As someone who bombed (meaning missed all three squat attempts) in their first powerlifting meet months ago due to not reaching proper squat depth, this is a topic constantly on my mind as both a lifter and a trainer.
After spending a few hours with girls new(er) to strength training at a Fuel event held at 22nd Street barbell this weekend, it got me thinking about the typical gym goer. Pictures of high squats are all around us- magazines and fitness program marketing. Heck I did a quick search for "squat stock photos" and here's a sampling of what I found….
High, high, and high. So how deep should you squat? Parallel? What's parallel? Hamstrings parallel to the ground? Quads parallel to the ground? Below parallel? What's below parallel? Ass to grass? What about partial squats? Ya know, those squats where I think I'm getting to depth but my hips and butt are four inches too high?
The general population will probably give an answer that sounds something like, "your thighs/femur parallel to the ground." According powerlifting standards, proper squat depth is reached when the crease of your hip is below the top of your knees. And while I'm not certain about CrossFit standards, I assume that with increasing popularity in the phrase "ass to grass" that squats performed in crossfit boxes are even deeper.
I realize not everyone is a powerlifter but there is evidence to support that reaching proper depth-hip crease below the top of the knee- activates your glutes up to 34% more than squats above or even right at parallel.
Check out the muscle activation in the concentric (way up) and eccentric (way down) phases of the squat from a similar study on the muscle activation at various squat depths (2002). The full squat clearly produces more demands from the glutes on the way up, when compared to the partial or parallel squat.
In addition, in both the concentric and eccentric phase the vastus medialis and laterals (both found in the quadriceps) activation readings are much greater in the partial and parallel squat when compared to a full squat.
Speaking of knees, squatting deep(er) is not bad for your knees. Brad Schoenfeld debunked this popular belief in a paper for the National Strength and Conditioning Association,
"ACL and PCL forces have been shown to diminish at higher degrees of knee flexion. Peak ACL forces occur between 15 – 30 degrees of flexion, decreasing significantly at 60 degrees and leveling off thereafter at higher flexion angles (7, 11, 16). PCL forces rise consistently with every flexion angle beyond 30 degrees of knee flexion, peaking at approximately 90 degrees, and declining significantly thereafter (10). Beyond 120 degrees, PCL forces are mini- mal (12)."What do all of those numbers mean? Simply put, the majority of the stress put on the knees in a squat happens in the first 30 degrees at the top of a squat and decreases dramatically at parallel and even more so at below parallel depth. Assuming you've got a doctor's approval, and no previous injuries, squatting deep is not bad for your knees.
What is bad for you knees? Improper form. This article from Greatist has some great tips on how to avoid common mistakes.
With all of that said, individual anatomy, mobility, and current strength levels all play a part in how deeply we squat. Of course mobility and strength are both factors that can be improved.
If I'm really being honest, when it comes to the average gym goer, there is a part of me that agrees with every thing Jason from Any Man Fitness has to say in his article titled, "I Don't Care If You Squat To Parallel". I do believe you can still have success reaching general health and fitness goals without ever squatting to parallel.
But I'm also not suggesting you just stop trying all together. And I'm certainly not going to give you a snarky look for trying to squat, high or not.
As someone who spent a great amount of time squatting high, I can say personally, it was a matter of checking my ego at the gym entrance. I had to reduce my weight and rebuild my squat to reach proper depth. I squatted high because squatting deep was harder and uncomfortable. Don't make that mistake. The easy route, in general, never works out better.
Screw trying to keep up with reps counts in group exercise, or adding weight just for the sake of adding weight. Ease into reaching new depths and aim to do your best to reach proper depth, with great technique and form every….. single….. squat.