Squat challenges are all the rage at the moment.
Everyone seems to be doing one, and unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, you will have most likely come across one of many on the internet.
But just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about, squat challenges involve squatting almost every day for a month. Usually the goal is to get better at squatting, or a ‘toned’ butt and thighs.
It’s not only the butt (glutes) and thighs (quads) that squats are good for, though. They are a fantastic exercise for the entire body:
- They are a compound movement – In addition to your glutes and quads, squats also work your hips, hamstrings, calves, back, and core.
- They boost hormone production – Owing to the fact that squats use multiple muscle groups (perhaps more than any other exercise), they increase the production of anabolic hormones. Anabolic hormones are known for helping us to lose fat and build muscle, giving you that ‘toned’ look.
- They improve mobility – You learned to walk by squatting with perfect form, but as we get older we spend more time sitting and that child-like mobility is lost. Regularly squatting will help improve your flexibility and posture.
For the reasons above, I’m a fan of anything that gets people squatting, and these challenges have helped build awareness (along with Jen Selter’s Instagram account of course) that squats are a fantastic exercise .
But, and it’s a big BUT (no pun intended), these 30 day challenges overlook some basic exercise principles and, as a result, make it extremely difficult (or even impossible) for you to get better at squatting and a body you love.
- Problem #1 – They’re too difficult for beginners. Most programs start with 50 reps on your first day. Assuming those reps are supposed to be done in a single set (they usually don’t specify), that’s crazy. You might be able to grind out 50 reps with questionable form, but 50 reps with perfect form would be difficult even for somebody in really good shape, never mind a beginner.
- Problem #2- You’re doing too much, WAY too much. Most squat challenges go from 50 reps on your first day all the way to 250 on the last. When was the last time you were in the gym and did 250 reps of an exercise, or even 25 sets of 10 reps? The reason you (hopefully) answered ‘never’ is that it would be an incredibly ineffective and inefficient way of working out. To build strength and muscle (and get that ‘toned’ look) you need to increase the resistance and do far fewer reps.
- Problem #3 – Once the program is over, it’s over. On the one hand, having a deadline of 30 days is a good thing. It’s not too much of a commitment, and it’s motivating to progress towards that final day. But what then? Do you just hang up your boots and go back to your former, unhealthy, lifestyle?
[mks_highlight color=”#fdff2c”]To get a body you love and keep it, you need to do a squat challenge that challenges you in the right way, and allows you to keep improving beyond 30 days.[/mks_highlight]
The Squat Challenge(s) That Work
I wanted to create a challenge that I knew would help people do just that, and this led to the creation of 3 squat challenges for beginner, intermediate, and advanced squatters.
The challenges will take you right through from your first bodyweight squat with perfect form all the way to the highly impressive pistol squat. Each challenge follows a series of progressions that will help you get a great butt and thighs, but will also build strength so that the challenges can even be used as a substitute for squatting in the gym while you travel. Here’s how you know which challenge is right for you:
- Beginner – With the exception of when you learned how to walk, you’ve never squatted before. The beginner challenge is designed to help you learn how to do squats safely and effectively, while building up a base level of fitness.
- Intermediate – You’re comfortable with the basic bodyweight squat, and can go low enough for your thighs to be parallel to the ground (or lower) with every rep. You should be able to perform at least 25 bodyweight squats in a single set with perfect form before taking on this challenge.
- Advanced – You know you can do bodyweight squats with perfect form, and don’t find split squats challenging anymore. If you’ve been doing weighted squats in the gym, you should be able to squat your bodyweight for multiple reps before attempting pistols.
Each day there’s a target number of reps that you should aim to reach in as few sets as possible, but it doesn’t matter if you do one them all in one go or break them up throughout the day. Note that for single-leg squat variations this is the number of reps for each leg, not the total for both!
But if you can’t perform the target number of reps with perfect form (ie you let your knees cave in or don’t drop as low on each rep), take the next day off and then go back to the beginning of that 7 day period.
Each 7 day period will involve a different squat variation. Basically, that means you’ll be doing a slightly different squat each week. You might not have heard of each exercise, but detailed explanations can be found below the challenges.
That’s it! But before you jump straight in I suggest you take some time to learn how to do squats properly, warm up, and eat well which are all covered later in the article, and will be crucial to your success.
Beginner Squat Challenge
How To Do Each Squat Variation (Click To Expand)[mks_accordion] [mks_accordion_item title=”Counterbalance Box Squat“] The counterbalance box squat is simply a basic squat, but done to a surface like a chair or stool. You use your arms as a counterbalance to make the exercise easier, and the surface as a way of measuring your depth. Don’t sit down on the surface; touch your butt to it to make sure you are going to the same depth with each rep. You can make box squats easier by using a higher surface, or harder by using a lower surface.
[/mks_accordion_item] [mks_accordion_item title=”Prisoner Box Squat“] Instead of using your arms as a counterbalance, place your hands behind your head to perform what is known as a prisoner squat. A prisoner squat is more difficult than a counterbalance squat because it requires more balance and stability. Once again though, you will be using a surface like a chair or stool to make sure you hit the same depth with each rep.
