Squat depth is controversial. It’s been a hotly debated topic since I started lifting weights in 1998. How deep is deep enough? Is there such a thing as too deep? Is squatting deep bad for your knees? If you don’t squat deep enough does it “count”? There are so many questions and often times they go unanswered and people are left either continuing to do things the way they’ve always done them, simply because they’ve always done them that way, or they try to do things they shouldn’t because they’ve been told the way they do it is wrong. Squatting with a barbell for the past 20 years, as well as teaching many other people to squat with a barbell has imparted many lessons onto me. Here are my thoughts on squats, and in particular, squat depth.
Understanding Range of Motion
Most people acknowledge the fact that doing any exercise in a “full range of motion” is important, without quite understanding why. Range of motion is defined as the distance a joint can travel, or sometimes how far a joint can move a particular body segment, measured in degrees. There is a lot of focus in fitness on improving range of motion, but it’s worth noting that it is possible to have too much range of motion. This is known as hyper mobility. Have you ever seen anyone who’s elbows bow out when their arm is totally straight? That person has hyper mobility in their elbows. A hyper mobile joint is typically less stable. Joint stability is created by a synergy of factors: connective tissue strength, muscle tone, and of course simple cartilage and bone stacked on top of each other. When a joint is hyper extended, the muscles and connective tissue can’t properly do their job, putting too much stress on the joint itself.
With that out of the way, you generally want to train a muscle through its full range of motion for a number of reasons. Most importantly is that most of what we call “strength” isn’t just the muscle belly’s mechanical ability to contract and create force, but rather our nervous system’s ability to coordinate and control those muscular contractions. If you never train a certain part of a joint’s range of motion, you will develop very little control when the joint is in that position. Squats are a great example of this.
Imagine you always squat to a depth where the crease of your hip is about two inches above the height of your knee. With this range of motion you can squat 150kg. Now, let’s say I asked you to squat to the point where the crease of your hip is two inches below the height of your knee. Do you think you’d be able to squat the same amount? Intuitively, the answer is : no. Physics not withstanding, your brain simply would not have developed the correct pattern of movement to control the muscles when your hip and knee joint are at the angle that would bring your hip crease below the height of your knee.
Why does this matter? Thinking more broadly about exercise for a moment, and not simply just about squats, a large benefit to exercise is reducing the risk of injury. Most injuries occur in the end range of motion of a joint, or beyond the end range. If you’ve created strength and stability through a full range of motion, you will be better able to absorb and deal with impact and force towards the end of a joint’s range of motion. Think of putting your arms out straight to brace your fall when you trip, or coming down from a rebound during a game of pick-up basketball. Having the ability to absorb force is paramount to avoid snapping your s**t up, and training through a full range of motion is crucial to achieving that.
There are other considerations to why you would want to train through a full range of motion. Caloric expenditure would theoretically be greater. It takes more energy to move the same load a greater distance than a shorter distance. That’s simple science. Though this would probably only be statistically significant over an enormous amount of time, like, years.
Watch out for the Squat Depth Nazis
Full disclosure, I used to be asinine about squat depth. Scrolling Instagram, trolling half squatters is certainly a fun pastime, but in reality, how low you squat only matters in a few specific situations. The unofficial industry standard is “to parallel” meaning the crease of your hip is parallel to the top of your knee. This is likely the standard because it’s the required depth in most Powerlifting federations for a squat to be considered valid. To that end, if you have the ability to squat to that depth, or lower, you should. If you compete in Powerlifting, you definitely should, because no one wants to be that guy or gal who calls for a ton of weight on the bar, and then gets called on not going low enough.
