Sunday, August 21, 2016

Which Squat Depth is Best FOR YOU?

The other day I got into a huge argument with a physical therapist friend (and avid bodybuilder) over squat depth. It was so heated, it almost came to blows.

Well, maybe the physical violence part is a stretch. (He's much bigger than me, especially in the biceps, and could definitely beat me up.) But it was a pretty fiery exchange — until we busted out pen and paper, drew out the stick figures above, and realized we were actually saying the same thing! Sit back, relax, and allow me to explain.

First and foremost, we agreed that squat depth is a highly individual matter. It depends on a slew of factors including hip anatomy, limb lengths, training age, training status (i.e. time of season), and goals. No one depth recommendation will apply to every single person.

With that said, there are certainly instances where we can pretty reliably recommend one depth over another. Here are a few examples.

Depth A: 90° of knee bend (AKA half-squat)

Depth A is generally best for people with a history of serious injury or surgery in the lower body. Obviously, if your orthopedic surgeon instructs you not to squat past 90°, you'd better heed that warning.

Less obvious to some is that you should never squat into a painful range of motion. If you experience discomfort beyond a certain squat depth — be it in your back, hips, knees, ankles, forehead, wherever — you're much better off sticking to a higher depth for the time being. Or, better yet, take a break from squats altogether and get your pain sorted out. There are lots of other exercises out there that probably won’t provoke pain.

Whatever you do, definitely do not use the shorter range of motion as an excuse to put an excessive amount of weight on the bar. If you do, you’ll only be inflating your ego, not your actual squat strength. Anyway, there are dudes out there like Dmitriy Ivanov who make squatting 1000 pounds look easy. Makes that little knee dip with 315 not feel so cool anymore, doesn't it?

Depth B: Femurs parallel to floor

Depth B is a good benchmark for most healthy squatters. The moment arms (horizontal distances between the line of action of the load and the joints) at both the hips and knees reach their maximum values at this depth. This means that muscular efforts must also reach their max at this point in order to stand the weight back up. Not surprisingly, parallel femurs is the standard to which many powerlifting federations hold competitors.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, not everyone can get all the way down to parallel. For example:
  • Lifters who are particularly tall (and have long femurs as a result) will likely fall somewhere in between Depth A and Depth B; that’s okay.
  • Lifters who lack ankle dorsiflexion range of motion (i.e. forward shin rotation toward the stationary foot) may also struggle to hit parallel, at least not without allowing their heels to come up and their torso to tip forward, which can put extra stress on the lower back. While working to improve ankle mobility, it’s okay for these folks to squat a little higher than parallel, too. Or, as a quick fix, they can elevate their heels (with a 2x4 or 5-lb plates) to reach Depth B.
  • People who "butt wink" (lose proper anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar lordosis, the natural C-curve of the lower back) at parallel should also stop just shy of parallel. The heel lift can be a quick-and-dirty fix for this issue, too.

During our dispute, my friend actually agreed with me that Depth B is optimal for the majority of people. The trouble was, he continually referred to it as "90°" -- the depth at which the femurs are perpendicular to the starting position -- while I was referring to 90° as described in Depth A. Hence the fisticuffs that almost ensued.

Depth C: Hip crease below the knee (AKA deep squat)

Believe it or not, Depth C is okay, too. Heck, half the world eats and does their business in this position. Wait, you say! Won’t your knees explode if they go past your toes in a deep, ass-to-grass squat?

Not so fast, bucko. Don’t buy into that hype. The knees can safely go a couple of inches past the toes.* However, you do need to have three very important prerequisites before you start rocking out with deep squats:
  • You have to control the entire range of motion and maintain tension in the bottom position. You can't just plop down all willy-nilly and rest your bum on your calves.
  • You have to maintain proper pelvic tilt and lumbar lordosis (which a good chunk of lifters lose at or just below parallel).
  • You have to be pain-free at every joint from the top of the squat, down to the bottom, and back up again.

Left = Good pelvic tilt and spinal position.
Right = Bad pelvic tilt and spinal position.

If you have those prerequisites, then there's no reason not to squat below parallel, at least with loads that are on the lighter side for you. If you're planning to deep squat heavy (e.g. if you’re a CrossFitter or Olympic lifter), be sure to progress very slowly so as to bulletproof your knees against the higher forces they'll experience in the bottom position.

The moral of this story is obviously that there isn’t one universal answer for which squat depth is best. “It depends” isn’t a very informative answer either, though, unless you’re able to elaborate on the factors on which it depends (like I’ve done above).

The most important thing to remember is to fit your squat depth to you, not some preconceived notion of what proper depth "should be." Not everyone can or should squat ass-to-grass. On the flip side, not all the bros who are loading the bar up with three wheels and doing quarter-squats should be going that shallow either. As is usually the case, the solution for most people typically lies somewhere in the middle.

*This was the one point my friend and I did not agree on. He advocates for more of a powerlifting style, hip-dominant squat, with a vertical shin and consequently a more inclined torso. This type of squat is fine for powerlifters, but I'd rather see Average Jane squat more upright (torso running parallel to shins). I'll agree to disagree with him on that one.

Dominate the gym.

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