The Deep Squat Manifesto


deep squat
In recent years there’s been a move back towards the fundamental barbell lifts — especially the squat. Overall this is positive, although with it has come an epidemic of gym bros squatting weights way heavier than they can handle, utilizing a range of motion that’s often the butt of a joke or internet meme. Interestingly though, it seems as though the pendulum has swung now in the other direction such that the emphasis on squatting is about going ATG (ass to grass).

*The terms full-squat, deep-squat, ATG squat will be used used to refer to the same thing…squatting in a manner that minimizes the distance between the butt and the floor.

squat depth meme atg
While the increased popularity of the full-depth squat is mostly a good thing, there are some significant issues now that it has become so dogmatized. Before we dive into the potential pitfalls of the full-depth squat it’s important to review the benefits of squatting this way. So why squat deep?

More gains of course.

Benefits

The “best” long-term evidence we have is a 2013 study comparing partial squats to parallel squats and and you can guess the parallel squat saw the largest improvements in both size and strength1. Fortunately, we do have acute evidence that suggests there should be greater gains seen in the full-depth squat. Keep in mind that in order for hypertrophic adaptations to occur it is important to generate substantial forces within the muscle, for which the tension placed on each muscle is key for greater motor unit recruitment and ultimately hypertrophy. A 2012 study investigating a measure of muscle tension relative to maximum muscle force (known as relative muscular effort or RME) found that the quadriceps experienced the greatest tension in a full depth squat and this didn’t appear to be related to the load lifted so long as the load was greater than 50%. squat booty meme glutes In the same study they noted increased RME in the hip extensors (glutes) with deeper squats and increasing load. 2 But what about the glutes? There are tons of Instagram posts telling women to squat deep to build up a bigger booty. For years a 2002 study was quoted as proof that there is greater glute activation in a full depth squat, the issue with that study is the fact that the same absolute load was used to test the partial, parallel, and full squat.3 Clearly the half squat is much easier to handle heavier loads so in that study it was essentially comparing a higher intensity as well as greater depth and thus failed to isolate the variable we’re concerned with…depth. Fortunately, Contreras and his team investigated EMG activity in the front, full, and parallel squats using relative loads (an estimated 10RM for each squat variation) and found EMG activity in the glutes to be quite similar between the parallel and full squat when relative loads were utilized 4 The reality is if you’re really concerned about glute hypertrophy you should be doing exercises that are able to focus primarily on hip extension such as the barbell hip thrust.5

vertical jump

Deep Squats → Higher Jumps

If you weren’t sold on the size/strength gains in the full-depth squat, the full depth squat has transfer over to athletic endeavors such as jumping.6 This is an interesting finding given as it’s a contradiction to Zatsiorsky & Kraemer (authors of Science and Practice of Strength Training), who recommend athletes utilize a similar range of motion as they use in their sport ie. volleyball players practicing half squats to aid in jump performance.

Another benefit to consider from the  full squat is the safety profile of the lift. Compared to to the deep squat, partial squats utilize a limited range of motion and require significantly greater loads. ATG squat old school When the absolute load and range of motion are considered, partial squats cause greater compressive forces at the knee. Despite what your neighborhood gym bro may claim, there is in fact extensive evidence indicating that deep squats are safe on both the knees and back.7 Lastly, don’t be discouraged by the drop in bar weight in the full depth squat….after all, just look at the weightlifting community. As a whole, weightlifters are excellent squatters and in many cases out squat powerlifters despite utilizing a greater range of motion. If you’re not used to squatting with full-depth it will likely require an ego check but with patience the gains will come.


Here’s weightlifter Ivan Stoitsov (77kg), casually taking 295kg (650lbs) for a ride. For reference the powerlifting 75kg class world record squat is 277kg or 610lbs.

Pitfalls

In many respects the full-depth squat is awesome, but it’s not without it’s pitfalls. The primary issue with the full-depth squat is that they aren’t safe for everyone. By definition the full-depth squat requires the lifter to go “ATG” and as a result this tends to expose an individual’s mobility limitations. When approaching full depth there are high demands at the hips and ankles8. When an individual with any combination of mobility limitations approaches parallel and below these mobility limitations often get manifest by the pelvis tucking underneath (posterior pelvic tilt) causing the low back to go into flexion…the dreaded “butt wink”.

butt wink
Humans are capable of handing tremendous loads on their back without issue….the caveat is that this requires a neutral spine with proper bracing. While you may be able to squat with a fair amount of “butt wink” pain-free, you are putting your back through countless unnecessary insults. The most likely result of continual squatting like that is low back pain which might take you out of training for a few days to weeks, but there are also more significant risks such as disk herniation which can be very debilitating. When the lumbar spine goes into flexion under load, a portion of the load gets shifted from the back musculature (primarily spinal erectors) to the passive tissues which predisposes to lumbar disk disease. Continually squatting to a depth that exceeds one’s current level of mobility over time is ill advised. You know the expression, “the straw that broke the camels back” — it’s not quite clear when the damage will add up…if it will be the 30th squat or 3000th squat performed in this manner but eventually it will catch up with you9. Now if your low back is already injured, allowing yourself to go into lumbar flexion at the bottom of the squat is the last thing you want to do to aid recovery! If you have back issues, hypervigilance while squatting is key to ensure lumbar spine neutrality throughout the entire range of motion.

In closing, the full-depth squat is an excellent exercise with numerous benefits. Clearly, it can be a double-edged sword with the potential for injury if it leads to a substantial amount of lumbar flexion — if you’re interested to learn what you can do to squat deeper and minimize butt wink be sure to check out part 2 of this article coming out in the next week.

References   [ + ]

1.Bloomquist K, Langberg H, Karlsen S, Madsgaard S, Boesen M, Raastad T. Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013;113(8):2133-2142.
2.Bryanton M a., Kennedy MD, Carey JP, Chiu LZF. Effect of Squat Depth and Barbell
Load on Relative Muscular Effort in Squatting. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(10):2820-2828.
3.Caterisano A, Moss RF, Pellinger TK, et al. The effect of back squat depth on the EMG activity of 4 superficial hip and thigh muscles. J Strength Cond Res. 2002;16(3):428-432.
4.Contreras B, Vigotsky AD, Schoenfeld BJ, Beardsley C, Cronin J. A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis EMG Amplitude in the Parallel, Full, and Front Squat Variations in Resistance Trained Females. J Appl Biomech. 2015;31(6):452-458.
5.Contreras B, Vigotsky AD, Schoenfeld BJ, Beardsley C, Cronin J. A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises. J Appl Biomech. 2015;31(6):452-458.
6.Hartmann H, Wirth K, Klusemann M, Dalic J, Matuschek C, Schmidtbleicher D. Influence of squatting depth on jumping performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(12):1
7.Hartmann H, Wirth K, Klusemann M. Analysis of the load on the knee joint and vertebral column with changes in squatting depth and weight load. Sports Medicine. 2013;43(10):993-1008.
8.Kim S, Kwon O, Park K, Jeon I, Weon J. Lower extremity strength and the range of motion in relation to squat depth. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2015;45(1):59-69.
9.McGill SM. The biomechanics of low back injury: Implications on current practice in industry and the clinic. Journal of biomechanics. 1997;30(5):465-75.
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  • Jose

    Awesome post! I did not take into account relative load when recommending more depth for more glute gainzzzzz. Thanks!

    • No prob! Glad you found it useful! And not to worry, I didn’t consider that myself until I looked at the recent research.