the joy of strength training

Gubernatrix

November 22nd, 2008 at 7:16 pm

How low should I squat?

olympic weightlifting squat position

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.

squat below parallel

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.

Goblet squat

The goblet squat trains your body to remain more upright as you squat down, allowing you to avoid tipping forwards.

goblet squat

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.

Powerlifting squat

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.

Summary

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.

Happy squatting!

More from gubernatrix

Further reading

Stumble it! Share Subscribe to this blog
21
  • 1

    Count me as one of the ATG, functional guys when it comes to squats…

    There is one thing that bears mentioning. I train to pick up or put down an odd object (bag of concrete, a log, electrical extension cord) when I squat that low, not a barbell. I doubt anything I move with a ATP squat even comes close to the weight that many people squat with a barbell. Plus, the weight is in front of my body, not over or behind my head. The load isn’t going to be as much of a strain on the spine.

    Regardless, I think that ATP squatting is important to train for. I’ll bet good money that most had this range of motion as a child (after all, none of us could sit down to save our lives). It’s recoverable with practice.

    Justin_PS on November 26th, 2008
  • 2

    ATG squats are not more “functional”, if you pick up an object with straight arms you are deadlifting it and your hips will be higher than even a parallel squat.

    Many people can’t safely squat ATG without compromising their lower back position and many who can squat ATG need to switch to a powerlifting style squat later in life to avoid injury to back/knees. You should squat to the position at which your mobility allows strict form as stated in the article.

    dp on November 26th, 2008
  • 3

    [...] In this article published on the blog ‘All Around Strength’, the author tells you just how low you should squat, different reasons to squat to varying depths, and tips on how to properly do barbell squats at the right depth. Also included are pictures to help you see just how low you should squat without increasing the risk of injuring yourself. [...]

  • 4

    Hi Gubie!
    This is an excellent article very well written, with easy to follow, correct advice. I agree with all the points made.

    I would like to add an excellent article by Gray Cook “Maintain the squat, exercise the deadlift”, which is dense and long but very thorough and well explained.

    Having gone through a 6 year period of heavy squatting, and having negated the bipodal squat for the one legg squat (which I believe is a far superior exercise, and less risky one), I’d like to another point of view, which is rarely mentioned, but I believe is extremely important.

    The main cause for one to be a good squatter is a short distance from the knee to the hip (short femur or thigh bone), and a long distance from the hip to the bar. On the opposite side, long thighs and a short torso are detrimental for any heavy back squat. If one has this kind of proportions, I would strongly advise against deep heavy back squats.
    Of course with light weights this is a useful flexibility and cardio movement, but that’s all!

    Have you noticed this one?

    Demetre on November 29th, 2008
  • 5

    Thanks for pointing that out Demetre, I hadn’t really thought about that issue before! You don’t have a link to an online version of that Gray Cook article, do you?

    gubernatrix on December 1st, 2008
  • 6

    The online article can be found on http://www.functionalmovement.com/SITE/publications/downloads/deadlifting.pdf . I hope you find it enlightening.

    Demetre on December 2nd, 2008
  • 7

    Thanks for the link!

    gubernatrix on December 3rd, 2008
  • 8

    great article. it’s so true that your build and flexability plays such a huge role in your squatting form. gotta be pretty flexible to go ATG without rounding your back

    theoddbody on December 14th, 2008
  • 9

    Cheers oddbody!

    gubernatrix on December 16th, 2008
  • 10

    [...] How low should I squat? [...]

  • 11

    [...] How low should I squat? [...]

  • 12

    [...] squat means ‘ass to grass’, getting down as far as you can go. I’ve written before about squat depth and concluded that squatting as deep as you can safely is best for bringing the benefits of the [...]

  • 13

    [...] squat means ‘ass to grass’, getting down as far as you can go. I’ve written before about squat depth and concluded that squatting as deep as you can safely is best for bringing the benefits of the [...]

  • 14

    I have a knee injury and was doing assisted squats for a time, but after 3 or 4 weeks began experiencing an increase in problems with my knee.

    For the time being I’m working on quad and hamstring strength so I’ll be in better shape for doing squats. I figure once I can leg press my own body weight (which is significant), I should be fine to try squats again. My question is, after reading your article and the “Where do I squat” article, I’m a little unsure whether I should do deeper squats (which puts more torque on the knee), or if partial squats (even though they exert shearing forces) would be better.

    Thanks

    JanFran on August 26th, 2010
  • 15

    Sounds like a question for your physio!

    gubernatrix on August 26th, 2010
  • 16

    The ‘functionality’ of ATG squats depends on what you are training for of course. Since I’ve switched from parallel squats to olympic style I’ve found much better carryover to athletic ability. My legs & hips are more flexible, my vertical jump has improved, & I have greater explosive power overall. Would anyone argue that a partial bench press is as good as a full press? A good method to build the core strength to squat deep are front squats. If your form is compromised you drop the bar instead of rounding & injuring your back.

    jay on November 5th, 2010
  • 17

    There’s a lot of truth in that, Jay. For any sport except powerlifting, the squat is essentially an assistance exercise; it is being done to improve some other quality. So it is absolutely right to look at what you want to get out of it. For athletic ability, full squats are the way to go.

    gubernatrix on November 5th, 2010
  • 18

    [...] How low should I squat? [...]

  • 19

    My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find the majority of your post’s to be just what I’m looking for. can you offer guest writers to write content for yourself? I wouldn’t mind writing a post or elaborating on a lot of the subjects you write about here. Again, awesome weblog!

    Cammie on September 20th, 2011
  • 20

    […] 2. This blog post on squatting depth also prioritizes a neutral lumbar spine in determining depth albiet in a somewhat less systematic and research based manner. […]

  • 21

    American College of Sports Medicine says in their “current comment”.

    “The value of deep squats for improving athletic performance continues to be a debated topic. In general, if the athlete is required to perform from a deep squat position, such as in weightlifting, that athlete should gradually progress to the deep squat position.”

    Its easy to google – Safety of the Squat Exercise – American College of Sports Medicine

    Nikola on September 24th, 2014

 

RSS feed for comments on this post | TrackBack URI