How Deep Should You Squat?

Okay, so you most likely have heard that the ONLY way to squat is full depth, below parallel, ass to grass…whatever you wanna call it. And the reasons why?

  1. Anything less than full range is bad for the knees, shearing forces…
  2. More range of motion equals more strength
  3. More range of motion equals more muscle gets worked

There’s tons of confusing information out there in the fitness and athletic performance world. It’s easy for fitness seekers and some elites to be misled. Many of us listen to and trust our coach/trainer because we believe that they are indeed the expert on the topic of fitness or athletic performance. And let me say this as a Coach, WE ALL have knowledge gaps…it’s just that some of us would rather not admit when they don’t know something and/or just parrot what the trending consensus is at the point in time within their circles, be it bodybuilding, cross fit, general fitness, etc.

Here’s what you need to know about squatting depth. It simply depends on your goals.

If your goal is to build mass for whatever reason, then squatting below parallel is your go to. A fuller range of motion does work a larger area of the muscle group. Is it bad for your knees? Not inherently. If you follow a “progressive” periodized training program and you have conditioned your body to perform the movement then you should be okay…given you had healthy-ish hips, knees, and ankles to begin with.

Here’s what’s tricky…if your goal is to “develop” some curves, add shape to the lower body…then you may want to incorporate half or quarter squats into your workouts. Yes, full squats work a larger area of the muscle group BUT, you are stronger and more powerful in the half and quarter squat positions. Being in a stronger position means you can put a muscle group under more load, more load can lead to more stimulus, specifically type 2x muscle fibers. Type 2x – also called type 2b –  are important for aesthetics because they are larger in size than type 2a — the fibers that are stimulated in general strength training.

Side topic…lifting 10-20lb weights for high volume sets MAY be strength training for youth or senior populations, but not for most healthy individuals. A movement is NOT strength training if it doesn’t stimulate the muscle group to actually GET STRONGER…to put it simply.

Strength training, in general, can add “muscle definition” or curves to the body by developing the larger muscle fibers of the body, which are called type 2a fibers. In contrast, endurance training stimulates slow twitch fibers, type 1, which are smaller in size. So if you’re doing P90x in your living room with 15lb dumbbells, long slow running, or the elliptical…YES your muscles may “burn”, you may sweat, you may feel worked, but it’s not strength training, it’s all slow twitch, it’s conditioning, aerobics, endurance, or the new phrase these days….metabolic conditioning.

So for mass building, incorporate full squats into your programming. For curves, do half or quarter squats, or all three…but not in the same day of course.

Now if your goal is performance based…to run faster, be more explosive, jump higher etc…then you should consider half and quarter squats ONLY. Why only, efficiency, muscle fiber recruitment, and movement patterning.

  1. HEAVY squats at full depth will add muscle mass to the ass, quads, and low back, and that may be a hindrance for a body that needs to carry AND fuel that extra muscle. Think about sport car for example, the most ballistic cars are extremely powerful while also being extremely lightweight. Now, lightweight does not mean skinny…I’m talking efficiency. The more muscle mass you carry, the more inertia you have to overcome and the more blood and nutrient demand you put on the body.
  2. Muscle fiber recruitment. You may have heard this phrase before, “train slow move slow, train fast move fast”. Now this doesn’t have to be limited to running speed, this phrase can be applied to “bar speed” or muscle contraction speed. As I mentioned earlier…a full squat is a less powerful squat compared to half and quarter squats. There’s no way around it, type 2x fibers are larger and have a higher contraction force than type 1 and type 2a. So think balance…if you’re training for a “fast twitch” event, skill, or sport…you don’t want to train slow twitch movements MORE than you focus on ballistic movements.
  3. There’s not many sport situations that require an athlete’s knee angle to significantly be below 90 degrees while under a HEAVY load. I can’t think of many, aside from “catching” in Competitive Weightlifting. Running, jumping, changing directions, all take place from a short bend in the knees, a power position. Your exercise movements should mimic your sport or skill.

So you have weight loss goals? Get with a fitness professional, get on a progressive periodized program that is going to prepare you to squat in all variations, if it’s appropriate for your body. Body builders, go full squat and maybe mix in a little half and full to enhance muscle shape. Physique models, cross fitters, track and field athletes, anyone looking to develop curves, do a mix of half and quarter squats and let your goals determine which way you sway the balance between the variations. Remember, more range does mean more muscle. Fast twitch 2x is a larger and more powerful muscle fiber.

Lastly, strength is joint angle specific. A full squat does not increase strength in a quarter squat and a quarter squat better transfers over to other movements at that similar joint angle.

IF YOU DON’T TRUST ME:

  1. Wilson G.J., Newton R.U., Murphy A.J., Humphries B.J., The optimal training load for the development of dynamic athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1993, 25 (11), 1279-1286. Available from: http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=1993&issue=11000&article=00013&type=abstract
  2. Schoenfeld B.J., Squatting kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance. J Strength Cond Res, 2010, 24 (12), 3497–3506, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181bac2d7
  3. Escamilla R.F., Knee biomechanics of the dynamic squat exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2001, 33 (1), 127–141. Available from: http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2001&issue=01000&article=00020&type=abstract
  4. Rhea, M. R., Kenn, J. G., Peterson, M. D., Massey, D., Simão, R., Marín, P. J., Favero, M., Cardozo, D., & Krein, D. (2016). “Joint-angle specific strength adaptations influence improvements in power in highly trained athletes,” Human Movement, 17(1), DOI: 10.1515/humo-2016-0006

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