We’ve had a lot of questions on this one. Squatting is a core component of any strength training programme, and is a staple movement for developing musculature and strength in the lower body. While the squat should be a relatively simple exercise to perform, there continues to be a number of common mistakes and some misinformation regarding its execution. The issue we’ll explore in this article is squat depth!
How low should you squat, and why?
We’re going to dive into the academic literature and present our case for why you should aim to avoid ‘half-repping’. In commercial gyms across the globe the all-too-common sight of people descending by an inch or two and then calling it a day is hampering lifters’ progress. This usually comes about for one of three reasons:
- Beginner lifters not knowing how or why to reach proper depth
- Beginners being unable to reach sufficient ranges of motion
- Lifters purposefully loading too much weight onto the bar and being unable to complete a full squat
The goal of this piece is to provide information as to why a fuller range of motion is beneficial for building strength and musculature in the legs. If you’re an ego lifter in category 3 – you may already be a lost cause.
So let’s start by defining what we mean by squat depth.
The first thing to note is that, as with any physical activity, you should push yourself within your physical limits. If you physically can’t put yourself into a position then you should spend time working on mobility first. As children we were all able to place ourselves in a variety of squat positions, but the larger and older we become the more difficult revisiting these positions can be.
The definition of depth for the back squat that we’re referencing in this article is a ‘parallel squat’ – or more specifically, the point at which the hip crease descends below the top of the knee. While the definition for depth has previously been subjective and dependent on the goal of the lifter, there are various cases in which official guidelines have been created to define proper squatting technique – these can be useful markers for beginners to follow:
The squat, apart from being a training exercise, is an official component of the sport of Powerlifting. Its codification in the sport’s largest federation – the International Powerlifting Federation, also follows the definition given above:
“Upon receiving the Chief Referee’s signal the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees.” (International Powerlifting Federation, Technical Rules Book, 2019)
As well as this guidance, we can look to the scientific literature and find biomechanical analyses of the squat which have also opted against shallow squat depths (Schoenfeld, 2010), (Comfort & Kasim,2007), (Comfort et al.,2018). So here are a few reasons why you should use this depth definition as a minimum guideline for improving your own technique.
If your reason for implementing squats in your workouts is to see functional improvements in your physical capabilities, i.e. building strength, then choosing deeper squats over half-repping is in your best interests (McBride et al., 2010)(Gheller et al., 2014)(Weiss et al., 200)(Salles et al., 2010)(Hartmann et al., 2012). There is evidence to show that parallel and full squats are more beneficial for improving the force development potential of the lower body muscles, leading to improvements such as increased jumping ability, sprint speed, and general maximal strength gains.
For example, when comparing (parallel) back squat training to quarter squat training in the performance of jumps and 1RMs, Hartmann et al., found the back squat to be superior in both of the vertical jump height tests measured, as well as showing increases in back squat and quarter squat performance. The quarter squat training group only showed significant increases in the performance of the quarter squat itself – which you’ll regularly see in commercial gyms everywhere. As you can imagine, decreasing the range of motion means that you’ll be required to do less work, and can therefore move more weight on the bar (Hartmann et al., 2012) – don’t fall into the trap of thinking that that will make you stronger.
It’s easy to see why this is the case; if you increase the distance that the body has to fight against a load, or increase the time under which the muscles have to deal with these stresses, or increase the period that the muscle is able to generate muscular force against a given weight, you can expect to find that the muscles will be much stronger for it. This is not only the case for increasing vertical jump height, we can see similar evidence for sprint speed.
We know in general that squatting can increase sprint speed (Balderree & DeBeliso, 2019), though there has been some comparative evidence that has found there to be no significant depth difference on performance (Keiner et al., 2014 – nonetheless, advocating for deeper squats in any case due to their overall benefit). We do know that squats to below parallel have shown a positive correlation to increased sprint speed and agility (Keiner et al., 2013)(McBride et al., 2016). So where does that leave us? Well if you’re a track athlete specifically looking to focus on sprint technique and performance then it may be beneficial to also include partial squats to your training (Rhea et al., 2016). If you’re a casual gym goer, or any other athlete that competes in a sport with more holistic requirements, yet still requires sprinting proficiency, then the benefits to be had from developing overall strength would suggest that it is practical not to dedicate time to partial squats.
By increasing the range of motion of a squat we’re asking the body to do more work. That concept seems simple enough…and it is. We can see from the literature that increasing the depth of the squat increases the level of recruitment for the muscles of the lower body – let’s take a look at how.
The quadriceps are primary movers in the squat and are affected by depth in a certain number of ways. Firstly we can see that the engagement of the quads increases as depth increases. This is namely an increase in activation from the start of the movement, through the partial ranges of motion, down to the parallel squat position (Bloomquist et al., 2013)(Kubo et al., 2019). The more work we demand from the quads the more involvement and growth we are likely to see. This however does seem to stop after a certain point, and that point is suggested to be around parallel (Schoenfeld, 2010). The activation of the quads begins to diminish as other muscles begin to play a larger role in this deeper squat.
We can see quite clearly that the glutes begin to play a larger and larger role in the squat as depth increases (Caterisano et al., 2002). The deeper squat starts to become more hip dominant as it surpasses the parallel position, and consequently the glutes begin to take over. They literally put the ‘Ass’ in ‘Ass To Grass’.
The hamstrings do not appear to have a significant change in their role in the squat, regardless of depth (Caterisano et al., 2002)- so the development of the squat muscles in the legs may well be most effective up until the parallel point. So with these muscular considerations raised as well, we can see the efficacy of aiming for a parallel squat. Now, how can we get there?
Tips for depth
Here is some advice for those lifters that struggle to reach the parallel position:
The Box Squat:
Squatting down to a box provides instant feedback as to how low the squat descent is. Set up the box to the appropriate height that will provide sufficient depth and then lightly touch the glutes down to the surface, before shooting back up. We’ve seen great results and better variability from using an upturned dumbbell instead of a box or bench. Starting your session with a few of these sets should help to engrain better neural adaptations if you’re unsure how deep to go, allowing you to progress and hit depth with ease in subsequent sets.
Squat with a raised heel:
Planting a small weight plate (e.g. 5lbs/2.5kg) underneath your heel, or wearing a weightlifting shoe will change the position of your body in the squat and make up for a lack of dorsiflexion in the ankle. This position will reduce the range of motion in the squat descent and allow lifters to reach the bottom position of the squat with less effort.
Work on ankle mobility:
Improving the overall range of dorsiflexion of the ankle will have a direct effect on the body’s ability to descend into the squat hole (Kim et al., 2015). Exercises such as a forward leaning lunge or goblet squat will help to stretch the soleus muscles, which should gradually help to increase forward motion of the knees over the toes.
So there we have it, if you’re looking to get the most benefit from your squats – whether that be by making your legs stronger or more muscular, we recommend familiarising yourself with the parallel squat. Feel free to drop a little deeper if you’re specifically targeting the glutes – but try not to cut short on depth. Leave your ego at the door, lower the weight, and let the magic of the squat take hold.
Balderree, A. S., & DeBeliso, M. (2019). The effects of back and front squat exercises on sprint speed and vertical jump: a pilot study. International Journal of Sports Science, 9(1), pp. 1-7
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Caterisano, A. & Moss, R. & Pellinger, T. & Woodruff, K. & Lewis, V. & Booth, W. & Khadra, T. (2002). The Effect of Back Squat Depth on the EMG Activity of 4 Superficial Hip and Thigh Muscles. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 16. 428-32.
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