the joy of strength training


September 2nd, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Why you should full squat

Full squat

Bodytribe. Where no-one can hear you scream.

Full 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 squat to the greatest number of people.

But is this enough? Is this all we should be striving for? How far does a partial squat get us on my Maslovian squat hierarchy (scroll down, it’s there somewhere)?

On the other hand, why bother training specifically to go as low as you can, since ego, competition rules and your own physical limitations say no? Isn’t it a bit like learning to do the splits – yeah, great party trick if you can do them but surely there are better ways to spend one’s training time…

But a recent discussion with Chip Conrad over at strength forum Straight to the Bar (you just know it’s run by an Aussie with a title like that!) made me think about this again. We were initially discussing how often people full squat, but a bit of poking and prodding elicited a more interesting debate about why full squat at all.

So over to Chip.

The squat issue is a program design puzzle. Match your squat to your goals.

Weightlifting meet? You’d be squatting deep several times a week.

Bodyweight trainer? There might be a lot of deep training in your program, but sans any external load.

Powerlifting meet? There’s no competitive need to squat deep, and many top competitors simply can’t, because they train a limited range of motion squat and/or use squat suits, which don’t let ya squat very deep anyway.

General fitness? There are much better reasons to work deep than not. We can squat deep but we’re de-evolving from that ability. The danger isn’t in the squat itself but actually the lack of it. Since we don’t do it enough, there are risks involved in deep squatting if it isn’t treated like a skill that takes practice and time.

But a squat, deep and proud, is something that our bodies should be able to do. Only due to specialization or simple laziness are we not able to squat deep. This might be a bit of a generalization, but I like to think big.

My jaded view is through the biased filter of more is better: load, technique and, in this case, depth.

So perhaps the answer is similar to the one George Mallory gave when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. “Because it is there” simply refers to all that empty space between my butt and the ground. It seems like a conquerable wasteland which, when defeated, could also be an indicator that I’m not holding onto tension patterns created from too much limited range of motion lifting.

In other words, lack of ability for full range of motion squatting means that there is tension somewhere. And tension somewhere means that something is working harder than it has to, maybe even at rest.

A competitive powerlifter might covet that tension, using it to their advantage in a partial range of motion squat. But in day to day life, that tension can lead to ouches and damn-its really quickly.

I simply enjoy doing too many things to reduce my possibilities through the tension patterns of limited range of motion movements.


So we can turn the question around and say, why not do full range of motion squats?

The answers have some merit, but not enough to convince me of a permanent limited range of motion application.

“I can’t” isn’t acceptable to me.

“Because I can lift heavier” makes some sense, if that added load is beneficial. But why can’t we strive for a greater load at a greater depth? That’s my cup of tea, but I will agree that huge loads through small ranges of motion have benefit for certain training purposes.

“Because it is safer” has been proven wrong too many times to count.

Heck, if I can do it, anyone can. Sure it takes time if you’re not natural at it, but the athleticism and ability I gain from the years (yes, years… I’m still learning) of practice are, like all training, highly empowering.

Well they don’t give points for style at powerlifting competitions. But I too like the idea of conquering that space. If nothing else, it’s a valuable lesson in humility. And the reward could be a greater sense of achievement.

If you dig all of that, you’ll love Chip Conrad’s DVD Strength Rituals, which I reviewed here.

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  • 1

    Good article. Gave me something to write about at my place. Hope the store is doing well.

    Keep up the good work,

    Justin_P on September 2nd, 2009
  • 2

    It’s probably been only a couple of years since I started working on my full squat, but the health benefits have been huge for me. I see people now in the same predicament that I was in: Back, hip, and knee pain, with no hip flexibility or strength. Barely able to sit down or stand up from a chair, much less the floor. They look at me funny when I respond to their complaints that they should develop their squat to resolve their pain issues. I have none of those issues now, whereas before, I was beginning to resign myself to future of pain. Blamed on old sports injuries, of course. I credit the full squat alone for my current pain free existence.

    And I’m thankful for SquatRX for helping me get started and helping me along the way, of course.

    bRobert on September 2nd, 2009
  • 3

    I toiled away for years doing ‘Flex’ influenced parallel squats. When I started going A2G it was like finding out that the man you had been calling dad for all those years was actually your evil uncle:-)

    On a more current note, I’ve just done a cycle of front squats and it has done wonders for my depth.

    Lee Hazard on September 2nd, 2009
  • 4

    @ Justin: cheers, good article over on your site (

    You included a link to the ‘third world squat’ article, which I want to pick up on because Chip also referred to this concept (he calls it the ‘asian squat’) in the discussion and I’ve heard similar remarks from many other people often accompanied by pictures of toddlers squatting winsomely and at full depth. But I did not include it in my post because I don’t find it entirely successful as an argument here.

    You guys may not agree but here’s why I don’t like it.

    Being able to squat ass to grass with no external load and no arch in the back is very different from the way you would squat with a big ass weight on your back. My own experience is that I’ve been able to do an ‘asian squat’ all of my adult life (even before I started weight training) and I find it very comfortable as it happens. But it hasn’t made a difference to my weighted squat.

    Wherever they are in the world, practically everyone who squats in this way for cultural reasons squats with a rounded back. The reason why it is a comfortable position for them to hold for an extended period of time is because they are relaxed in that bottom position – which is not what you want when squatting with external load.

    Sorry to be graphic, but who in the world goes to the loo with 100kg across their shoulders? Doesn’t happen.

    For me that’s not a convincing argument for squatting deep with weight. There are plenty of other good arguments for squatting deep – just not that one!

