If you’re looking to change up your leg day routine, air squats are easy to incorporate and have a host of benefits. I’ve discussed them in detail and provided a handy how-to guide I’ve also given a brief comparison to weighted squats and explained the possible applications below.
Walk into any gym and you’ll be spoilt for choice in terms of exercises to choose from. Multiple exercises exist for each body part, with different variations allowing you to make an exercise routine based on your goals and personal preferences.
Squats have become a well-known staple of many powerlifters, bodybuilders, and recreational gym-goers’ exercise routines for many years. Alongside the deadlift and bench press, there is no denying the functional and performance-enhancing benefits of squats in and out of the gym.
Even if we don’t realize it, we use the squat position in daily activities, to perform tasks at work, and in some cultures to rest. Since its popularization as an exercise movement in the early 1900s, the squat has been used in multiple ways from a bodybuilding movement to a powerlifting staple.
Multiple squat variations exist today that vary in difficulty and use slightly different movement patterns. Common examples include front squats and back squats. In this article, I’ve discussed a popular variation known as the air squat. I’ve explained the benefits, applications, and how to use the proper form below.
What are Air Squats?
An air squat, also known as a bodyweight squat, is a compound exercise that uses air resistance or works against the forces of gravity. Unlike normal squat exercises, additional weights are not used.
The term air squat originates from the CrossFit community, with many popular WOD routines including air squats as a functional lower body movement. In CrossFit, it’s used to differentiate between bodyweight and weighted squats.
With no external load, air squats are relatively simple to perform and are usually programmed using high-repetition sets or following a weighted resistance exercise.
But, what about air squats on their own? With no equipment required and multiple functional applications, performing air squats regularly can provide a host of physical and psychological benefits.
What Muscles Do Air Squats Work?
Before discussing the benefits in more detail, let’s take a look at the muscles worked first. Air squats are a lower-body, compound exercise meaning they work multiple muscle groups when performed correctly.
These are the prime movers involved:
The quadriceps are a group of four muscles situated at the front of your legs. These are your rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
During a squat, they are the primary muscles used to extend the knee at the bottom of the movement. As you go deeper your knees are required to bend further meaning that your quads need to work harder to bring you back up.
During an air squat, a closer stance also places more emphasis on your quad muscles as your legs have to travel further in front of the force line as you squat down.
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles located at the back of your legs, directly behind your quads. They consist of the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris.
When squatting, the hamstrings are primarily responsible for hip extension and knee flexion movements. During an air squat, the hamstrings are not usually as active as the quadriceps but more emphasis can be placed on them with a wider stance.
Alongside the quadriceps and hamstrings, the glutes form part of your posterior chain which is basically the muscles at the back of your body. They consist of the glute maximus, glute medius, and glute minimus.
During an air squat, your hips travel behind the line of force as you squat down. As you come back up, your glute maximum muscles work to bring your hips forward and help with the squat lockout.
Situated at the side of your glutes, your glute medius muscles abduct the hips meaning that they help your legs to move to the side laterally. In an air squat, this ensures your knees track over your toes correctly, preventing the incidence of knee cave.
Your erectors are a group of muscles that run along the outside of your spine. They attach to your ribs, pelvis, and your spine. During an air squat, your erectors work to keep a neutral spine position, preventing it from rounding or going forward.
This places less stress on your vertebrae, allows a more efficient force transfer, and reduces the incidence of injury.
Your core muscles mainly consist of your rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis. Your erectors also form part of your core but I’ve included them separately.
During a squat, your core muscles work as antagonist stabilizers meaning that they help to maintain the posture of certain joints. Whilst air squats are performed without weight, your core muscles still work to stabilize your spine throughout the movement.
Benefits of Air Squats
Air squats have multiple benefits when performed as part of your workout routine or on their own. Here are some of the benefits of performing regular squats:
1. Convenient to Perform
Probably one of the best benefits of bodyweight squats is the convenience. Unlike most other gym exercises, air squats can be done anywhere you want at any time of the day.
More often than not, lack of equipment can be a big barrier if you work long hours or have other commitments and don’t have the time to travel to a gym. With air squats, all you need is yourself and the right attitude making them one of the best ways to exercise on the go.
2. Small Learning Curve
Since a young age, we’ve been squatting down to pick up toys, clean up after our children, and also squat down to rest in certain cultures.
Compared to weighted squats, body weight squats are extremely easy to learn and use the correct form. Once you’ve practiced a few of the technique cues, all you need to do is keep the same body position and start squatting.
This makes air squats great for beginners who are new to the gym and a great way to exercise without being too overwhelming to start off with.
3. Excellent Safety
Bodyweight squats involve no external load being placed on your joints and muscles which drastically reduces the risk of injury compared to weighted squats.
During a weighted squat, maintaining a neutral spine is important to reduce the possibility of shifting too much load onto your lumbar spine area.
