How Deep Should You Squat?


Ideally you should squat to below parallel while maintaining a neutral spine.

A good deep squat is very healthy for your knees and also recruits the hamstrings and glutes far better than a partial range squat does.

However, most people lack the mobility and flexibility necessary to sink a squat a few inches below parallel without rounding their lumbar spine (lower back).

When you allow repeated spinal flexion under the heavy load of a squat you’re asking for problems. In fact it’s one of the best ways I know to eventually suffer some type of disc injury.

My solution for you is this…

Squat as low as you can while maintaining proper technique/posture.

This may be just at parallel or it may be a couple of inches above. Continue to do that while also working on your mobility and improving your range of motion.

Two things to remember that will help you get a little deeper are to actively pull yourself into the hole with your hip flexors instead of just yielding to gravity.

Secondly, remember that squatting takes place between the knees and not over them. My thanks to Pavel and Dan John for those two excellent coaching cues.

After hitting your big barbell squat to right around parallel you’ll want to add in an assistance exercise to get that deep knee bend, full squat position.

So do a few sets of 6-10 reps on an exercise that doesn’t load the spine and will allow you to do that. This could be any of the following:

•    Single leg squats
•    High step ups
•    Pistol squats
•    Goblet squats
•    Kettlbell front squats
•    Weight vest squats

Does Everyone Need Full Range of Motion?

Quite simply, no. If you’re a sprinter you will never really need the strength in that deep, full range position. The great Charlie Francis had his sprinters do half squats and reverse leg presses (for glutes and hamstrings).

That obviously worked out quite well and was all they needed.

Would pistol squats have made them faster?

I highly doubt it.

If you’re a mixed martial artist, on the other hand, you could benefit tremendously from training the deep knee bend position as it is more specific to your sport and the situations you will find yourself in where you will need that strength.

So for this type of athlete I would recommend the inclusion of a deep knee bend as an assistance exercise after their squats.

What About Non Athletes?

If you aren’t an athlete I still believe that training the deep knee bend position is beneficial and will result in healthier knees.

The knee was made and meant to full squat.

We spend the first nine months of our lives in the full squat position and do it all the time as infants. So it’s quite natural and the ability to do it should be maintained throughout our lives.

But this is only applicable to those that already have healthy knees.

Unfortunately, most of us have lost the ability to full squat due to our sedentary lifestyles and a variety of other factors. If your knees are already damaged you may not be able to go below parallel without pain, nor would I recommend it.

Unless you are a powerlifter there is no reason to freak out if you can’t get below parallel on any type of squatting variation.

Take your time and work into it. It may take weeks or even years, but be patient and don’t risk an unnecessary injury. Squatting slightly above parallel, as Charlie Francis’s athletes did, will still provide tremendous benefit, even though it wouldn’t count at a powerlifting meet or on a gym record board.

There are plenty of people who simply aren’t built to squat and will never be able to break parallel without some kind of lumbar flexion no matter what they do.

If that means you can only get to two inches above parallel that’s fine.

Better to be a little high and safe then break parallel and your back in the process. Work the assistance exercises for the full range strength if it’ something you need and can tolerate.

Strengthen Your Hamstrings

One thing I have found over the years is that a lot of people who complain of pain on deep knee bend and single leg exercises can alleviate their suffering a bit by strengthening their hamstrings.

If you can back squat without pain but can hardly get through a set of split squats without wincing try focusing on your hamstrings, and glute ham raises in particular for the next eight weeks.

Start every lower body session with glute ham raises before you do any type of squat or single leg exercise.

As the hamstrings come up the pain often decreases. The other benefit of this is that the glute hams will warm up the knee and pump up the hamstrings a bit which will also make the deep knee bend exercises a bit more tolerable.

Hopefully that all makes sense and you picked up useful tip or two.

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47 Responses to How Deep Should You Squat?

  1. Joni Jaakkola April 7, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    Could you open these a bit? I’m a fan of ATG squats but didn’t really get the idea what you ment.

    1. “… to actively pull yourself into the hole with your hip flexors instead of just yielding to gravity.”

    2. “…squatting takes place between the knees and not over them.”

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:39 am #

      @Joni- Lay down on your back with your knees bent 90 degrees and have a friend pull on your ankles. That will teach you to pull yourself down with your hip flexors.

      2) If you open up your knees you’ll be between your legs.

  2. Jason - FitnessWorkouts April 7, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    I have found this point to be key – actively pull yourself into the hole

    many people just fall into the bottom, when you do this you don’t stay tight, and for a good squat you need to keep everything tight.

    I think that everyone should take their squat deep it they have the ability to do so. Like you had mentioned before, a deep squat gets the glutes and hamstrings more, and with sprinting those are the major players when it comes to making you fast.

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:40 am #

      @Jason- Absolutely. The key is “if you can.” If you can’t get deep you need to work on it. Not worth going deep with shitty form.

