Body-Weight Squats vs. Dumbbell Squats: Which Is Better for Your Workout?

While squats are a functional lower-body strength exercise, they aren't only performed in the gym. If you've ever lifted a box off the ground or sat down into a chair — congratulations! — you've performed a squat.

After you've mastered the basic squat, you can progress to loaded options. (Image: FatCamera/E+/GettyImages)

But if you're not used to doing squats as part of your workout, it's important to begin with the basic squat, using only your body for resistance. With practice, you'll adapt to the movement pattern and grow more comfortable with the proper form. Then, you can experiment with the dumbbell variation, among others.

Breaking Down the Body-Weight Squat

Squats are a commonly suggested exercise because they're safe to perform and can improve your total body strength. Using more than 200 upper and lower body muscles, the basic squat is the best place to start, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

While the squat seems simple, it's important to perform your body-weight squats with proper form before you add any weights.

  • Stand with feet about shoulder-width distance apart.
  • Keeping the heels rooted, push your hips back and descend as if sitting into a chair.
  • Keep the eyes gazing forward.
  • To return to standing, reverse the motion, driving your hips forward. Keep the shoulders back and chest out.

The form of your squat can be a window into potential muscular imbalances or injuries, according to NASM. If your head leans forward, for instance, you may have a tight neck; rounding of the shoulders may indicate the need for some postural adjustment.

You can include body-weight squats into your exercise routine, whether you're at home or in the gym. Body-weight squats are great exercises to perform in between lifts as an active recovery. Or, perform your basic squats at a quick pace and add them to a high-intensity interval training day.

Should You Add Dumbbells?

Once you're comfortable performing body-weight squats, you can add dumbbells to increase your muscular strength. This is where the principle of overload comes into play, according to NASM.

Over time, your muscles adapt to exercise if you keep the resistance constant (in this case, that's your body weight), which means your progress stalls. But introducing progressive overload — by gradually increasing the load (weight) of your exercises over time — can keep your strength progressing and muscles growing.

Adding dumbbells to your squats is one method for introducing load to your body-weight squats. Performing a squat with dumbbells is pretty simple, especially if you've already mastered the basic squat. Select two moderately challenging dumbbells and hold them at your sides while performing the exercise. If your form starts to slip, choose a lighter set.

Taking Squats Above and Beyond

As you grow more confident with your loaded squats, the doors to endless variations open up. The most common next step is a barbell back squat, according to NASM. While you should try this with a spotter for the first time, the barbell is a good way to add more weight to your squats. From there, you can experiment with the front squat, holding the barbell over your shoulders. Or, incorporate kettlebells.

Not only can you add variety with the weight you use, but you can also mix up the type of squat you perform. Sumo squats (wide-legged, toes pointing out) and goblet squats (a more narrow stance, with a weight at chest height) are just two other forms that can take your squats above and beyond the norm. Be creative but, above all, be safe and progress slowly.

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