Squat Depth: How to Decide How Low You go

Squat depth is a contentious topic. You can spend hours reading dogmatic opinions that lean one way or the other – do you squat to full depth (as low as possible) or only go part way down? The quick answer is that it depends! 

– insert photo of full depth, thighs parallel and partial squat

First off, if you’re squatting without any external load, there are no major concerns associated with squatting to full depth – unless of course you have pain in your hip/knee or you simply don’t have the flexibility to do so. An unloaded, full depth squat is a normal human movement and should not be feared. However, once you are adding external load to a squat, there is more reason to be cautious 

The simplest approach to deciding how low you want to squat is to consider what your goals are. 

Full Depth Squat – The Best Option for Few

The only time a full depth squat with load is mandatory is when doing Olympic weight lifting. This depth is required in order to get underneath the bar during the “catch” phase of these lifts. Another reason why one might chose to do a full depth squat is the greater degree of muscular activation that occurs during this style of squat. Otherwise, the only other reason to do a full depth squat is to satisfy one’s ego – a pursuit that often leads to injury! 

The area at greatest risk for injury with this style squat is your lower back. It’s common to not possess the flexibility in your hips, knees or ankles needed to allow you to squat to full depth without starting to move your lumbar spine out of position. Your spine is the most effective at accepting load when it is in a neutral curve. This allows you to spread the load evenly across all the muscles and joints in your spine. As you squat lower, your ankles, knees and hips use up all their available range of motion. Once you run out of available movement in these joints, you will start to bend your lumbar spine causing the dreaded “butt wink”. When this occurs, you are now placing excessive load at an individual level in your spine. If you do this repetitively under load, your lower back will eventually let you know that it doesn’t like that type of loading!

The Squat Depth for Everyone Else

Generally speaking, it’s worthwhile to go as low as possible with a squat. This allows you to work your muscles through a greater degree of movement, leading to more muscle building stimulus. What this exact depth is will be unique to each individual person. This is dictated by the flexibility of your hips, knees and ankles. 

The majority of people will be able to squat to in/around thighs parallel to the ground. That being said, not everyone must squat to thighs parallel (or just below) either! Having thighs below parallel is an arbitrary depth selected for the sport of powerlifting to dictate whether or not a repetition is counted in the competition. So unless you are in a powerlifting competition, all of your squat reps count no matter what depth you select!

You can find your optimal squat depth by watching your lower back in a mirror or shooting a video from the side. Watch for the point that your lower back starts to round (when your butt wink occurs). You will want to squat to a depth just above this position. This will allow you to keep your back in a strong position, minimizing your risk for injury and maximizing the amount of workload on your muscles.

If you are interested in increasing your squat depth or find your squat doesn’t feel comfortable, please read my articles on selecting your optimal squat stance and the drill for increasing your squat depth.

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