[/mks_accordion_item] [mks_accordion_item title=”Counterbalance Air Squat“] After a couple of weeks of squatting to a box you will have built up an awareness of how low you need to go until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Parallel (or lower) is the depth you should be aiming for with each rep. An ‘air squat’ is simply a bodyweight squat performed as per the instructions earlier in the article. ‘Air’ is used to distinguish it from other variations.
[/mks_accordion_item] [mks_accordion_item title=”Prisoner Air Squat“] This is the toughest variation of the 4 in the beginner squat challenge. Again, make sure you are getting as close to parallel as you possibly can, but this time place your hands behind your head to make it more challenging.
Intermediate Squat Challenge
How To Do Each Squat Variation (Click To Expand)[mks_accordion] [mks_accordion_item title=”Counterbalance Split Squat“]
Stand in a staggered stance with one leg in front of you and one behind you. In the video demonstration the woman has her hands at her sides, but you are free to do whatever you want with them to help you find your balance. Without moving your feet, bend the knee of your front leg to squat down towards the ground. Ensure that your knee is tracking over your toes throughout the exercise, and drive through your heel to return to the start. Make sure you do same amount of reps with each leg.
This should be done in exactly the same way as the above, but with your hands behind your head. Focus on balancing and squatting low enough that the knee of your trailing leg touches the ground.
[/mks_accordion_item] [mks_accordion_item title=”Counterbalance Bulgarian Split Squat“]
Stand a few feet away from a stable surface that is around the height of your knee of lower-thigh. Lift one leg behind you and place your foot on the surface. You might find that you have to adjust the distance you stand away from the bench to find a position that is comfortable for you. Once again you can do whatever you want with your arms to help you balance, but you should avoid holding on to something. Keeping your torso upright (avoid leaning forward), bend the knee of your front leg to squat down until the knee of your rear leg almost touches the ground. Drive through your heel to return to the start. Remember to repeat with both legs.
Place your hands behind your head and keep the tips from above in mind.
Advanced Squat Challenge
How To Do Each Squat Variation (Click To Expand)[mks_accordion] [mks_accordion_item title=”High Box Pistol Squat“]
To set up for this variation find a box, chair or stool that is just below hip height. Stand just in front of it so that your heels are very close to (but not touching) the box. From there lift your arms out straight in front of you and do the same with one leg. You can have your knee bent slightly if this is too difficult, but you should work towards keeping your leg straight. Maintain this position and sit back until your butt touches the surface. Make sure the knee of your squatting leg is tracking directly over your toes and your weight is on your mid-foot. Quickly stand back up by squeezing the glute of your squatting leg and driving through your heel. Do the prescribed number of reps and repeat on the other side.
For this variation you will need a surface that is lower than before and closer to mid-thigh height. Ensure that you maintain good form as you squat lower than you did before. Remember the reps are for each leg.
Find a surface that is lower still. It should be around knee height or lower. This will be almost as difficult as the full pistol squat but will help you build awareness of how low you need to go and give you something to fall on should you lose strength in the bottom position.
Once you’ve mastered all of the box pistol squat variations you will have sufficient strength to perform an incredibly impressive free standing pistol squat. Not only is the pistol squat extremely impressive to see, but by now you will have built a great deal of strength throughout your entire body (not to mention a great butt and thighs!)
Making The Most of The Challenges
Squats are awesome, but there are some important things you need to know to get the most out of each challenge.
How To Do Squats With Good Form
Maintaining good form in a typical 30 day squat challenge is extremely difficult. As you get tired and start grinding out reps you will most likely do one of the following things:
- Stop dropping as low on each rep – Ideally, you want your thighs to be at least parallel to the ground (as demonstrated in the video above) before squatting back up. This ensures that you’re going through a full range of motion and getting the most bang for your buck with each rep.
- Let your knees cave in – Your knees should follow the same direction as your toes throughout the movement. Allowing your knees to shift towards each other makes your tendons and ligaments vulnerable, which is what can cause knee pain and more serious issues.
- Shift your weight on to your toes – Your feet should be planted firmly on the floor, with the weight of your body over your mid-foot. As your legs get tired the natural tendency is to shift your weight onto your toes. Doing this means that you will no longer be working the legs and glutes effectively, and will also be putting yourself at a greater risk of injury.
- Lose a strong back position – The angle of the torso should remain the same during a squat. Your chest should be ‘proud’, and your back should be relatively flat. Losing this position isn’t a massive issue when doing bodyweight squats, but it will be if you ever want to do weighted squats.
Focusing on fewer, quality reps, is the best way of building strength throughout your body, and ensuring you don’t get injured.
Here’s how to do squats with picture perfect form:
- Stand up tall with your arms by your side and your chest proud.
- Position your feet in a way that feels comfortable to you. For most people this is hip-width apart, but you can also try positioning yourself as if you were about to jump up as high as possible. Wherever your feet are is likely to be the stance you will find most comfortable. Your toes should be pointing forward or be in line with your knee.
