The squat is a an excellent exercise for building the lower body, in particular the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Not only that, the squat can help you improve your posture, metabolic and cardiovascular health, and hormone levels. Not all squats are equally effective at producing these positive health effects though. A bad squat, performed with poor technique and/or a limited range of motion, can do more harm than good. It can cause back pain, muscular imbalances, and other problems that can seriously undermine a person’s health and well-being.
One question that every squatter has to face sooner or later is: How deep should I squat? This question has given birth to numerous debates in which people with different views on what constitutes optimal squat depth clash together in heated arguments. In today’s article, I thought I’d share my thoughts on this matter. I’m not going to delve into the science and biomechanics pertaining to squat depth; rather, what I thought I’d do is to base the article on my experience as a coach/trainer.
What type of squat is the safest type of squat?
When I first started getting into strength training more than a decade ago, there were still a lot of people out there who clung to the longstanding dogma that deep squats are bad for the knees and back. These people argued that it was better to do half or quarter squats as opposed to parallel or deep squats, seeing as the former – according to them – put less strain on the knee joints and lower back.
In the years that have passed since then, my impression is that the number of people who hold this belief has been declining; however, there are undoubtedly still some gym goers out there who think it’s dangerous to do deep squats. Perhaps needless to say, I disagree with these folks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a deep squat. With that said, not everyone is able to perform a really deep squat with good form. Most people aren’t. Very good hip mobility is required to perform a perfect ass-to-the-grass squat.
Hence, it could be argued that the idea that “deep squats are dangerous” is not completely without merit. A person who’s not able to perform a deep squat with good form can obviously experience some problems if he does deep squats. What is important to remember though, is that this is how it is for every exercise. All exercises can be dangerous if they aren’t performed correctly.
Unfortunately, most gym goers don’t perform the squat with good form. This is true regardless of whether we’re talking about the parallel back squat, the front squat, the squat to box, or any other variation of the squat. None of these exercises are safe if they are performed with bad technique.
One mistake a lot of lifters make is to put on too much weight on the bar and perform quarter squats, basically stopping the downward movement long before the butt approaches the ground. There are some people that may benefit from performing quarter or half squats, but I would say that the vast majority of strength trainees don’t fall into this group.
The common belief that quarter or half squats are safer than deep squats is flawed. In my experience it’s actually quarter squats that are the most likely to harm a lifter’s knees and back, not deep squats. The problem with the quarter squat is that it can be performed with very heavy weights (when compared to the parallel or deep squat), which act as “guns” that fire on the knees and back as the downward movement is stopped after it has barely started. The quarter squat is great for boosting a lifter’s ego, but not so great for making him fit, strong, and healthy. Some of the same problems apply to the 90 degree squat, but not to the same extent, seeing as the depth is greater in this one and less load can be used.
How deep is deep enough?
Okay, with that said, let’s move on to what constitutes a good squat. In the last section I made the case that most people aren’t able to perform ass-to-the-grass squats with good form, at least not without first working on their mobility for quite some time before they get under the squat bar. I also pointed out that the quarter squat is no good, and that the 90 degree squat is probably less than ideal as well. Hence, you’ve probably guessed that I’m a big fan of the parallel squat. If so, then you’re not wrong. The parallel squat is the type of squat I typically prescribe to clients. It’s also the variation of the squat I’ve mostly been doing myself.
With that said, I see no problem with going deeper than parallel. Personally, I tend to go somewhat deeper. Also, if I work with a client who’s able to perform very deep squats with good form, I don’t shy away from prescribing really deep squats. When working with a client, I typically have him/her squat as deep as he/she can without rounding the back and/or otherwise screwing up his/her form. I’m not afraid of a little back rounding; however, I don’t want to see a lot of spinal flexion.
Here’s the key thing I want to point out: A person who’s not able to perform the parallel or deep squat with good form shouldn’t necessarily permanently shy away from those exercises. Virtually everyone can train themselves to perform the parallel squat with good form. Many of the clients I’ve taken on over the years were unable to perform the parallel squat with good technique when they first came to me. I didn’t just “give up” on these clients and instructed them to perform quarter or half squats. Rather, I addressed the underlying problems that made them unable to squat properly. Because that’s the thing: There’s always going to be a reason why a bad squatter isn’t able to squat with good form.
What all of this is to say is that the vast majority of people are able to perform the parallel squat with good form, given that they get proper instructions on how to perform the exercise and have corrected any possible muscular imbalances or mobility issues. Most people can probably also perform the ass-to-the-grass squat with good form; however, in most instances, a fairly lengthy process that involves a lot of mobility work, strengthening of the glutes, and other interventions is required to prepare a person for ass-to-the-grass squatting. Not many of the people I’ve helped during my years as a coach/trainer were able to perform really deep squats with excellent form when I first met them. I think they can be counted on one hand.
In most instances, I’m very satisfied if I get the client I’m working with to perform the parallel squat with great form. If I’m coaching a client who’s not able to go all the way down in the squat without compromising his form, I’d much rather have him to the parallel squat with good form, as opposed to the full squat with bad form.
How to perform deep squats with good form
As pointed out above, virtually everyone can perform the parallel squat with good form, given that they are properly instructed and have corrected any potential musculoskeletal issues that keep them from squatting deep with good form. In some instances, simply instructing the person in question to spread the floor/get the knees out, keeping his chest high, and keeping the weight on the heels/back of the feet is sufficient to get him into a good movement pattern. However, other times, mobility work and correction of muscular imbalances are required to bring about good squat form.
To finish off, I thought I’d share a couple of quick tips that can help you perform the parallel squat (and if you have the mobility for it, the deep/full squat) with good form:
- Push against the outside of your feet/heels like you’re trying to spread the floor apart. This helps get you into a good movement pattern and forces your knees out.
- Keep your chest high.
- Drive through your heels/the back of your feet.
- If you have a tendency to stop the downward movement prematurely, then try squatting to a box for a while. The box gives you a target to reach. Stop 1-2 sec. on the box at the bottom of every rep before you drive up.
- Address any potential mobility issues that keep you from performing the exercise with good form.
- Treat any potential muscle imbalance syndromes (e.g., lower crossed syndrome).
- Consider seeking out the help of an experiences strength coach who can help you improve your squat form. (See this page for information about my online coaching services).
Now I want to hear from you: How deep do you squat?