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, doors 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.
Nestled comfortably within the four walls, that is, Cheshire Barbell, I am quite sheltered from a lot of the crap that exists within the fitness industry, however the stories that some of our newer members discuss about experiences in other gyms with other coaches never fail to amaze me.
Before this comes across as a rant, let me explain that I am not having a pop at an individual, but the industry itself. If you have a spare £600 and are reasonably lucky when it comes to multiple choice questionnaires, you bag yourself a certificate that allows you to work in a gym or health centre, offering what encroaches medical advice to members of the public who put their trust in you. Crazy!
No previous practical or academic experience required. Just an online course! Madness.
This was something I never thought I'd have to return to, yet is amazes me to still hear stories from our newer members that their previous coach has told them 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/streses 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, anyway.
Yes, very-heavy partials can be used, as can loaded squat jumps with reduced ranges of motion, however these methods are typically used with high level athletes and there to compliment their deep squats, not replace them!
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 (knee joint) 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”.
In simple terms, you're not going to explode if you squat deep!
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 beneath your ankle bone 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 subtly contracting the Glutes before continuing with the next repetition.
Allow me to finish by stating that it is important you only load up if you can squat with control and have the sufficient range of motion to go below parallel whilst maintaining a perfectly flat and structurally sold spine.
If you experience any loss of pelvic stability near to the bottom of the squat I would suggest you skip squats for a while and instead focus on performing heavy single-leg exercises such as:
Front Foot Elevated Split Squats
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats
If you are experiencing posterior pelvic tilt, commonly referred to as 'butt wink', then it is likely you have some form of dysfunction / neural deficiency of the illiopsoas, glutes, hamstrings and adductors.
Don't waste your time stretching.
Learning the previously mentioned unilateral exercises, executing them well and becoming strong in those positions should go a long way towards helping you develop a better, safer squat.