The squat is the king of lower body exercises. Few exercises work so many muscles at the same time as the venerable squat. Being a compound exercise, squats work multiple muscle groups simultaneously, including hamstring, glutes, quadriceps, and the muscles in your calves. Even supporting muscles like the muscles in your abs and lower back are called into action when you do squats. In fact, squats work over 200 muscles in your body at the same time. Now, that’s a compound exercise!
Not only does squatting improve muscle strength and size, but it can also improve your functional fitness. How many times in your daily life do you squat down to pick something up? Squats help you do that effortlessly. They’re versatile too. By modifying your foot placement, you can shift the focus of the exercise to target particular muscle groups. Place your feet wider than shoulder width and you’ll hit your inner quads, hamstrings, and glutes more while placing them closer shifts the focus to your outer quads. What workout would be complete without squats?
One question many people have about squats is how low to go and can you go TOO low? Some sources say that descending too low places too much stress on the knees. Is there truth to this?
Squat Depth: Quarter, Full and Deep Squats
To perform a standard squat, often called a parallel squat, you descend to the point where your legs are parallel with the ground. When your hips descend below your knees past the point of parallel, it’s called a deep squat. Some people, especially when they first start training, don’t lower their hips into a full squat but stop about a quarter of the way down. They’re doing what is referred to as a quarter squat. Unfortunately, doing quarter squats can lead to a muscle imbalance since they mostly target your quadriceps while minimally activating your hamstrings and glutes.
To get your hamstrings and glutes in on the action, you need to go deeper than a quarter squat. In general, as you descend deeper, the more you activate your quads and glutes. Unless you’re concerned about hurting your knees by going deep, research doesn’t support the idea that performing deep squats, below 90 degrees, is damaging to HEALTHY knees. For example, a study published in Clinical Biomechanics looked at the effects of squatting to three different depths: 70 degrees, 90 degrees, and 110 degrees. The study showed a squat depth of up to 110 degrees placed no more stress on the knee joint than squatting to 70 degrees.
One advantage to going deeper into a squat is glute activation increases as you descend lower. So, if you’re trying to build and shape your glutes, going beyond parallel gives you an edge. Going deeper also calls more muscles into play and that increases the calorie burn.
If you have knee problems, it’s advisable not to do deep squats, but if you do have healthy knees, performing deep squats can actually strengthen your knees and make them more resistant to injury, as long as you use good form. One factor you might overlook that contributes to successful squatting is ankle flexibility. One way to perfect your ability to squat and go below parallel is to improve the mobility of your ankles. You need flexible ankles for balance as you descend and to keep your heels from lifting off the floor.
Wearing shoes that elevate your heels slightly can also improve your ankle mobility when you squat. If you have a history of an ankle sprain or injury, your ankles may be especially tight and inflexible, making it difficult for you to do a deep squat with good form. If that’s the case, stick with parallel squats and gradually increase the resistance over time to make it harder as long as you’re using good form. Don’t forget to warm up your calves and ankles, along with the rest of your body, before squatting.
Are Tight Hip Flexors Making It Harder to Squat?
Tight hip flexors can be a problem, especially if you sit at a desk all day. Sitting causes your hip flexors to shorten, and tight hip flexors make it harder to squat with good form. If your hip flexors are tight, you may notice that your toes move outward as you squat. If short, tight hip flexors are a problem, do more stretches, like kneeling hip flexor stretches, to lengthen them.
Use Proper Form
As effective as squats are as an exercise for building strength and muscle definition, form is critical. The reason squats have a reputation for being hard on the knees is many people use improper form. When your form is off, you also jeopardize the health of your spine and place yourself at risk for lower back pain.
Other Tips for Getting the Most Out of Squats
Emphasize form and technique over the amount of weight you use. Using more resistance with bad form increases the compressive and shearing forces on your knees and places strain on your lower back. When descending, your knees should never go beyond your toes and your weight should be on your heels, not your toes. Remember, the more your knees move forward when you’re squatting the more stress you’re placing on your knees. Perfect your form without weight first to make sure you don’t develop habits that increase your risk for injury.
Another thing to always do is to brace your abdominal and core muscles. Doing this will help stabilize your spine and reduce your risk for back injury. A common problem people have when descending below parallel is a tendency to tuck their hips and butt underneath their pelvis to make the descent easier. Unfortunately, that’s a sure-fire recipe for a back injury as doing this places greater stress on your lumbar spine. Only descend as low as you can while keeping your spine straight and not arching your back.
The Bottom Line
How low you go when you squat depends on how close you can get to the ground while still using good form. Always master the parallel squat before squatting below 90 degrees, and do parallel squats without weights until your form is strong. By going deeper, you’ll burn more calories and target your glutes more, but a deeper squat depth may not be appropriate for you if you’ve had a knee, back or ankle injury. Any time an exercise causes pain, stop doing it. Challenging yourself is uncomfortable but it shouldn’t hurt or lead to an injury.
Sports Med. 2013 Oct;43(10):993-1008. doi: 10.1007/s40279-013-0073-6.
Strength and Conditioning Research. “How Does Stance Width Affect Muscle Activity in Squats?”
Muscle and Fitness. “6 Exercises You Should Be Doing for Maximum Gains”
Squatting Kinematics and Kinetics and Their Application to Exercise Performance” Brad J. Schoenfeld
Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2001 Jun;16(5):424-30.
J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Aug;16(3):428-32.
Size or Shred. “4 Reasons You’re Not Getting Deep Enough in Your Squats”
Related Articles By Cathe: