How do you get stronger in the squat as a beginner?
In this post, I’ll outline a simple yet effective beginner squat program that will give you the biggest gains and the best start to your squat training career.
Squat Training for the Beginner
Squat training for beginners is simple, yet it is often messed up.
On a decent program, you can increase your strength fast.
In one study, ten beginners increased their squat strength by 32% in 10 weeks of training, doing two squat workouts per week, each workout consisting of 3 sets x 8–10 repetitions (reps).1
In another study, a group of nine beginners increased their squat by 20% in 12 weeks of training, with three weekly squat workouts consisting of 3 sets x 3–10 reps.2
These are simple but effective training programs.
This type of program is perfect for the beginner and quite similar to what I suggest you do.
The Beginner Squat Program
Getting a good start in your squat training is all about learning and practicing the technique while getting your muscles, joints, and connective tissues accustomed to the load.
You accomplish this by:
- Practicing the squat regularly. Two workouts per week is a good mark for quick improvements in strength and technique while keeping your risk of overuse injury low.
- Starting light. I know you’re eager, but things will get heavy fast. Temper yourself for the first few weeks of light training, and you will have a much easier time getting the technique right.
- Progressing. Here’s the fun part. Every workout, you will take a step forward in weights or reps.
Let’s go over what the workouts look like.
The Beginner Squat Workout
Your very first workout is all about trying the exercise out and establishing a starting point.
This is necessary for optimal technique learning and will put you on the path to making good gains later on.
A standard barbell weighs 20 kg (or 45 lb), and is often a good starting weight for both men and women. Add a few kilos if it seems far too easy.
The important thing is that it is light enough for you to practice the technique carefully.
How to squat with proper form:
- Place the bar on your upper back. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
- Take two steps back, and adjust your foot position.
- Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
- With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips and legs again.
- Exhale on the way up or in the top position.
- Inhale and repeat for reps.
For more details and tips, read our guide on how to squat.
For the next workout, which I suggest you do three or four days later (though up to a week is fine), add 2.5 kg (or 5 lb) to the bar and do three sets of ten reps again.
If the first workout was super easy, you might make 5 kg (10 lb) jumps between the first few workouts. But pretty soon, you should stick to doing 2.5 kg (5 lb) jumps every workout.
Do three sets of ten reps every workout, and when you successfully get all reps in, add 2.5 kg to the bar.
Can’t get all three sets of ten reps in on your first try on a new weight? Stick with it for another workout or two until you get all three sets of ten.
Going From Ten to Eight to Five Reps per Set
After a few weeks, doing three sets of ten at progressively heavier weights starts to get challenging. At this point, you can (but you don’t have to) drop the number of reps slightly and keep progressing in weight.
First, you could switch to doing three sets of eight reps and keep adding weight every workout. After a week or two, drop down one step further and start doing three sets of five reps.
Don’t worry if the next workout is “too easy” every time you drop down in reps like this – you can use the extra rest, and things will get heavy soon enough.
Here’s an example of how the first few weeks of squat training might look:
|Workout #||Weight||Sets x Reps|
|1||20 kg (empty bar)||3 x 10|
(“This felt easy, just like it should!”)
|2||25 kg||3 x 10|
|3||30 kg||3 x 10|
|4||32.5 kg||3 x 10|
(“This was pretty challenging. Switching to 8’s next workout!”)
|5||35 kg||3 x 8|
|6||37.5 kg||3 x 8|
(“That’s pretty challenging again. Switching to 5’s next workout!”)
|7||40 kg||3 x 5|
|8||42.5 kg||3 x 5|
Sooner or later, you will be unable to increase the weight by 2.5 kg every workout and do the same number of reps.
Some might reach 100 kg x 3 sets x 5 reps (or even more) before this happens. For others, it might happen at 50 kg x 3 sets x 5 reps.
No matter the weight, what you need to start doing at this point is to stay at a given weight until you get all reps in.
Here’s how that might look when we pick it up at workout #8 above.
|8||42.5 kg||5, 5, 5|
|9||45 kg||5, 4, 4|
(“Uh-oh. Didn’t get all reps in. I’ll try to improve next workout!”)
|10||45 kg||5, 5, 4|
|11||45 kg||5, 5, 5|
(“Yes! Next workout, I’ll move up to 47.5 kg.”)
Do you see how this gets heavy fast? Even if you only add 2.5 kg (5 lb) per week, you will add 130 kg (or 260 lb) in a year. So please: start light.
It will get heavy soon enough.
How to Keep Progressing
At this point, you rinse and repeat: Add weight, strive to reach three sets of five reps again, and when you do: increase the weight by 2.5 kg.
