Pritchard: How low should you squat? (column)
Speak with any coach or trainer and chances are they will provide their own opinion on what acceptable depth looks like when performing a squat. Most commonly, the debate centers around the barbell back squat and how low one should go. This is due to it being a popular strength test by most strength and conditioning coaches as well as the one with which we can load most heavily.
The variations of a squat are endless (i.e. front squat, zercher squat, goblet squat, split squat, etc.), thus debating which one is best appears pointless. The context is most important.
When it comes to the depth an individual should achieve when squatting, context is also king.
Factors influencing squat depth
Before one can debate the pros and cons each degree of motion a squat provides, movement competency and safety consideration are paramount. How well can an individual move with no weight at all? Do they have the strength to squat to full depth or does their anatomy inhibit them?
One of the greatest coaches and lecturers in the world, Dr. Stu McGill contends that those with deeper hip sockets have been shown to be at a greater disadvantage when squatting than those with shallower ones.
Some of the most common roadblocks I see with athletes or clients attempting to squat lower are the lack of ankle mobility, valgus knee collapse, lumbar flexion and lack of thoracic mobility. This is even seen in unloaded body-weight squats, which I always screen for prior to prescribing a program to somebody.
If one cannot squat through an entire range of motion due to one or more of the aforementioned reasons unloaded, then they certainly will not do so with added resistance. As Gray Cook always says, “Never add fitness on dysfunction.” Squatting through a motion that you are capable of is the first box to be checked.
Once you understand your capabilities and movement competency within the squat, depth can further be chosen by the desired performance outcome.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research titled “The Effect of Squat Depth on Multiarticular Muscle Activation in Collegiate Cross-Country Runners” looked at differences in EMG activity between partial and parallel squats. What it found was that rectus femoris and erector spinae activity was higher during the parallel squat than partial, but biceps femoris and gastrocnemius activity was similar between both movements. Additionally, the 10-rep max was higher in the partial squat than parallel squat, which is no surprise. Unfortunately this study failed to compare these two depths to that of a squat below parallel which may have provided further insight.
The results from this study and so many others alike demonstrate that squat depth influences the performance outcome. If an individual would like to target a specific group of muscles, or load the movement heavier for maximal force production, the depth at which they do so will greatly affect it. Squat depth is only one of the many factors that are important to consider alongside stance width, load, variation, velocity and tempo. That being said, I do believe that every person should squat to some degree for overall health and longevity so long as it abides by the rules previously discussed in this article. It is perhaps the most primitive movement humans know, thus maintaining the ability to do so effectively is essential. Thanks for reading.
Jimmy Pritchard has a bachelor of science from Colorado Mesa University and is a certified specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the director of strength and conditioning at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Contact him at 970-331-3513 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his website at pritchardperformance.com.