Air squats are regarded as a very safe exercise but the correct technique should still be used. With no external load, there is much less possibility of injury if you deviate slightly from the correct lifting position.
4. Functional Applications
Whether you’re a beginner just starting out or an experienced athlete, air squats have a number of functional applications.
Whilst most of the time you probably don’t even realize it, you actually perform squats in several everyday movements. Sports such as rugby, football, and tennis all involve some kind of squat movement pattern at various points. Daily activities such as picking up shopping bags, fetching the TV remote from under the sofa, and trying to put your children to bed may also involve squatting down to some degree.
Performing regular air squats allows you to develop these functional movement patterns as your body adapts and becomes more mobile. With regular practice, your joint mobility and muscle flexibility improve as your knees and hips stay healthy.
5. Easy to Program
Air squats are really easy to program into your workout routine depending on your exercise goals.
If you want a suitable warm-up before your weighted squat workout, air squats allow you to practice the movement pattern without any loading. They provide a dynamic stretching routine and help to mobilize your knees and hips before lifting.
If you don’t have time to get to the gym, performing some high-repetition sets of air squats might be just the workout you need alongside some other function exercises.
Air squats can also make fantastic additions to your bodybuilding training and are commonly used as a superset exercise as a way to overload and build muscle mass after a weighted set.
2 Air Squat Drawbacks
As with any exercise, air squats do have a few drawbacks that might be relevant to you depending on your health and fitness goals. Always bare both sides in mind when deciding which exercises are best for you.
1. Lack of Overload
If you’re someone who likes to add more weight as you train, air squats on their own are probably not for you. Whilst air squats have multiple applications, they are probably not suitable if you want to overload the intensity rather than the volume.
The functionality of air squats far outweighs this point in my opinion but it’s still something to consider as a lifter before programming them.
If you’re worried about the intensity, program them correctly alongside other movements or at the end of a heavy-weight session.
2. Not suitable for Strength Training
If you’re someone who is purely looking to increase leg strength, air squats shouldn’t form the bulk of your exercise routine. Working at a lower rep range with a heavier weight would be the best way to achieve your goals.
Air squats are great for building muscular endurance, developing conditioning, and burning calories but not for improving muscular strength.
Air Squats vs. Weighted Squats
Air squats and weighted squats use the same fundamental movement pattern but differ in the amount of resistance used. Air squats use your body weight whilst weighted squats use barbells, dumbbells, machines, and kettlebells.
|Air (Bodyweight) Squats
As you can see in the table above, whilst both use the same movement pattern they have slightly different applications. Both can be used together as part of a well-organized program to achieve a number of physical and functional performance benefits.
How to Perform Air Squats Correctly
Despite being a natural movement that you perform regularly, care should still be taken to perform air squats correctly and safely.
Here are the main coaching points to use and common mistakes to avoid:
Assume the correct standing position
- Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes facing slightly outwards. To place more emphasis on your quads, bring your feet in as far as your mobility will allow
- Retract your shoulder blades and stick your upper body out. Keep a neutral back while looking straight ahead
- Brace your core and keep your arms by your sides
Squat down using the correct technique
- As you lower down from your starting position into a seated position, push your knees forward and hips back while keeping a neutral back position
- Focus on keeping your core braced throughout the movement and make sure your shoulder blades are back to ensure good form throughout
- Avoid leaning forward, hunching over, or moving side to side in order to maintain a tight body position
Use the correct depth and range of motion
- As you push your hips back, lower down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Feel free to go slightly below parallel if your mobility allows
- If your knees start to cave in or your heels come up off the floor, it’s likely that you are going too low and need to work on mobility before going lower
- If needed, raise your arms slightly as you descend to counterbalance your body movement
Return to the starting position
- After a brief pause at the bottom of the movement, drive your heels through the floor and engage your lower body
- Extend your knees and drive your hips forward as you stand to stand. Maintain a neutral spine with your head facing forward and chest up throughout by using your core strength
- Return to the starting position without overextending your knees and take a breath before starting the next repetition
Air squats, also known as bodyweight squats, use a simple movement pattern that we perform in many of our everyday activities.
They are convenient to do, easy to learn, and help to develop functional movement patterns that you can apply to improve your mobility out of the gym. Whilst they are relatively safe to perform, make sure to follow the main coaching points I’ve discussed above.
How long should I hold an air squat far?
An air squat can be held in the bottom position for as long as you want providing you keep a neutral back with your core braces throughout. This ensures the proper squat form throughout the movement. The time can depend on your exercise goals and the amount of repetitions you are looking to perform.
Can I do bodyweight squats every day?
Body weight squats can be performed every day as long as you ensure adequate recovery and eat the right diet. If your body is still hurting at the start of the squat workout, it might be time to take a rest day to let your muscles recover.