Don’t worry if it takes a few workouts, meaning you might have to go through the following:
- 4, 4, 4 reps
- 5, 4, 4 reps
- 5, 5, 4 reps
- 5, 5, 5 reps
That is still fast progress, and you should stick with this programming for as long as you keep moving forward. You’ll never gain strength this fast again, so milk it for as long as you can.
The key is to write down the weight and reps you used during the last workout to know what you must do to beat it the next time you’re in the gym. Tracking your workouts like this is one of the most important things you can do for your strength. Failure to track your workouts drastically increases your risk of not making any strength and muscle gains.
Because this is so important, we’ve developed a workout log app for you to track your workouts.
It is 100% free to download, log your workouts, and follow this beginner squat workout program.
You can download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below.
When you’ve downloaded the app and created an account, go to the “Program & Workouts” tab. Under the free programs, you will find the Beginner Squat Program.
As you’ll see, there are two programs to choose from:
- Squat Only
- Squat & Accessory Exercises
Let me explain the difference.
1. The Squat Only Program
This program is super bare-bones. Just two workouts per week with three sets of barbell squats per workout.
You’ll start off doing three sets of ten reps for the first two workouts, then three sets of eight for the next two workouts, and then finally settle in for three sets of five for all the following weeks.
The weight will automatically increase by 2.5 kg every workout.
- Want to make bigger jumps in weight? Just edit the weight to your desired load. We’ll add 2.5 kg next workout.
- Need to stay at a given weight longer until you get all reps in? Just adjust the weight, and we’ll add 2.5 kg next time.
- Want to do another number of reps than we suggest? Change it. Although the next workout, we’ll suggest the original number of reps again.
If you think this program seems dead simple, you’re right. It’s simple and extremely effective for making quick strength gains as a beginner lifter.
Simply practicing the barbell squat for three sets twice per week will be all you need to get stronger in this phase of your strength training. However, if you also want to train the rest of your lower body every time you’re in the gym to squat, the other program suggests how to do that.
2. The Squat + Accessory Exercises Program
- Squat: 3 sets x 5–10 reps (just like the first program)
- Romanian Deadlift: 2 sets x 10 reps
- Leg Extension: 2 sets x 15 reps
- Seated Leg Curl: 2 sets x 15 reps
- Standing Calf Raise: 2 sets x 20 reps
This is an excellent workout routine if you want to train a more comprehensive lower body workout every time you’re in the gym.
The assistance work in this program is designed to build muscle mass and strength in all of your legs major muscle groups.
Like with the squat, you should increase the weights you lift in these accessory exercises as soon as you hit the target number of sets and reps.
Both programs are free in our workout app, so download it now.
Check out our beginner powerlifting program.
Barbell Back Squat Form Tips
If you are going to do a lot of squatting, you might as well do it right. Here are some tips on how to squat with good form and in a safe manner.
- Rack height. Set up the bar to rest at about the same height as your sternum. Always back out of the squat rack with the barbell before you start squatting. This makes it easier to re-rack the bar when your set is over since you can walk toward it.
- Foot position. Experiment with different stance widths and toe angles (pointing out vs. forward) We are all built a little differently, and you have to find a stance that suits your body.
- Bar position. Like with your foot position, experiment with different bar placements to find what feels best for you. From high up on your shoulders to low on your shoulder blades (and everything in between), it’s all fine.
- Grip. Most people find they are stronger and get a “tighter” feeling when they grip the bar narrowly, close to their shoulders.
- Use safeties. A proper rack should have safety racks on the sides, where you can place the bar if you fail a lift. A power rack has these built into the design. Adjust these safeties so you can put the bar down on them if you fail a lift, but place them low enough so that you don’t slam into them with your normal squat depth.
- Track your workouts. Seriously, it’s that important. Write down how many sets and reps you did and at what weight so you know what to beat next time. Our workout log is a great, free option for that.
For more tips, check out our guide on how to squat with proper form.
What to Do When The Beginner Squat Program Stops Working
Beginner training programs are characterized by three things:
- Low training volume
- High rate of progress
- Low level of complexity
As an intermediate lifter (or even an advanced lifter), you tend to need more training volume, and you cannot progress as quickly. You might also want to periodize your training, which increases complexity.
An intermediate squat program is under construction, but in the meantime, you might want to consider this program:
- Russian Squat Program. 3x/week. A hard but effective training program aimed at increasing your strength in the squat (or any other lift you choose to use it for) in six weeks. Just enter your 1RM, and we’ll generate the program for you.
