Photo credit: weightlifting365.com
This is a very common question on strength training forums and it is not surprising. Across all the sports and activities that involve squatting, each seems to have a different rule or convention:
- Olympic weightlifters squat very deep but their load is in a different position (not on the back) and the squat itself takes place at speed at a point where the bar is moving under momentum.
- Powerlifters must squat below parallel for their lift to count in a competition; the depth is prescribed as being when the crease of the hip is just below the knee.
- Bodybuilders treat the squat as a quad exercise and often don’t squat below parallel.
- Ordinary gym goers are frequently told by gym instructors not to squat below parallel for ‘safety’ reasons.
- Functional fitness afficionados are often keen on the ‘ass to grass’ school of squatting, that is, squat down until your hamstrings are practically touching your calves!
Many people are fond of pronouncing on ideal squat depth. Those with the loudest voices are often those at opposite ends of the spectrum: from the ass-to-grass faction to the squatting-below-parallel-is-bad-for-your-knees contingent. In reality, most people will be able to reach a squat depth somewhere between the two extremes.
The truth about squatting below parallel
It’s important to realise that squatting below parallel is not bad for your knees. I am sure most of you know that already but it is good to remind ourselves why. The problem with partial squats that stop when the thighs are parallel with the floor is that they mainly engage the quads, the large muscles at the front of the thigh. This puts more pressure on the knee. Only when you squat below parallel can you properly engage the hamstrings and glutes on the back of the thigh, balancing the engagement of muscles on either side of the knee and thereby the forward/backward forces acting on the knee.
Squatting ‘ass to grass’
A truly deep squat is difficult and demanding. As with any other exercise, the better the range of motion, the more you will get out of the exercise. Squatting deep is also humbling as less weight can be moved than in a shallower squat – often significantly less weight. The forces that need to be exerted ‘in the hole’ (at the bottom of the squat) are immense and a good deal of mental fortitude is required to get you back up again. There is a good argument that if you are squatting purely for functional strength (and not, say, as a competitive powerlifter) you should aim for ass to grass (ATG) every time.
But the reality is that many of us will find true ass to grass squatting well nigh impossible to achieve due to the limitations of our flexibility and biomechanics. The lower you squat, the harder it is to maintain the lumbar curve (the arch in the lower back) and you should not be squatting with load to a depth where you cannot maintain your back arch. Forget knees - this is the danger zone. Although flexibility can be improved to a certain extent, there comes a point where the effort involved in developing that flexibility is not worth the return.
Mark Rippetoe, whom many people assume advocates ass to grass squatting, actually has this to say on the issue:
Squat depth is critically important, but so is correct form. ATG-level depth most usually requires that the lumbar muscles relax the lordosis and that the hamstrings relax before extreme depth can be reached. It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me that anything be relaxed in a deep squat, since doing this kills your good controlled rebound out of the bottom and risks your intervertebral discs. Those rare individuals that can obtain ass-to-ankles depth without relaxing anything might be able to get away with it, but as a general rule you should squat as deep as you can with a hard-arched lower back and tight hamstings and adductors. This depth will be below parallel, but it will not usually be “ATG”.
Squatting with good form
A simple instruction to remember is that you should squat as low as you can with good form, meaning that your back is flat or slightly arched, heels are on the floor, knees are above toes and not collapsing inwards, chest is up and not tipping too far forwards.
Photo credit: stevenellis.com
Even though people will differ in the depth they can achieve, everyone should aim to squat below parallel even if they cannot do so currently. Over time balance, flexibility and technique will improve. Many people mistake flexibility issues for balance issues but balance issues are much easier to fix. If you have a tendency to fall forward when you squat below parallel, you might just need to improve your balance. A great exercise to help in this is Dan John’s goblet squat.
The goblet squat trains your body to remain more upright as you squat down, allowing you to avoid tipping forwards.
Photo credit: Mia’s FarmFit blog
As in the picture above, use a weight such as a dumbbell and hold it in front of you like a goblet. This will force you to keep your chest raised as you squat down. Notice how the squatter in the picture has lowered her body between her legs, with a relatively wide stance. Most people in gyms are taught a narrower stance for the squat, which makes it more difficult to squat below parallel. Embrace the wider stance!
It is also not necessary to do a huge amount of extra stretching work as the squat itself stretches the muscles and increases flexibility over time. In order to increase your range of motion you will need a weight that is heavy but not too heavy – say, a weight that you can squat 5-8 times without technical failure. If the weight is too light it won’t push your body that little bit further into the stretch.
Powerlifters are interested in squatting as low as they need to for competition. This is below parallel but not particularly deep. It is generally defined as when the crease of the hip is below the level of the knee – in other words, the hips are slightly lower than the knee.
Powerlifters often adopt a wide stance because it means that the weight is moved a shorter distance and they tend to have the bar lower on their backs. This makes it easier to shift more weight (as the emphasis is moved to the hip) but harder to go very deep. The low bar position also causes the upper body to lean further forward. If you decide to adopt a powerlifting style squat, it is good to be aware of these differences and ensure that they don’t compromise your squatting form overall.
In summary, aim to squat as low as you can while maintaining your lower back arch and don’t be satisfied until you are getting below parallel. Be prepared to work on your balance and flexibility over time. Neither be tempted to defer to your ego and compromise squat depth in favour of heavier weights, nor be distressed if you can’t squat as deep as the 20-year-old weightlifter in the Olympics.
More from gubernatrix
- I can’t squat ATF!…(and other tales of woe) from SquatRX
- Page from Mark Rippetoe’s Basic Barbell Training showing forces acting on the knee in the squat
- High bar vs low bar placement on squats from Stronglifts.com
- Where do I squat? – useful explanation of the difference between torque and shearing forces on the knee in the squat
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