by Tony Gentilcore T-Nation
This article is about squatting and whether or not everyone needs to (or should) squat deep. To cut the suspense, the answer is no!
Actually, the answer is “it depends.”
There’s a gulf between the word need and want. They’re two very different things.
For example, do you need to crush beers every weekend? No, but you want to. Do you need to bench press three times per week? No, but you want to. Do you need to DVR the Victoria Secret fashion show and watch it every time your girlfriend leaves the room? Yes, yes you do.
As a strength coach, I say people need to squat, and squat well, period. Depth, on the other hand, is more of a “want” issue; I want people to squat deep, but it’s just not always feasible. So I work with what I can.
Squats are invaluable for building strength, power, and improving athletic performance.
You’d be hard pressed to find another exercise that helps engage the entire body and, as a result, burn more calories, so even for those more concerned with fat loss or aesthetics, squats are an unparalleled exercise.
Furthermore, squats do a fantastic job of offsetting many of the postural imbalances we see from those who spend much of their lives sitting in front of a computer perusing Facebook or playing Angry Birds on their iPhone.
Someone who can perform a proper squat demonstrates that they have the ample ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, hip abduction, t-spine extension, core stiffness, and glenohumeral ROM (among other talents) to do so. This is quite a feat, given many people can’t sit down onto a chair without blowing out their back.
So the real question isn’t, “Does everyone need to squat?” but rather, “Which squat variation (and by extension, depth) is the safest and most effective for any one individual?”
While I’m 100% in favor of people squatting with a full ROM (which for me is when the front surface of the thighs drop below knee level), sometimes it’s just not feasible, and borderline counterproductive.
As an example, encourage someone with chronic anterior knee pain or Femoral Acetabular Impingement (FAI) to squat “ass to grass” and you’re setting him or her up for something bad.
Likewise, having someone with a degenerative disc issue do squats could be bad news, as it could for someone who goes into lumbar flexion (butt wink) when going to a certain depth, or someone who has any number of postural imbalances.
Of course, context must always be considered. Every person has a unique injury history and training experience that may or may not dictate what kind of squat variation is indicated.
Too wishy-washy? I don’t know about you, but my bull**** meter goes into hyper drive whenever I hear anyone use the words everyone, never, or always.
It’s human nature to seek out absolutes, but there really aren’t any in the fitness world, or in the “real” world for that matter.
Listen, I’m not saying that I don’t do it – I certainly have my biases. I feel everyone should deadlift (in one form or another) at least once a week.
Also, if you have a history of shoulder issues – especially dislocations – you should never perform another dip. Like ever.
Those examples aside, I do a pretty bang up job of not leaning too far to the left or right on any given topic. With few exceptions, I feel there’s a time and place for everything – yes, even leg presses (as much as it pains me to admit it), and I’d encourage everyone reading to foster the same approach.
Still, the squat is one hell of an exercise, and I generally lean towards the camp that thinks (most) people should include it – to some capacity – in their programming.
Of course, much of the time it’s simply a matter of placing a premium on coaching someone to squat properly.
Groove a proper hip-hinge pattern (learn to sit back).
Coach a more vertical shin angle (especially for those with chronic knee pain), although we can’t forget that there’s going to be some forward translation of the tibia during any squat.
Teach clients to push their knees out. I can’t even begin to tell you how this simple cue works wonders in helping to clean up squat technique.
Learn to engage core stiffness (get tight). Each set should begin with taking a big breath and encouraging more apical expansion of the torso. This is something that I’ve recently started to realize that I’ve missed the mark on for many years.
Physical therapist Bill Hartman keyed me in on the notion that it’s unwise to only focus on pushing the belly out (which encourages more anterior pelvic tilt, and places far more stress on the facet joints of the lumbar spine). Along with pushing the belly out, we also need to be cognizant of attaining lateral and posterior (apical) expansion.
Learn to engage the lats, and as a result, the thoraco-lumbar fascia to provide more stability to the spine.
Try not to **** a kidney.
While there’s more to it than that, if everyone made it a point to hone in on those key objectives when squatting, we’d undoubtedly see less injuries and (probably) bigger numbers under the bar.
Nevertheless, it can’t be understated: it’s imperative to teach people to squat within a ROM that’s safe for them!
A safe and acceptable depth for one person could be harmful for the next. It’s still possible to reap all the benefits of a squat without necessarily going “ass to grass,” so it behooves everyone to take the time to find out exactly what their “acceptable” range is.
Assessing Squat Depth
A quick aside: assessment is the foundation for any program that I write. It’s a way for me to delve into the bigger picture and construct a program that will allow for the quickest and safest results possible.
More to the point, it’s also a way for someone to prove to me that they move well enough that I’m confident they’re capable of performing the movements or exercises I deem appropriate for their skill level.
It’s important to reiterate that squatting deep is not dangerous or bad. Contrarily, and without getting derailed, squatting deep (whatever that means to you) can be argued to be safer than the alternative, as I noted in this article.
But how do we “assess” the appropriate squat depth for you?
While there are dozens of ways to do so effectively, a great starting point would be a simple drill discussed in the book Deadlift Dynamite, where both Andy Bolton and Pavel quote the godfather of spinal biomechanics, Dr. Stuart McGill:
“In order to find the optimal hip width (or amount of standing hip external rotation), have the athlete adopt a four point kneeling stance. From neutral, rock or drop the buttocks back to the heels.
Mark the angle at which spine flexion first occurs. Then repeat with varying amounts of space between the knees. Look for the optimal knee width that allows the buttocks to get closest to the ankles without any spine motion.
This is the hip angle that will produce the deepest, and ultimately the highest performance squat. It is much wider than most people think. Observe the world champs squatting.”
Check out the video below for a demo:
But even this is a somewhat convoluted or limited way to assess things, as squatting by its nature isn’t performed in a quadruped position (not to mention squatting is a bit more dynamic in nature, especially under load).
At Cressey Performance, part of our initial assessment with every new client is to take a look at their standing overhead squat and ascertain their squatting proficiency.
If you’re curious to play along, here are some simple screens you can perform yourself.
Squat Screen # 1
Assume a shoulder width-apart stance with your toes facing straight ahead and your arms fully extended overhead and then squat down as far as you can go.
What do you notice?
If you’re one of the few who can squat all the way down without any major compensation(s) coming to the forefront (heels coming off the ground, knees caving in, excessive lumbar flexion, excessive forward lean, to name a few), congratulations, you get a gold star!
This is more of an evaluative squat assessment, and isn’t how I’d go about coaching someone to squat, but more on that shortly.
What this demonstrates is that you have ample hip internal rotation to go into deep hip flexion with very little (if any) ramifications. Granted, we could make a case for hypermobility/laxity, which has it’s own set of drawbacks, but the majority of people reading won’t have this luxury anyway.
More commonly people will have difficulty attaining proper depth performing this particular assessment, which is why I’ll tweak it further.
Squat Screen # 2
Widen your stance, allow for a little “out-toeing,” and perform the exact same drill.
Things tend to clean up significantly with this tweak, namely because you’re giving yourself a wider base of support and the out-toeing provides a bit more stability, which serves to open up the hips more to attain more depth.
This is how I prefer to coach someone to squat, and deem this more of a performance-based screen.
Plenty of coaches and trainers like to teach squatting with the toes pointing straight head – and more power to them, it’s not necessarily wrong – but I argue from a performance standpoint, squatting with a wider base and with some slight out-toeing allows for more weight to be lifted.
That said, if things still look a little dicey, we can move onto the next tweak.
Squat Screen # 3
Perform the exact same protocol as above, but this time, elevate your heels with a 10-pound plate underneath each foot. Most likely you were able to squat much deeper.
Much in the same way why Olympic lifters wear shoes with a high heel lift, it places the body at a mechanical advantage to squat deep(er).
In the likelihood that using a heel lift drastically improves your depth, it may dictate that you have the ankle mobility of the Tin Man and that you need to address it rather than rely on the heel lift as a crutch.
But let’s say that after all those screens you’re still having trouble attaining ample depth without compensating in some fashion. What happens then? Are you forever relegated to endless corrective ankle, hip, and t-spine mobility drills, or worse, those cute exercises on a BOSU ball your local pencil-necked personal trainer would have you believe is “functional training?”
Sadly, for many, this is the route they end up taking, and it’s all because they don’t take the time to dig a little deeper.
Squat Screen #4
Lastly, get rid of the heel lift, grab a 10-pound plate, hold it out in front of you with your arms fully extended, and again squat.
Usually we see a profound improvement not only in squat technique, but also squat depth.
By holding the weight out in front of you as a counterbalance, you’re forced to engage your anterior core musculature, which in turn gives the entire body the stability it needs to allow for more squat depth.
Without performing this last screen, many would automatically assume that the reason they can’t squat to depth is because of a mobility issue, when in fact, as Alwyn Cosgrove has noted on numerous occasions, it’s a stability issue.
Without this differentiation, we can see how many people would be barking up the wrong tree, and doing themselves a massive disservice on the training side of things.
Think what would happen if we omitted or neglected to perform the last squat screen – we’d assume that we have a mobility deficit somewhere and just focus on that one component, rather than address the real issue at hand, namely lack of stability.
So Now What?
Hopefully you understand that using the above screening process can help better determine what would be an appropriate depth for any individual.
And with that information at our disposal, we can also ascertain how to go about addressing some common squatting mishaps.
Like the Tuck Under (Butt Wink)
Some people picked the right parents, have awesome levers, and are able to squat ass-to-grass with no issues at all.
Someone with limited hip flexion that attempts to squat deeper than their anatomy allows inevitably tucks their hips under at the bottom. Invariably this leads to lumbar flexion under a significant load, otherwise known as the butt wink.
Due to any number of reasons, namely atrocious ankle mobility and lack of core stability, the butt “tucks” underneath the pelvis when attempting to go into deep(er) hip flexion.
As a result, it causes a boatload of compressive load on the lumbar spine, and to a lesser degree, which I can’t prove with any science, drives Dr. McGill bat **** crazy.
Returning to the quadruped rockback test, lets compare a passable test with a god-awful one.
We saw this one earlier:
As you can see, I’m able to get to a decent depth without any major red flags or noticeable compensation patterns rearing their ugly head. My spine stays relatively “neutral” throughout, and my arms look pretty freakin gunny, thank you very much.
But let’s look at what a train wreck looks like:
You should immediately notice a lumbar hinge, and unfortunately, if this were some random person, I’d probably refrain from having them squat past that point of no return.
I mean, if it’s this bad with no spinal loading, can you imagine how much of a walking ball of fail this hypothetical person would be if I placed a barbell on his back?
How Can We Fix It?
Fixing a majority of problems with the squat isn’t complicated. While everyone is different and I don’t like making general recommendations, I’ve found a few universal themes that generally work wonders for most:
It’s no one’s favorite, it’s admittedly not sexy or exciting, and I’m sure many are rolling their eyes as they read this, but just do your foam rolling. Staying on top of tissue quality is important, and foam rolling is one of the easiest ways to do so.
Hammer Ankle Mobility
Specifically hammer ankle dorsiflexion. We need roughly 15-20 degrees of dorsiflexion in order to perform a “clean” squat pattern. Unfortunately, most people live in plantar flexion.
To that end, getting out of any shoe with a heel lift and into one that encourages more of a “minimal” approach – say, the New Balance Minimus – would bode well in your favor.
Likewise, including more ankle mobility drills (knee break ankle mobilizations, wall ankle mobilizations, rocking ankle mobilizations) into your warm-up or as part of a filler to do in between sets of major compound movements would also be wise.
Hammer Anterior Core Strength
If I had to choose one component to serve as the umbrella or main area to spend, this would be it.
As I noted above, lack of core stability/strength is a major monkey wrench in what prevents many people from squatting to a safe depth without something funky happening.
If you’re tucking under when you squat it’s probably a relative stiffness issue, and it stands to reason that your anterior core is weak or unable to stabilize the pelvis.
There are a number of articles on this site that will provide ample core exercises to choose from, but my favorites in this context would be Pallof presses, various chops and lifts, and plank variations like “stir the pot.”
Squat to a Successful Depth
Even if someone elicits faulty squatting patterns, that doesn’t mean he or she can’t squat.
Instead, squat to a depth that prevents him or her from going into lumbar flexion and allows them some success.
Enter the box squat and squat to box, both superb training tools to teach proper squatting technique and allowing people the luxury of still attaining a killer training effect. Check out the tutorial below.
I know it may give some people a bad taste in their mouth, but if I have to resort to having a client squat to a 16-inch box, so be it. I can always progress them lower, and at the same time not feed into any dysfunction or cause anymore harm.
And I’m Out!
It seems everyone on the Internet can squat 500 pounds ass to the floor without so much as putting a crease in their Under Armor shirt. These same posters, however, are curiously absent when asked to post videos of their awesome “squat so low you leave a wet spot on the floor” technique, especially using superhuman poundages. Pity.
Hey, it’s the Internet, where the curtain of anonymity allows chest thumping and bravado to supersede logic and reasoning.
So don’t be discouraged. Use the test above to figure out your own personal “best squat depth” while incorporating the drills to help improve it.
And above all else, keep squatting. At least that’s something everyone online can agree with!