A known book about bodyweight training written by a fictitious convict athlete, states that you can gain strength in your legs without using weights at all, by means of exercise variations that will take you from assisted squats to one-leg squats.

Before moving on to the next variation, the reader is compelled to achieve lots of repetitions. For instance, before moving on to squats with feet together, you should achieve two sets of 30 normal (bodyweight only) squats.

I haven't seen that approach anywhere else. I wonder if it has any solid foundation.

I ask this because I have been adding reps during months, and now I am performing two sets of 20 bodyweight squats. I hope I am not loosing my time.

  • What's your goal and do you have access to equipment? Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 12:35
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    If it does work but isn't nearly as efficient as weighted squats, wouldn't that still be considered losing your time?
    – Steven
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 13:46
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    Personally, the barbell attachment seems like a bad idea as your weight increases. I'd rather go for the leg press machine. That should work my legs better as well as being safe :). Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 16:45
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    It is nonsensical to believe that goblet squats are "too light for me now" while simultaneously working on air squats. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 7:28
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    All squats are hard. That is why they are so effective. In my opinion the goblet squat is a great exercise. You can goblet squat much less than you backsquat, so you should start with maybe 30 lbs next time.
    – Andy
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 18:11

6 Answers 6



Body weight squats will increase your leg strengths initially. If you don't run or play sports that require running, you should experience some strength in your legs (quads, glutes, and calves). However, if you do perform these sports, you won't really experience an extra benefit to body weight squats.

Frankly, body weight squats is more of a cardio exercise than a strength exercise. It'll build endurance and agility in your legs, which will allow you to perform better in sports. But it won't make your legs bigger.

Based on the information retrieved from the comments, it seems that you have access to equipment; the problem is that you can't perform activities that involve putting heavy weights on your shoulders.

As a result, I wouldn't really advocate barbell back squats for large weights (because of the potential injury if your shoulders fail).

Goblet squats is a good idea. You can increase the weight, which will help your legs.

Dumb bell squats

is another great idea.
Caveat though: your grip strength partly determines how much you'll be able to go.

This form of dumb bell squat is also great (depending on your shoulder strength though).

Leg Presses: You cannot go wrong with leg presses.

That can build some serious strength and muscles on your legs. No shoulder required :).

You can also perform many calf exercises, leg extensions, and other machine-based exercises.

There are more exercises that you can perform....but you get the picture :).

You are not limited to only body weight squats.

  • Great idea, General Zod. I am going to use the leg press in alternate days with the bodyweight/goblet squat.
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 18:20
  • "You cannot go wrong with leg presses"—except that the leg press is a leg exercise, whereas the squat is a back-and-legs exercise. It is not a substitute. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 19:02
  • @DaveLiepmann The question is focused on legs, which was what the answer addressed. If back's included, the answer will be different. I'm not even sure though if there are any back exercises that wouldn't place weights/pressure on the shoulders. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 20:08
  • @Kneel-Before-ZOD Back extensions work the spinal erectors, glutes and hamstrings. Holding the load plate against my chest is not a problem for my shoulders. The trouble can happen while in a forced externally rotated position (as when holding the squat bar on top of the back).
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 20:16
  • @Mephisto That's right. I was actually thinking about free-weight exercises with that comment. I should probably look into more machine-based exercises for the back. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 20:18

You can definitely build strong legs with bodyweight squats, but you're going to hit a wall with diminishing returns pretty quickly aiming for 20-30 range reps...as far as strength is concerned, anyway.

If you're looking for absolute strength gains, and you're dead set on bodyweight movements, I think you'd see much better results taking a 5x5-type (sets x reps) approach, and progressively increasing the difficulty of the movements.

For example, start with 5 reps of assisted air squats. When you complete the 5x5 easily, graduate to unassisted, then Bulgarian split squats, assisted pistols, to shrimps (not to be confused with BJJ shrimps), etc.

Here's a great infographic that highlights some suggested progressions:


Also, you might find some benefit in reading Pavel's Naked Warrior...his whole focus is strength from bodyweight training.

Adding plyometrics (e.g., jump squats, depth squats, etc) will add power to your game, but I'd start with a solid foundation first.

Hope that helps.

  • Great info. I had to choose only one answer as the best one, but thanks for the useful information. Hope to see you around here in the future.
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 18:18

If you cannot currently perform two sets of 30 bodyweight (air) squats, then yes: air squats will build muscle and strength quite well.

If you are looking for an alternative to barbells for strength training your squat, the goblet squat is probably the best answer:

Goblet squat bottom position

Some gyms also have "safety squat bars" that don't require reaching behind one's back to grip the bar. Weight vests also provide a way to add load without exacerbating shoulder issues. These both could be a good solutions for you.

  • I choosed General Zod's answer this time because the leg press suggestion (I will combine it with the light goblet squats in alternate days). But yours was very valuable as usual. Thanks Dave.
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 18:16
  • @Mephisto Remember, the leg press is a leg exercise, whereas the squat is not. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 18:58
  • I thought it was a leg exercise that also involved some lower back stabilizing work.
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 19:40
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    @Mephisto The first point of failure in maximal squats for most people is the lower back, not the legs. It's just about equal between the legs, glutes, and spinal erectors in my experience. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 19:59

It's certainly possible to get really strong legs without extra weight. All that matters is the force that is actually applied to your muscles.

If your goal is to be able to do one legged squats, you need to increase your agility and your max strength. 30 reps is nowhere near the optimal rep count for max strength, but since we're not using extra weight, what can we do? Negatives. Lower yourself slowly, working against gravity on the way down until you can't support your weight any more, when you can't, sit down on your ass and get up again.


the thing about prison is that they work out usually 3-4 times a day for an hour at a time, thus constantly sending those messages gets insane results in muscular growth, but you can get large legs with bodyweight squats, but you will have to combine them with dynamic tension leg exercises, as well as do them slowly and in time add a backpack full of weight to increase weight on your squats but it is very achievable. a better prison workout book is solitary fitness by charles bronson he is in solitary confinement and is a genius.


No, not unless you are doing under 20 reps, which you are not. Otherwise, or in your case, you have to do barbell squats. End of discussion.

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