There are several squat variations you can do. Heck, we've covered over 100 variations on this site alone. But if you've landed here, it's because you're interested in learning about the prisoner squat and if you should be incorporating it into your program.
So, what is a prisoner squat? The prisoner squat is a squat variation where the lifter places their hands behind their head (like a prisoner is ordered to do) and performs an otherwise normal squat. No load is used beyond the lifter’s body weight for the prisoner squat, limiting your ability to progress this exercise.
As simple as this variation is, it still requires proper technique to perform safely and effectively. Let’s dig into the details of what’s going on under the surface when you perform a prisoner squat.
Prisoner Squat: Muscles Worked
The prisoner squat utilizes the same muscles as a standard squat, but with the absence of a load on your back or in your hands.
Because the prisoner squat’s mechanics are nearly identical to a standard barbell squat, the prisoner squat relies on the quads, glutes, lower back (erectors), adductors (inner thigh), and abdominal muscles.
The only thing that makes this squat variation unique is that you can’t add a load to it.
How To Do a Prisoner Squat
The steps to perform a prisoner squat are simple:
Step 1: Place your hands behind your head
You can lay one on top of the other, interlock your fingers, or lay them on top of your head – there’s no right or wrong way to do this step.
Step 2: Squat until your hips are below parallel
Sit downward, as with a normal squat, until your hips descend below the top of your knee cap.
Step 3: Return to the standing position
Stand back up to your starting position.
Step 4: Repeat for your programmed number of reps
Repeat for as many reps as the program calls for.
Want to improve your squat technique?
4 Benefits of the Prisoner Squat
Four main benefits stand out when I think of the prisoner squat:
1. It’s Good for Beginners
For new lifters who have never squatted with any intent before, the prisoner squat is a great way to get a feel for the correct mechanics and range of motion of a barbell squat. By removing the load, a lifter can comfortably learn what the exercise should look and feel like in a safer way.
Rather than overwhelming a new, untrained lifter by throwing weight in their hands or a barbell on their back, the prisoner squat focuses just on the up and down squat movement with body weight.
With just a few workouts with the prisoner squat, a new lifter can build the strength and confidence to introduce load with another squat variation.
If you are a beginning lifter, check out some squat progressions to help you get more comfortable with squatting.
2. It is Useful for Rehab
Because there’s no load on your back or in the hands, the prisoner squat is a great exercise for lifters needing to rehab injuries. LIfters needing to start from the bottom to build strength and endurance can start with a prisoner squat to build up to eventually using some kind of load again.
Of course, I am not a medical professional, so if you are in need of rehab programming, be sure to consult your doctor.
But generally speaking, once an injury has healed, strength needs to be steadily built up again, and the prisoner squat can be a fantastic stepping stone to retraining your body to perform the squat motion again.
3. It Can Assess Biomechanics and Technique
Because there is no load in this lift and the motion of the movement is the same as a loaded squat, this can be a great exercise to assess your technique, biomechanics, movement patterns, and overall mobility.
Whether you’re a trainer looking to understand a new client’s abilities or a new lifter looking to understand your own baseline, the prisoner squat is useful to get that understanding.
You’ll be able to see if hitting depth is difficult or impossible. You’ll also be able to check for things like how the upper body travels throughout the movement, how the knees react, and whether the heels come off the floor.
Whatever you end up programming and working on after will be a direct result of what you see and learn while performing prisoner squats.
4. It Can Be A Great Addition to Circuit Training
In circuit training, the goal is to move from one exercise to another with little or no rest so you can keep your heart rate up. Just like burpees, mountain climbers, jumping rope, and jumping jacks are simple, load-free movements you can do in a circuit, the prisoner squat is a great option.
With no load, the risk of hurting yourself is very, very low, even if you slack on technique a bit (though proper form is still important). You can perform many prisoner squat reps for speed/time to keep your heart rate up and move many muscles in your body at once in the course of a circuit workout.
