Forget about ass-to-grass squats and learn how to find the perfect squat depth. It’s almost always parallel. Here’s why.
In a recent T Nation article, I laid out the argument for the superiority of the parallel squat to the ATG, or ass-to-grass, squat. If you read it, you’re either infuriated and stubbornly refuse to accept the irrefutable truths presented, or you’ve seen the light and are ready to apply the knowledge.
The tighter you are and the more muscle mass you can activate during the squat, the less likely you’ll be to collapse. A proper parallel squat requires exponentially greater tightness, muscle activation, mental focus, and neural recruitment compared to any ATG squat.
Accommodating resistance (through the use of bands and chains) is an exceptionally effective protocol for reinforcing proper squat depth. Because of the increased tension/loading at the top of the lift, this technique hyper-activates the lifter’s nervous system, thereby enhancing activation, tightness, and spinal rigidity.
As the lifter descends into the squat, the goal should be to maintain this heightened level of recruitment and potentiation. By doing so, the lifter’s body will be more likely to stop at the parallel position. Going beyond this mark will require you to forego the enhanced tightness and neural recruitment experienced at the top of the movement.
Furthermore, by employing compensatory acceleration (the intention of lifting the load as powerfully as possible) in conjunction with accommodating resistance, the lifter will get feedback in regards to his power output and force production. With ATG squats there will be an obvious sticking point mid-way through as the bands and chains kick in.
During a proper parallel squat, the lifter will have exceptionally stronger mechanics, lever arms, and joint angles, allowing him to blast through the increased tension provided by the bands and chains. If you find yourself hitting significant sticking points when using accommodating resistance, check your depth. More than likely you’re collapsing and sacrificing torque.
I actually don’t coach individuals to squat to a specific depth such as parallel. I simply teach them how to maintain proper stability, posture, tightness, spinal alignment, and body mechanics, and then advise them to stop at the deepest possible position they can descend to while maintaining these characteristics.
This is often accomplished through the use of eccentric isometrics where the lifter employs a slow negative, followed by a several second pause in the stretched position. As a result, the lifter can feel his way through the movement and tune into the sensory feedback coming through his body’s proprioceptive mechanisms. This info is subsequently used to locate the body’s natural stopping point. Inevitably the end result is nearly identical from athlete to athlete with an end byproduct being a parallel squat (approximately).
Pausing midway through the rep allows the lifter to check and re-set his levels of tightness and recruitment.
Pausing midway through the movement, especially on the eccentric or lowering phase, helps eliminate excessive downward momentum that can oftentimes cause the lifter to bottom-out during the descent.
Closing your eyes during the rep increases proprioceptive feedback from the muscle spindles, giving you even greater sensory information that can be used to improve your position and detect where the natural stopping point is. All the previous cues – as well as those listed below – will be easier to adhere to if you eliminate visual distractions. You’ll be feeling your way through the lift rather than watching your way through.
In order to squat properly, it’s absolutely essential to drive the butt back and hinge from the hips. And yes, that means your torso will be leaning forward somewhat (but not excessively) as this is the only way the hips can hinge back.
When the hip hinge is properly employed throughout the squat, the natural stopping point will be approximately parallel. It’ll feel very unnatural to go deeper. Lack of hip hinge mechanics inhibits proper neuromuscular recruitment and allows you to collapse into excessive squat depth because the muscles have lost their optimal stiffness qualities.
Maintaining proper spinal alignment during the squat is critical. Doing so will provide the appropriate foundation for optimal body mechanics. The tighter your spine is locked in, the less likely you’ll be to collapse and the better your squat form will be.
In regards to “back-arch,” it’s somewhat controversial. The key is finding the ideal balance between anterior core tightness and arching of the spine. Typically an athlete will fall into one extreme or the other. On one end, you have lifters who overly-arch their lumbar spine to compensate for various weaknesses and deficiencies, including lack of upper back and core strength.
On the opposite end, you have lifters who focus excessively on squeezing their anterior core, thereby failing to create enough tension throughout the back and spinal extensors. Although it’s important to keep the anterior core engaged, it’s actually more critical to ensure a natural arch is maintained throughout the spine. There are several cues that help accomplish this.
First, rather than over-arching the lumbar spine, focus on creating significant thoracic extension. Think about squeezing the daylights out of your lats and upper back as well as pulling the shoulder blades down and back. An effective way to accomplish this t-spine extension is by pulling the bar aggressively into your back, which helps emphasize keeping the chest out. As a result, you’ll feel less inclined to produce cervical hyperextension, which is commonly used to compensate for deficiencies in upper back recruitment.
Finally, you should emphasize keeping the spine tall and elongated rather than compressed. When the spine can no longer hold these positions, you’ve most likely gone too deep.
Most lifters fall into one of two extremes in terms of head placement. The most common problem is creating cervical hyperextension from pulling the head up. This is a common by-product of coaches erroneously telling their athletes to look up on the squat. Although this ensures the chest doesn’t drop over, it creates additional problems elsewhere.
Most significantly it promotes neck impingement and increased neuromuscular inhibition, as well as a short-circuiting of neural signals throughout the CNS. Furthermore, when the head tilts up, the traps and shoulders tend to elevate, thereby minimizing recruitment of the lats. As a result, the ability to produce optimal t-spine extension is severely hampered.
On the other end of the spectrum you have lifters who over-emphasize anti-extension. As a result they either have inadequate t-spine extension, or in more extreme cases, demonstrate varying degrees of cervical and thoracic flexion – excessive head and chest drop. Although these lifters typically produce adequate hip hinge mechanics, they also tend to be either excessively flexed at the hips (too bent over) or overly flexed at the spine (rounded back), both of which can produce significant injury.
