Squat Depth – How Low is Low?

I don’t usually listen to people online that quote squat numbers. If someone has a video, or is a competing powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter, that’s one thing. It isn’t a matter of lying, either. I think most people just don’t realize what actually constitutes a real squat.

Powerlifting defines a squat as being legal once the crease of the hip is below the knee. This is what we mean by taking a squat down to parallel. When the hip crease is at the knee, you’re at parallel.

USAPL Squat Rules
USAPL Squat Rules

Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, this is what most people end up doing:

Not a Squat
Not a Squat

Now, some of this is due to the mythology that squatting deep is bad for your knees. That’s a myth long-since debunked, yet it won’t die. Many a trainer or doctor will still tell you that squatting to full depth is harmful to the knees; yet we see that at 90 degrees (thigh parallel to the floor) is when the knees undergo the most stress. Dropping below that, the hamstrings and hip muscles can actually bear the load, taking stress off the knees. When you brake at 90 degrees or above, as per the picture, then you’re not doing the knees any favors. Quite simply, there’s not any other joint in the body that people would tell you not to put through a full range of motion. And then we have the simple fact that humans are built to squat:

Babies can squat
Babies can squat

Bear in mind that the powerlifting rules require that you break parallel. That’s the minimum depth that you’ll have to consider in order for it to count as a squat. Depending on your ankle and hip mobility, you may be able to go even lower. Consider these two videos from the old days when I was kinda strong and relatively uninjured. The first is a high-bar “Olympic-style” squat, while the second is more of a low-bar “powerlifting” style squat.

High-bar “Olympic” style:

Low-bar “powerlifting” style:

Now I’m told that apparently I have some half-way decent ankle mobility for being able to do that in street shoes, and probably need some work on the hip mobility considering the hip-tuck I get at the bottom. However these videos are over two years old at this stage, so I’ve largely worked those issues out. Just keep that in mind when you’re watching. The point is to pay attention to the depth; the first video is about as low as humanly possible, and the second video is still comfortably legal from a powerlifting standpoint.

Why am I saying this, you ask? Because the world is full of Internet Squats, and most of the numbers thrown around are just not accurate. Newbie lifters tend to squat the way the girl in the first picture squats – way too much weight and not nearly enough ROM. This is why you see people (male and female) claiming 4x bodyweight squats when they can’t deadlift their bodyweight. The average person will have a deadlift significantly higher than his/her squat if you’re not using powerlifting equipment, so I consider that to be my litmus test. And no, it’s not because your grip is weak or your back is bad.

I do realize there are reasons to do half-squats and even quarter-squats, but the point is, most people are squatting high either because of poor joint mobility, because they think going deeper will hurt them, or simply because they’re trying to show off with too much weight. Most people would be highly advised to spend most of their time squatting properly and leave the partials to special work.

Update 28 February: I forgot to add these links in with the original post, but these videos are very good:

Dan John discusses squatting

The Squat RX series

6 thoughts on “Squat Depth – How Low is Low?”

  1. Agreed! The squat is one lift I see that people consistantley break form on. It is largley due to useing too much weight and or not knowing the correct form all-together.

    If you pay attention to someone that has a prestine squat, you will often find that they often have prtestine flexability as well. If you lack flexability, you will not be able to squat without breaking form or worse…..injury.

    Core work is another key factor to a good sqat. Stronger core=stronger squat. Strong core,Flexability,moderate weight coupled with consistency will yield better form and better gains.

    Always a pleasure to drop in and read your posts as they are most informative. I hope my two cents can help out as well. Take care brother and all!

  2. How did you fix the hip tuck at the botom. If I go below paralel in my squat I do the same(even going very light)

  3. Great article. I recently got my girlfriend into squatting, and was teaching her the form when a PT at my gym came over and announced that going below parallel was bad for back and knees. WTF? Made me rage, but figured there's no point trying to argue with him in that scenario.

  4. If you can squat "ass-to-knees" -then you should. We spend too much time discussing stupid things like this. The only people that should be interested in partial movements are powerlifters who are minimizing their joint mobility in order to maximize the weight moved legally. All other sports are interested in maximum productivity of the squat -thus we need to move in a full motion.

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