2 Drawbacks of the Prisoner Squat
No exercise is perfect, and the prisoner squat is no exception. Two big downsides are:
1. Its Progression is Very Limited
There is no load beyond your own body weight, so the only way you can progress a prisoner squat is by doing more reps or more sets. Very quickly your body will adapt to high sets and high reps, and the benefits will be outweighed by the time it takes to perform them.
We have the same problem with pushups and situps. After a while, you have to do 80-100 of them in a set to get a good burn/pump/muscle activation. At that point, you’d be better off doing fewer sets with fewer reps and heavier weight unless your goal is literally to do as many of these as possible.
In any exercise program, the key to getting results is progressive overload – we have to keep pushing ourselves. Load is a key factor in progressing an exercise, and without it, the prisoner squat runs out of steam very, very quickly.
2. It's Ineffective for Developing Muscle Strength and Size
I highlighted the value of the prisoner squat as a tool for beginners, assessing mobility and biomechanical limits, and lifters needing rehab. Frankly, that’s about the extent of it.
For anyone who has done any consistent lower body resistance training for more than a couple of months, the prisoner squat will not add new muscle or strength. It’s just not designed to give you that outcome.
Sure, there is value in the areas I’ve already pointed out, but if you’re looking for a squat variation to help you get stronger and bigger, this isn’t it.
Prisoner Squat Mistakes to Avoid
If you are going to incorporate prisoner squats into your workout, be sure you avoid a couple of mistakes:
Just because it’s a very simple exercise with no load doesn’t give us the license to do them mindlessly. In fact, the opposite is true – we have removed load and simplified the exercise in order to emphasize and teach good technique.
Sure, you may not feel cool or strong when you do these exercises, but if you need to do them at all, then your technique should be your top priority.
Make sure you are squatting to depth, where the crease of your hip is descending below the top of your knee cap. Keep your heels flat on the floor throughout the lift. Keep your upper body as upright as possible to avoid falling forward.
The better you get your technique right while doing these, the sooner you’ll be able to move on to a variation with load where you can really see results.
Wondering what the right upper body position should look like when you squat? Learn more in Best Squat Back Angle For Your Size & Build (With Pictures).
Relying on Them Too Long
As I said, an exercise is only going to give you results as long as you can progress it and keep it challenging. Most lifters will very quickly adapt to a point where bodyweight squats are not providing any growth. Don’t rely on this variation any longer than you have to.
Once you get a good feel for a squat, or your body is strong enough to perform several sets of prisoner squats without great fatigue, it’s time to introduce a squat variation with load. This could be a suitcase squat or a goblet squat or a cannonball squat (all of which are less technical and intense than a barbell squat), but it needs to be something with load.
Sure, you can use the prisoner squat for warmups or as a reminder of good form for the rest of your lifting career, but the biggest mistake would be to only use bodyweight prisoner squats as your main squatting exercise.
Who Should Do a Prisoner Squat?
In my estimation, there are really 3 people that should do prisoner squats:
- New lifters
- Rehabbing lifters
- Traveling lifters
The theme is being hit hard here – this is a great exercise for new lifters just learning how to squat.
With the freedom to perform these without the stress of a load, they are comfortable and safe for beginners to instill good squat technique in themselves.
New lifters come in all shapes and sizes – old people just getting started, kids just getting started, adults who have never lifted before, very skinny people just getting started, very overweight people just getting started. It’s a wide variety. But they can all benefit from getting started with prisoner squats.
Again, without the involvement of additional load, the prisoner squat can be a great exercise for lifters in rehab to begin squatting again.
Not all injuries will limit your ability to squat, but if your injury makes loading up your back or hands impossible, the prisoner squat just might be your first step on the path back.
As always, consult a doctor to get the best advice for your specific situation.
If you’re experiencing pain in your lower back, try some of these other squat variations for low back pain.
Hey, if you’re on the road and don’t have anything with you to add load to your squats but want to stay consistent and keep moving, then it sounds like the prisoner squat may just be your best bet for the time being.
