Should You Squat Below Parallel?



by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

While this is partially dependent on mobility and your anatomic makeup, the short answer to this question is…YES! You absolutely should be squatting below parallel if you are able, but there are other factors involved as well. With all of the joints and muscles involved in the squat, there are a lot of moving parts and a lot of potential problem areas along the way. Today, you may be incapable of performing a squat below parallel; but it is a goal that should be strived for by anybody performing the movement.

One important part that you need to focus in on when deepening your squat depth is your back positioning.  You should not be sacrificing the positioning and the natural arch in the low back to try to achieve greater depth. Losing that posture will cause an excessive amount of pressure to be placed on the discs in your spine and put you at risk for injury. However, if you can maintain that arch then you should be squatting below parallel.

First and foremost: why? What’s the benefit of achieving greater depth in this staple movement of fitness? Won’t deep squats hurt your knees? When done correctly, squatting below parallel is not only safe but also going to get you the most bang for your buck. In fact, a study by Salem and Powers looked at squat depths of 110, 90, and 70 degrees of knee flexion. The study showed no real difference in the amount of stress placed on the knee joint throughout the movement. In fact, performing a full squat (below parallel), may actually provide greater knee stability as long as your weight is distributed correctly and you are maintaining good posture throughout the movement. The full squat also provides approximately 25% more engagement of the gluteus maximus than a parallel squat does. Beyond that, squatting below parallel also helps strengthen the ligaments in your knee; which in turn helps protect you from the extremely common knee ligament injuries.

Now some of you may be reading this and thinking, “I can’t squat below parallel!” If this is true, you need to try to address some of the following reasons as to why this might be. First, mobility and flexibility may be your issue. Particularly if you don’t normally train your squat beyond parallel, you may have a hard time trying to do it tomorrow out of the blue. The full squat is going to require adequate ankle and hip mobility as well as good flexibility in the hamstrings and groin. One of the best ways to address this is to work that range of motion. Use your body weight or even a stability ball against the wall and find as deep of a range of motion as you can get, and repeat repetitions in that range of motion.

If you find your upper body collapsing forward as you try to squat deeper, it is likely that you have poor ankle mobility. One corrective measure you can try in this case is putting 5-10 lb plates underneath your heels before trying to squat. This should allow you to achieve greater squat depth, since your ankles do not have to dorsiflex quite as far. This way the rest of your body, mostly your hips and glutes, can feel what it’s like to reach that depth without your ankles holding you back. As your work on this method, try to gradually reduce that “lift” underneath your heels to allow for the ankles to gradually increase their mobility as well.

Another potential problem you may be having with your squat is starting the movement with your knees as opposed to your hips. If this is the case, you are likely trying to go straight down. This causes your knees to make their way forward much faster, limits the depth you can achieve, and puts your knees in a more compromising position. The movement should begin with a hinge of the hips - pushing your butt back. This makes it much easier to keep your weight back and really be able to drive through those heels to achieve greater depth.

If the above issues are not your problem, we have come to the two problems that are arguably the easiest to fix. First, your knees may be caving in. If you can cue yourself to push those knees out as you are squatting, this should free up your hips and allow you to reach greater depth. This may not only be holding you back from reaching below parallel, but also causing some of our other issues. You are probably using TOO MUCH weight. If you have weight on the bar that you simply cannot squat to a position below parallel, swallow your pride and take some of that weight off of the bar. In order to be able to squat 225 lbs below parallel, first you need to be able to do it with 135 lbs…and 155 and 185 and so on. I know this may be a tough one for some of us, but your back and knees and basically your entire lower body will thank you for doing this. Drop some weight to train in the proper range of motion, and you will likely become stronger and healthier than ever for doing so.

Get the most out of your squat and make it count! If you are only squatting to parallel, or even less, start working today to reach those depths below parallel when you are training your legs. Squats are not only one of the most fundamental moves of fitness, but one of the most natural movements of the human body. We are born with the innate ability to squat well below parallel until our sedentary nature, frequent sitting, poor posture, and plain lack of use of our full range of motion slowly make it more and more difficult. So make an effort to get your lower body working to its full potential, and get those hips below your knees!



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