How Low Should You Squat?
Whichever is the safest, most effective way for you to reach your desired goal.
The article could literally end here, but in case you are looking for a little more depth…
Here’s your checklist to finding your depth:
- Why am I using the squat?
- Does my sport or goal require it? Does it require a specific depth?
- Consider your individual anatomical structure and mobility/flexibility etc.
- Risk/Reward ratio based on the above and previous injuries
What is your goal?
Powerlifter? Your sport requires you to go just slightly below parallel. So of course, it’s important to be able to hit this depth. Your goal is a green light with maximal weight, not ATG (ass to grass).
Bodybuilder? Your sport requires maximal hypertrophy and you might use close stance squats, time under tension, quarter squats, sissy squats, etc. You may also not even use squats, it’s not a requirement of your sport like it is for powerlifting. You compete on a stage, not a platform.
Athlete? You likely use squats as a primary lower body movement to increase force output. However beneficial they can be, no exercise is the holy grail. Weight training for an athlete is general, not specific to the sport. There are plenty of different means to increase strength, power, speed, etc. As a matter of fact, quarter squats actually appear to be more transferable to sprint gains. You compete on the field, not in the weight room.
General population? The squat is a great movement pattern but it’s not a necessity for improving body composition, there are many ways to achieve the same goal.
Finding Your Depth
Once you have determined your goal and why you are using the squat, it’s time to take a more individual approach. If you have the requisites to squat low (friendly hip structure, mobility, ankle dorsiflexion, etc) and can maintain biomechanical efficiency – squat low.
If, however, you have poor mobility, previous knee/back trouble and the squat isn’t a requirement of your sport, either find a way to perform it pain free or find another exercise. It’s not that complicated. I have a handful of athletes who, due to their hip structure, will never be able to squat below parallel while maintaining any sort of postural integrity.
Take an athlete with long femurs or deep hip sockets, as they dip deeper into the squat, the hip runs out of range of motion. Their trunk will be forced to lean forward. As the torso leans forward, lumbar forces are increased. The rep still gets completed because the body will find a way to compensate and complete the movement, but is it a quality rep? Is it worth it?
This person will not be able to go “ass to grass.” SO WHAT? Should you just keep yelling at them to get lower because, “dudes online always say ATG or no lift?”
So guess what? I have them squat within ranges of motion that are comfortable for them and still allows them to perform quality reps. They still improve. They still get faster, stronger, and more explosive.
Because remember, they are athletes, not weight lifters.
For example, if when you perform a deep squat your pelvis pulls under you (sometimes referred to as butt wink) and the lumbar spine goes into flexion, you are putting your back in a potentially less than optimal position. Add a significant load to this and things can get really ugly. As you squat deeper the internal forces against the spine and supporting musculature are also increased.
Could you squat like this and be ok? Sure, it’s possible just like it’s possible to smoke cigarettes every day and live a long life. Though I think Dr. Stuart McGills research on repeated spinal flexion and disc herniations might change your mind.
The Depth I Teach
I work with an assortment of clients so there is no short answer here as I approach each individual as an individual. To begin, I ask them to perform multiple bodyweight squats and watch how they perform the reps (among other movements). From there, I have a better understanding of what cues I need to use when teaching the movement or if there are any physical limitations.
If they drop below 90 comfortably, maintain a stable spine and have good motor control over the movement, I let it be. Otherwise, I will teach athletes/people to squat to or slightly above parallel. I am far more concerned with the quality of the rep rather than the specific depth.
If you are around weight training enough in your life you will see some very ugly reps, especially ass to grass reps. I’ve also seen plenty of people get hurt during this movement. It is my job to make the athlete move better, feel better, get faster and STAY ON THE FIELD. If they get hurt doing a squat, which has no direct transfer to their sport, I’m not doing my job.
Let me repeat, unless your sport requires a barbell or a specific lift, I recommend you view each exercise through its potential risk/reward ratio and how it fits the individual. To assume or recommend that every single person squat “x” way is short-sided and shows lack of experience and understanding of the human body. Weights are a means to an end, not the end all be all for athletes. Use your eyes to determine if you or your athletes are progressing, not just the latest PR.