The Back Squat – How Low Should You Go?

Sorry for copying Ludacris to answer this question but…”how low can you go?” because that’s how low you should go when you’re squatting.

It’s a subject that receives a lot of controversy. Everyone argues over how low you should go while performing the traditional back squat. Some even argue whether an individual went low enough to count the weight for the rep.

What is the Right Way to do the Back Squat?

There is no wrong way to do the back squat – okay, actually there are many form mistakes, but different range of motion options are okay. That’s because each level of extension will have a different effect. The main difference comes in two ways: the net joint movement level and the muscle activity.

Let’s look at the different ways you can do the back squat so you can get a better idea on what each has to offer and which is best for you.

Squatting to Parallel

Squatting to parallel requires you to squat down until you are parallel with the ground. This puts your legs at about a 90-degree angle. This is viewed as the safest way to perform the back squat as it minimizes knee joint activation. However, this also means that the muscle activation will be kept to a minimum.

Squatting to parallel allows you to load more weight onto the bar as it’s easier to do (vs. the full squat) but the added weight will not make a major difference. Your muscles are not contracting to their full potential, so you are simply adjusting based on the lesser resistance level.

Squatting to Below Parallel

Squatting to below parallel requires you to break through that parallel, 90-degree level. You will be sitting at the bottom of the rep with your hips positioned slightly under your knees. As you are bringing yourself to the lowest possible point, you will trigger maximum muscle engagement.

Digging as deep as possible is always best. This enforces the maximum muscle activation. However, you want to make sure that you can safely shoot back up to finish off each rep. The only downfall about going below parallel is that it will increase the net joint movement level by 20%. This may be a concern for those that have problems with their leg muscles or that are recovering from injury. However, it’s not enough to turn someone away if muscle and strength improvements are a top priority.

Further, many with bad knees find that tendonitis only flares up when they don’t break parallel as they are restricting their knee joints from performing their natural movement. It’s as if the dead stop triggers the knee joint to accidentally take the load.

How to Stay Safe While Squatting Below Parallel

The main worry is that by going below parallel that you will be putting yourself at higher risk of injury. The increased use of the knee joints is noticed, but it is not necessarily problematic. After all, running on a flat surface could easily do just as much damage as deep squatting.

Still, you want to make sure that you are performing the deep squat the right way. The main thing to know to prevent injury when using this range of motion is how to reach and get out of the bottom of the movement.

You will follow the same execution as with the parallel squat in the beginning of the movement. Once you reach parallel, you will continue going lower. The squat is a very controlled movement and you will have a good feel for how low you can safely go. You can even test this out without any weight or bar just to see how low you can sit your hips.

As most of you know, the majority of the weight load is noticed once you try to get out of the bottom. If you do the same heavy weight as your parallel squat, chances are you will find yourself failing out and stuck at the bottom. Therefore, you will want to start with a lower weight and gradually work it up so you know how heavy of a load you can handle from the bottom of the movement.

The great thing about going below parallel is that the quick shot up will require a much greater contraction from the quadriceps and hamstrings.

Is the Increased Net Joint Movement a Concern?

While you are increasing the joint movement slightly, there is no reason that this should scare you away from squatting below parallel.

Let’s look at the squat itself and then consider what this increased joint movement means.

The squat is a movement that we have done since we were a babies. We may not squat down the same way to pick stuff up as we did when we were little.

 

We do, however, still squat to use the toilet though.

 

Have you thought about the injury risks of that? Of course not, but what if your toilet was a bit lower and it increased your net joint movement by 20%, would you answer differently?

Basically, the 20% increase is nothing to worry about because it is not a substantial difference as the knee joint movement during a parallel squat is completely safe.

What about the Heavy Weight Load on the Knees?

Another reason that you may be worried about performing the below parallel squat is because it may be too much weight to put on the knees. This is just a misconception though.

When performing the squat, you are primarily using the hip and butt muscles. The hip muscles are responsible for the majority of the movement. The hip muscles are also what surrounds the knee joint and they serve as a form of joint protection.

As you continue to train for mass, these muscles will grow and the amount of load they can handle will increase. This does not necessarily mean that the amount of load put on the knees is increasing. As long as you use appropriate form – hips sitting back a bit, knees partially to the side while descending – you will have no increased weight load to the knees.

How Partial Squats Weaken the Knees

It is important for people to not ignorantly think that the parallel squat and other forms of partial squats are actually helping them reduce the risk of knee injury.

Any partial squat will leave out the hamstrings and the backward moving tension that they provide. The body operates as a machine and requires everything to be in order. Skipping over one half of the main muscles that come into play during a natural squat means less protection to the knee joint in one area.

You could strengthen your quadriceps endlessly with your partial squats and feel strong. You then take a labour job that requires lifting 100lb boxes all day. It’s nothing since you do 500lb squats twice a week. You start the job and end up in the hospital 10 minutes later. Why? Because your first task requires you to pick up a box directly off the floor and all you’ve ever done is put down and pick up things halfway to the floor.

What is the ATG Squat?

If you have looked into squatting for depth then you must have heard about the ATG squat. ATG is an acronym for “ass-to-grass” and refers to the idea of squatting down until your butt almost literally touches the ground.

This is a squatting range of motion that is highly praised by many bodybuilders and on many online fitness forums. It is viewed as the absolute best way to build your leg muscles. However, it is also the most extreme range of motion that you could safely do while performing the back squat.

ATG squats are effective if you want to build muscle. They are also effective if you want to make sure that you get maximal contraction of the leg muscles. By going this route, even your weakest reps will have a considerable range of motion, which means no bad contractions.

Quick Tips for Deep Squatting

Building muscle comes best from squatting as deep as possible. However, it is not something that is safe to do without some practice. Here are a few tips that will help you with jumping ship to the deeper squatting range of motion.

–        Begin by squatting without any weight or bar and going as low as you possibly can.

–        Gradually increase the weight load until you notice that you are beginning to struggle.

–        Use your struggling weight as the starting point for a few to set appropriate weight loads for your working sets before attempting major weight increases.

–        Always continue doing warm-up sets before the working sets to ensure proper form is used.

–        Use a high-back bar positioning instead of the low-back bar positioning to allow the body to reach this range of motion.

–        Maintain a more upright torso instead of incline like with parallel squats.

Whether you want strength, muscle, or safe conditioning, squatting to below parallel is an absolute must. You will begin to see true size and strength gains once you hit right below parallel. It is not essential to go lower, but it is the ‘results zone’ so feel free to do so.

Deep squatting is not evil, it’s amazing. You will know so too once you master it!

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