“They’re unsafe. They’ll stunt your growth. They’re bad for your knees. They’re bad for your back.”

These are just a few of the common remarks I hear about full depth squats. Usually, these are the opinions of those who have not taken the time to understand the anatomy and biomechanics of the body, and instead turned to hearsay or misconstrued fitness magazines for their information. So, in the spirit of staying educated, let’s take a general look into one of my favorite exercises.

The full squat movement requires the hip crease to match level with the top of the knee. This is what we call ‘parallel’. As with anything else in training, this is not an absolute. Can you go lower? Sure! Can everyone hit ‘full depth’? Absolutely not – you may have to work on various aspects of hip mobility and consider injury history and anatomical differences first. For example, when some people settle into the bottom of their squat position, they may experience a “butt-wink”. The butt wink occurs when the top of the pelvis tilts backwards, causingthe lower back to round, which is called lumbar flexion. If the butt wink is a result of the anatomy of the bones in the hip, this cannot be solved with drills and stretching. So in this particular case, the lumbar flexion + loading during a squat with a wink puts you at risk of a lower back injury which is not worth the extra inch or two of depth.

But for the purpose of this article, let’s assume the reader has great hip anatomy and has solved any mobility issues. Why is the full depth squat such an awesome exercise?

First off, it’s one of the main ‘compound’ exercises. This means that it crosses multiple joints, activates multiple muscles, and works a more complex movement. Think about it, how often in the day do you perform a movement with only one joint? A properly executed compound exercise also ensures that the muscles involved develop proportionally, which is great for making sure the body moves the way it’s suppose to.

But stopping above parallel is still multi-joint! So that’s fine, right?!

Not quite.

The point at which an exercise movement changes direction is very indicative of where the force will end up. The higher above parallel the squat stops, the more the knees have to absorb the force. Alternatively, by dropping the movement down below parallel, the hips begin to bear more of the weight. As a result, hamstring and glutes activation increases which helps to assume the load. This not only takes pressure off the knees, but the development of hamstring and gluteus muscles is actually crucial for healthy knee joints.

Squats also do an amazing job of properly firing the glutes, which is an issue experienced by many of us who spend a large amount of time sitting. Improper firing of the glutes can lead to many problems, such as the widely observed runner’s knee, also known as ‘patellar femoral pain’. Plus, it’s more than just the knees! If you are properly set up during a barbell back squat, your back muscles, particularly the lats, and your core muscles will fire to help stabilize your body.

What’s more, because the squat is a full body exercise, it can be used as an assessment to reveal the restrictions or imbalances of someone’s body. A proper squat not only indicates good hip mobility, but is also an indicator of ankle flexibility (dorsi flexion) and thoracic extension.

So, how do you start? Does this mean you have to immediately load the bar to get all these benefits? Personally, I begin all clients with body weight squats using a marker, such as a box, to gauge depth and then progress them to goblet squats (squatting while holding a kettle bell to your chest). It’s important to develop the proper movement pattern first, and then progress to higher levels of loading. Light body weight or goblet squats can even be utilized daily to “wake the butt up,” so to speak, if you’re an individual who tends to sit for extended periods of time.

This is a very general introduction to my love affair with the squat and I can assure you- in future articles I plan to hone in on more specific aspects and variations of squatting. But for now, just start getting your ass to the grass.

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