Few subjects divide opinion more than how deep you should go when you squat.
On the one hand, you have people saying that you should go to parallel or slightly below.
What this means is that when seen from the side, the crease of your hip should be slightly below the level of your knee.
Others will tell you to squat ass-to-ankles, which basically means as low as you can get.
If you can’t get that low then there is some kind of “dysfunction” that needs addressing. Most people had this range of motion as a child, they point out, and it’s possible to recover this with practice.
Both are wrong.
Squat depth is important, but so is good form. With very few exceptions, you should squat no lower than the point where you lose the arch in your lower back.
For some, this will be parallel or slightly below. For others, this will mean stopping slightly above parallel. Only a very small number of people can go ass-to-ankles without compromising their technique.
In the picture below, the guy on the left has maintained the arch in his lower back. But the guy on the right has already reached the point where his lower back has flattened out.
If he was to blindly follow the advice to squat “ass-to-ankles” (or even to parallel) while ignoring what was happening to his lower back, he’s most likely going to end up with some kind of disc injury.
If your spine repeatedly flattens out and loses its natural curvature with a heavy barbell across your shoulders, you’re doing more than just inviting trouble. You’re rolling out the red carpet and asking him to move in.
Neutral spine isn’t a single position that your back never deviates from. Think of it more like a neutral zone, or a range that your spine can move within while still posing a low risk of tissue damage.
In this video, Professor Stuart McGill, an expert in spine function and injury prevention at the University of Waterloo in Canada, explains exactly why losing neutral spine during the squat is a bad idea.
Your ability to maintain a neutral spine during the squat depends on a number of factors, including the strength of the muscles around the hip, the flexibility of the hip and knee joint, as well as the relative lengths of your torso and thighs.
If you have relatively long thighs, for example, you’ll have to shift your weight back by leaning forward as you squat. Combine this with a lack of flexibility in the hip area, and you’ll find it very difficult to hit parallel without losing the arch in your lower back.
Bret Contreras explains more about how anatomical differences from person to person affect squat depth in the video below.
Some people will tell you that if it’s not ass-to-ankles, or even to parallel, the squat won’t make much of a contribution to gains in size and strength because it wasn’t done through a full range of motion.
Many of these same people will then go on to recommend the deadlift as one of the best overall mass building exercises for the entire body. That’s despite the fact there is not one muscle group that is taken through a full range of motion during the deadlift.
Unless you’re training for a powerlifting contest, or to improve your performance in a sport where you need to be strong in a deep squat position, don’t worry if you can’t get to parallel or below.
Squatting slightly above parallel is still enough to make your legs bigger and stronger. In fact, studies show that bending the knees to 80-90 degrees is sufficient to achieve very high levels of muscular activity in the quadriceps.
However, it is important to have some kind of consistent point of reference that you can use to measure your progress.
Don’t delude yourself into thinking that you’re increasing your strength when all you’re really doing is decreasing your depth. Have a firm standard for what constitutes a squat, and stick to it.
If your goal is to squat to parallel or below, you can then work on increasing your range of motion by dealing with whatever limiting factor is causing your form to break down.
To train the thighs through a greater range of motion, make sure to include some single leg exercises in your program, such as the Same Leg Chain Lunge, Step Ups or the Bulgarian Split Squat.
Same Leg Chain Lunges
Bulgarian Split Squat
To repeat, you should squat only to a depth that allows you to maintain good form. By that, I mean that you should go no deeper than the point where you lose the tight arch in your lower back. This may be slightly below or slightly above parallel.
It’s far better to be an inch or two on the high side than to go too deep and end up with a crippling back injury because of it.
If you enjoyed this post, there’s a good chance you’ll also like Truth and Lies about Building Muscle: 10 Muscle Myths Debunked By Science.
It's a FREE 20-page special report (PDF) I put together to debunk 10 popular myths that are still widely believed, despite all the evidence to the contrary. You can download a copy here.
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About Christian FinnChristian Finn holds a master's degree in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine. You can contact Christian using Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or via e-mail.