  3. Jake Elkins April 7, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    Great Article. I actually just did front squats yesterday. I have all but replaced back squats with front squats because I’m a college wrestler and I just feel the lift is so much more conducive to the sport. When I’m in on a guys legs and need to drive up his weight is in front as opposed to being loaded on your back. I’ve been making a living off of deads to make up for the loss of hammy and glute work. I was curious what your thoughts are on this Jason… again thanks for the great article.

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:41 am #

      @Jake- That sounds like a good plan

  4. Brandon Cook April 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    Definitely some useful tips. I was having trouble getting deep on the back squat and then I watched a video by Dan John on the Goblet squat as a teaching tool for squats. I started doing goblets and then switched to front squats. I find that I can go all the way down with goblets and front squats, so I just started doing front squats. Maybe I’ll switch back to back squats from time to time to see if my form/rom has improved. If not, I’ll just go down as far as I can maintain neutral spine. However, front squats may be a staple in my routine from now on.

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:41 am #

      @Brandon- Yeah, goblets and front squats are better for hitting optimal depth.

  5. AJ April 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    Great article. Best free stuff online. Unreal.

  6. Mark April 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    Sometimes when i squat my right knee feels as though it’s going to explode if i go any further, though it doesn’t hurt. It feels like a bubble in the joint and prevents me from going lower, though this doesn’t happen every rep. Any idea what this might be Jason?

  7. Raymond- ZenMyFitness April 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Nice to hear that squatting all the way down doesn’t have to be an absolute priority.
    I can only do deep squats with light weights (220lbs) as soon as I starting adding the plates ( (up to 440lbs I weigh 155lb), my squat gets higher and higher, they end up looking like partial squats which I’m always working on now to try to get lower.
    But cool point I’l be more satisfied now working towards it rather than feel like I’m failing all the time I want to lift heavy. …Love back squatting!
    Raymond

  8. Marc April 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    Great article Jay.

    I practice martial arts and barbell back squats don’t agree with my back. You’re programs always have barbell squats as the primary thigh exercise which is perfectly understandable since for many lifters they are extremely effective.

    Could someone simply take one of your routines such as Muscle Gaining secrets or Run RBC and substitute split squats for the barbell squats with slightly higher reps or should other modifications be made such as increasing volume?

    Thanks,

    Marc

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:43 am #

      @Marc- You could do that. Or you could do front squats or goblet squats or kb front squats.

  9. Tim April 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    Hey Joe, being a football player, do you think going to parallel on back and front squats is all I need to do? Training in a powerlifting gym, I feel the need to get deeper on every rep, but I wanted to hear what you had to say. Thanks man!

  10. Pete April 7, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    What kind of person would not be built to squat? Would it be a long-legged, short torso-ed, and long-armed individual such as myself?

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:43 am #

      @Pete- Yup. Not always but that’s the body type

  11. Jim April 7, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    I’m with Pete. My legs are extremely long in relation to my torso. I can’t get anywhere close to parallel. Sometimes I’ll use Smith Squats if it’s the angled bar, not the straight one. I guess I do front squats holding dumbells in a shoulder press position, but I can’t go really heavy and I have to put plates on the floor under my heels to get to parallel. Suggestions?

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:44 am #

      @Jim- Get some squat shoes and try front squatting.

  12. Sam- Look Like An Athlete April 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    I have a hard time doing deep knee bends and I am 6’0. I remember reading something Arnold had mentioned about taller people having a harder time with deep squatting. The best technique he mentioned which helped me do squats better was to keep my eyes looking slightly up without moving my neck.
    I don’t go heavy much these days but I enjoy pairing squats and deadlifts on the same day for my legs.
    -Sam

  13. David April 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

    Hello :)

    Just want to clarify a few things.

    Does deep knee bends means full squat(as in full range of motion)?

    If I would go heavy on squats, going to parallel would be good enough?

    You mentioned about doing full squats as assistant exercise, which means we do it after our main exercise while using lighter weights?

    Thank you

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:45 am #

      @David- If you can do it without rounding your back you should squat to parallel or slightly below. If you can only get to parallel then add in some single leg after to get the deep knee bend position.

  14. David M April 7, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    Great article Jason, but can you please elaborate on “squatting takes place between the knees and not over them” I dont have a clue what that means. Thank you

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:46 am #

      @David- Open your knees up wide and you will be in between them at the bottom, not folded over your quads.

  15. Drew April 7, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

    Deadlift……..

  16. Will April 7, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    For advanced trainees, who can squat 400lb for 5 reps and deadlift 500lb for 5 reps, would you recommend doing squatting and deadlifting on the same day?

    Assuming people with a decent level of strength shouldn’t be doing max effort deadlifts more than once every 10-14 days, which of these options do you think is best?

    1. ONLY COMBINE THEM ONCE EVERY 14 DAYS
    Week 1: Squat, Deadlift, Pistol Squat
    Week 2: Squat, RDL, Pistol Squat

    Pros: Lower back doesn’t get hammered twice a week; massive growth stimulation.
    Cons: Deadlift suffers after heavy squatting (though strength gains can still be made); easy to sick directly after the workout that combines the two.

