Maintaining Perfect Squat Form to
Maximize the Benefit and Safety of Every Rep
Lifting lore is laden with perpetuated myths and unsubstantiated dogmas. Stories of never-actually-witnessed mythical figures that curled a Volkswagen and bench pressed a cruise ship. Each myth supported by a training dogma that supposedly validates the methods that granted these Herculean achievements. Reality and myth often disagree.
One such myth that’s evolved into dogma is the ass-to-grass squat — every lady and gent that dare load a squat bar must achieve the deepest squat position their body allows. Consequences be damned! Consequences, however, are real and should be minded; the reality is not everyone should deep squat. The conundrum we must solve: how deep should you squat?
What about Full Range?
We have to make a distinction between a loaded squat — barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell or otherwise — and an unloaded, or bodyweight, squat. Full range of motion for a bodyweight squat is different than a loaded squat’s full range.
Barring severe structural abnormality, injury or surgical intervention, each human being should be able to find a foot position that gives their hips, knees and ankles the potential to bodyweight squat below parallel, Ass-to-grass is fair for some folks in this circumstance. If you can’t currently drop into an unloaded deep squat without your body slamming on the breaks at parallel, or just shy of it, you have work to do. Granted, you may never rest your cheeks on your heels. Your anatomy, namely your hip structure, may be limiting, but you should certainly have the mobility to squat your hips lower than your knees without added weight.
A mobile joint is a healthier joint. Mobility implies expansive range of motion that you can control. Let’s follow that logic to a simple conclusion. More mobility equals a healthier lifting career.
Control, then, is our squat depth focus point. We squat to the point in which we still dictate control. But control of what? Is control different for a bodyweight squat than a loaded squat? In a word, yes.
Range of motion isn’t the lone squatting requisite. Range of motion married with control is the relationship healthy squats depend on.
Maybe your anatomy’s been kind to you. You can load a barbell across your shoulders and drop your cheeks to your heels while remaining perfectly upright, maintaining neutral spine. Range of motion is your ally. But can you control your hips in that bottom position? Can you maintain tension in the outside of your hips — glutes, external rotators — and dictate your knee position? If you can’t, you’re too deep.
Our loaded squat bottom position is the deepest point in which we can maintain tension through our lateral hips and maintain control of our knee position. Why? in this position we are bearing the load with muscles and evenly distributing it across soft-tissues and joints. Loaded squatting to a position sans lateral hip control means you are hanging the load on your ligaments, tendons and joints. This is detrimental to strength and to tissue health. If you can’t keep your knees from caving, and your butt from “tucking under,” you’re too deep.
Bodyweight squats, however, differ. No external load means no extra stress on soft-tissues and joints. A bottom position without tension isn’t too much stress for your body to handle. In fact, finding your deepest possible bodyweight squat, regardless of tension, can help prepare your tissues in the unfortunate case that a squat attempt goes awry. That’s not to say, however, learning to maintain hip tension in a deep bodyweight squat isn’t beneficial. Less load means less for your body to deal with — aka a better learning environment. Including high-tension bodyweight squats in your warm-up will help train your body to squat with hip tension while under the bar. You’ll learn to control range of motion.
Squat to the deepest position that still allows you to drive your knees out using the lateral hip muscles. Hold that position for ten to fifteen seconds and repeat for some reps. It’s a great warm-up that carries over to loaded squatting.
So, What’s It Look Like?
What does a good loaded squat look like in the bottom position? Like this:
The lumbar spine is neutral, not arched or rounded. There’s no butt tuck — the hips don’t “roll under.” The torso is as upright as possible. The knees don’t cave; they are directly above the ankle or slightly outside of it. The feet are slightly externally rotated, toes turned out, and are planted firmly on the floor — no toe lift.
Depth is not universal. For some folks this position might be two inches above parallel. Others find this position with their backside inches from the floor. We must only achieve the requisites from the previous paragraph, the deepest point in which you meet them is your squat bottom position.
Competition is our squat depth caveat. Powerlifting rules often dictate that a squat must break parallel to qualify. This, of course, depends on the rules of the sanctioning federation. But in most instances, rules dictate you must drop your derriere below your knees. Do so without the requisite raw materials we discussed and you’re likely signing your name to the infinitely expanding powerlifting injury scroll. That’s a choice made with your free will.
If you want to compete, and you know your squat depth requires a wee more spinal movement than it should, then get after it. Just know that you’ll eventually pay for the tax your body’s been charged.
You’d be best served by developing a clean, strong squat before competing.
Squat depth is individualized based on anatomy, mobility and skill. Don’t let myth and dogma dictate your bottom position. Find the position that keeps your hips tight and your spine neutral, then achieve your own Herculean feats.