Proper Squat depth is when your hips go below your knees. Shallower Squats (“Quarter Squats”) are not effective for gaining strength and muscle, and unsafe for your knees and lower back. Squatting deeper, all the way down (“ATG”) is unnecessary, limits strength and can cause lower back injuries.
The Quarter Squat consists of Squatting only a quarter of the way down. Your torso usually stays upright while your knees bend and move forward. Some think the Quarter Squat is safer for your knees than the deeper, Parallel Squat. Yet bending your knees only 15 to 30° results in the highest ACL force.1
The Quarter Squat strengthens mostly your quadriceps muscles while neglecting your posterior chain muscles (hamstrings, glutes, adductors). Yet your hamstrings protect your knees by counter-balancing the anterior shear of your quadriceps. A weak, untrained hamstrings can’t reduce ACL stress.
Strong posterior chain muscles are key to dominate at sports. The Quarter Squat neglects your posterior chain. It’s therefore less effective for getting stronger. It’s also less effective for building muscle because it doesn’t move your body and muscles through a full range of motion.
So although the limited range of motion on the Quarter Squat allows you to lift more, it’s meaningless outside the gym. Worse, compression force is higher on the Quarter Squat than any other Squat. This will result in more severe injuries to your knees or lower back if you hurt yourself.
The Parallel Squat consists of Squatting down until your hip joint is below your knee joint. If you draw a horizontal line parallel with the floor, your hip joint should be lower than the top of your knees in the bottom position of the Squat. We therefore call this position “breaking parallel”.
The Parallel Squat is safer for your knees than the Quarter Squat. While the peak ACL force is highest when you bend your knees 15 to 30° (like during the Quarter Squat) it plummets around 60° and levels off beyond that. Plus your hamstrings can kick in to further lower anterior stress on your knee.
The Parallel Squat is the most effective exercise to get stronger and build muscle. It moves your body through a full range of motion. It engages your posterior chain muscles. And if you Squat with proper form – breaking parallel with your knees staying out – it’s perfectly safe for your knees.2
The ATG Squat consists of Squatting deep until your hips touch your ankles. Olympic weightlifters often Squat all the way down because this mimics what happens during heavy Squat cleans. Powerlifters and strength trainers don’t Squat ATG because it limits how heavy they can Squat.
Most people lack the hip and ankle flexibility for the ATG Squat. Their lower back will compensate and round at the bottom (“butt wink”). Rounding your spine and then loading it with heavy weights puts pressure on your spinal discs. This can result in lower back injury, in this case disc herniation.
If you have the flexibility to Squat ATG, you must Squat with your torso upright to go deep. This requires you to put the bar higher on your upper-back than on the parallel Squat. Put the barbell on top of your traps (“high bar”) so it remains balanced over the middle of your foot.
Powerlifting vs. Olympic Squats
The Squat is one of the three competitive lifts in the sport of powerlifting. So powerlifters and strength trainers Squat to get stronger on the Squat. The Squat is not a competitive lift for Olympic weightlifters. So they don’t Squat to get stronger at Squats, but to get stronger at the Snatch & Clean & Jerk.
The International Powerlifting Federation defines legal Squat depth as your hip joint going below the top of your knees.3 Competitive powerlifters must therefore Squat to this depth for their lift to pass. Note that Squatting until your thighs are parallel with the floor is not deep enough and will be failed.
There’s no Squat depth requirement in Olympic weightlifting because it isn’t a competitive lift. The Clean & Jerk is and consists of pulling the weight from the floor on your front shoulders. On heavy weights, you must Front Squat deep under the bar, sometimes touching your ankles with your glutes.
Olympic weightlifters Front Squat because it mimics this Squat clean. A stronger Front Squat makes the Squat clean easier. They also Back Squat with the barbell higher on their upper-back. This achieves an upright torso position similar to the Front Squat but with heavier weights.
The point is Powerlifters and Olympic lifters Squat to different depths for different reasons. Powerlifters don’t have to Squat deep, and they don’t do it so they can Squat more weight. The Olympic lifter Squats deeper because he will during a heavy Squat clean and maximum Squat strength is not his goal.
Squat Depth on StrongLifts 5×5
Your goal on StrongLifts 5×5 is to get stronger. So follow the Powerlifting rule by Squatting until your hip joint is below your knee joint. This standard for Squat depth makes comparing yourself to others easier (which you shouldn’t do, but probably will). Especially if you’re the same age/body-weight.
- How do I stop leaning forward on Squats?
- How do I keep my heels down when I Squat?
- Why does my lower back hurt when I Squat?
- How to Squat with proper form
- Schoenfeld, B. (2010). Squatting kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance. J Strength Cond Res. ↩
- Panariello, R., et al. (1994). The effect of the squat exercise on anterior-posterior knee translation in professional football players. Am J Sports Med. ↩