The squat is a lift that divides opinion like no other. But for those who perform it, just how low should you go?
As a full body, compound movement, it’s difficult to dispute the effectiveness and results harnessed from the squat.
Performed correctly, it taxes the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, lower and even upper back more intensely than any other exercise apart from maybe the deadlift.
But you already know that – and that’s not why you’re reading this article. Instead, you want to know just how low you should go on a squat.
The Quadriceps Misconception
The biggest lie told about the barbell back squat is that it’s a quadriceps-focused movement. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If your form is correct and you sit back and drive the knees out, pushing up through the hips, then the barbell squat taxes the posterior chain in a similar way to the conventional deadlift.
And while front squats may place additional emphasis on the quadriceps muscles, they still tax the posterior chain heavily as well.
Whichever way you cut it, there is no denying that any variation of the squat requires strong and healthy hamstrings, glutes and a lower back.
To Parallel or Beyond?
Whether you squat to parallel or lower (ass-to-grass) typically depends on your overall flexibility and level of mobility.
Many bodybuilders have historically focused on limiting their range of motion to parallel, while other athletic endeavours (Crossfit, Olympic Lifting, etc.) tend to favour a deeper variation of the squat.
What is undeniable is that breaking parallel involves more glute, hamstring and adductor recruitment than a parallel squat, which may be where the myth comes in that parallel squats isolate the quadriceps.
If you want more bang for your buck, then common sense dictates you’ll want to squat below parallel to maximise muscle recruitment.
How to Overcome Flexibility & Mobility Issues
A perhaps more pertinent question may be: are we healthy enough to squat?
As a population, the majority of us now spend considerable times behind desks, hunched over in positions that exacerbate kyphosis (rounding of the thoracic spine) and inactive glutes.
This puts you in a vulnerable position for any variation of the squat, and make it particularly difficult to get below parallel when performing the movement.
If this sounds like you, then you need to emphasise the following corrective movement procedures at the beginning of every leg day, and preferably at home too each day:
- Foam rolling the thoracic spine and glutes/hamstrings/IT bands
- Increasing hip mobility
- Dynamic stretching
Performing these on a consistent basis can help to groove the movement pattern back into your body, allowing you to squat deeper and utilising the stretch reflex at the bottom of the movement more effectively.
Remember, most injuries occur as the body is forced through a range of motion it hasn’t got the capacity to be in. If you find yourself in this position, then you need to take concrete steps to rectify your limitations.
Squatting below parallel recruits more muscle fibers and is arguably safer on the knees than a parallel squat. It’s not necessary to sink all the way down so your butt touches the floor, but going into the stretch reflex can improve muscular development and empower your posterior chain.
If you can’t get into the position, then focus on mobility regimes and dynamic stretching to help you along the way.