The answer to the question “how low should I squat” is oft discussed, always contentious, and fundamentally flawed.
It’s one of the most straight forward questions you can ask, and one of the hardest there is to answer. Everyone’s instinctive reaction is “you should squat below parallel”. But is that true?
And if it is true, what does “below parallel” look like, and are there any exceptions?
Basically, there’s a simple answer, and an expanded answer. The simple answer is;
“squat as low as you can while still maintaining good form and technique”
The expanded answer is everything that comes after this sentence.
The first goal will always to get below parallel with a neutral spine – that’s the holy grail, and you can see what that looks like below. The depth you need to consistently hit in training is in the green box. The orange box is ‘acceptable’ for some reps. And you can just f*ck right off if you’re doing squats like the red box and posting to instagram about your PRs.
Side note: if you’re a personal trainer posting bullshit videos of your clients squatting like in the red box and bragging about how strong they are, you’re lower than the grimey green scum I clean off from under the rim of my toilet (and being really honest here _ I WISH the videos I saw some trainers posting were only as bad as the red box, most are much worse)
Anyway… “below parrallel” is defined as the crease of the hip (green dot) getting below the top surface of the knee (broken red line). Going below parallel is good because:
- it builds stronger legs with more muscle
- deep squats are almost 2x as effective at building vertical jump power than partial squats
- below parallel squats are safer for your lower back and knees
- full range of motion squats promote and preserve good mobility (ie – if you don’t use it, you lose it!)
- when you squat below parallel all the time you’ve an easy way of knowing if you got stronger – if you’re squats are always high, how do you know they’re consistently high and you’re not just adding weight and compromising depth – getting below parallel is a key measurement metric
You Can Go Away Now…
If the only purpose of you reading this article was to find out if you’re squatting low enough, you’ve got a visual representation of what “below parallel” looks like and can stop reading and start squatting now.
BUT we’ve only poked our nose into the rabbit hole at this stage, so before you rush off and load up there bar, there’s a couple more things you need to consider. They’re all loosely connected, but don’t have any particular order to them. So each is about to get its own paragraph or five…
Are You A Powerlifter, Weightlifter, Bodybuilder or “Generalist”
Everyone has different reasons for squatting. Most people reading this are going to be generalists – they do a wide variety of exercises in the gym to get leaner, stronger, fitter and into better shape, but don’t compete in any of the aforementioned sports. If you’re not sure which one you are – you’re a generalist, you should be squatting as deep as your body allows you to while still keeping your knees out, your feet flat on the floor and your lower back neutral.
If you’re a powerlifter you should be squatting to just below what is required in competition (the green picture above). If you’re a weightlifter you need to get really good at squatting rock bottom with an upright torso to build the leg strength and positions you need to recover from cleans and snatches. And if you’re a bodybuilder you should be getting stronger thru a full range of motion while controlling tempo to annihilate as many muscle fibres as possible.
Here’s a very cool video of a powerlifter, weightlifter, bodybuilder and strongman having a squat competition. Check out the differences in the lifts for yourself.
Different People Will Squat Differently
Earlier on I said that you should squat as low as you can while still maintaining good form and technique. There’s a couple of factors that play into that. They can be broadly categorized genetics, mobility and stability. It might be weird to hear me pull the genetics card, but bear with me. If you’re a short leg guy with a long torso you’ll find staying upright in your squat much much easier. Similiary if you’ve long legs and a short torso, you’re probably always going to lean forward a bit. But more than that, how your pelvis / femur / hip socket is constructed will have a massive effect too. Consider the three “types” of hip below:
Dean Somerset nailed it in a recent blog post…
“Additionally, if the femoral neck angle is very vertical, there’s going to be an increased chance of bony contact compared to a femoral neck angle that is more horizontal.
So if you’re one of those lucky bastards who happens to be born with a deep socket, retroverted acetabulum and coxa valga femoral neck, your odds of ever hitting depth without a butt wink are next to none, regardless of how tight your hamstrings are. I could give you a dose of anaesthetic equivalent of what it would take to knock an elephant out for a week, essentially giving you zero hamstring tension and zero tension through any other tissue in your body, and you still wouldn’t have the range of motion to get into a squat. Stretch all you want, it won’t matter.”
Long story short, if you’ve got a hip that ain’t suited to squatting, you probably won’t be breaking world records any time soon. BUT that’s no excuse for being a pussy either – do your mobility work, work on stability and get your tekkers checked. If after months of work you still have the same problem, you might need to be become a bench / deadlift specialist 🙂
Don’t Force Yourself Past What You Can Handle
Your body will do what your body can do. I’m 100% sure of just 1 thing – my squat is different to your squat because I’m different to you. I’ve lived a different life. Had different injuries. Sat in different positions. Played different sports. And stretched and moved differently to you my entire life. That’s neither good nor bad. It just is what it is. So what I can handle will be different to what you can handle (that’s could be a good thing for you by the way!).
The only REAL rule of squatting you must absolutely pay attention to is never force your body into unsafe positions when your mobility and stability isn’t good enough to get there.
A simple way to know what you need to work on the most to get better at squatting is by performing these tests:
If you can’t sit below parallel in the ankle test you’ve an ankle mobility or core stability problem. You need to hit up this series of drills:
If you can’t get your heel to your ass like in test 2, or your glutes are crazy tight, you need to start doing this:
And before every squat workout, please warm up like this:
Keep in mind, you’re going to be 80/20’n the problem using these drills. They’re general warm ups and solutions for the problems we commonly see in the gym. Depending on your history and background, there may be something more suitable to be doing. Talk to a good physiotherapist, or do some sessions with a top notch personal trainer close to you to be sure (…or travel up to us in RevFit for a chat! revolutionfitness.ie/contact)
After all that, it’s almost time to go squat, but before you lace up your adipowers and chalk your t-shirt, I need you to remember a few important things.
- Sometimes the problem isn’t that your squat technique or mobility is an issue. Sometimes the weight is just too fucking heavy for you to sit all the way down with and not get broken in half. Strip some weight off the bar and do it right, hotshot
- Before you post your squat PRs on instagram, have a look at those pictures above again – if its not orange or green, no matter how many likes and comments you get, you’re still a waste of oxygen and are contaminating the gym. Strip some weight off the bar and do it right, hotshot
- If your knees are collapsing in, your hips are shooting up and your back is rounding out, I don’t care how much weight you’re squatting. Eventually that shit will catch up with you, and best case scenario is you’ll stall out. What’s MORE likely is that you’ll get injured and have to stop training. “I told you so” will be no good then, so before ya get there – strip some weight off the bar and do it right, hotshot
Happy squatting 🙂
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Curious to see how we do stuff like this for our clients? You can book a free personal training session with us where we’ll have a chat about your goals, discuss your background and problems, go thru some mobility drills and fixes to any problems you have, before taking 30 minutes to run thru the basics of squat, bench press and deadlifting too.