating imbalances and leaking force. If you don’t have sufficient shoulder mobility, you won’t be able to bring your hands closer to your shoulders to set up your squat, so you won’t be able to have as strong and efficient a shelf for the bar as you could have.
Mobility is just as important for squatting heavy as strength, if not moreso. Focusing on perfecting your form by improving your overall athleticism is the way to go — so really, you don’t need weights to improve your squat.
Don’t think of these moves as stretches — think of them as essential exercises to increase your squat strength and technique. Always focus on your breathing: on your inhale, imagine making your muscles longer, and on your exhale, imagine sinking deeper into the exercise.
[Pretty much like this, but don’t expect to be able to sink nearly as deeply.]
1. Lateral Ankle Lunges
- Sink into a tall kneeling position.
- Step your right foot forward so you’re in a deep lunge.
- Keep your chest tall and bring your right knee over to your right side, stepping into a lateral lunge with your left knee still on the ground.
- Keep the toes of your left foot planted, and point your right toes at the wall off to your right. Your right heel and your left knee should be in line with each other.
- Tracking your right knee over your right angle, lean over to your right on an exhale. You can rest your right forearm on your right thigh if it helps you keep your balance.
- Pulse in and out of this movement gently, making your chest taller with each inhale and sinking deeper into the lateral lunge (bringing your right knee farther over your right toes) with each exhale.
- Switch sides, expecting yourself to be more mobile on one side than the other.
Training Recommendation: 4 x 15 reps per side
2. Frog Stretch
- Get into a pushup position, with your shoulders stacked over your hands.
- Let your knees drop under your hips and keep your feet planted.
- Sink your forearms into a forearm plank position, again keeping your shoulders stacked over your hands.
- Spread your knees as far apart as you can, keeping your shins parallel to each other, with your right toes facing the right wall and your left toes facing the left wall.
- Gently push back on your forearms (like you would with a plank saw) and let your tailbone sit back toward your heels. Only go as far as feels natural, inhaling back into starting position.
- On each exhale, try to sink a little deeper down, opening your hips and keeping your ankles open, just like you need for the bottom of a squat.
Training Recommendation: 4 x 10 reps
3. Lying Lateral Knee Drives
- Lie down on your left side, using your left shoulder as a pillow.
- Keep your hips squared and your right leg straight and stacked directly on top of the left, curl your toes back toward your shins.
- Maintain that foot position as you bend your right knee and pull (not yank) your right knee up toward your right shoulder. Maintain a neutral spine and squared hips.
- Slowly bring your right leg back to starting position. Don’t forget to keep it even on both sides.
Training Recommendation: 4 x 20 reps per side
4. Split Squats
- Sink into a lunge with your left foot in front.
- Shift however you need to (it’ll depend on your limb length) so that your left knee tracks over your left foot and your right foot is planted with your knee touching the ground at a 90-degree angle.
- Keep your torso tall and move into and out of your lunges without moving your feet.
- Elevate your rear foot on a chair to make this move Bulgarian and a hell of a lot more painful (erm, good).
Training Recommendation: 4 x 12 per side
[Like this, but you can also go for a variation of pressing the tops of your feet into the ground instead of “flying” your legs, too.]
5. Flying Shoulder Presses
- Lie on your stomach with the tops of your feet pressing into the ground.
- Place your hands just outside your shoulders and pull your shoulder blades up toward the ceiling and back toward each other. Pull your elbows down toward your feet. Keeping the tension between your shoulder blades, reverse the direction and extend your arms above your head, toward the wall in front of you.
- Treat this move like you would if you were doing a standing shoulder press — squeeze your quads and your glutes, pressing down the tops of your feet into the floor. Engage your core and keep everything tight through the “presses.”
The stability (and mobility) you’re creating in your shoulders and upper back will help create a strong, steady place for your body to meet the squat bar.
Training Recommendation: 4 x 15 per side
6. Plank Alternating Leg Lifts
- Get into a forearm plank, with your hands under your shoulders.
- Engage your core by pulling your heels down toward the back wall.
- Brace through your entire body and raise your right leg, keeping your heel pressing toward the back wall.
- Keep your hips level, not involving your low back in the movement.
- Switch legs and repeat.
Training Recommendation: 4 x 15 per side
[Like this, but keeping your spine as neutral as you can.]
7. Bottom-Up Squats
- Start with your arms reaching over your head, trying to push the ceiling away with your fingertips.
- Keep activated through your lats as you hinge at your hips, sweeping your arms forward and down as you deepen the hinge.
- If you have the range of motion, hook your fingers — without losing the neutrality of your spine — under your big toes. Sink into the deepest squat you can, then unhook your fingers and raise your arms back up.
- Stay settled in the bottom of your squat with your arms overhead and your lats fully active. Push yourself up into a weightless overhead squat, then start the process again.
Training Recommendation: 4 x 12
8. Pendulum Legs
- Lie on your back with your legs straight.
- Raise them to about 45 degrees, pressing your low back down into the ground. Try to keep your palms facing the ceiling, but if you need to, plant your hands palm down and use them to increase your stability through the movement. Same with your legs — try to keep them as straight as you can, but bend your knees if you need the extra stability.
- With control, draw your legs down toward your right side — avoid rolling — then back up to center.
- Repeat to the left, keeping your core rather than your legs in charge of the movement.
Creating this lateral strength and stability in your core will help keep the pressure from your heavy barbell squats distributed more evenly across your entire body, preventing leaked force and, ultimately, less powerful lifts.
Training Recommendation: 4 x 15 per side
9. Lateral Bounds
- Stand tall with your feet close together.
- Keeping your torso long and upright, bound toward your right side with your right foot.
- When you land softly on the ball of your foot, let your left leg hop off the ground while you’re still leaning right.
- With control, bound back toward the left, landing softly on your left foot and letting your right float up.
- Throughout the bounds, keep a soft hinge in your hips but keep your spine neutral.
Training Recommendation: 4 x 20 per side
Unconventional Moves Becoming Your Convention
If the exercises above feel unconventional and unfamiliar to you, that’s all the more reason to integrate them and keep them in your program, even and especially after you return to the gym. It’s easy to get excited by barbells and chase weight rather than movement precision and mobility — but the more attention you pay to your movement quality, the healthier (and heavier) your squat will be.
Featured image via puhhha/Shutterstock