How to Build Abs and Powerful Legs with Prisoner Squats

Add this effective exercise into your training.

This extensive guide to Prisoner Squats will help you to perform this exercise correctly, incorporate it intelligently into your training and learn everything you need to know.

What is the Prisoner Squat?

The Prisoner Squat is a bodyweight, calisthenics exercise that works the lower body and core.

It can be done anywhere and requires zero equipment. This makes it versatile and useful.

The hands must be kept clasped behind the head during the full range of motion. This means that the arms cannot generate any momentum and it pulls the torso into a more upright position.

What Muscles Do Prisoner Squats Work?

The exercise primarily works the quads. It also enhances the hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors and core in general.

As well as targeting the lower body, the movement improves many stabiliser muscle groups and is an excellent way to strengthen the core and abs.

How to build a 6 pack abs prisoner squatsSource: Ant Haynes

What are the Benefits of Prisoner Squats?

This functional exercise has many benefits.

Build a Better Squat Position

The positioning of the hands forces the athlete to open up the chest and keep the torso in a vertical position. This is a great habit to get into as it will help to identify any sticking points with your Squat mobility in general.

Although it is just a bodyweight movement, the Prisoner Squat has great carry over to the Front Squat and Back Squat.

A Great Conditioning Tool

Many CrossFit and Functional Fitness workouts involve Air Squats or other bodyweight variations, and for good reason.

Switch regular Air Squats with Prisoner Squats instead and switch up the stimulus.

They are an excellent tool for conditioning.

Enhance Stability and Balance

Keeping your hands above your head gets tiring and makes it harder to balance the movement.

Moving through higher volume sets and reps of Prisoner Squats will force your body to work hard at all times, but especially when you get fatigued. This is great news because it means you must stay balanced, alert and tight at all times.

This will push your body and balance to advance and progress.

The movement will also increase the stability of your back and shoulders.

Build a Stronger Core

As well as the legs, Prisoner Squats are an effective core and abs exercise.

These muscle groups work hard to maintain the vertical torso through the full range of motion.

Another advantage is that they work the full core, accessing and improving stabiliser muscle groups as well.

Prevent Back Pain

A stronger core can help to alleviate and prevent back pain.

Additionally, the position of the hands behind the head opens up the chest and forces the athlete into a strong posture during the exercise.

This helps to counter bad, slumped forwards posture that can be caused by hours working in front of a screen.

Great posture and a strong back are great ways to prevent back pain in the future as well.

How to Do the Prisoner Squat

  • Start by standing with your feet hip width apart
  • Reach up with both hands and grasp them behind the head with the elbows pointing outwards. Don’t move them from this position
  • Inhale and brace the core, glutes and quads
  • Bend the knees and break at the hips to start the movement
  • Squat downwards to at least parallel. Preferably much lower
  • Pause at the bottom and squeeze the glutes
  • Explode back up to the starting position
  • Exhale
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps

Training Tips

Do not let the upper back round forwards.

Keep your chest proud at all times.

Push through the heel to create power. Don’t tip forwards onto the toes. The heels should never leave the ground.

Best Prisoner Squat Variations

These variations will also force the lifter to keep the torso in a strong, upright position when they lift.

  • Overhead Squat
  • Zombie Squat
  • Front Squat
Front Squat by Masters AthleteSource: Photo Courtesy of CrossFit Inc

Best Prisoner Squat Alternatives

Keep your training fun, varied and challenging with these alternatives.

  • Goblet Squat
  • Suitcase Squats
  • Back Squat
  • Wide Stance Squat
  • Air Squat


Got more questions? Find the answers below.

Are Prisoner Squats Effective?

Yes, they are an effective exercise to strengthen the legs, glutes and core. They will improve your stability, balance, coordination, posture and help to prevent or alleviate back pain.

Why is it Called Prisoner Squat?

The exercise gets its name from the position of the hands clasped behind the head.

Do Prisoner Squats Build Muscle?

They can tone the body and build muscle if you are relatively new to training however, they would quickly need to be loaded with more weight (which would be achieved through a different type of Squat) if hypertrophy is the main goal.

Learn More

Learn what type of squat is best for you depending on your abilities or try these excellent variations:

Landmine Squat
Jefferson Squat
Hack Squat
Front Squat
Zercher Squat
Cossack Squat
Box Squat
Bulgarian Split Squat

Or add Nordic Curls and Reverse Hyperextensions into your training.

Read more: 6 Back Squat Benefits That Will Make You Want to Grab a Barbell Straight Away

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