If you physically cannot squat to that depth, or you can but you look like a crash test dummy after a long day of work when you do it, some further investigation needs to be done. The prevailing idea is that if you can’t squat to depth you’re not “mobile” enough, and you need to “work on your mobility.” In my experience, depending on your goals, that route is rarely worth it. Most mobility work is a time suck, and a rabbit hole. The body is a complex and interlaced series of systems that all function to keep you upright and moving forward. Coaches love to point out “oh you have tight hips (or insert any other muscle) that’s why you can’t squat deep.” Maybe. But often loosening that tight muscle makes you realize that muscle is tight for a reason, it was compensating for something else that was weak. In that way, trying to fix a tight muscle is merely treating the symptom (tight hips in this example), and not fixing the problem (another muscle being weak). That means most people will improve their mobility by getting STRONGER and MOVING MORE, not by stretching, or rolling.
While most everyone’s ROM and technique can be improved on almost any exercise, some will simply never be able to get into a deep squat without some serious compensations because of their anthropometrics (body shape). The length of your limbs, the shape of your joints and sockets, the angles of your connective tissues, etc… all play a role here. If you’re training to be healthier and sexier, and can’t squat deep, who really cares? The only thing that matters is being consistent. If you can squat to parallel and usually do, but go for a new personal best, and it’s two inches higher than normal, it’s not that you “can’t” it’s that you “won’t” because you’re scared. Don’t be scared your whole life.
Squat Depth Apologists
There is a hilarious IG page known as “quarter squat gang” who specialize in featuring those who couldn’t check their ego at the door. No matter how egregious the offenders, the comments are always rife with apologists making claims that “maybe they’re training partial reps, which are beneficial.” Let’s set the record straight here: Intentionally doing a partial segment of an exercise certainly has its place in training. This is a technique usually more beneficial for experienced athletes, in specific training phases or for specific purposes. But no one, and I mean absolutely no one, who is smart enough to even know what a partial squat is, and when to use it, would be stupid enough to label it as a “squat” much less brag about hitting a “new squat PR.”
Likewise, things like having a “bad back” or “bum knees” isn’t an excuse either. If you’ve been injured and lost some range of motion (aka function) of your hips, knees or back, heavy barbell squats aren’t an appropriate exercise for you anyway, so stop putting your videos on the internet. Your training should be making you better, not stroking your ego.
Squat Depth For Weightlifters
In the sport of Weightlifting, it’s typical for athletes to squat very deep, or what gym-bros like to call “ass to grass.” The reason for this is in both the snatch and the clean, there will be a limit to how high you can pull the barbell to get it over your head, or to your chest respectively. The Weightlifter’s solution? Squat lower under the bar to get it into position. As such, most Weightlifters will squat very deep to build strength and control in those deep positions, but depending on how you perform your snatches and your cleans, this may not be the case. Some athletes rely heavily on “sneaking” under the bar to make a lift. Those athletes will need to squat very deep when training the squat. Other athletes rely more on a strong pull and bar height, and almost never go into a deeps squat. For those athletes, squatting all the way down isn’t a necessity. In fact, even though generally speaking Weightlifting requires a lot of mobility, some Weightlifters cannot get into a deep squat. It’s common for heavier athletes to not squat as deep beause their larger bodies restrict their range of motion. Compare these two squats between Behdad Salimi of Iran (who weighs about 150kg) vs. some of the smaller athletes from the North Korean team
The Slippery Slope
The best way to squat, is as deep as you can with good technique and posture. What that depth looks like will vary greatly from person to person and from athlete to athlete. What’s not ever acceptable is changing your range of motion because the load has increased. It’s a very, very slippery slope. Once you’ve gone down that road, it can be difficult to turn back. Think of it like this: If you normally squat to parallel when you’re doing multiple reps, but then you set a new personal best with a decreased range of motion, when you return to a regular training program all of your squats will feel heavier than they should, because you’ll be performing a full range of motion squat, with a percentage based on a load you weren’t able to squat to your full depth. What do you think usually happens next? If you guessed people took weight off the bar and squatted lighter, you guessed incorrectly. Usually what happens is now you’ll start cutting all of your reps short, and the next time you max out? Forget about it, you won’t even come close to going as deep as you should. Know why you’re training, keep your goals in mind, be consistent, and always put quality (technique and ROM) over ego (weight), and you’ll save yourself a lot of embarrassment, and make a lot more progress in the long run. It’s a win-win.