- Take a deep breath to lift your rib cage.
- Sit back. Keeping your chest up (imagine wearing a t-shirt with writing on the chest and trying to show it somebody across the room), push your hips back, and then sit down as if you were sitting on a chair. As you descend, make sure your weight stays over your midfoot, and push your knees out as if you were trying to split the ground in half. Lift your arms in front of you as a counterbalance.
- Stand back up. When you’re as low as you can go, push through your heels and squeeze your glutes to stand up as quickly as possible. Lower your arms to your side.
That seems like a lot to remember, but it will quickly become second nature when you start squatting regularly.
How To Warm Up
Before any kind of workout you should do a warm-up, and squat challenges are no exception. As the saying goes, if you haven’t got time to warm up, you haven’t got time to work out.
I understand that you probably want to just do your squats and get on with your day, but in the long run doing this warm-up will drastically improve the quality of your squats and help you to reach your goals a lot quicker.
You can either do 2-3 rounds of this warm-up immediately before you do the majority of your squats for the day, or alternatively do a single round before each bout of squats throughout the day. Aim to do 10 reps of each movement.
Click to expand each exercise for full descriptions (they’re not nearly as complicated as they sound!) and video demonstrations.[mks_accordion] [mks_accordion_item title=”1. Ankle Mobilisation“] Stand facing a wall with your front foot roughly 5 inches away from it. Keeping the heel of your front foot firmly planted on the ground, lean towards the wall. Get your knee as close as you can to the wall (ideally, it will touch it) without your heel leaving the ground. Return to the starting position. Be sure to repeat with both legs.
[/mks_accordion_item] [mks_accordion_item title=”2. Hip Flexor Mobilisation“]
Kneel down with one foot in front of you and one behind you. Keeping your torso upright, and squeezing your glutes, slowly lean forward until you feel a stretch where the rear leg meets your hip. Pause for 10-15 seconds and return to the starting position. Repeat on both sides.
[/mks_accordion_item] [mks_accordion_item title=”3. T-Spine Extension/Rotation“]
Set up on all fours (hands under the shoulders, knees under the hips). Place one hand behind your head while keeping the other on the ground. Watch the elbow of your arm that is off the ground, and lift your elbow as high as you can by rotating the upper back. Lower your elbow to your opposite hand and repeat. Do this on both sides.
[/mks_accordion_item] [mks_accordion_item title=”4. Spiderman Stretch“]
Get into the push-up position. Drive your left knee up to your left armpit, then place your left foot flat on the ground outside your left hand. Keeping your right leg straight, squeeze your glutes and push both hips forward until your right knee almost touches the ground. Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side.
[/mks_accordion_item] [mks_accordion_item title=”5. Bird Dog“]
Get onto your hands and knees and brace your core as if you were about to take a punch. Simultaneously lift your right hand and left leg until they are both parallel to the ground. Squeeze your glute to keep your leg in position for a few seconds and then return to the starting position. Repeat with opposite limbs.
[/mks_accordion_item] [mks_accordion_item title=”6. Glute Bridge“]
Lie on the ground facing up with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Squeeze your glutes and pause in the up position, then lower your body back to the ground.
Nutrition & Recovery
As well as actually exercising, eating well and getting ample rest are key to getting the body you want.
The recovery part is simple, but don’t underestimate it’s importance. Rest when the challenges tell you to, and make sure you get 8 hours sleep a night.
When it comes to nutrition, my recommendation is always to get started by tracking your food intake with MyFitnessPal (which is a free app) to get an idea of how many calories you are actually eating each day. The app automatically calculates how many calories you should be consuming to reach your goal, so you can see how far from the mark you are.
From there, the most important thing is knowing what to eat and when.
One handy trick for those of you who already know they are consuming the correct amount of calories (to reach your individual goals) is carb cycling. It’s important to note that this strategy works best for people who only have a little fat to lose, and already do lots of exercise – more than that prescribed by the squat challenge alone.
For everyone else, there’s the Travel Strong Member’s Area.
The Member’s Area is home to a huge collection of healthy recipes and meal plans, each categorised by your current weight and goals. So if, for example, you weigh 160lbs/72kg and want to lose fat, you’ll be able to find a meal plan that tells you exactly what to eat and when.
Not only that, but you’ll get access to private community forums that offer support and accountability, over 60 workouts you can do anywhere, and 15 new challenges including a new and improved version of this squat challenge!
Getting started only takes a few minutes, so there really aren’t any excuses!
But to make it as simple as possible for you, I’ve created a free planner for the challenge that you can use to track your workouts and make sure that you hit the target number of reps each day.
All you have to do is enter a few details based on the challenge you have chosen, and then make a note of how many reps you achieve each day. So print it off and pin it up somewhere you’ll see it each day (like your mirror) as a reminder.
To get it, click on the image below and then enter your email. And don’t forget to get your friends involved in the squat challenge so you can give each other support!