Squats are often called the king of weight training exercises, but how deep to squat and sometimes whether you should squat at all is one of the most controversial topics in strength training. Full squats, or squatting down past where your thighs are parallel to the floor, are especially controversial. Chances are, you’ve never even seen someone do full squats in your gym. They aren’t generally taught or advocated by personal trainers, you probably won’t even see any athletes or bodybuilders you may have in your gym doing them. You’ve probably been told they are dangerous, will ruin your knees and back, and they aren’t necessary, if you’ve heard anything about them at all. So, why would anyone suggest you might want to add this contentious lift to your repertoire? Some say the danger of full squats are a myth, and deep squats are in fact safer and more beneficial. There are professionals out there that recommend squatting past parallel for full squats, and there are some real advantages to full squats you may want to consider.
Squats in general are notorious for their reputation of being bad for your knees, so many people avoid them all together. A study done in 1961 proclaimed that squats cause a dangerous laxity in the connective tissue of the knee, and the rest is history. This despite numerous studies since then proving the benefits and safety of squats, as well as their continued and consistent use by professional athletes in numerous sports. Those that do tackle squats have largely been instructed to squat down only half-way, until their thighs are parallel to the floor. Supposedly, only going down this far keeps the stress on your knees and back manageable and prevents injury. However, not everyone agrees. In fact, some well known and respected trainers advocate the full squat, past parallel, as a superior method that is actually safer for your knees and back.
For example, Mark Rippetoe, the author of Starting Strength, the owner/manager of Wichita Falls Athletic Club , CrossFit Wichita Falls and Performance Sports Conditioning , who was a competitive powerlifter for 10 years and has coached numerous competitive weight lifters since, advocates the full squat past parallel. “Anyone who says that full squats are ‘bad for the knees’ has, with that statement, demonstrated conclusively that they are not entitled to an opinion about the matter.” writes Rippetoe in an article on squats for CrossFit Journal. Rippetoe goes on to explain that full squats performed with proper form are more challenging, activate more muscles by really engaging the hamstrings (the back of your thighs) and gluteus muscles (your bum), and do not cause injury or weakening of the knees and back. Rippetoe even goes on to issue a challenge, “Are you willing to let medical professionals make excuses for your lack of willingness to do the hardest, most productive exercise in the weight room, an exercise that has been proven safe by decades of use by millions of very strong people? I don’t think you are. Please prove me right.”
John Paul Catanzaro, a prominent fitness expert and trainer in Canada who writes for numerous fitness publications, has also championed the full squat. In an article on the benefits of the full squat for Bodybuilding.com, Cantanzaro writes that “…squatting should be performed in a full ROM where the hamstrings make contact with the calves (so that no light can be seen passing through your legs at the bottom position). It is okay for your knees to travel beyond the toes (just do not relax the knees in the bottom position). In other words, keep the legs tight and try to stay as upright as possible throughout the exercise.” In the article Cantanzaro points out that all exercise causes stress on our joints which the body then adapts to by becoming stronger, and as such properly performed full squats, a natural and functional human movement, can support and maintain the integrity of the knees.
It’s not just men advocating and practicing the full squat. Krista Scott-Dixon, a trainer in Ontario, Canada and the founder and main contributer to well-known women’s strength training website Stumptuous.com, also fully advocates the full squat for the women she trains and advises. While writing about debunking squatting myths for Stumptuous.com, Scott-Dixon writes that “While biomechanical research does support the fact that forces on the connective tissues of the knee increase with the knee angle, particularly on the posterior cruciate ligament, there is no evidence that these increased forces actually lead to injury. There is no direct evidence that full squatting causes or even exacerbates knee pain nor damage. I do not know of a single documented case where full squatting led directly to knee injury.” She points out that Olympic weight lifters have been doing full squats with incredible weight loads for years, and you’d be far, far more likely to find knee problems in the Olympic skiers and marathoners. According to Scott-Dixon, full squats are a great opportunity for building muscle and strength, and actually strengthen and support the knees, lower back, and your lower body as a whole. She goes on to comment on squating down only to parallel, writing that “At parallel (where the thigh is parallel to the floor, higher than the depth of a full squat by about 30 degrees), the compressive forces on the patella (kneecap) are actually at their highest (Huberti & Hayes, Journal of Bone Joint Surgery , 1984: 715-724). Decelerating, stopping, and reversing direction at this angle can inspire significant knee pain in even healthy people, whereas full squats present no problem.”
Jason Shea, fitness coach to numerous professional athletes across Europe and the United States puts his skills as a self proclaimed research buff to work in his paper on deep squats, citing studies that show the gluteous muscles are worked almost twice as much in squats done past parallel, with the hamstrings also experiencing significantly more activation. He goes on to cite study after study (and Mark Rippetoe, as I have) showing the benefits and safety of the full, deep squat. With the glutes and hamstrings being so vital to athletic and daily function and yet tending so often to fall behind the quadriceps in development and strength, the full squat could be a godsend to many athletes and everyday people. In fact, weak hamstrings are a well-known cause of numerous painful knee problems.
It is definitely worth noting that all of these authors clearly stress the importance of proper form when practicing squats, full or otherwise. Keeping your head and chest up to keep the back in proper position, having the feet about shoulder width apart with the toes pointed slightly outward, and and not resting and relaxing your muscles at the bottom of the lift, are all key points stressed by these experts. All three also point out that pre-existing injuries may well create situations where the full squat or squatting at all may not be safe or may be harmful. And finally, they all stress that not over-loading your full squats with weight that you are not prepared for is also key. Check these three strength training professionals out, see what you think about the possibilities with the full squat, and what’s fact or myth.
Personally, I’ve recently added full, deep squats to my lifting routine rather than squatting to parallel. I’ve noticed absolutely no knee pain so far as a result, but I have noticed that my hamstrings and glutes do definitely work much harder and are just as sore as the quads after yesterday’s heavy lifting. In fact, I seem better able to challenge my legs over-all with full squats, which is great. Consider adding full squats and other beneficial squat variations to your own workouts, and try them for yourself.
Going Deep by Mark Rippetoe, Mark Rippetoe
Bodybuilding.com – 14 Reasons You Shouldn’t Ignore Full Squat Benefits, John Paul Catanzaro
Learning the Squat 1: Debunking Squat Myths, Krista Scott-Dixon
www.apec-s.com/deepsquatsarticle.pdf, Jason Shea