Squatting is one of the most popular exercise movement patterns. The fitness industry has set a major expectation that a proper squat is defined only by squat depth. Squatting low or below parallel does recruit more muscle fibers and in fact, adds more stress on the lower body. However, it does not determine whether a client's squat is correct and effective.
With squat depth being such a universal term, many clients have become preoccupied with using depth as the squat standard. Clients tend to assess their technique and form based on how low they squat. This causes them to negate other important factors that contribute to the quality of a squat. In this article, we explore what a true squat should look like. In addition to this, we review how to focus on squat depth without discrediting other important factors of the squat.
When discussing good squat depth, the standard measurement is getting the thighs below parallel or the hip crease past the knee joint. This term originally came about in the sport of powerlifting. Since then, this term has grown to become the standard for all lifters.
The squat simply consists of movement at the hip, knee, and ankle joints. This means that a partial squat isn't necessarily poor technique or ineffective. Every client has different goals along with unique biomechanics. This is what determines how someone should train, not the expectation of squatting as low as possible.
The requirements of a squat should be simple. It is a total-body closed kinetic chain movement. Knowing the difference between open and closed kinetic chain movements is critical.
Shallow squats are used more by athletes for improving performance, while deep squats are used to increase muscle mass. Partial squats may be quantified by a 0-40-degree knee angle. A parallel squat is achieved with 70-90 degrees at the knee joint and deep squats are achieved with greater than 90 degrees.
When squatting, remember to maintain a neutral spine by keeping the chest up and shoulders back. To initiate the movement, bend at all three joints and sit back. Don't let the knees buckle inwards and keep tension in the legs throughout the entire movement. This allows you to safely explode upwards or in the concentric phase of a squat.
Before setting a squat standard for your athlete or client, assess how their body moves during training. Knowing each client's imbalances, strengths, and weakness is crucial. If the squat depth standard is not relevant to each individual client, then the general term, squat depth, becomes completely ineffective.
In other words, two clients can squat side by side with both clients moving through the same range of motion at the knee joint. One of these clients may demonstrate better ankle mobility. This makes the angle achieved at the ankle greater than the other client. The client who achieves greater ankle range of motion will not achieve as much depth as the client with less ankle mobility.
This is because the client with less ankle mobility sits back into the squat more, displaying the hips below the knees. The range of motion may be the same in both clients, but one appears to have better squat depth than the other. Range of motion is the movement around a specific joint or body part. This is what increases strength, which is why the term ‘squat depth' is unreliable.
Deciding if squat depth below parallel is necessary for clients comes down to their goals. Let's take for example an athlete who wants to improve their vertical jump height versus a client who wants to compete in bodybuilding.
The athlete who wants to improve their vertical jump performance would benefit more from shallow squats. Whereas the aspiring bodybuilder would benefit more from deep squats.
Think of it this way: When an athlete performs a vertical jump, they do not squat as low as they can to jump. They slightly bend or flex at the knees, hips, and ankles, and explode upwards. This is exactly how they should train.
On the other hand, the bodybuilder's main goal is to build muscle mass. Essentially the greater the range of motion, the more work a client is doing. This helps stimulate more muscle growth because it promotes the time under tension principle. A large range of motion requires muscles to work for a longer period of time, therefore recruiting more muscle fibers.
In both cases, the clients are aligning their training with the outcome or goals they want to achieve. This is why less depth for the athlete wanting to increase their vertical jump is actually an effective squat depth compared to the bodybuilder.
Learn more here on how to train according to muscle fiber type.
It is important to know that a client's goals determine what an acceptable and effective squat depth is for them. No matter the circumstances though, there are a few important factors in improving a client's squat depth and form.
In order to squat deep, hip flexion is needed. Tight and weak hips inhibit clients from squatting low and cause compensation which leads to improper technique. The same principle applies to ankle mobility. If a client is unable to sit low into a squat and has poor ankle mobility, their knees will not track forward. In these clients, it is common for the heels to come up off the ground or for their weight to shift forward. Do not forget that when performing a barbell squat shoulder mobility and thoracic spine mobility are also critical. Even though it is a leg-dominant exercise, clients must be able to extend their thoracic spine. This promotes shoulder external rotation.
Once mobility is improved in clients, then you can set a standard for their squat depth based on their goal and their anatomy. Even though they may have improved hip and ankle mobility, it still does not mean their squat is perfect. Assign expectations according to how their body moves during exercise. Set goals to work up to improved depth and form based on where the individual client is at in their fitness program.
One of the most popular muscle groups that lack strength is the glutes. It is common for clients with weak abductors to buckle the knees inward during a squat. The adductor muscles in the lower body are responsible for moving the legs away from the midline of the body. Strong adductors help maintain knee alignment and prevent foot pronation and inward rotation of the knees. In the end, you're creating a stronger squat.
Corrective exercise routines are a powerful approach for all clients. It's not just for those who have major imbalances or movement dysfunctions. Every client has weaknesses and imbalances that corrective routines can help improve. Leading to better results of the training program. Lumbar spine and erector spinae strength contribute to deeper squats.
Therefore, corrective exercise and squat variations are important to improving squat depth. They help clients manage barbell load and compressive forces during all types of squats. This includes paused squats, half squats, the low bar squat, a goblet squat, and even a bodyweight squat.
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