By Stephen Brindle
That’s the question I am trying to figure out. I’ve noticed something all to often when I visit other schools, attend different gyms and look at videos online. There is an ongoing trend of people squatting shallow. This needs to be addressed!
I recently attended a strength and conditioning conference with speakers from some of the best athletic programs in collegiate sports. One particular strength coach was going through his program for his athletes. During his presentation a slide popped up which read at the top:
He then went on to say, “Do we make our kids squat to parallel? Well, only if they can. It really doesn't matter. ” Me, Cristi, and Steel all looked at each other laughing and said, “WHAAAT?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Only if they CAN????” Does this standard apply to all the other exercises in the weight room? Should we tell our athletes, “Only let the bar come down all the way to your chest if you CAN on the bench press. Only rack your power clean with the bar resting on your shoulders if you CAN?
Everyone is so into the single leg work nowadays (which definitely has its place), but are these strength coaches saying, “When you do your lunges only allow your back knee to get close to the ground if you CAN?” Are they saying, “only extend your hips at the top of your bridge exercise if you CAN? “(You don’t even need to spend so much time on these “activation” exercises if you just squat deep anyways which target the muscles you are trying to isolate).
I asked another strength coach at the conference what percentage of their athletes got to full depth on the squat exercise. The strength coach responded and said, “About 35%”. WHAAT? I’m left scratching my head wondering why the partial range of motion is allowed on the squat but not on other exercises. Maybe it’s because there is a weight on your back and people somehow think it’s dangerous.
I actually think the reason is simply because people are scared. Flat out scared. People are scared if they do a full range of motion squat with weight on their back they won’t be able to get back up and complete the rep.
In the past I used to buy into the “He’s just tight” rationale as to why some people don’t get deep when they squat. After being at a school where squatting deep is part of the weight room culture I have changed my philosophy. When everyone else is squatting deep around you it is contagious. It becomes expected that you will do legit ,full range of motion squats.
I believe the biggest culprit to squatting shallow is trying to have too much weight on the bar too soon. When people start to check their ego at the door and take some weight off the bar you’d be surprised how deep they can actually get. I could care less how much weight someone can half squat. I think some strength coaches and personal trainers are so concerned with their athletes’/clients’ numbers that they allow them to squat shallow just so they can say they helped contributed to them getting stronger.
Like most strength coaches, I have my athletes perform dynamic warm-ups before team lifts and team runs. One of the staple exercises I will have them do is a bodyweight squat. I pay close attention on this particular warm-up drill. If they put forth just a little bit of effort everyone on the team squats below parallel on these bodyweight squats. I expect the same standard when the bar is on their back.
I’m not saying that 100% of the population will be able to do a full range of motion squat below parallel. There are definitely exceptions due to injury. Someone coming back from knee surgery, hip surgery, or someone with damaged vertebral discs may very well not be able to squat deep. However, my experience has been when healthy athletes can’t get deep it is not always a mobility issue. Usually it is a confidence issue and them being scared.
You may be wondering, “But isn’t squatting deep bad for your knees?” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that myth. Thankfully ,Tommy Suggs wrote an amazing article on Starting Strength about this topic using actual research and not just hearsay. (http://startingstrength.com/index.php/site/full_squats_or_not) The notion that squatting is bad for knees often has come from skewed interpretation of a book called “The Knee in Sports” by Karl K. Klein and Fred L. Allman, Jr.
Klein says this in page 30 of his book, “The depth of the squat position should be controlled, with the thighs just breaking the parallel position. Much beyond that point the reaction between the hamstrings and calf muscle begin to act as a pry to force the joint apart at the front, as well as on the sides, stretching the ligaments.”
Interesting how Klein suggests actually squatting just below parallel, which is a full range of motion squat. He is saying you should squat below parallel, but squatting excessively deep will be bad for the ligaments and knee joint. Somehow people have taken this to mean do a half squat or “squat deep only if you CAN”.
Klein also talks in his book about how squeezing the knees together in order to gain more pushing power on a heavy rep can be detrimental to the knees. He states when this happens that “repeated actions of this nature are responsible for the stretching of ligaments and for other knee irritations”. This is also known as a valgus collapse.
This is good advice when performing the squat- do not let the knees come together when coming up from the bottom of the lift.
A study by ATC Rob Panariello used professional football players from the New York Giants. In the study the players squatted twice per week with barbell loads of 130% to 200% body weight. The study demonstrated no significant increases in anterior-posterior-tibiofemoral translation in athletes using the squat exercise. (Panariello, 1994) In other words, squatting relatively heavy loads twice per week was not bad for their knees. Another more recent study out of the University of South Carolina found doing full range of motion squats did not produce negative stress on the knees.
So why should you squat deep? Here are several reasons:
- If full range of motion squats are not performed the hamstring and glutes are not fully activated. These are the most powerful hip extensors in the body and hip extension is a crucial movement for all sports (running, jumping, etc.).
- If you are squatting simply for appearance and you don’t get deep you won’t be able to shape the hamstrings and glutes the way you want them to look.
- Squatting deeper means the working muscles will have more time under tension- which has been scientifically proven to lead to growth of muscle fibers.
- When you perform sets of full squats more work is being done. Work-=force x distance. When more work is being done your metabolism speeds up. Faster metabolism + full range of motion, + targeted muscles being worked = you’ll be leaner and stronger!
- It is more “functional”. Getting up from a chair, bending down to pick up the groceries, and grabbing a loose ball in basketball, etc. requires one to be able to come up from a deep squat position.
- Full range of motion squats improve your flexibility. You will be getting stronger and more flexible at the same time!
- Decrease the risk of injury. Doing the full range of motion on the squat by sitting back and keeping the weight centered over the middle of your foot will take stress off the knees. The hamstrings work to pull the femur away from scraping on your knee joint when this is done.
Stephen Brindle is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Pennsylvania and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Panariello, Robert & Backus, Sherry, & Parker, Johnny. The Effect of the Squat Exercise on Anterior-Posterior Knee Translation in Professional Football Players. Am J Sports Med December 1994. Vol 22. No 6. 768-773