Prisoner Squat Exercise Guide – Benefits, Muscles Worked and Technique Tips

This extensive guide will teach you everything you need to know about the Prisoner Squat Exercise.

What is the Prisoner Squat Exercise?

The Prisoner Squat is a bodyweight calisthenics Squat exercise where the hands are clasped together and held behind the head.

It is also know as the Cobra Squat.

It is a variation of the bodyweight or Air Squat.

Why is it Called a Prisoner Squat?

The name comes from the “hands behind the head position”.

Additionally, because it requires no equipment and can be performed anywhere, it can symbolic ties with prison style workouts.

What Muscles Do Prisoner Squats Work?

Prisoner Squats primarily work the lower body, although they do have many secondary ancillary benefits.


All Squat variations target the glutes to some degree. This version forces you to keep them tight and strong in order to balance the body and stabilise the overall movement.


The Quads are used to generate force and propel the body upwards.

Prisoner Squat exercise with pistol technique
Strengthen your Quads ©Bastein Plu


These are important parts of the posterior chain and will be strengthened by the movement of the Prisoner Squat.

Hip Flexors and Other Stabilising Muscles

The exercise does not allow the arms to be used to balance the body during the eccentric and concentric phases of movement.

This means that other stabilising muscles must work harder to prevent a loss of balance.


In a similar fashion to the stabilising muscles, core strength is also essential for balance during the exercise.

The core is also used to generate and control force, and will be enhanced by the Prisoner Squat.

Upper Back and Shoulders

The upper back and shoulders must work to keep the arms and hands locked in the overhead position. This is not a huge burden however it can become tiring during long sets and longer workouts.

Benefits of Prisoner Squats

There is an interesting spectrum of different benefits from performing this exercise.

Enhanced Stability in the Back and Shoulders

Maintaining the raised position with hands clasped behind the head will improve the stability and mobility of the upper back (thoracic spine) and shoulders.

It also forces the chest into an open position and helps to improve upper body posture.

Stronger Legs

As a Squat, this is an effective way to build up the strength of your lower body.

woman lifting weigts with barbell
Power and poise ©Marvin Cors

Build Good Squat Mechanics

The overhead positioning of the arms forces the body into a more vertical position whilst the lifter squats.

This is a great habit to get into as it will help when the athlete works more on loaded Squat variations such as the Front Squat.

Build Better Balance

With the traditional Air Squat you can use your arms to balance the movement.  

This is not the case with the Prisoner Squat. Having the arms locked into a certain overhead position creates more weight higher from the ground, making the movement feel more unstable.

Your body has to then work harder to balance. This is good because your core, coordination and stabilising muscles will all get more developed.

Alleviate, Counter or Prevent Back Pain

The Prisoner Squat places a great deal of emphasis on abdominal strength and stability.

This, coupled with the upright posture and opened chest, makes the movement an effective way to work against back pain.

A stronger core will always help to lesser the risk of back pain because it also improves posture.

An Effective Conditioning Tool

The Prisoner Squat is a great way to scale up functional fitness workouts that involve Air Squats.

As a low impact movement, Prisoner Squats can easily be used to significantly improve your cardiovascular abilities and strengthen your heart.

Can Be Performed Anywhere

They require no equipment and virtually no space. This makes them one of the most adaptable and easily programmed exercises that exist.

How to Do the Prisoner Squat

Use the following instructions to perform the Prisoner Squat properly.

  • Stand up with your feet hip width apart. Point the toes out slightly
  • Reach behind your head with both hands and clasp your hands together
  • Inhale and brace your core, glutes and quads
  • Push your chest out forwards
  • Push the hips back and bend the knees to start the descent
  • Squat down to at least parallel (all the way down, “ass to grass” is best)
  • Keep the knees pointed outwards and don’t let them cave inwards at any point
  • Pause for a second at the bottom
  • Engage your glutes and quads and explode upwards to the starting postion
  • Exhale
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps

Training Tips for The Prisoner Squat

Keep the chest proud at all times.

Do not round the upper back at any point during the movement.

When you rise from the bottom position, drive through the heels and not your toes.

Never let the heels leave the ground.

Prisoner Squat Variations

These all work effectively as variations if you want to keep things fun, challenging and fresh in your training.

  • Overhead Squat
  • Zombie Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Cobra Squat Hold

Prisoner Squat Alternatives

If you can’t (or don’t want to) perform the Prisoner Squat then consider these alternatives.

  • Air Squat
  • Sumo Air Squat
  • Split Stance Squat
  • Goblet Squat
  • Suitcase Squats
  • Back Squat
  • Wide Stance Squat
  • Cobra Kang Squats

Prisoner Squat vs Regular Squat

Here we will compare the Prisoner Squat with the regular Air Squat.

Prisoner SquatAir Squat
Harder to balanceEasier to balance
Works the core moreWorks the core slightly less
Is less commonIs more common
Good for Strengthening LegsGood for Strengthening Legs
Can be performed anywhereCan be performed anywhere
Develops conditioningDevelops conditioning
Improves back and shoulder mobilityDoesn’t improve back and shoulder mobility


Still got more questions? Scroll through to find the answers.

Are Prisoner Squats Effective?

Yes, they are an effective bodyweight Squat exercise.

They will strengthen the legs and core, enhance upper body posture, reduce back pain, build conditioning and boost coordination in general.

Do Prisoner Squats Build Muscle?

The exercise can build muscle if you are new to training. However, if muscle gain is your primary gain, then squatting with weights will be more effective for overloading the body and stimulating hypertrophy.

Learn More

Try these Back Squat Workouts.

One thought on “Prisoner Squat Exercise Guide – Benefits, Muscles Worked and Technique Tips

Comments are closed.