How low do you go when you squat? For a standard squat, you lower your body until your knee angle is at 90 degrees or your thighs are parallel with the floor. Anything shallower is a partial squat. A deep squat is where you lower your body below 90 degrees. Most trainers consider a deep squat a squat where the angle is 120 degrees or more. In this position, your glutes almost touch the floor, a depth that some people have a hard time achieving.
There are some advantages to deep squats. When you go lower into a squat, you increase the range-of-motion. This recruits more muscle fibers and increases the time your muscles spend under tension. Both are important for muscle development. When you squat deeper, you improve your functional capabilities more than doing a partial or parallel squat.
How about Deep Squats for Strengthening Your Glutes?
If your goal is to strengthen and develop your “bottom line,” you might wonder whether deep squats offer an advantage. Most trainers will tell you that you get more activation of the gluteus maximus when you squat deeper. Yet, studies don’t always support this belief. In fact, a study carried out in 2017 found no difference in glute activation during the eccentric phase of the movement between deep, standard, and partial squats based on EMG measurements. They also didn’t find greater activation of the quads or hamstrings when subjects performed the three types of squats. However, the subjects used a resistance equivalent to 50% of their one-rep max. for the full squat level. It’s possible that using a heavier resistance would have yielded greater glute activation.
Before assuming you need not squat deeply to build glute strength or size, EMG measurements only measure muscle activation during each type of squat. For muscle hypertrophy, using a full range-of-motion should be an advantage since you’re maximizing time under tension and muscle fiber recruitment. Even if muscle activation of the glutes is similar regardless of squat depth, it doesn’t mean they’re all equal in terms of glute development. Greater range-of-motion may offer a hypertrophy advantage.
Other Advantages of Deep Squats
Beyond the functional benefits and the greater-range-of-motion you get with a deep squat, going deeper can improve your vertical jump height. One study that compared barbell deep squats with partial squats found that deep squats improved vertical jump height more than partial squats did. You also get more post-activation potentiation when you squat lower. Post-activation potentiation (PAP) is a phenomenon by which a muscle can exert a greater force after a prior contraction. With greater squat depth, the muscles in your lower body have to work harder and this increases the amount of force they can generate on the exercises that follow. If you play any kind of sport that requires explosive movements like sprinting or jumping, deep squats can improve your performance.
Are Deep Squats Safe?
People often worry that increasing squat depth below parallel will harm their knees. When you lower your body into a squat, compressive forces on the knees increase as you go deeper. This is the force on the knee joint and the menisci that makes up the joint.
Fortunately, healthy menisci can handle these compressive forces. If you’ve had a meniscal tear, limit the squat depth or get the advice of a sports medicine physician or physical therapist before going deeper. Descending into a deep squat can also worsen an already irritated patellar tendon. If you have a patellar tendinopathy, limit the depth of your squats until it heals or seek the advice of a trained professional. In contrast to compressive force, shearing forces on the knees, the ones that impact the ligaments, decline with increasing squat depth. So, the forces on the ligaments that support your knees are reduced at greater depths relative to a partial squat.
Whether a deep squat is safe depends upon how healthy your knees are, whether you have a tendinopathy or a torn meniscus, and whether you use good form. If you don’t have good ankle and hip mobility, you may have problems achieving squat depth and your form may fall apart when you attempt it. Working on ankle and hip mobility should be a priority before attempting greater depth. Only squat to a level that allows you to maintain a neutral spine. To get your form right, practice deep squatting using no weight. Instead, place an empty bar or stick across your back.
Also, body composition impacts how easy it is to squat low. Tall people, especially those with long limbs and a short torso, sometimes struggle to go deep into a squat. With a short torso, you have to lean forward more to achieve depth and that affects form and the risk of injury.
What if You Can’t Do Deep Squats?
If you can’t achieve squat depth, you can still strengthen your glutes without going deep. For example, widening your stance increases glute activation. Squat variations like the goblet squat are a safe and effective squat variation for working your glutes. However, squats target the quads more than the hamstrings and glutes. That’s why you should include a variety of exercises that hit the glute muscles, including lunges, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, hip thrusts, donkey kicks, four-way hip extension, step-ups, and glute bridges. Your glutes will respond to a diverse glute workout by becoming stronger and you’ll notice a change in their shape and size too.
The Bottom Line
Increasing the depth of your squats has advantages, but it won’t necessarily increase glute activation, more than doing squats to parallel, especially if you’re using lighter weights. However, the greater range-of-motion may help you hypertrophy your bottom line. Plus, squatting to greater depths can, over time, enhance vertical jump height and improve functionality. But keep your glute workouts balanced by including a variety of exercises that target the muscles of the glutes.
- J Appl Biomech. 2016 Feb;32(1):16-22. doi: 10.1123/jab.2015-0113. Epub 2015 Aug 6.AthleticLab.com. “The Effects of Squat Depth on Knees by Darius Marsh”
- com. “Poloquin: Healthy.Lean.Strong”
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