Training in my own facility certainly has its perks; no queuing for the lifting platform, no idiots doing single-leg BOSU balanced bicep-curls in the squat rack, windows wide open and music on high, however, apart from the company of Led Zeppelin and Rage Against the Machine, my own training sessions can get pretty lonely. For some people this may be ideal, however you must understand that people watching is my favourite sport (unfortunately there are no athletes within this sport for me to coach, I’ve checked). For this reason, I like to visit one of my local commercial gyms, once per week, when Olympic Weightlifting is not part of that particular session.
If it’s not kipping pull-ups (whatever the hell they are) or cleans in the form of reverse grip bicep curls, not a single week passes without me witnessing an individual performing half-squats (and that’s being generous). It never fails to amaze me how many trainers I hear explaining to their clients that squatting below parallel or allowing the knees to track forward of the toes is highly dangerous and may result in injury.
The common misconception is that the use of deep squats will involve increased compression and shear forces in the spine and knee joints and are therefore viewed as unsafe. Some trainers and therapists believe that incorporating half and quarter squats will produce smaller loads and for that reason assumed a safer option.
Let’s cut to the chase. If your hip joint does not descend below the height of your knee, you ARE NOT squatting! In most cases, people just need to man the **** up.
A recent review by Hartmann, Wirth and Klusemann (2013), assessed squat depth and its affect on the joint load of the knee and vertebral column. In this study, they found evidence that the hamstring complex acts to reduce tibiofemoral shear forces during the squat by reducing forward movement of the tibia (shinbone), thus decreasing tensile force on the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). After reviewing the available literature, it was also clear that the shear forces placed on the tibiofemoral joint are not great enough to harm an intact Posterior Cruciate Ligament or ACL. Although the compressive forces on the lumbar spine were found to exceed the tolerance limit, significant data has shown that individuals who squat regularly (Olympic Weightlifters in this case) have greater lumbar bone density compared with individuals who do not squat, therefore identifying the beneficial adaptations to squatting. The reviewers noted that there is currently no evidence to support that there is a greater risk of injury during deep squats in comparison to quarter or half-squats, in fact, they suggested that it is more likely that “higher knee joint and spinal joint stress could be expected in these variations rather than during deep or parallel squats”.
So, why squat to full depth?
Where do I start?
A study performed by Bloomquist et al (2013) analysed the effect of squat range of motion on muscle and tendon adaptations. The researchers tested the participants' one repetition maximum (1RM), knee extension torque, total lean body mass, countermovement jump height, squat jump, and cross-sectional area of the thigh muscles and patella tendon following a 12-week programme consisting of three squat workouts per week. It was concluded that only the deeper squats produced improvements in squat jump performance, lean body mass of the legs and front thigh cross-sectional area when compared with partial squats.
Gorsuch et al (2013) produced Electromyography (EMG) data to suggest how the deep squat is a more efficient method of training the quadriceps and lower back musculature than shallow squats.
Esformes and Bompouras (2013) assessed the post-activation potentiation (PAP) effect of parallel and quarter squats. They found that PAP was significantly greater after performing squats of a high intensity to a greater depth, as well as leading to an improved peak power output and flight time during the countermovement jump.
McMahon and Pearson (2013) published a study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research that looked into the impact of range of motion (ROM) on muscle size and strength. Participants performed squats and other lower body resistance exercises such as the leg press, at a moderate-high intensity to either short ROM (50 degrees knee angle) or long ROM (90 degrees knee angle). The researchers found that knee extension load was improved 7% more when exercises were performed at long ROM.
It is clear in the literature that squatting to full-depth is not only safe but also produces greater performance enhancement benefits in comparison with partial or shallow squats. From experience, most individuals who do not squat to a full-depth usually have a psychological barrier or fear of squatting below parallel. Most simply have poor mechanics due to lack of mobility. If this is you, I recommend that you reduce the load and practise squatting to full ROM whilst working on your ankle, knee and hip mobility outside of training sessions.
Whilst squatting technique can vary from person to person depending on factors such as limb length and flexibility, below is a list of general rules that you can use to ensure you are actually squatting rather than replicating the range of motion seen during an Over-60’s aqua aerobics class:
- With the bar situated high on the upper-trapezius muscle, grasp the bar as narrow as possible in order to retract the scapular and maintain an upright posture.
- Actively pull the bar down onto the shoulders in order to activate the Lats and surrounding back musculature in order to stabilise the spine. Imagine breaking the bar over your shoulders.
- Place the feet into a position so that the inside of the heels are in-line with the outside of the shoulders.
- Feet can be rotated outward so that the toes point toward eleven and one o’clock.
- Adjust your centre of mass so that the majority is distributed toward the rear of the foot.
- Inhale, and hold your breath before contracting the Glutes and abdominal muscles. This will position and stabilise the pelvis and lumbar spine in a neutral position, whilst creating intra-abdominal pressure to assist with trunk stability.
- Descend into the squat by simultaneously flexing at the hips and knees. Your mass should remain distributed toward the rear of your feet and your torso kept upright.
- Actively screw your feet into the floor whilst driving your thighs outward. This will allow for better hip-extensor activation and pelvic stability, whilst allowing you the room to squat between your thighs. Imagine gripping the carpet with your toes and then tearing it in half between your feet.
- Continue to descend until the hip joint passes below that of the knee.
- Once you have reached this depth, continue to maintain an upright and stable posture whilst forcefully exploding upward to the start position.
- Exhale at the top of the squat and ensure you reposition and stabilise the pelvis by aggressively contracting the Glutes before continuing with the next repetition.
Author: Karl Page