UPDATED - Squat Depth: Andrew's Take
My take on the highly debated and misunderstood issue of depth during a squat.
What do you guys think? Leave a comment below if you have a good argument for something different than what I am about to present to you here.
If you have paid attention to anything in the fitness world for any amount of time, it is likely that you have come across arguments regarding squat depth. I’ve heard countless arguments about what exactly the depth of a squat should be - top of thighs parallel, crease of hips below knees, bottom of thighs below parallel, and that you should go low enough that your hamstrings are touching your calves.
In most powerlifting federations, the criteria for a full-depth squat is the crease of the hips below the top of the kneecap. Here is the rulebook for the USA Powerlifting Federation where you can find the squat depth requirements on page 28, item 3. Here is the rulebook for the IPF Powerlifting Federation where you can find the squat depth requirements on page 17, item 3.
In my opinion, there shouldn’t even be a debate on the squat depth and everyone should understand that squatting to full depth (crease of hips below the top of kneecap) is the only way to truly and beneficially squat. With that being said, however, there are certain cases where people have issues with their knees, hips, or ankles that may give them difficulty with squatting to this depth. In this case, squatting close to full depth is going to be extremely beneficial when compared with not squatting. So if you have some discomfort with squatting to full depth, then, by all means, adjust accordingly. The caveat to that is quarter squats are not helping you, so if you are a quarter-rep squatter, then you need to lower the weight and squat to a deeper depth, as there are virtually no benefits from a quarter-rep squat - I will discuss this below.
As part of my adventure as a student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Idaho State University, we recently had to perform an experiment using Electromyography (EMG) - reading muscle contraction through electricity - in our physiology lab.
We could choose to use any protocol and experiment design that we wanted and the group that I was a part of decided to look at the muscle activation in the quads and the hamstrings in squats at different depths.
Now, prior to this, I had done a decent amount of research on the subject so I knew that the literature suggests that there is greater muscle activation throughout a fuller range of motion squat, we just wanted to test it in real life.
Sparing you all of the boring science-y details, our results were in alignment with other literature that I have read. What we found was that quad activation was greatest the lower the depth of the squat.
Going back to my opinion, that should be it right there. There should be no other debate on whether or not you can still quarter squat or not and expect to see results. However, as I said earlier, if you have some sort of joint or muscular issue due to an injury or genetic disorder that prevents you from doing a full range of motion squat, then - by all means - don’t squat any lower than you are capable of.
Another interesting point is, when looking at supporting research, I found one experiment that looked at the effect of parallel squats vs. quarter squats on the ability to produce force after muscular activity (resistance training). Basically, what this study found was that subjects who performed the full depth squat had greater force production as compared to the people who only performed a quarter squat when doing a squat jump.
Another study I looked at examined the activation of supporting muscles during a squat and the depth of the squat. The two most important supporting muscles were the gluteus maximus (butt muscles) and the lumbar erector spinae (column of muscles along your spine). This study found that the activation of these muscles was greater in a parallel squat as compared to a quarter squat.
If you’re not convinced at this point that you should be squatting to full depth, then I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you’re not confident in your squat? If that is the case, I highly suggest you get someone who is experienced in squatting and have them help you tweak your form to get it dialed in.
And if you aren’t already convinced, this last point I want to make might sway your thought process.
One thing a lot of people don’t really consider when thinking about squatting is the safety of it. What happens when people are “quarter squatters” is they load up the bar with much more weight than they should ever be near, and they run the risk of injuring themselves! Or maybe, they put too much weight on and they can’t actually hold it on their back and it falls off and hurts someone else! That would be even worse.
There have actually been a few studies that have shown that full depth squats are safer due to this reason.
At this point, you should be totally on board with squatting to full depth. It’s safer AND more beneficial for you. Like I said, if you have some muscle or joint issues that prevent you from squatting to full depth, then use your head and be safe.
Otherwise...don’t sell yourself short and start reaping all of the benefits from your squat and get your ass down!