What Is The Pulse Squat?
The pulse squat are a variation of squats where the body repeatedly bounces a few degrees from the lowest point of the squat before returning to the starting position. The amount and height of each “pulses” may vary from person-to-person. The main point is to fire up the muscles of the legs by preventing knee and hip extension over a longer period of time than average squats. To put it simply, during standard squats, you sit into the movement and come back up relatively quickly. Pulse squats have you sit in bottom and near bottom of the movement much longer, distressing the muscle fibers and forcing lactic acid buildup.
Muscles Worked By Pulse Squat
The quadriceps make up one of the largest muscle groups of the lower body making up a compact unit consisting of the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris. During the pulse squat the quads are responsible for knee flexion, contracting as it lowers the body towards the floor and stabilizes it over an extended period of time.
The glute maximus is considered the largest and superficial of all the posterior hip muscles. The glute acts as an extensor and external rotator of the hip. As the pelvis and femur go past 15 degrees of extension, the glute maximus also serves as an extensor of the hip. While it’s not particularly active during walking, it is activated during running, hopping, and jumping movements.
How To Perform The Pulse Squat
It’s no secret that the pulse squat is a simple exercise, but simplicity doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improper form. The following is a step-by-step on how to execute the pulse squat with proper form. If you’re more of a visual learner check out the video as well.
- set your feet shoulder-width or hip-width apart depending on your preference. Keep your back straight, your chest high, and your neck aligned with your torso.
- spread your bodyweight evenly throughout your feet. Bend your knees slightly and lean forward slightly in preparation for the set. This will be your starting position.
- begin lowering your body in a natural squatting motion, hinging your hips back and sitting into the movement. Continue to lower your body until your knees bend a little past 90 degrees and your thighs are slightly lower than parallel to the floor.
- once your legs are in the lowest position, begin the “pulsing” process. It’s simply a controlled bounce, however proper technique is crucial. Raise your legs a few inches so that they come a little higher than parallel with the floor, and then immediately return to the bottom of the movement. Repeat this in a smooth, controlled, and fluid motion for a couple reps.
- as you reach the appropriate number of pulses, raise your torso back to the starting position by extending your knees. This return to the starting position will complete your first rep of the set. You can perform as many reps as you see fit, but I recommend a number that truly fatigues the muscles of the legs.
Key Points To A Successful Pulse Squat
1) Stay Low
Simply put, staying low ensures each set is done with greater intensity. At the bottom of the movement, the muscles of the legs and glutes are being stretched maximally. When you bounce upward only a few degrees, the stress in the lower body is only being relieved slightly. This means that the time under tension will be that much more effective.
As you bounce during the pulse squat, your leg should only rise a few inches higher than the lowest position. This is only a little higher than parallel with the floor. Visually there is very little movement, but this limited range will create quite the burn as the reps continue.
2) Pulse Longer During Each Repetition
Other leg exercises like barbell squats and the leg press have the luxury of loading heavy weight to stimulate muscle growth. However, since pulse squats generally use lighter weight, we have to get creative with some variables to get the most out of the exercise. The main one I keep coming back to is time under tension.
As an example a study monitoring leg extensions at 30% maximal effort (which is considerably light), with a slow lifting movement (6 seconds going up, 6 seconds going down) performed to fatigue showed significantly greater rates in the increase of muscle protein synthesis than the same move performed rapidly (1 second up, 1 second down).
The same concept applies to pulse squats. Though it is a lighter lift, when combined with time under tension- it is much more effective at optimizing muscle growth. So when you pulse longer, the muscles work harder to keep you on your feet, which in turn triggers hypertrophy.
Instead of performing a handful of pulses (1-5) and returning to the starting position, perform more (6-12) during each rep for greater intensity.
12-15 repetitions, 6-12 pulses per repetition, 4 sets
3) No Rest Between Reps
For maximum effectiveness, refrain from resting between reps. When you come up from the pulses, fight the urge to pause at the top- simply lower yourself back down for the next round of pulses. This may seem like an insignificant detail , but you’d be surprised how much that half a second of rest can relieve your body of tension and prevent maximum results. If you constantly moving throughout the set, you’re really going to feel the burn by the last repetition.
Pulse Squat Variations
Because all three exercises are essentially the same, a lot of the mechanics stay consistent. However the small differences between them can make all the difference in how you train and the results you see. What’s important is that you find the variation that fits your needs and perform it with the utmost intensity. These three exercises are really stellar choices, so be sure to try them all out to see what works for you.