We do, however, already have intermediate and advanced level squat training programs baked into our intermediate and advanced powerlifting programs:
- Intermediate Powerlifting Program. 3x/week. This is a great next step after you’ve followed the beginner program for a few months. Instead of increasing the weights every workout like in the beginner program, the weights increase weekly, with light and medium workouts in between the heavy workouts.
- Advanced Powerlifting Program. 3x/week. A training program for the advanced powerlifter who no longer gets stronger from week to week, and needs a high training volume to progress. Nine weeks long, and ends in a short peaking phase and max attempts.
- Powerlifting Polka. 3, 4, or 6x/week. One of our most popular and effective powerlifting programs. It is six weeks long and comes in three versions: 3, 4, and 6 days per week. Powerlifting Polka is a mash-up of our most popular programs for the three big lifts: Squat Samba, Bench Press Boogie, and Deadlift Disco.
Alternatively, you can browse all of our training programs on the links below:
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some of the most common questions regarding squat training for beginners.
How Should a Beginner Start Squatting?
With very light weights and a focus on technique. And also with a mindset that they need to practice.
For many people, learning the barbell squat takes time. And there is no other way to learn it than by getting your reps in.
That’s why this program starts with sets of ten reps in the squat: you get a little more practice in before you switch to sets of five.
How Many Sets and Reps of Squats Should a Beginner Start With?
There are no right or wrong answers here. Anything from 1–5 sets of 5–15 reps could work; it would all depend on the circumstances and the person lifting.
In this program, we start with three sets of ten reps in the first few workouts, then drop down to eight reps, and then finally settle in at three sets of five reps. All the while, you’re increasing the load on the bar.
The point is to get more practice reps during your first few workouts. But then, as your training weights increase, doing sets of ten in the squat gets really demanding, and you switch over to doing sets of five reps. Doing lower reps will also be more beneficial for increasing your squat strength.
Are 3 Sets of 10 Reps Enough?
Yes, absolutely. There are plenty of controlled studies showing that beginners make good strength and muscle gains by training squats for three sets of ten, in two or three workouts per week.
Sooner or later, you will probably have to increase your training volume to keep improving, but three challenging sets per workout is enough for the beginner.
Is 5×5 Good for Squats?
Sure, as previously stated: a lot of things can work, and the details don’t matter all too much.
Five sets of five is a classic set and rep configuration, popularized in muscle and health magazines in the ’50s and ’60s. Then it had a revival around the ’00s in programs like Starting Strength (which has 3 x 5 reps) and Stronglifts 5×5 (which has 5 x 5 reps, duh).
In most of the old-school programs, the 5×5 configuration usually consisted of two ramp-up sets before your work sets.
For example, if your work sets were 100 kg for three sets of five reps, a workout might consist of:
- 80 kg x 5 reps
- 90 kg x 5 reps
- 100 kg x 5 reps
- 100 kg x 5 reps
- 100 kg x 5 reps
Personally, I like this approach. I think doing five work sets of five reps near your limit is excessive for most beginners, especially if you’re doing it three times per week, like in Stronglifts 5×5.
Doing two workouts of 3×5, like in this squat program, is enough for most beginners, and you can save those extra sets for later when you need more volume to improve.
What Muscles Are Worked in Squats?
The squat is a compound exercise that works many muscle groups simultaneously.
A previously mentioned study had participants train either deep squats or half squats for ten weeks, and here is the resultant muscle growth.1
Do I Have to Do Back Squats? Can I Do Another Squat Variation?
While the squat is often touted as the best exercise for strengthening and building your leg muscles, not everyone wants to or can do the barbell back squat.
Luckily, there are plenty of other great squat variations and leg exercises.
Some of the most popular ones are:
How Much Can the Average Man and Woman Squat?
The average male user of our workout app can squat 120 kg (265 lb), and the average female user can squat 70 kg (154 lb).
|Beginner||58 kg / 128 lb||27 kg / 60 lb|
|Novice||93 kg / 205 lb||53 kg / 117 lb|
|Intermediate||120 kg / 265 lb||70 kg / 154 lb|
|Advanced||147 kg / 324 lb||90 kg / 198 lb|
|Elite||203 kg / 448 lb||130 kg / 287 lb|
For full squat strength standards for different bodyweights, see:
That’s it! Time to get under that barbell and start squatting.
Make sure to use the StrengthLog app to track your workouts and follow this and other programs.
Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Sep;119(9):1933-1942. Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes.
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Aug;113(8):2133-42. doi: 10.1007/s00421-013-2642-7. Epub 2013 Apr 20. Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations.