Ah… more Squats! As promised, here is Part 2 of my big Squats post. SQUATS: PART 1 covered the basics and hopefully gave beginners and intermediate lifters enough information to get started and working on their Squats. Part 2 digs deeper to take your Squats to the next level. This includes a detailed look at Squat Depth, Form Correction and Troubleshooting.
*NOTE* I originally planned a 2-part article on Squats, but there was just too much information to cover and keep each article at a reasonable length. A planned discussion on Avoiding Injury, Training Gear and Squat Variations have been scratched from this article and will either appear in SQUATS: PART 3, or separate upcoming posts covering these topics.
Aside from using proper form, how deep you squat is probably the biggest factor in how much benefit you will get from doing Squats; muscles used, safety, risk of injury, strength and power are all affected by Squat depth. To get the full benefits of Squats it is essential that you squat to an appropriate depth.
So, what is the ideal depth for your Squats?
Just Below Parallel – If your goals are to squat big weights, get bigger and stronger in all your lifting and get the most benefit from your Squats as possible, the ideal depth for Squats is just below parallel. This means that you squat down low enough to where your hip joint breaks just lower than the height of your knees. This depth ensures you are using a full range of motion while engaging all the muscles associated with the Squat, including your glutes and hamstrings. The more muscles engaged the better and the greater the overall benefit. Just below parallel depth gives you additional power via the Stretch Shortening Cycle and strengthens joints without unnecessary strain.
Stretch Shortening Cycle – (aka the “Stretch Reflex”). When you squat deep enough, the muscles and tendons in the front of your legs are stretched as you descend (eccentric phase). This stretch creates elastic like tension in the muscles and tendons, acting like a spring the moment you change direction and thrust back up to the starting position (concentric phase). This gives you added power and strength as you come out of the deepest part of the Squat. Squatting deep enough will allow you to take advantage of the stretch shortening cycle which will help you squat heavier and with more power and confidence.
Not Deep Enough – Quarter Squats, Half Squats or any depth shy of breaking parallel is not deep enough to fully engage the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings). Using a shorter range of motion may allow you to lift heavier weight, but you will not be developing the explosive power that comes from going deep and using the stretch shortening cycle. Going to parallel is not quite deep enough either. To really get explosive strength and power, squat deeper than parallel.
Partial range of motion and constant tension can be beneficial for hypertrophy (increased muscle size), but will not develop as much strength as full range of motion Squats. Squatting past parallel is more of a natural movement and puts less strain on the joints; stopping short of a full range of motion creates added strain, especially on the knees.
Too Deep – Yes, there is such a thing as going too deep. Although it is considered hardcore and brutal to go “ass to grass”, this is actually not ideal. “Ass to Grass” means you literally go as deep as possible with the back of your thighs touching your calves and your ass just inches from the floor. For most, going deeper than just below parallel will cause rounding of the lower back and the knees will be pushed too far forward over the toes. This added strain on the lower back and knees increases risk of injury. True, your Squats will be harder and therefore more brutal, but the amount of weight you will be able to handle will be less. Your best bet is to stay in the sweet spot of just below parallel and lift heavier. Just below parallel is plenty deep to reap all the rewards of deep and heavy Squats with less risk of injury and joint strain.
FORM CORRECTION & TROUBLESHOOTING
These are a few of the most common issues I’ve encountered when working with others. For an in-depth and comprehensive troubleshooting guide, please check out this article from Stronglifts.com.
Stance – Proper stance plays a big role in your ability to break parallel. The ideal stance is shoulder width with the heels of your feet directly under your shoulders and your feet pointing out about 30 degrees. As you squat, your knees should bend and push out, staying in line with your toes. Having too narrow of a stance or pointing your toes directly forward will prevent you from being able to push your knees out and will cause several problems including a rounded lower back and difficulty breaking parallel.
Shoulder Width Stance – Heels Aligned with Shoulders
Avoid using too wide of a stance as well. An extra wide stance can strain the groin and can also make it hard to break parallel. Watching squat videos of competitive power lifters may give you the idea that an extra wide stance is ideal. Keep in mind that these lifters are usually wearing special squat gear like compression suits. Unless you are a competitive lifter wearing special squat gear, a super wide stance may increase risk of injury and will not be your strongest stance.