    It is, however, a good argument for having a squat toilet – which is much better for your bowel health than a pedestal toilet since one ‘goes’ better in that position.

    gubernatrix on September 2nd, 2009
  • 5

    @ bRobert: well there’s a great endorsement! And SquatRX is an awesome site.

    @ Lee: I need to do more front squats!

    gubernatrix on September 2nd, 2009
  • 6

    I was assured by the physiotherapist at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington D.C. that doing weighted full squats would wear down the cartilage in my knees (she said that below parallel is when the joint really starts to grind into it), and that doing them regularly would put me on a road to requiring an early knee replacement. She said that bodyweight squats might be different, but recommended strongly that I never go below 90 degrees.

    I have read many places online that full squats are safe, provided one has sufficient flexibility in the hips and ankles. But nobody I’ve read talks about degeneration of cartilage. Why?

    Alden on September 3rd, 2009
  • 7

    Look up the work of Loren Chu, who has done quite a bit of research of squat depth, most (if not all) of which supports depth as an overall safer option than partial or parallel squats.

    Chip Conrad on September 3rd, 2009
  • 8

    Safer for what? Ligaments or cartilage? Is he well-respected, or a maverick in his field? I don’t know who to trust on this one.

    Alden on September 4th, 2009
  • 9

    Great article Guber and Chip. I’m a fan of the deep squat and it’s been great to my knees but only after I’d properly studied it, picked apart and tailor made the movement for me so I hear Alden’s concerns.

    There are a couple of factors one needs to consider in what seems on the face of it a natural move. Things such as limb length, hip mobility, foot positioning and the amount of weight used.

    Take my house mate and I we are the same height but he has a longer body whereas I have longer legs. His deep squat looks different to mine, e.g. his feet don’t point out as much. If I try to squat like him and vice versa it feels awkward especially in the knee department. So one can’t look at how another person squats and straight copy it or just deep squat without picking the move apart you have got to experiment. The onus is on the squatter to keep adjusting their position until they find the right stance that’ll enable them to squat deep and pain free.

    Cartilage and ligament will wear over time but having strong muscles will slow down the process by acting as shock absorbers. And the deep squat done right and tailor made will build strong leg muscles like no other exercise.

    If you have problems with cartillages and ligaments stay away from squats and do leg strengthening pilates exercises until you feel strong enough to squat. Or if you are just exercising for general fitness and or fun and your ligaments and cartillages are still weak after a long dose of pilates just don’t bother doing deep squats at all! As Chip says “we’re de-evolving from that ability” so it won’t put you at any major real world disadvantage by not doing them and it’s better to be safe than sorry!

    fizzYcaL FITNESS on September 5th, 2009
  • 10

    fizz, thanks for your response, but I don’t think you address my concern.

    I’ve been doing squats for a long time. I have no pain issues with them. My concern is causing unrepairable damage to the cartilage in my knee.

    Developing muscle around the knee joint definitely helps reduce wear and tear on cartilage. The head physio I referenced supports that. However, she made it clear that when you squat below parallel, there is nothing that your muscle can do to absorb the shock–you are grinding your knee joint into your cartilage.

    This is a concern regardless of strength, stance, or hip mobility.

    Alden on September 5th, 2009
  • 11

    I guess we can’t realistically comment on the situation with your knee – there could be other issues which mean you yourself are at greater risk of developing problems. But millions of olympic weightlifters around the world squat below parallel every day and don’t require early knee surgery.

    gubernatrix on September 5th, 2009
  • 12

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  • 13

    The way I understand it is that the wear and tear of the cartilage in the squat occurs because of poor muscle activation.

    If you do the squat to parallel or do the eccentric part of the squat too fast then less muscle is activated and the stress of the movement is concentrated in and around the knee. The quads, cartilage and ligaments all bear the brunt of the weight whereas the glutes and hamstrings bear little.

    The deep squat is beneficial because below parallel the glutes and hamstrings are fully activated in the concentric and eccentric phases.

    Forming the biggest muscles in the body the glutes and hamstrings play a crucial role in protecting the knees by absorbing shock/stresses that would otherwise cause wear and tear of the knee.

    There are two camps out there one that says deep squatting is good for you and one that says it is not. In both camps there are medical professionals with a lorry load of qualifications. I don’t have a medical qualification to back up my understanding of the benefits of the deep squat so I reserve the right to be completely and utterly wrong. LOL!

    fizzYcaL FITNESS on September 6th, 2009
  • 14

    I wrote in a comment above about being a fan of squat toilets because they are better for your bowel health (my sister is lucky enough to have one as she lives in Turkey), and today I see a post on Mark’s Daily Apple talking about this in detail. Have a read (but maybe not while you’re eating your lunch!).

    gubernatrix on October 2nd, 2009
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  • 18

    The only valid reason I could see not to do it is that theory about there being a hinging effect if tissue gathers behind the knee and the weight of pressing on it tractions the knee joint and potentially damages the ligaments by shifting back the access of rotation.

    The theory goes that calf muscle (I expect the gastroc since it’s higher up and biaxial) and hamstring muscle bunches behind the knee and that compression becomes the axis.

    But the problem I have with this is… why would it bunch up there?

    The hamstrings are busy assisting the glute as spinal erectors or being a dynamic stabilizer. The gastroc is helping the soleus work as a plantar flexor.

    Would they just hang around there?

    Even body fat… if the knee becomes the highest point on the body, why would the fat climb up to the that point to hinge behind it? Fat inferior to the knee should be pooling towards the ankle. Fat superior to the knee should be pooling towards the glute!

    Tyciol on December 19th, 2010
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