Proper head positioning falls somewhere between the two extremes. Once you’ve maximized t-spine extension, simply focus on elongating the neck by keeping the head tall yet in line with the rest of the spine. As a result the head and natural gaze of the eyes will be straight ahead and slightly down. This is what’s referred to as a neutral head position and is optimal not only for squats, but for most movements.
During the squat, hold your breath for a majority of the movement. This creates maximal tightness, stability, and spinal rigidity. Most of your breathing should be similar to sipping air through a straw. Deep breaths should only be taken after passing the sticking point (on the concentric phase) or in between reps at the top of the lift. If you let your breath out at any other point, you’ll lose muscular tightness by relaxing your muscles and collapsing your spinal column. And no, holding your breath isn’t dangerous, but losing spinal rigidity certainly is.
Muscular tension and neural recruitment during the eccentric phase of the squat is proportional to your depth, ultimately peaking at the parallel position. Beyond this point, activation gradually decreases, as intramuscular relaxation is necessary for allowing excessive ROM. This neural inhibition and reduced firing is proportional to how far beyond parallel you descend. In other words, the deeper you go beyond parallel, the greater the neuromuscular relaxation. Stop at the point just before you feel your muscles begin to relax.
Allowing the feet to overly point outward pushes the hips into a more extended (hips forward) position, which minimizes the degree of hip flexion (hips back position) that can be achieved during the eccentric phase. Because hip flexion is decreased, it minimizes the ability to hinge, which increases the likelihood of collapsing at the bottom of the squat. Keep the feet fairly straight, allowing only a slight amount of external rotation/toe flare – 5-10 degrees at most.
Go barefoot or use minimalist shoes. This will reinforce the body’s natural arthrokinematics. Activate your feet by screwing them into the ground and gripping the floor. Also, focus on placing more pressure on the outside of the feet.
In addition, feel for a strong and aligned ankle position. When the ankles begin to role/pronate, or your feet start sliding or rotating outward, you’ve probably gone too far. In fact, this is one of the most effective ways to assess optimal squat depth. Simply observe at what point the foot and ankle complex begins to misalign.
When descending, keep a majority of your weight on the heels while still keeping your toes in contact with the floor. This will optimize weight distribution and allow the greatest degree of centration of all lower body joints (where all the joints are optimally “stacked up”).
Pushing the knees out and sticking the butt out is critical. Applied correctly, your form will improve immediately.
Going too wide on the squat stance can be a surefire way to bottom-out when descending into a squat. Rather than using a stance that allows maximal range of motion, find a stance that feels strong, stable, and powerful.
It’s better to stop a bit high than lose muscle tightness and allow your body to collapse. By focusing on stability and mechanics, proper levels of mobility will inevitably follow. Performing a squat with 80% full range of motion while employing proper mechanics is far superior to performing an ATG squat with aberrant technique.
Start by simply holding a kettlebell or dumbbell between your legs and squatting with it. This is the easiest method for correcting squat form and learning proper mechanics.
Disregard everything you’ve ever heard about squat depth and feel your way through. Don’t let any strength coach, including myself, tell you how deep to go. Learn to listen to the sensory information from your proprioceptors and your body will guide you to the appropriate depth, which will almost always be roughly parallel.
When it doubt, record yourself on video. If you’re going too deep and collapsing during your squat, it’ll be obvious when you watch it.
There are endless variations of squats to choose from. Variations include the low-bar squat, high-bar squat, front squat, goblet squat, overhead squat, kettlebell squat, safety bar squat, Zercher squat, and many others.
Unfortunately, there’s a common misconception that each of these variations is unique in terms of mechanics, depth, and recruitment. Although each does have its own individual loading protocols that tend to slightly alter mechanics, the differences in technique are much smaller and more subtle than you may think.
For instance, although front squats represent a slightly more upright squat, just as the low-bar squat represents a slightly more bent-over squat, the differences are less extreme than what’s typically coached. Both variations share far more similarities than differences. The goal should be the same no matter the variation. Set the hips back as far as possible, squeeze the lats, keep the chest out, and maintain a tight and rigid spine throughout.
In general, the squat pattern is roughly 80-90% the same from variation to variation. To suggest otherwise is to ignore principles foundational to motor programming and the development of basic movement patterns.
Here are some examples of squat variations. Notice the strong similarities, not only from variation to variation, but also from athlete to athlete.
Notice how the hips drive back while the chest stays out – no excessive forward torso lean. This is produced from combining hip hinge mechanics with significant T-spine extension i.e. squeezing the daylights out of the lats.
A proper high-bar squat is quite similar to a low-bar squat. The key is driving the hips back. This requires proper foot and ankle positioning.
The most common mistake with front squats is having insufficient hip hinge mechanics, which leads to excessive anterior displacement of the knees. In the video, notice how the hip and knee mechanics are very similar to the other squat variations as the hips fully hinge back while keeping the chest tall.
The more upright torso position is simply a byproduct of the weight distribution and loading placement rather than a deliberate attempt to stay upright. These mechanics, along with a rigid spine, eliminate any collapsing at the bottom, ultimately producing a parallel squat.
These last two videos illustrate a before and after adjustment in squat technique for one of my powerlifters. His natural tendency was to perform extreme ATG squats during training.
After a few sessions involving technique adjustments and neuromuscular re-education, his mechanics and strength improved tremendously.