Few questions divide opinion more than “how deep should you squat?”
On the one hand, you have people saying that you should go to parallel or slightly below.
What this means is that the femur – the large bone in your thigh that runs from your hip to your knee – should end up roughly parallel to the floor.
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.
How Deep Should You Squat?
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.
If you blindly follow the advice to squat “ass-to-ankles” (or even to parallel) while ignoring what’s happening to your lower back, the potential for some kind of disc injury is greatly increased.
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. These include 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 get below 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, 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 below parallel.
Dr Rafael Escamilla, a Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at California State University, reviewed a total 70 studies on the subject of knee biomechanics during the squat .
He found that squatting roughly to parallel is enough to achieve very high levels of muscular activity in the quadriceps, which is going to make your legs bigger and stronger.
Research that compares full-depth with parallel squats shows very little difference in muscle activity between the two.
Researchers from Edge Hill University, for example, looked at muscle activity during the partial, parallel and full-depth squat using relative 5-rep-max loads . In other words, subjects lifted the most weight during the partial squat, and the least during the full squat.
Muscle activity in the hips and thighs was greater during the full-depth and parallel squat compared to the partial squat. However, the differences between the full-depth and parallel squat were, to quote the study authors, “negligible.”
There is research to show that muscle activation of the glutes is maximized during full squats . However, the main weakness with this study is the fact that subjects used the same weight for both the full and parallel squat.
Why is that a problem?
Most people can lift more weight in a parallel squat than they can in a full-depth squat. And muscle recruitment is highly dependent on the amount of weight you’re lifting. Squatting with a heavier weight will call into action more muscle fibers than squatting with a lighter weight.
Follow-up studies that take into account the fact that you can lift more weight in a parallel versus a full squat show that the glutes are just as active with parallel squats as they are with full-depth squats [3, 4].
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.
Finally, remember that squats aren’t the only show in town. There are plenty of other exercises you can do to work the legs through a larger range of motion, such as the Same Leg Chain Lunge, Step Ups or the Bulgarian Split Squat.
Same Leg Chain Lunges
Bulgarian Split Squat
Contrary to what the exercise police might say, there is no “one size fits all” recommendation when it comes to the question of how deep should you squat.
You should squat to a depth that allows you to maintain good form. By that, I mean 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.
SEE ALSO: THE MUSCLE BUILDING CHEAT SHEET
If you're fed up spending hours in the gym with nothing to show for it, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a "cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to go about building muscle. To download a copy, please click or tap here.
ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a former 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.