Unable To Break Parallel – Having too narrow of a stance or keeping your toes and knees pointed directly forward as you squat will make it difficult to break parallel. Use a shoulder width stance and push the knees outward in line with the toes as you Squat. This gives your belly enough room to get down through your legs.
If adjusting to a shoulder width stance does not solve this problem it is likely you have tightness in your hips. To relieve tight hips, hold a deep bodyweight squat for a minute or more. Front and side kicks will also help loosen tight hips. See SQUATS: PART 1 for a Squat Warm-Up routine with demonstration video.
Forward Lean – As you squat, the bar should travel in a straight line up and down, directly over your mid-foot. A forward lean in your Squats will put the bar over your toes and have you off balance. A forward lean is often the result of improper back angle or raising the hips too quickly as you come out of the lowest part of the Squat. To correct this, keep your back in a diagonal line. Focus on keeping your chest up and your upper back arched, especially as you come up from the bottom of the Squat.
Too Upright – Keeping the upper body too upright is usually a sign you are not bending enough at the hips and relying too much on bending at the knees in your Squat. When you initiate the Squat, you should bend at the hips and knees simultaneously. The hips should go back and down, as if sitting on the toilet. This will cause your upper body to come forward a little as your hips go back. Your back, when viewed from the side should create a diagonal line. Keeping the back too upright will cause you to bend mostly at the knees, causing more stress on the knees and preventing you from being able to break parallel. The Box Squat is a great exercise that will help you correct issues with using your hips.
A few other points to keep in mind:
- Breath – It is important as you learn to Squat heavy to use your breath to create tension in your abdomen. At the top of the Squat, before you descend, take a big deep breath into your abdomen and hold it. Squat down. If you can, hold the breath throughout the Squat, exhaling back at the top. Otherwise, slowly release the breath as you come back up, breathing out slowly through any sticking point. At the very least, hold your breath all the way down and through the bottom of the Squat. The tension in your abdomen will help keep your core and lower back strong and supported. (See Lifting Belt)
- Don’t Raise Your Heels – If you tend to come up on your toes it’s likely due to a narrow stance or your toes and knees are pointed directly forward. Adjust to a shoulder width stance with the feet pointed out 30 degrees. Keep your knees in line with your toes as you squat down and focus on keeping your weight back on your heels. Do not use a plank or weights under your heels. This forces the knees forward and causes added strain.
- Bar Position – Bar position on your back can be a matter of preference and comfort but it can also affect your form and how much you can lift. A High Bar position has the bar resting on the upper traps (not directly on the neck). This is usually a more comfortable bar position and allows you to keep a more upright position (useful if you tend to have a forward lean). A Low Bar position is a few inches lower on your back across the lower traps and the back of the shoulders. This position can be uncomfortable if you have tightness in your shoulders or chest. A low bar position will require a bit more of a forward lean in order to keep the bar centered over your foot. A Low Bar position develops lower back strength and generally is a stronger position, allowing you a slight increase in weight. I generally recommend using a position that is comfortable and works for your build. Experiment with bar position to find what works best for you.
- Head Position – as with the back, you should keep your head in a neutral position throughout the Squat. It is often suggested that you look up, choosing a point high on the wall or even the ceiling as you do your Squats. This helps keep your chest up and upper back arched (helpful for those who lean forward) but it also compresses disks in the neck and can cause injury. Looking forward and slightly down is the safest position for the neck.
- Video Analysis – The best way to observe and correct your form is by taking lots of video. A side angle will be the best view. Look to make sure the bar is traveling in a straight line over the mid-foot. Observe the bend of the knees and hips, making sure they are working together to keep your back in a neutral position/diagonal angle.
So once again, in my book there just is no better exercise than Squats. For those out there working on their Squat, I hope the information presented here has been helpful.
Looking ahead I intend to revisit Squats and talk more about specific lifting gear, avoiding injury and Squat variations for those that either struggle with Squats or can’t do them due to injury or medical condition.
I could talk about Squats all day long and I invite you to contact me if you have any questions or comments.
In preparing these posts I leaned heavily on the information provided over at www.stronglifts.com. They have written what I consider to be the most comprehensive guide to Squats there is and I suggest you devour every bit of information they have to offer here: http://stronglifts.com/squat/