We don’t always find ourselves in the perfect situation to exercise. Not all hotels have gyms, and not all schedules allow us to get to gyms with equipment to train with, so we work with what we have.
Bodyweight exercises are better than no exercises, so in a pinch, keep the prisoner squat in your toolbox to use when you find yourself traveling with no other alternative. You can even try making them more difficult by exaggerating the tempo – slower eccentric descent and slower concentric upward movements with each rep.
Learn more about fast vs slow squats in my article Is It Better To Do Squats Fast or Slow?
How To Program a Prisoner Squat
For all the reasons shared above, it’s unlikely you’ll use the prisoner squat as your primary squat exercise. If you’re a beginner or rehabbing an injury, it won’t be your primary exercise for very long.
If you do find yourself in the camp where this is all you can do, then follow basic programming principles and progress your sets/reps a little each week. Perform 3-4 sets of 10 or more reps in a single workout along with whatever else you have planned for the workout.
In the following workouts, increase the number of reps per set, add another set, or decrease the rest time between sets to make them more challenging each week.
For everyone else who is able to perform a squat variation with load, use the prisoner squat as a warmup to get blood moving and joints loose before starting on whatever loaded squat variation you have for the day.
3 Alternatives to the Prisoner Squat
If you are looking for squat variations that are similar to the prisoner squat but allow for some load, there are 3 alternatives I’d recommend:
- Suitcase squats
- Goblet squats
- Cannonball squats
Suitcase squats incorporate a load so you can start to progress beyond the success you found comfortably performing prisoner squats. By putting a load in your hands, you can start to introduce a stressor to your muscles that will enable them to grow bigger and stronger with each rep week over week.
The technique is the same and still less technical than other squat variations, making it a great next step for lifters ready to go beyond the prisoner squat.
Also similar to prisoner squats, the cannonball squat introduces a single dumbbell, kettlebell, or plate held in your hands against your chest and under your chin during the lift. They also exaggerate the range of motion by calling for you to squat all the way down so you look like you’re in a cannonball position, like a kid jumping into a pool.
This makes it slightly more technical than some other options, as we have more mental cues to think about to get it right. But it’s still a great choice to progress beyond the prisoner squat. With the weight in front of us in our hands, the cannonball squat also lays a good foundation before introducing front squats to our program.
You’ll also see these performed with the dumbbell in both hands held between the legs.
This is one of the simplest loaded squat variations you can introduce to your program so you can start to build more muscle and strength beyond what a bodyweight squat will offer while still keeping the movement itself simple and safe.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is A Prisoner Squat?
A prisoner squat is a no-equipment squat variation that utilizes the lifter’s body weight as the main load. The lifter places their hands on or behind their head and performs a squat for as many reps as desired. It is typically used in home workouts, rehab settings, and when teaching beginners how to squat.
Are Prisoner Squats Effective?
Prisoner squats are effective for teaching new lifters how to squat and helping injured or weakened lifters begin to develop squat strength again. For anyone seeking significant progress in either the strength or appearance of their leg muscles, the prisoner squat has very, very limited value.
Other Squat Exercise Guides
- Lumberjack Squat: What Is It, How To, Benefits, Common Mistakes
- Frog Squat: What Is It, How-To, Benefits, Common Mistakes
- Steinborn Squat: Does This “Circus Like” Squat Have Benefits?
- Kneeling Squat: What Is It, How To, Benefits, Common Mistakes
- Anderson Squat: What Is It, How To Do It, Benefits, Drawbacks
- Tabata Squats: How-To, Common Mistakes, & Workout Sample
- Isometric Squat: How-To, Benefits, & Should You Do It?
- High Box Squat: 5 Reasons Why It Makes Sense
- Hatfield Squat: What Is It? Technique, Benefits, Muscles Used
- 1.5 Squats: How-to, Benefits, And Should You Do It?
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.