Sumo Pulse Squat
The sumo squat variation of a his exercise is a great option for variety. While the only real difference between sumos and most conventional squats is foot placement, it’s effectiveness is top of the charts. In fact in a study measuring EMG activity during numerous squat variations (front squat, back squat, sumo squat, zercher squat, and hack squat) at 60% of 1RM, researchers found that the sumo squat generated more muscle activation in the vastus medialis, rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, gluteus maximus, semitendinosus, biceps femoris and erector spinae than all it’s counterparts except the back squat.
That being said, it’s obvious to see how combining sumo squats and pulse squats will create a potent mix. All of the main tips remain the same, however I would even suggest loading the exercise with a barbell for greater difficulty.
- start by spacing your feet at or a little further than shoulder width apart. Point your feet outward so they align with the direction of the knees.
- keep your back straight with a slight bend in your knees and hip. If you’re using weights, place the barbell over your shoulders and keep your hands spaced evenly on either side. This will be your starting position.
- when ready lower your body towards the floor until your thighs travel slightly past your knees. Make sure your chest stays high without too much forward lean, especially when working with barbells. After reaching the lowest point of the squat, begin pulsing by coming up a few inches. Make sure this movement is done deliberately and with great focus on the contraction in the legs.
- once up a few inches immediately return to the lowest point of the squat, completing the first “pulse” of the repetition. Repeat the pulsing process between 6-12 times.
- return to the starting position, extending your knees and hips until your almost completely upright. Keep a slight bend in your knees even in the starting position to avoid relieving tension in the quads.
- as soon as you reach the top go back down and repeat the pulsing process for as many reps are necessary.
Banded Pulse Squat
The beauty of banded pulse squats is that it is very much a combo exercise. The standard pulse squat works the quadriceps and glutes as you lower your body and pulse vertically. However by adding the resistance band into the exercise, you also work the laterally, placing extra emphasis on the glute medius.
During the lowering phase of the banded pulse squat, you step to one side horizontally. This in turn creates greater tension from the band as your legs move further apart. This abduction of the leg directly activates the glute medius, making it a great “booty building” exercise in addition to strengthening/ growing the legs.
The two pulse squats are fundamentally the same, but I’ll go over the important differences.
- place the resistance band a few inches above your knees. This placement will create the best resistance for your thighs while still allowing you to move functionally. Make sure you keep your legs at least hip-width apart at all times to prevent the bands from falling to the floor.
- from the standard pulse squat position, lower your body by sitting into the movement- all the while stepping a few inches to the left with your left leg. Make sure the step is wide enough to cause heavy resistance from the band, really feeling the contraction in your glutes. I recommend keeping your feet spaced apart even during the pulsing portion to keep constant tension on the glutes while still working the legs.
- pulse as you would during normal pulse squats
- as you start coming up to finish the rep, bring your left leg back to hip-width, relieving stress from your glutes (momentarily). With slightly bent knees go straight into the next rep, stepping with your right leg to the side and alternating between the two until the set is complete.
Dumbbell Pulse Squat
Incorporating dumbbells into the pulse squat is another great way of adding extra resistance that works in both a gym setting or at home. The dumbbell pulse squat can be performed with multiple dumbbells held on either side of the body or with one dumbbell in a goblet squat stance. The important thing is that you find the version the works for you and a weight that provides the right amount of intensity.
Goblet (Dumbbell) Pulse Squat
- set up into the standard squat position with feet hip width apart, shoulders back, and your back as straight as possible.
- with the dumbbell resting between your feet, take one of its heads in both hands. The underside of the head should be resting on both palms with the rest of it hanging vertically.
- bring the dumbbell to chest level, with the highest point of the weight at your collarbone. Keep your shoulders back and your neck, upper and lower back all in alignment.
- begin the squatting process like a regular pulse squat, but focus on staying as erect as possible, reducing too much forward lean from your torso. Repeat for as many reps as you see fit.
Two Dumbbell Pulse Squat
- repeat the same steps of the standard pulse squat, however raise both dumbbells above either shoulder. Keep your elbows perpendicular to the floor and you chest high to prevent the dumbbells from lowering during the set.
(I recommend choosing a weight that you can manage holding over your shoulders for a while, but heavy enough to pose a challenge throughout the set.)