TL; DR – Deep squats are awesome, but you need to have good technique.
Like many people my first experience with weight lifting had mixed results. I was a respectable 6’0” tall, but weighed all of 140 pounds soaking wet with a pocket full of coins. I lifted hard and often, but never seemed to make the gains I had always imagined I would. Years later I learned that basically everything I was ever taught about weight lifting was wrong. I was taught numerous technique errors that resulted in reduced range of motion, limited muscle gains, and more significantly left me more at risk for injury. I want to spend a little time talking about my favorite lift – the squat. Hopefully we can dispel some myths to avoid some of these pitfalls for others.
Today we are going to address squatting past parallel. I was taught that to squat past 90° of knee flexion put too much strain on the knee and could cause knee injuries. While I doubt my coaches knew the root of this myth when they passed it on to me, this was based off a study in 1961, which determined the ligaments in people who had weight lifted using a deep squat technique were more lax than in people who had never done a deep squat. (1) To date, the results of this study have not been reproduced, and there is no indicator that the deep squat is the cause of ligament laxity. A full and complete deep squat is indicative of full and normal range of motion in the hips, the knees, and ankles.
So how do we do one? There are many schools of thought on what the “perfect” squat looks like. We are going to break it down into a few categories
Stance – Since I want to focus on functional motion versus lifting the most weight humanly possible, I am going to recommend that you go with a more natural stance. This means that whatever position feels comfortable to squat in, is the right one for you. For some people this means a slightly wider stance with the toes slightly out, for others it may mean a narrower stance with the toes straight ahead. As long as our stance doesn’t take our toes too far out, you should be okay. The key is to make sure that your knees track along the same path as your toes to avoid putting irregular stress on the joint. This means that you need to point your knees directly at your toes. So your knees should flare out slightly as you squat if your toes are out, or stay straight if your toes are straight ahead. The degree we bend has less to do with injury rate than the tracking of our knee directly over our toes (2)
Motion – The next step is to squat down. There are lots of opinions on whether you should let your hips fold or your knees bend first. I prefer a fluid motion. That means both of those things should be occurring simultaneously. Once we have dropped down to as deep of a squat as we can comfortably achieve, then we want to drive up with the weight pushing through our heels as make a fluid upward motion to standing. (3) Throughout your entire trip (down and up) you should work to keep your chest up and preserve the curve in your low back. This is going to give you more balance and keep you from irregularly loading the discs between the bones in your back.
Barbell Position – ***This is only if you are doing a back squat*** If you are planning on doing a back squat, where there is a barbell across your shoulders, then we need to cover the position of the bar. There are, again, multiple schools of thought on what is the “ideal” bar position. I prefer the bar to be slightly lower on my back – think across my shoulder blades versus on top of my trapezius muscle. I think that this forces the lifter to keep his/her chest up, because you will feel the bar begin to roll up if you start to breakdown in your form and lean forward. It will also give you some room to recover before you recruit your neck to hold the weight up, which can lead to injury. This is not the rule, just my preference. The key is to make sure the bar is loaded over your back versus jamming into your neck and forcing your head forward, whether you are in a “high bar” or “low bar” position.
My last tip on the performance of squats is to build slowly. This article is not directed at those who are looking to lift 10,000,000 pounds and defy the limits of the human body. This article is designed to help a typical person improve their functional motion, while improving overall health and wellness. Perfect your technique before you add weight, and add weight very slowly.
Squats are wonderful compound exercises that engage a lot more muscles than just your legs. Squats also help to build core strength when performed correctly because of the muscular involvement to keep your trunk in an upright position. There are a plethora of benefits to adding squats to your regular activities. Squats translate well into real world movements. Think of simple things like checking your tire pressure, picking up your kids toys, or lifting a laundry basket off the ground. All of these activities incorporate muscles that will be strengthened by squatting. In addition to the muscular help, weighted squats help to improve bone density. This can help to prevent injury as we age. Also, despite the very commonly held myth that deep squats cause knee instability a review of literature performed by the NSCA indicated that squats actually improve knee stability when performed correctly and help to strengthen connective tissue. (4) Basically squats are awesome!
This is not to say that anyone and everyone can perform a deep squat. While sparing you some of the anatomical details, people with compromise to the structural integrity of their back, hips, knees, and ankles would need to build up even more slowly to a deep squat, and some injuries may restrict a person from ever completing a full deep squat. In any case it is important to contact a healthcare professional to be cleared for a new exercise program.
1. Klein, K. (1961). The deep squat exercise as utilized in weight training for athletics and its effect on the ligaments of the knee. Journal of the Association of Physical and Mental Rehabilitation, 15(1), 6-11, 23.
2. Markolf K.L., J.L. Slauterbeck, K.L. Armstrong, M.M. Shapiro. and G.A. Finerman. 1996. Effects of Combined Knee Loadings on Posterior Cruciate Ligament Force Generation. Journal of Orthopaedic Research 14: 633-8.
3. Contreras, Bret. https://www.t-nation.com/training/7-squat-dilemmas-solved