    2. WEEKLY ALTERNATION
    Week 1: Deadlift, Pistol Squat
    Week 2: Squat, RDL, Pistol Squat

    Pros: Lower back doesn’t get hammered twice a week; one exercise doesn’t suffer from being performed straight after the other.
    Cons: Squatting only once every 14 days isn’t enough.

    3. DO BOTH WEEKLY BUT NOT ON THE SAME DAY.
    Pros: Performance doesn’t suffer as much as it does from doing them on the same day.
    Cons: Lower back hammered twice a week. CNS heavily stressed twice a week. Recovery generally a problem. Performance still negatively affected.

    4. DON’T EVER INCLUDE BOTH IN THE SAME PROGRAM.
    Focus on deadlifts for 12 weeks, then focus on squats for 12 weeks.
    Pros: Can lead to better gains long term. As long as the layoff isn’t protracted, strength gains on one usually lead to strength gains in the other after an initial breaking in period.
    Cons: Get ‘out of the groove’ a bit.

    Thanks,
    Will.

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:47 am #

      @Will- the first three options can all work.

  17. Luke H April 7, 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    Great article Jay and even though squats have been a mainstay of my weight training for years, I find that I am constantly tweaking my technique. I do go below parallel, but don’t go close to having my bum on ankles. If I do it would probably be a warm up set. Would you recommend dead-lifts as one of the better exercises for hamstring strength?

    Thanks for the post

    Cheers

    Luke

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:47 am #

      @Luke- All forms or deads and some glute hams.

  18. Lucky April 8, 2011 at 12:56 am #

    I was just wondering would Bulgarian 1 legged squats help even out the activation of the left and right leg during the deep squat. I noticed my right leg is working harder than my left during the squat, so I start the Bulgarians with my left leg first and always do the same # with the right or 2 reps less.

  19. Vaclav Gregor April 8, 2011 at 7:26 am #

    Strengthening Hamstrings as a warm up is a good idea, thanks will try.

  20. Michael April 8, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    I broke my knee in half when I was 20 (now 35). I can do deep knee BW squats, Goblet Squats, and back squats. Even though I can DL 475lb (1RM), I can only back squat 325lb. I have always attributed this to my bad knee. Even though I can go deep or at least to parallel should I be back squatting if my knee hurts afterwards or are squats good for my knees???

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:48 am #

      @Michael- I’d keep doing what you’re doing. That’s a serious injury and you don’t want to risk it.

  21. Jeremy Priestner | Art of Lifting April 8, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    Although I am not as great a coach as Pavel or Dan Jon, I have a couple extra tips for getting into a better position in the squat that have worked for me.

    1) Adding a little more weight — this makes it easier to get into a deeper position

    2) Doing a groin stretch at the bottom of the squat (with no weight) before beginning a set. In my experience, this does a lot to help people who are less flexible to attain a better position.

    Hope you don’t mind my two cents.

    • Alex April 6, 2012 at 3:38 am #

      Got to agree with you on the groin stretch, i do it myself and it helps a lot..
      but more weight to get deeper ? it is usually the opposite..

    • Jason Ferruggia April 9, 2012 at 8:49 am #

      @Jeremey- Yeah man, those are great tips. Thanks

  22. chappo April 8, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Thanks I needed to hear that information Im not a natural at squats. But I will be soon.

  23. rmg April 11, 2011 at 5:24 am #

    How I would love to do deep squats! however, for the last 5 years I have been fighting the medical authorities concerning having the knees replaced. has any ever gone through this procedure and then be able to do normail squats, yey alone deep squats?
    r/
    Bob G

  24. Chris April 11, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    @ Will,
    Jay had a good post not long ago titled “drop the deadlift”….check that out for some answers

  25. Tyler English April 7, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    Awesome blog brother! Must love squats!

  26. Robbie April 24, 2013 at 8:09 am #

    What about for aesthetic purposes? Getting massive striated quads with a good outer sweep is important in bodybuilding. Would deep squats help to achieve this or would it be more safe and beneficial to sacrifice a little depth for more weight. I prefer front squats to get really deep, then a heavy leg press for sets of 8-12 bc it has a shorter ROM. For my other lower body day, I deadlift (sumo style) then hit the leg press again. I finish all leg days with overhead walking lunges

  27. Thomas Pawlowski April 24, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    Nice article! I just started squatting deep, all the way down. Its actually easier on my back then parallel squats. Maybe because I keep my back straighter then when I was doing low bar parallel squats.

  28. Tom April 30, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    I like your comment about strengthening the hamstrings to help alleviate leg pain from squats. The WWII USMC “Combat Conditioning” manual recommended just this: every time you rise from the bend you then bend to touch your toes, legs straight. It make for a nice 1 – 2- 3 – 4 count also.

  29. Mark October 16, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    Jason when I do a squat I like to go deep, but my back tends to arch inward into a spinal compression instead of rounding out. Can this be bad? Back feels fine but I’ve had a few people comment on it.

  30. Bill January 3, 2014 at 7:25 am #

    Nice article Jason
    I find I do squats in good form when handling heavy weights. Does anyone have a similar experience?